The Road from Princeton to Boston: The Princeton Braillists and an Enduring Legacy

Four colossal bookcases. Seven thermoform machines, five binding machines, and two light projectors. Twenty boxes bursting with aluminum tactile graphics ranging from fungi to fish, electricity to elements, geomorphology to geometry, mitosis to moon phases. And the pièce de résistance: 40 volumes amounting to 2,177 pages of the most comprehensive maps available in a tactile format.

Four decades of thoughtful devotion have been poured into the compendium that is The Princeton Braillists’ collection. Beginning in 1965, armed with a background in Experimental Physics and a penchant for handicrafts, Nancy Amick created tactile images to accompany audio texts for Recording for the Blind in Princeton. Drawing on her childhood experience with copper embossing, Nancy generated textures, patterns and lines in sheets of flexible aluminum, designing hundreds of diagrams for math and science textbooks, and simultaneously developing novel techniques to become an expert in the field of tactile graphics.

snail

In 1980, after Recording for the Blind shifted  its company focus, Nancy and Ruth Bogia, a certified braille transcriber, resurrected a dormant non-profit: The Princeton Braillists. Their first tactile volume, “Basic Human Anatomy,” was released in 1988, and eight years later they advertised their first set of tactile maps: “Maps of North and South America”. The all-volunteer operation expanded to include Fran Gasman, a transcriber for the New Jersey Commission, Phyllis Branin, who assisted in assembly, and Nancy’s family, including her husband Jim and daughter D’Maris. By 2016, The Princeton Braillists had created 35 books covering Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, as well as 18 U.S. states, along the way receiving wide acclaim and awards for their tactile contributions to the blind community.

lobsta

Nancy passed in the fall of 2016, and her family continued to fill orders while searching for a new home for the entire collection. Jim and D’Maris toured NBP in February 2017. By May, three National Braille Press team members were in a 15-foot truck bound for Princeton, NJ, charged with the careful transfer of Nancy’s work.

National Braille Press was honored to accept the generous gift of The Princeton Braillists’ celebrated tactiles, and has embraced the opportunity to continue Nancy’s legacy. Our hope is to maintain and reproduce the current catalogue while investigating ways to update geographical information, recode for Unified English Braille, and create new volumes of additional countries and states. We also aim to showcase the extensive collection of math and science diagrams from Nancy’s early years, sharing the delightful breadth of her images from beginning to end.

Learn more about The Princeton Braillists at NBP’s Annual Meeting, June 20th.

When Pigs Fly? A Full Page Braille Display with Real-Time Tactile Graphics

One of these days a blind or low vision person will be able to read on their device a periodical like National Geographic or Newsweek, or even a textbook or standardized test, and not only will the information be translated into braille and displayed in full page format, but the device will also instantly produce tactile images or graphics. ‘When pigs fly’ some of you say—but the response shouldn’t be ‘it’s impossible,’ it should be, ‘when will it happen?’

Every year National Braille Press produces thousands of pages of braille for tests and textbooks including hard copy raised tactile graphics for students. Unfortunately, the ability to render tactile images in real time on a device has not yet come to fruition, at least not with the affordability or resolution that is really needed to be effective. However, that long search for the ‘Holy Braille’ is finally starting to show some exciting promise.

Amazing advances in technology are leveraging new, affordable approaches to raise a braille pin or to render an image in unconventional ways, and we at NBP have created the Center for Braille Innovation (CBI) to act as a global information broker and champion for just such breakthroughs in engineering design. We want blind students and adults in the workplace to have the same tools as their sighted peers, and to be able to compete and experience the ‘Internet of Things’ like everyone else, so we build the partnerships needed to keep us on the cutting edge.

Through the CBI we have built relationships and partnerships with the University of Michigan,  MIT, IBM, Google, Northeastern University, India, China, and others to find the right mix of components and features that can be leveraged to create a tablet for the blind—and that can be manufactured affordably. Economies of scale are a critical fact of life in the affordability of a product, and if it can be built into existing, mainstream products with a universal design, everyone wins.

Through a relationship with an Indian company founded by two MIT doctoral engineers, we launched the Tactile Caliper, a low cost, mechanical, refreshable braille ruler that allows accurate measurements to the 1/16th of an inch (a metric version is also in the pipeline).

caliper

Photo: Tactile Caliper measuring object

And in partnership with the innovative Deane Blazie, we launched the B2G earlier this year, our first refreshable braille consumer electronic product.

The B2G uses a conventional piezo-electric method to raise braille pins, but our design also allows for OEM options for any future successful methodology. We developed it for two reasons: First, we wanted to lower the price for consumers so that more people could afford this indispensable tool. Second, we wanted consumers to have control over customization; our B2G allows them to add or delete the apps they want and to change user features to suit their own, individual needs. For example, customers can use the Echolink app to turn the B2G into a ham radio station.

b2g

Photo: Green and Gray B2G’s

 

Last week an Anheuser Busch semi-tractor trailer delivered 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer on a 120-mile journey without a human at the wheel. This robotic delivery of beer shipped through Denver to Colorado Springs and was called “uneventful.” The technology revolution is in full swing and unfortunately the blind and low vision world has not been top of mind for many designers. Yes, driverless cars and trucks will be an indirect and valuable benefit for BVIs and PWDs, but that wasn’t the motivation to create them. We believe that access to information, especially e-braille outputs, must be included in all products and we will never stop advocating for and championing new technologies that have the potential to serve the blind community.

So, one of these days you may be zipping down the road in a driverless car, and reading a story on your accessible braille tablet while feeling the raised tactile image of that pig flying after all.

By Brian Mac Donald, President, NBP

How a Tactile Map is Created

Tactile maps are used to guide visually impaired and blind users in new surroundings like airports, museums, and even cities. Tactile maps use raised points, lines, and textures to represent objects, identify rooms, and denote accessible areas. Creating tactile maps at National Braille Press is a labor-intensive process that requires a keen eye for detail and a steady hand.

A print map and final tactile map design

A print map and final tactile map design

Step 1: Transcription

The design of a tactile map starts with a transcriber. Our tactile graphic artist and transcriber, Colleen Rosenberg, explains how the process works:

Whitney:  What are your first steps when making a tactile map?

Colleen:  When I get a floor plan, I say: What is this for? It’s helpful to know if it’s for orientation and mobility or a student using it in college. Is it for someone who is going to be working at a specific location? Everything needs to be exact. That’s really the most important part.

art supplies

Different art supplies are used to create the tactile map’s raised designs

Whitney:  Tell me more about the art of collage.

Colleen:  You can do a lot of things with collage. Collage is building things up with textures. I use sand paper, dots, string or other materials depending on the map. I then glue a specific texture on to create a raised drawing that can be built higher or lower to differentiate a specific area.
Photo caption: Different art supplies are used to create the tactile map’s raised designs.

Step 2: Proofreading

Once the initial design for a tactile map is created, a blind proofreader ensures it is accessible. Nallym Bravo, who regularly proofreads tactile graphics, explains:

Whitney:  What is the most important part of the proofreading step?

Nallym:  It’s really important that it is accurate. A lot of tactile maps are crowded with all kinds of tactile sensations. It’s critical for the graphic to be accurate and delineated cleanly so the maps are efficient to use.

thermoform machine

A thermoform machine used to reproduce tactile graphics

Step 3: Reproduction

Once the tactile map is found to be accurate and easy to read, we prepare it for reproduction. Jorge Antunes, who works in our finishing department and operates the thermoform machine, explains how:

Photo caption: A thermoform machine used to reproduce tactile graphics.

Whitney:  How do you reprint the master collaged copy?

Jorge:  The tactile image is placed on a plate, which has a vacuum underneath. I place a thermoform sheet over the original collaged master copy. The machine is closed tightly to create a nice seal. Heat is applied from the top so the plastic will melt. Once this process happens, you have a reprint copy of the master. This creates the tactile graphic.

National Braille Press creates over 100,000 tactile graphics each year including graphics in textbooks, children’s picture books, and for organizations wishing to make their information more accessible to blind and visually impaired people. Recently, NBP created tactile maps for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

The Creative Partnership of Shirley and Irma

On Saturday, I went to the movies to see Life Itself, an unsparing documentary that exposes the complicated relationship between film critic Roger Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel. For nearly two decades, they sparred publicly and passionately—issuing “thumbs up/thumbs down” movie reviews—and opened our minds to the fact that art is subjective.

On Sunday, I opened the Times to read “The End of ‘Genius’” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (NYT July 20, 2014), who opines that the idea of the lone genius is a myth. “The pair is the primary creative unit… at its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities….” The article references numerous creative pairs—Freud and Fliess, King and Abernathy, Picasso and Braque, Einstein and Besso, McCartney and Lennon. Each brought something the other didn’t have, tensions ensued, creativity blossomed.

On Monday, I received an email message that tactile artist Irma Goldberg had died. She was watching her two young grandchildren, making tea and Jell-O, and suddenly she was gone. Irma had been part of a creative team for 23 years, working alongside Shirley Keller, founder of Creative Adaptations for Learning. Irma was the creative director, Shirley the driving force behind its remarkable products.

“Her desk and my desk abutted each other for 23 years,” said Keller, over the phone. “We sat that way all day—sometimes not saying a word, sometimes we couldn’t stop talking. We were closer than a married couple.”

Shirley would have a brainstorm—and storm it was—and Irma would put pencil to paper and work out the details, sometimes going to the library to research an animal or object for weeks before she actually began to render the tactile drawing. The result of their collaboration was a rush of tactile books that surpassed anything that had come before, classics like Goodnight Moon to Touch, Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, Let’s Learn Shapes with Shapely-CAL, Touch and Learn Tactile Activities, Touch the Stars, and the endearing ABC Illustrated Flashcards.

Tactile image of two mittens from Good Night Moon to Touch

Tactile illustration by Irma Goldberg from Goodnight Moon to Touch

So today I am grieving the loss of a beautiful woman, outside and in, Irma Goldberg. I grieve as well for her tireless co-star, Shirley Keller, who pushed the limits of their remarkable union to the benefit of blind children and adults everywhere. When Shenk speaks of “the push and pull of love itself” as a creative force, he’s talking about Shirley & Irma: a pair of geniuses.

Feeling the Power of Braille Literacy

In the last few months with the support of Trustee, Chris Babcock, NBP has hosted two luncheons in areas in which we have a large concentration of braille readers and supporters. Both in Pittsburgh and Boston, we have been elated with the responses to our gatherings as well as the enthusiasm for our work and braille literacy.

As the person who has been organizing these luncheons, I am inspired by the first-hand accounts about the impact of our work. NOAH 006A 57 year old woman shared that she bought our Noah’s Ark book with tactile graphics, “Even though that book was for kids, it was great for me because I finally was able to fully understand the story. The tactiles gave me additional understanding of what it was like to have all of those animals on the ark.”

A young man spoke about how he was reluctant to learn braille when he was a kid. However, as he rode the bus every morning and afternoon to school, he noticed that everyone around him was reading. He began to feel left out and his desire to read like everyone else motivated him to learn braille. Soon enough he was reading his first braille book, The Mediterranean Caper, on the bus alongside his fellow commuters.

Our goal with these luncheons is to update our braille readers and supporters on our new publications, projects, and our work. More importantly, this is our opportunity to get their feedback on the future of braille and what role NBP can play in strengthening braille literacy. To hear from our attendees that they want to be “a foot soldier for braille and NBP,” and “You keep doing your great work, now, it is our turn to figure out how we can help,” is inspiring and empowering.

We are looking to host gatherings like this in a few cities across the country: Seattle in April, Washington D.C. in May, and possibly Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia later on in the year. Who knows, maybe NBP will be coming to a city near you. But don’t wait for a luncheon invitation to share your story about braille and what you need from NBP. We welcome your thoughts!

If you would like to share your thoughts, learn more about NBP, or talk with me about organizing a luncheon in your city, please contact me at jquintanilla@nbp.org.