- Marcia Williams Cronin ’00
“It was all very cloak and dagger,” says Cronin, an employee of the National Braille Press. “I had to work on it behind closed doors and sign a confidentiality agreement. I was the only one in the office who saw the book in its entirety.” Using Braille transcription software, Cronin whipped through the 652-page sixth Harry Potter book in 23 hours. For the first time, blind readers got their Harry Potter fix on the same day as sighted readers.
Cronin, 28, had never seen a Braille book before joining the Boston-based press six years ago. After graduating from UMass Amherst with an English degree and interning as a copy editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, she spotted an online ad for a Braille transcriber with strong literary skills. She made a two-year commitment to the job partly because she liked the idea of being paid to read novels. Today Cronin can visually read Braille almost as easily as text. She is working toward certification in Braille math transcription, which has specialized signs, rules, and concepts, and is also proficient at creating Braille graphics, a new and booming part of the field.
Working full-time from her Auburn, Mass., home, Cronin always has multiple deadlines on a variety of jobs. She still works on novels, but the bulk of her work is textbooks and standardized tests. Right now she is transcribing a tenth-grade geometry text, a seventh-grade geography book, two first-grade math books, a biography of Anne Frank, and several exams.
Despite the advent of audio books and talking computers, Braille remains essential as the means to full literacy for blind people. The Braille writing system, invented by Louis Braille in 1821, uses rectangular arrangements of six raised dots to represent letters, letter combinations, and commonly used words. To turn letters into meaningful dots, Cronin starts either with a publisher’s computer file or scans a document’s pages. After running the text through transcription software, she must read every word in coded Braille text to ensure absolute accuracy. For example, in Harry Potter, names like Hermione and Dumbledore can trip the program up.
Transcribing a novel, even one with magic spells and mythical beasts, is fairly straightforward compared to the challenge of interpreting graphics for blind readers.
“We are in a picture-oriented world now, and it’s just getting more and more so,” says Eileen Curran, vice president for educational services at the National Braille Press. That’s why Braille publishers began producing tactile graphics—pictures for the fingers— about 10 years ago.
A case in point is the seventh-grade geography book on Cronin’s desk. It is replete with photographs, charts, graphs, and page after page of colorful maps. As she transcribes it, Cronin decides which images must be interpreted for blind students and the best way to do it. “You can do much more in print than you ever can in Braille,” she explains. “So we must think, ‘What can I include? How can I make this accessible? What is already covered in the text?’ We wouldn’t try to describe this photo of the Sphinx, for example, because it’s here mainly for interest, but I would transcribe the caption.”
While Braille text transcription has gone high-tech and some Braille graphics are computerized, tactile graphics remains largely a low-tech, scissors-and-paste art. Interpreting images is fairly new to blind people and simple collages result in the best graphics. To fabricate a political map of Africa, Cronin outlined the countries with string on posterboard, cut the oceans out of Handi Wipes, and used glue dots to represent each capital city. She labeled the nations in Braille. “But here,” she says, pointing to Ghana, Togo, and Benin, “these three little countries are all bunched together and a blind person wouldn’t be able to differentiate them, so I needed to add a key to make that clear.”
After working on the geography book in stages for almost two years, Cronin has discovered a lot about her new specialty: Sandpaper and Handi Wipes actually feel alike when reproduced on Braille sheets; drywall tape makes excellent fingertip reading. The work is time-consuming. For the chapter on Africa alone, Cronin will produce seven different tactile maps that will be duplicated one by one onto plastic sheets via a heated vacuum process and then bound into the Braille geography textbook at the National Braille Press.
Keeping every string and dot in its place can be tedious, but Marcia Cronin’s unexpected profession holds evident rewards: She has the satisfaction of knowing she’s helping blind people to read and study. It fills other needs as well: “I really like learning random stuff,” she says, holding a Braille graph of metric tons of fish produced in Europe. “Since I’ve had this job I do much better playing Jeopardy!”
- Mark Kalashian ’92, ’95G
A Passion for Braille
Will technology make Braille as obsolete as the typewriter? No way, says Mark Kalashian ’92, ’95G, who has been blind since birth and reading Braille since kindergarten. “Braille is still terribly important. If you can’t read Braille, you really can’t read. Audiotapes and computers that talk are great, but listening is passive, reading is active.”
Kalashian, 36, uses Braille at his job as a receptionist at the Disability Law Center, Inc., in Boston and as a member of the Access Advisory Committee to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. “I like to have my reports printed in Braille when I go to meetings,” he says. He has a Braille embosser and a computer with a voice synthesizer at work and a Braille word processor at home.
UMies may remember Kalashian as the host of an oldies radio show in the early 1990s. (He was “Mark with a K of WMUA.”) While at UMass Amherst, he was also a member of several advocacy groups and honor societies and worked as a tutor while earning an undergrad degree in Spanish and a master’s in teaching.
Braille literacy rates began to decline when blind children became mainstreamed in the 1960s, however Kalashian learned Braille in Haverhill, Mass., public schools, which recognized its relevance. “I had a whole room just for my books,” he recalls. “Braille books are really big and fat. A regular-print pocket dictionary will take up seven thick volumes.”
The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., recently honored Kalashian for his contribution to the workforce. He says, “The unemployment rate for people who are blind is awfully high, but those who read Braille are far more likely to be employed and have better-paying jobs. Braille can give you more independence.”