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Leading the blind

(page 2 of 2)

Checking it out

Like so many nonprofits, BLTS is a mission-based effort fueled by love but operating on a shoestring budget of between $38,000 and $40,000 per year, which limits its capacity to expand in the manner that the board would like.

Sue Nelson, the organization’s treasurer, joined the program nearly 16 years ago after retiring from US Bank. “In a perfect world, I’d like to see a couple more volunteers and more donors,” she admits, saying she’s forever grateful for those who keep supporting them year after year.

Perhaps surprisingly, not everyone who is blind or visually impaired knows braille. “It’s my understanding that roughly 10% of the population is blind, but only 10% of that population reads braille,” Nelson says.

But anyone can learn to be a braillist. Nelson took the course after working with the organization for several years. It isn’t a matter of letter-by-letter translation, she explains. Braille uses the ABC alphabet, short-form words, and 250 characters in combinations of six raised dots.

Letters can also stand for words, she explains. “B stands for but, D stands for do, and there are other combinations that stand for the words the and and.”

Over the years, BLTS has trained more than 200 individuals to be braillists. The organization offers a correspondence course through local mentors and provides all materials at a nominal cost. Training can start at any time and takes about 12 to 18 months to complete, culminating with a certification from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped under the Library of Congress.

The new braille

Braille has been around for hundreds of years, but in January, North America switched from the English Braille American Edition (EBAE) to United English Braille (UEB), a decision that had been in the works for several years after being adopted by the Braille Authority of North America. The United States was the only English-speaking country not using UEB, and braillists have been adapting to the new version ever since, which Nelson says improves formatting issues. “The letters are the same, but the punctuation and style have changed.”

Rasmussen recently began incorporating UEB at her part-time job with the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, and says she gets a little faster every day.

“What the new changes will do is make us more in line with the rest of the English speaking world,” she notes, “and it makes it possible to include things like capitalizations or new Web or email addresses. We can now represent italics, or bolding or underlining, which makes it more like original print.”

BLTS does not receive any funding from the United Way, or local, state, or federal government. It relies solely on donations from individuals, service organizations, charitable foundations, and member dues.

Rasmussen appreciates the service. “It’s nice to be able to carry a book — something I can actually read with my fingers.”

To learn more about Madison’s Braille Library & Transcribing Services Inc., go to or call (608) 233-0222.

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