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.

Chronicles from the Conventions

 

Three NBP staffers share their recent experiences at the NFB and ACB conventions:

Tony Grima, Vice President of Publications at NBP

This was my 16th national convention, and probably my 10th NFB National Convention! The first thing I noticed this year was how huge the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel and Convention Center was. At the end of the first day, the pedometer app on my phone reported that I walked over 10,000 steps just getting from my room to the exhibit hall and back. To get to the exhibit hall from the room elevators, you first had to navigate through the restaurants, café, and gift shop area—a narrow path through randomly placed tables and chairs packed with diners and shoppers and convention goers. After that, the path opened up to three vast halls, one after the other, with the exhibits at the very end. All along the way, NFBers were yelling out directions and room locations to help the visually impaired attendees get where they needed to be. This happens every year, but something about the gigantic, frantic halls made this year more chaotic than ever. I made a short recording one day as I left the exhibit hall. Listen to what it’s like to be walking those halls…

http://www.nbp.org/downloads/nfb-halls.mp3

Another high point: At the exhibit booth in Orlando, a young woman came by several times to buy books. Each time, she asked a lot of questions about the books we offered, and the books she wished we offered. She really put me through the ringer, in a good way; she appreciated and supported NBP, but she also had some thoughtful questions and suggestions. In short, a memorable customer.

When I got back to the office and was entering orders from the convention, I opened this young woman’s customer record and discovered that she had received one of our free ReadBooks book bags about 10 years ago! ReadBooks book bags are meant to get braille into blind kids’ homes as early as possible, and are free to blind kids from birth to age seven. The book bags are filled with braille books and tactiles for the kids, as well as information about braille and other resources for the parents. This young woman’s mother had ordered the book bag years ago, and now that blind kid is a smart and inquisitive young woman, buying braille cookbooks and jewelry and, as I said, putting me through the ringer. It was humbling, gratifying, and inspiring to realize that the ReadBooks program, which I’ve helped work on since it was created, had played some small part in this amazing young woman’s life.

Kesel Wilson, Editor and Programs Manager, NBP

The ACB Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota was my first convention and to say I learned a lot would be an understatement! One of the most fascinating things about learning of other peoples’ life experiences is that you learn so much about yourself at the same time. Probably one of my favorite experiences at the convention was meeting so many of our dedicated and loyal customers—people from all walks of life and all ages who have been supporting NBP for years, who eagerly await our new products, and who generously offer us ideas and feedback.

An incredibly fun and eye-opening experience was watching several adult customers exploring (and absolutely loving) our tactile graphic books, tactile coloring books, and tactile maze book. I’ll never forget when one person literally squealed with delight as she felt the Tyrannosaurus Rex tactile graphic in the Tactile Book of Dinosaurs. “What are these?” she asked when her fingers ran over the dinosaur arms? “The dinosaur’s arms,” I said. “WHAT???? They are so tiny! I had no idea that a dinosaur as huge as a T-Rex would have such puny arms!” she exclaimed.

Until that moment, I didn’t really have a deep understanding of the power of tactile graphics to convey information—information that I just take for granted. I’ve been seeing pictures of dinosaurs since I was a small child and never really gave much thought to what they look like. But for this woman, feeling the tactile graphic was a moment of pure discovery and it let her (and me) see the creature in entirely new ways. Thank you to all of the customers who came by our booth to talk, share thoughts, buy books, and have fun exploring our products. It was a pleasure to meet each one of you.

Whitney Mooney, Sales Administrator, NBP

The NFB Convention always comes right when I need a pick-me-up. Between the hustle and bustle of everyday work, the people of NFB have a way of bringing me back to the purpose of National Braille Press. Everyone stops by the table to tell us how much they love us and our books. They tell us so many beautiful stories about reading to their child or making dinner using our cook books. Every year it reminds me why I do what I do.

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.

Intoxicated by Braille

I get my braille magazines from a deafblind friend who passes them on to me when she’s done reading them. Syndicated Columnists Weekly coverThen I read them while driving to work, eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, right hand deep in Syndicated Columnists Weekly.
I’m sighted (you’re thinking: I hope so, if you drive a car!) and I think I may be the only person on the face of the planet who reads braille while driving 70 mph down the highway. Please don’t misunderstand me–I am not promoting distracted driving. I am simply stating a fact: I like to read braille while driving, which is no more dangerous than driving while listening to books on tape, or eating a pastrami sandwich on rye, or keeping time with my thumb on my knee to an old-fashioned song in my head, eyes on the road, EYES ON THE ROAD.

I’ve been intoxicated by braille ever since first learning to read it (visually) about 30 years ago when I worked as a transcriber at National Braille Press. Hands on brailleAround that same time, I took a sign language class across the street at Northeastern University, where I fell in love with the teacher, who was deaf, and whom I later married. I also thereby became rather fluent in sign language, and eventually left NBP to pursue a career as an interpreter. But I never lost touch with braille. And eventually I learned to read it tactilely. This is how I did it:

I was sitting in the proverbial traffic jam from hell one day, going absolutely nowhere on my way to work, when I reached over to the passenger seat where there happened to be a braille letter from a deafblind friend I’d met the previous summer at an AADB (American Association of the DeafBlind) convention. With nothing better to do, I tried reading it with my finger. I had no problem with “Dear Paul,” but it took me the rest of my commute (about an hour) to make out the first two sentences. Concentrating on that braille letter in my lap, shifting it to my stomach, my chest, trying to read it with my finger, my eyes never leaving the road, made the time go by. And it was something to DO. And so, on the drive home, I continued reading. And the next day and the next. And lo, my habit of reading braille in the car was born!

If you do anything for two hours a day (an hour in, and an hour out) five days a week, for several years, you will get better at it. Which is exactly what happened. I can now read braille quite proficiently with my right index finger. And I enjoy doing it! I like the physicality of reading tactilely. Am I using neurons and synapses that I wouldn’t otherwise be using? I don’t know, and I don’t really care about the science of it; what interests me more is, for lack of a better word, the poetry of braille. For example, a long time ago at NBP, my friend Gil Busch told me the word “ice” in braille always reminded him of a little hill: the upward climbing i, the crest of the c, the downward sloping e. I never forgot that, and I always think of it when I come across that word in my reading. And my friend John Lee Clark has said, Andy is a square; Sandy is a square with a ponytail. Such are the little reading pleasures that are peculiar to braille. All those words within words. And those lower-cell contractions (BY, TO, INTO) that, before UEB, would attach to the subsequent character, kind of like a barnacle, or a burr, or a baby sloth. And the tactile alliteration of a string of dot 5 contractions all in a row: “Lord knows, some young mothers work right here throughout the day.” Or encountering the occasional sentence or phrase made up entirely of whole-word contractions: “You can do as you like but it’s just that people like us will not go.” Call me weird, but I get a kick out of these sorts of things when I encounter them in my reading.

I enjoy reading braille in bed at night when my wife would rather go to sleep. No problem, honey, I’ll read with the lights out. I enjoy reading braille in a dark movie theater during those interminable previews, and even during the movie itself if it turns out the movie stinks. I read braille in line at the bank, in line at the grocery store, while waiting for the train, while riding on the train, and even while walking from the train (walking and reading is easy as walking and talking!). But most of all I enjoy (see above) reading braille while driving–driving while intoxicated by braille! I think I hear some of you object: But it must be illegal! Let me reassure you, our esteemed lawmakers and constabularies can’t even conceive of it. No one can imagine it–no one except you, that is. So it’s our little secret. Okay?

A Revolutionary Tea Party: A Moment of Shared Accessibility

Boston fashioned its revolutionary identity hurling tea into the Boston Harbor—an iconic event that inspired a second Tea Party movement hundreds of years later. But this post is about a third Boston tea party event, not as well-known, but revolutionary in its own right.

Several months ago, four of us—Mike Mellor, author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, Ann Cunningham, a renowned sculptor and tactile artist, JoAnn Becker, an NBP Trustee and technology trainer at Perkins, and myself, a publisher at NBP—attended the unveiling of the Edgar Allan Poe statue in Boston. Edgar Allan Poe statue in BostonOne of the best-kept secrets of Boston’s literary history is the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was born here.

Moments after they removed the covering from his life-size statue, the four of us pushed hard against an enormous crowd to get close enough to touch Poe’s swirling cape, to trace the enormous wingspan of his raven, even to insert our hands into the raven’s screeching beak. It was a moment of shared accessibility and we felt giddy.

In fact, it was the second time that day that we shared a moment of culture and art. Earlier, passing by the Museum of Fine Arts, we spontaneously decided to venture in to see what might be accessible to us all. As we walked through the heavy doors, Ann suddenly remembered that she had worked with Steve Landau at Touch Graphics, and Hannah Goodwin, Manager of Accessibility at the Museum, to create a tactile book that explores American Style through the centuries by showcasing contrasting teapot designs!

Each era was illustrated with an example of a teapot MFA book in print and braille on period teapotscreated in that period’s style, and embossed in low relief. Accompanying text, in large print and braille, described each design in detail. The coup d’ grace was an electronic pen that, when any element of the design was touched, would provide even more information. Unfortunately the battery in the pen had run out and we were not able to access this feature. But by now our batteries were already charged with this unexpected treat, as Ann and JoAnn sat down on an ancient museum bench to explore Style: Period Details Explored in Teapots as tactile designer and art devotee respectively.

“I feel I have as clear a vision of what those teapots look like, and each unique period’s design, as anyone sighted,” said JoAnn, as we left the museum. “I had no idea until today that I prefer the Federalist period of teapots over the Empire era and precisely why!”

It seemed an ordinary and an extraordinary afternoon among friends—as simple and yet as exquisite as a teapot.