Leading the blind

Before she lost her eyesight, Judith Rasmussen taught French as a teaching assistant at UW–Madison, so she remembers what it was like to live in the sighted world.

“When I lost my sight and started listening to things, I didn’t know where paragraphs were or punctuation. I couldn’t see how words were spelled, which to me is important.”

So she learned braille, and for years, thanks to the Braille Library & Transcribing Services and other braille-producing sources, she has been able to enjoy everything from novels to cookbooks.

Rasmussen has been a long-time customer of the Braille Library & Transcribing Services Inc. (BLTS), located on Segoe Road in Madison. The nonprofit has been around since 1971 and serves a visually impaired audience all across the nation and in Canada. Its nine volunteer braillists and three blind proofreaders convert printed publications from print to braille just so the blind may “see.”

BLTS has an inventory of more than 2,300 titles in its library, including popular novels, cookbooks, craft books, and children’s books. In 2015, the group added 29 new titles (adult fiction, nonfiction, and cookbooks) and 87 children’s books to the library’s inventory.

Last year, 180 users checked out more 1,300 titles, including nearly 500 children’s books.

A typical braille-transcribed novel is physically large, measuring roughly 12” x 12” in size with white pages imprinted on both sides with thousands of raised dots. In general, it takes two-and-a-half braille pages for every page of ink, so a 300-page novel might require three or four volumes when completed in braille.

Not surprisingly, the books are costly to produce. A $30 printed book can cost about $500 in braille, rendering some lengthy publications too cost prohibitive to produce. There is no braille version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on the shelf, for example.

But BLTS offers other important services, as well, such as transcribing pamphlets, user manuals, utility bills, tax forms, and newsletters. It also has a niche for producing knitting or crocheting patterns in braille, notes BLTS office manager Aaron Konkol, who has worked for the program since 2008.

Konkol is one of two paid part-timers joining the dedicated group of volunteers committed to getting books into the hands of the blind or visually impaired.

“I’ve always wanted to give back in life,” he says. “We hear from people all the time about how much they appreciate being able to experience many of the same enjoyments as a sighted person.”

Ordering a title from the BLTS paper or online catalog costs nothing, nor does shipping. Upon receiving a request, the organization boxes up the volumes and mails them free of charge through a U.S. Postal Service program called “Free Matter for the Blind.” Return shipping is also free.

Individuals or organizations can also request that BLTS transcribe a particular title — a bestseller, for example, or textbook. If the board agrees, the requestor will be charged for the final, completed version and a copy will also be added to the library.

BLTS subsidizes 70% of the costs of books sold to individuals and students.

“Braille is important,” Rasmussen insists. “I heard a parent once say their child didn’t need to know braille because of technology. Well, technology is fine, but it’s made for sighted people, not for people with disabilities.

“Why not have another tool you can use?”

A Rachael Ray cookbook was recently transcribed and added to the inventory, which was likely music to Rasmussen’s ears. “I check out a lot of cookbooks because I like to cook and bake, but I also enjoy mysteries.”



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 http://www.bltsinc.org or call (608) 233-0222.

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