Originally created 03/15/97

Computers producing Braille books for the blind



PHILADEPHIA (AP) - May Davis and Roy DiFonzo are reading a mystery by Sherlock Holmes. They trade off reading paragraphs aloud as they work through the tale chapter by chapter.

But Roy is reading from the original bound volume of the story, while May, blind since the age of 3, reads from the square sheets of Braille beneath her fingertips.

The two are proofreaders at the Jenny Beck Braille Center at the Associated Services for the Blind in Philadelphia, one of only five Braille printing facilities in the country producing reading material for the blind.

Along with printing plants in Boston, Chicago, Louisville and Stewart, Fla., the Jenny Beck Braille Center prints the bulk of this country's Braille books and pamphlets, music and magazines, artwork and math text.

"We produce an average of 100 books each year," says center director Dolores Ferrara-Godzieba. "But we also print brochures and pamphlets, approximately 10,000 bank statements each year and any piece of custom Braille work that comes our way."

In the process, the printing facility for the blind brought in $1.1 million in revenue last year.

In the early 1800s, a 15-year-old blind French student named Louis Braille developed the code of raised dots which would eventually bear his name. Shortly thereafter, the young man created a metal slate and stylus to print Braille dot by dot, letter by letter.

While Braille printing today is still a labor-intensive process, and in many places relies on a six-key typewriter called a Braillewriter, computers have revolutionized the process in large-scale operations such as the Jenny Beck Braille Center.

When a book arrives at the center for printing, it is disassembled and its pages scanned into a computer, which translates the work into Braille. Sighted proofreaders check the Braille on the screen before it is sent to the shop to be pressed into zinc plates.

The computer program is able to space the text so that the raised Braille dots can be printed on both the front and back of each large square page.

Printers feed individual sheets of paper into the rotating presses to make the finished pages one by one. A final proofreading by sighted and blind readers follows, and then a single book is bound.

That bound copy is sent to the Library of Congress for a final reading before the whole lot can be bound and distributed.

"Our proofreaders check every comma, every period, every italics for 100 percent accuracy before a book is sent to Washington for a final reading," Ferrara-Godzieba says.

The Jenny Beck Braille Center has been in operation since 1929, when its purpose was to produce educational materials for blind World War I veterans trying to re-enter the job market.

As the demand for Braille printing grew, so did the center. The '40s brought a boom in the need for Braille educational materials for school children, and the '60s brought on a rush of demand for Braille magazines.

Today, the Library of Congress determines annually what books to print in Braille, but any individual who needs a Braille translation can get help at the center.

"If someone comes through that door and says, 'I have a letter for my brother that I need translated into Braille,' we'll do it," Ferrara-Godzieba says.

"We serve everyone who is blind."