BRL: Braille through Remote Learning

Braille Transcribers Course

Session 1 page

Session Topics
  • The Professional Transcriber

  • Proofreading Exercise
  • Reading Exercise
  • Writing Exercise
  • Complete our

  • Special Codes course

  • Session 1: The Professional Transcriber


    This reading attempts to accomplish a somewhat difficult task: "capture" what it means to be a braille transcriber, whether it be as a "professional" or as a volunteer. In my own experiences as a braillist and instructor, I've noticed that there are many excellent sets of materials on the nuts and bolts of the braille code, braille formatting, and the other technical components of producing braille. I've also noticed, however, that there does not seem to be any "philosophical" descriptions of the task of producing braille. As a beginning towards that end, I interviewed a number of experienced braillists, with the goal of getting them to identify those traits and skills that characterize good transcribers. The questions asked were:

    1. What does it mean to be a braille transcriber?
    2. What are the skill sets needed to be a transcriber?
    3. What are the career opportunities (both paid and volunteer) available to the transcriber?
    4. What are the certification requirements to become recognized as a braille transcriber?
    5. What continuing education opportunities are available for you as a transcriber?
    6. What are the significant groups or organizations of interest to braille transcribers?
    7. What is the role of the computer in braille transcription work?
    8. What's next for braille transcribers?

    The following reading is a summarization of some of the answers to those and other questions. I am grateful to the following individuals for their time, talents, and patience:

    • Mary Klattehoff: Chairperson, Metrolina Association for the Blind, Charlotte, NC, braille transcriber and consumer, transcriber instructor and supervisor of paid/volunteer braillists
    • Helen Hickling: experienced transcriber and teacher, Blue Ridge Braillers, Asheville, NC
    • Alice Price: 30-year volunteer, works at home, no affiliation with transcribers guilds or other groups,
    • Dolores Ferrara-Godzieba: Chairperson, Associated Services for the Blind, Philadelphia, PA, experienced transcriber and coordinator of volunteer transcribers
    • Sheila Simmons: Chairperson, West Virginia Braille Program, Huttonsville Correctional Center Huttonsville, WV, coordinator of inmate braille transcriber program

    I personally came away from this experience with a renewed sense of awe for the folks who have devoted many years of their lives to the pursuit of this "beast" of braille transcribing. Although I spoke with a very small subset of the transcribing community, this dedication and tirelessness of effort was clearly an underlying theme.

    [NOTE: we welcome your comments/additions/"testimonials" to this section. While I would have liked to have talked with 50 experienced transcribers, time and money are both limiting factors! I hope to be able to add more to this section, based on your observations and experiences. To that end, the questions asked of the respondents are available on an interview form for your completion!]

    The Braille Transcriber

    The position of braille transcriber is an unusual one. Quite simply, the braillist is expected to have an intimate knowledge of Grade Two braille and to be able to use that knowledge to produce high-quality materials for a wide variety of customers and clients, often on demand and (more often than not) on short notice. Historically (but perhaps less true today), many active braille transcribers have been volunteers, mostly women working either in the home while caring for the household and/or working in braille transcribers "guilds", which served often as a social outlet for women in addition to providing an organizational structure to braille production tasks. Harking back to the days before computers and thermoform machines, these volunteers produced single-copy braille manuscripts on request of the client. The "modern" braille transcriber must possess an increasing array of skills and experiences, especially if he or she is to become competent in other codes besides literary braille. Additionally, it is becoming incumbent on the part of the transcriber to become familiar with computers and the software currently available to do braille transcription work.

    The Skills of the Braille Transcriber

    What skills does the successful braille transcriber need to bring to the table? The following "list" is a summarization of the attributes identified by most if not all of the respondents:

    • excellent knowledge of the literary braille code
      1. contractions and their use
      2. strong familiarity with the Summary of Rules
      3. formatting, including textbook
    • above average English grammar and spelling skills
    • understanding of division of words syllabically
    • Ability to pay attention to detail
    • high level of technical skills
    • dedication, not only to the code itself but to the audience being served
    • an early recognition that braille is not easy to learn, and that it requires a significant investment of time and energy, especially in the learning stages
    • proofreading skills
    • regular use of braille skills, through reading, transcribing, or other activities. The "braille-as-habit" message came through pretty strongly in most of the conversations
    • common sense, and the ability to understand what the author is trying to say

    The interview process was unable to elicit any sense of "what kind of person makes the best transcriber", other than the characteristics listed above. One respondent did suggest that those who are concrete thinkers are typically the ones best at formatting, as they are able to "visualize" what the page of braille should look like prior to sitting down at the Perkins or computer keyboard. When asked about education levels, most of the respondents seemed to think that education level is less important than a love of reading and languages. Most seemed to think that some exposure to a foreign language was probably helpful, but would not go so far as to say that the best transcribers were those who had studied another language.

    One respondent offered an interesting "characteristic" of the successful transcriber: she suggested that the best transcribers are those who have a sense of "outrage" that blind kids are often prevented from taking courses with their sighted peers due to lack of braille textbook availability. She suggested that her motivation for serving for 30-plus years as a volunteer was the clearly defined need for quality braille materials.

    Career Opportunities

    The career opportunities for braillists have clearly changed over the years (to the distinct consternation of some of the interview respondents!). With more women now assuming professional roles in the workplace, the number of purely volunteer braille transcribers has dwindled significantly. In addition to the "traditional" positions of teachers of the visually-impaired (who are often, but not always, braille transcribers by default!), more and more career positions are available. A number of transcribers have established their own "at-home" businesses, investing in computers and printers. These businesses typically work on a "per-page" basis, with a typical yearly salary range between $15,000 and $45,000 (with one respondent remarking that one contract braillist earned $60,000 in a particularly good year!). Per-page fees are typically higher for technical materials such as mathematics and science.

    The costs involved with setting up a professional transcribing service are, like most small businesses, heavily loaded up-front with capital expenses (i.e. equipment). A random search of braille embossers (braille computer printers) suggested a range of products from $350 (probably unsuitable for production work) to $20,000 or more, with an average of about $6,000. The computer itself and appropriate software can easily add another $4,000 to start-up expenses. The professional transcriber also needs a number of reference materials, and has the on-going expenses of paper and other expendable materials. A "sample" list of equipment owned by one professional transcriber is shown below:

    IBM-compatible computer with flatbed scanner, modem, and 3-1/2" HD floppy drive; WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS and 6.1 for Windows, Word 6.0 for Windows, Duxbury. Braille embossers for single-sided, interpoint, and jumbo braille. Thermoform machine. 19-hole binding machine.

    As in all small businesses, there are also expenses involved in getting your business incorporated -- lawyers fees, tax preparation, auditors, etc. In short, the perspective professional braillist must have a good awareness of the ins and outs of establishing and running a small business. Expertise in braille transcribing is only a small part of the overall picture!

    A number of the respondents mentioned that they are seeing more "braille production specialists", para-professionals whose job it is to type manuscripts into a word processor (such as WordPerfect), and then use one of several braille transcription software packages to produce the braille document. There is some concern about this trend -- while the software packages are certainly becoming more accurate, the fact that these production specialists often have little or no training in braille transcribing means that there is often no proofreading being done of the generated documents. Perhaps one could make the argument that braille with some errors is better than no braille at all, but most of the respondents suggested some discomfort with the fact that often the certified braillist is not in the braille production picture.

    A list of braille transcription providers is available online. Browsing through this list provides a good "overview" of the types of services available, pricing schemes, and the like.

    Becoming Certified

    Literary Braille

    To become recognized as a certified braille transcriber, one must submit a 35-page "trial manuscript" to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress. The NLS has a high quality standard for this manuscript, and requires a grade of 80 or better on the manuscript. Proofreading of your final manuscript is a key to doing well on this certification exam. Point deductions for this exam are as follows:

    • Contractions missed or misused: 2 points
    • Characters misformed (including added or omitted dots): 1 point
    • Incorrect division of words: 2 points
    • Letters inserted or omitted: 2 points
    • Text omitted or repeated: 3 points
    • Spacing errors: 2 points
    • Format irregularities: 2 points
    • Omitted or inserted punctuation or composition signs: 2 points
    • Erasures: 2 points

    It doesn't take much mathematical abilities to see that the manuscript must be virtually free of any technical or production errors. The Library requires the manuscript to be transcribed using a 40-cell braille line, and does not (at least as of this writing) accept any type of computer-assisted braille. The transcriber must produce his or her braille using a Perkins brailler (or equivalent) or with a slate and stylus. The transcriber is permitted to transcribe any publication, within reason. The Library encourages that the material selected be of sufficient difficulty so as to present the transcriber with "normal" sentence structure and vocabulary, but advises the transcriber to avoid technical materials which might require specialized techniques or formatting expertise.

    The transcriber has three opportunities to submit a trial manuscript before he or she is asked to participate in some other instructional program. If the first manuscript is not acceptable, the student may be asked to submit another 35-page manuscript or some shorter work, depending on the number and types of errors in the first manuscript.

    In the excerpts from Update, there are a number of questions from braille students regarding the submission of the braille manuscript, and if you are considering submitting a manuscript sometime in the near future, you are encouraged to read these questions and answers!

    Specialized Codes and other Certifications

    The National Library Service offers certification exams in mathematics (Nemeth) braille, music braille, and also offers a proofreaders certificate. More information about these programs will be provided in the next course, "Specialized Codes".

    Continuing Education: Beyond Literary Braille

    The question was asked: what continuing education opportunities are available for the practicing transcriber, and what are his or her professional responsibilities for staying "current"?

    All of the respondents suggested that membership in the National Braille Association is, or should be, a "requirement" for the volunteer or professional transcriber. This organization publishes a number of items that contain information quite useful to the braillist. There are also refresher courses available through this organization for literary braille.

    Most of the respondents strongly suggested that staying current is fundamentally dependent on doing braille regularly. There was, however, also a sense among several that with the introduction of computer technologies into the braille transcribers world, coupled with some possible changes in the code itself, that the transcriber needs to have some affiliation with at least one group who can assist with learning about new developments. One of the goals of this program is to provide a delivery mechanism by which new and experienced braillists can keep up-to-date with the various changes.

    Braille Transcribing Groups and Braille Organizations

    As mentioned earlier, the braille transcribing group, typically called a "guild", was the primary organizational unit for braille transcribers. The guild would interact with the client/customer, assign work to the volunteer transcribers, provide training (both initial and on-going), provide quality control to finished products, and otherwise serve as a structure for the transcriber and her activities. The respondents to this interview primarily talked about guilds in the past tense, although a look at the Library of Congress list of volunteers who produce books suggests that the braille transcribers guild is not completely extinct! The consensus holds, however, that these guilds have historically consisted of volunteers, mostly women and mostly older, who formed guilds both as an organizational unit and as a social organization. One respondent characterized her guild in a rather blunt manner: "we're all older than dirt and dying off like flies". She suggested that in spite of available classes, there has been very little interest in her community to participate in training opportunities.

    I also asked the respondents to name the five most important organizations to the braille transcriber (five being an arbitrary number). The organizations most mentioned were as shown below. [NOTE: the organizations providing Web pages hare shown in hypertext]:

    The NLS provides a directory of organizations that provides information and/or serve as advocates for blind and visually-impaired persons.

    Interestingly, very little mention was made of several of the more active organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, or the American Council of the Blind. There is a significant distinction made among these groups, those that are organizations "of the blind" and those that are organizations "for the blind".

    We strongly recommend that you consider obtaining membership in the National Braille Association if you are going to be involved in braille work. You are also encouraged to look at the various Web pages referenced here for more information.

    The Computer and the Braillist

    Computers have progressed to the point of being able to produce reasonably accurate braille, but the respondents who participated in the interview process all argued fairly strongly for the key role of the qualified transcriber in the use of these technologies. As discussed previously, several of the respondents noticed some trend towards the use of braille production specialists, who often only have basic braille skills if any at all. Towards the end of this course, we will examine in detail the various computer tools -- software and hardware -- that are available to the professional braillist. Many of the respondents (but not all!) stated that they used one or more of the commercial computer software programs in their work. Metrolina, for example, uses one commercial product to do the bulk of the transcription, then uses another with a stable Perkins-style six-key emulator, in the hands of a qualified transcriber, to clean up errors and formatting issues not addressed (or addressed incorrectly) by the transcription software.

    What's Next for Braille Transcribers?

    Perhaps the most significant "event" on the horizon for "rookie" and veteran alike is the impending coming of the Unified Braille Code (UBC). This is a code under development that looks to, as the name suggests, "unify" all braille code used in the transcription of the English language among the countries who hold current membership in the International Council on English Braille (ICEB):

    • The United States
    • The United Kingdom
    • Canada
    • Australia
    • New Zealand
    • Nigeria
    • South Africa

    Interestingly, this committee meets primarily by email, only gathering in person every two years. (Note: one can ask to be an observer by contacting the Project Chair, Darleen Bogart of Canada, at

    The original intent of this project was to unify three of the official braille codes, those for literary, mathematics and science, and computer notation. The current objective is to look at all of the codes that are used for those type publications, with music being excluded. The scope was increased since the technical codes used in some countries are very different than those used in countries working under the "Braille Authority of North America" (BANA) system.

    One of the more important observations from the committee, taken directly from the Web page for the Unified Braille Code, is this caveat:

    It is important to understand that UBC is not presently an official transcription code in any jurisdiction, but remains a research project. Besides the inherently very difficult nature of the design work, there is opposition from persons who do not accept the feasibility or desirability of unification, or who wish the unification to take some other form, all of which must be properly considered. For these reasons, it is not possible to estimate an acceptance date for UBC, though at least a few years seems likely. If and when a complete UBC is accepted by the ICEB, it will still be up to the various national authorities to adopt UBC for official use in their respective jurisdictions.

    (As a side note, the student is strongly encouraged to read, in its entirety, the memo from two important braille advocates that is cited as the "convincing argument" for BANA to begin this project.)