The Total Restaurant Experience, Thanks to a Braille Menu

The weather is unseasonably warm for February as my coworker and I head to our destination; it’s a beautiful day and I’m happy for this short walk. We’re on our way to Life Alive Cafe, one of my favorite hipster restaurants. I’ve been there many times before to enjoy delicious meals and friendly service, but this time will be a little different.

As we open the door and ascend the few steps into the restaurant, we find just what I’d expected, a long line of hungry customers. You can’t call it the lunch rush; here at Life Alive, it’s the norm.

Winter reading braille menu with Life Alive employeesIf I was to describe this restaurant to you, I could tell you about the sounds (unintelligible conversations tangled up with one another over a background of music I can’t quite decipher, the whir of a smoothie machine) and the smells (delicious hints of ginger making my mouth water!). But I couldn’t tell you a thing about the look of the place. For that, I would have had to ask whoever was accompanying me.

The look of a restaurant isn’t the only thing I usually experience secondhand. The selection of food and drinks, the main reason I’m here, usually comes to me secondhand as well. Whether it’s a server standing at my table during a lull in business or a harried worker behind the counter trying to keep the line moving, I always feel pressure to hurry up and figure out what I want. I don’t usually let the menu reader get too far into it before saying, “Oh, that sounds delicious! I think I’ll have that.” There’s a desire on my part to get this over with quickly so as not to inconvenience anyone.

If I felt like having a salad for lunch, the exchange might go something like this:

Me: What sorts of salads do you have?

Server: Well, we have one called The Explorer … that has hummus, sesame

sticks, shredded beets and carrots, wasabi vinaigrette. That’s a popular

one. Let’s see … we also have …

Me: That one sounds good. I’ll have that.

Here is the description from the Life Alive menu:

The Explorer

An adventurous blend of our enticing high protein red lentil hummus with sesame stix, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, a sprinkling of shredded beets & carrots, sun sprouts & spring greens. Our seductive Honey Wasabi Vinaigrette guides the way!

It’s easy to see the difference. While I may get the same basic information from both descriptions, the thought and creativity the restaurant put into the menu description is part of the overall experience they want you to have and that’s what I want, too. Now that Life Alive has a braille menu, I can!


How a Braille Software Company Was Born

By Anne Ronco

It was July 4, 1975, and I was doing what most kids do: eating hamburgers and swimming in a friend’s pool. In another room, Bob Gildea, Anne Simpson, and my father, Joe Sullivan were signing papers that would establish a new braille software company called Duxbury Systems.

My father had become infatuated with braille while working with Bob Gildea on a project at MITRE. He wanted to make braille easier to produce and he felt he could succeed.

Early news story photos of Duxbury Systems

Top: Reid Gerhart and Joe Sullivan examine a proof printout. Bottom: Vito Proscia, MIT, and Robert Gildea check the product of the Braille embosser

I think back to the enormous risk he took. With six children, he left a good-paying job to pursue an idea that had never been attempted. The start was rocky. Without a steady source of income, our family had to watch every penny. Even though a braille system cost tens of thousands of dollars back then, only one or two would be sold each year. I remember each customer had our home phone number, in case of problems. One Thanksgiving my father was on the phone for three hours with an overseas customer who was unaware that it was an American holiday. And dad traveled often, which left mom alone with six kids.

But my folks were resourceful. Right after the company was founded, we packed up a trailer and all of us headed off to the NFB and ACB conferences.

We camped in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and finally reached St. Tammany, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans where the first conference was held. 1970's camping pictureThe drinking water smelled of sulphur, it was 104 degrees and HUMID, tiny mosquitoes could fly right through the screen, and my brother, Peter, got a horrible case of poison sumac. Despite it all, we still remember those trips fondly.

As we got older, my siblings and I started to get interested in learning the business. I entered addresses into a database and learned how to generate a mass mailing. I think I was the only kid in high school who could use a word processor. Peter taught himself programming. Some of it was less useful. When we got our first talking terminal, Peter and I spent hours trying to trick it to say naughty words.

But the most important thing was that my father did succeed. Despite the odds, the company is thriving 40 years later. With the help of many others, the Duxbury Braille Translator now produces braille in more than 130 languages.

That isn’t the only success. My father has passed on his love of braille to us, his family, and to many thousands of others around the world. Nice going, Dad.


In loving memory of

Robert (Bob) Gildea