Blind World Magazine

Changing lives by transcribing into Braille.

The Boston Globe, USA.
Sunday, September 10, 2006.

WORCESTER -- Here's something you need to know about Marcia Cronin: She transcribed the past two Harry Potter books into Braille. She did the first, ``Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," in about 30 hours.

The American edition came in at 870 pages. In Braille, it comprised 1,490 pages spread among 13 volumes. Thirteen volumes. Before the advent of Braille transcription software, she would have averaged about 20 Braille pages a day. You do the math.

Harry Potter took 13 volumes because Braille is large. One page of regular print averages about 2 1/2 of Braille. That's because the language is based on six-dot rectangles that take up more room than letters, and there are no fonts.

Also, the paper is thicker than print paper and the pages bigger to accommodate Braille. Instead of the usual 8-by-ll 1/2inch size, a Braille page is 11 1/2 by 11.

So the books, which must lie flat for blind and visually-impaired readers to read them, get unwieldy fast. That's why the Library of Congress limits its Braille volumes to 250 pages, says Cronin, and the National Braille Press, for which she works, to 200 pages.

The Rosetta Stone that revolutionized Braille transcriptions is something called the Duxbury Braille Translator. It surfaced in 1976 as the first translation software for commercial use and remains the world leader in the field. A wizard named Joe Sullivan came up with it, and the company he founded, Duxbury Systems in Westford, now offers Braille software in about 50 languages.

With the Windows-based Duxbury, Cronin takes text entered on her computer, types in a command, and watches it instantly morph on the screen into Braille code -- a gumbo of letters and numbers that she then sends as a file by e-mail to a publisher to be embossed in Braille.

Here's another thing about Marcia Cronin: She'll tell you how dumb it is to use three-dimensional drawings for geometry in Braille textbooks. ``I had to do a diagram of a T-Rex," she adds. ``An eight-year-old kid has no hope of figuring that out. It's so unfair. A blind person has no frame of reference for 3-D."

They fare no better with standardized test questions about spatial relations. Or ones that ask test-takers to identify Abraham Lincoln.

Stars are problematic. ``A blind person can't interpret the symbol for a star," she says. ``It means nothing to them. A star is in the sky."

Cronin knows all this because she transcribes print into Braille, eight hours a day, five days a week. Standardized tests, world geography texts, math books, cookbooks, fiction, you name it.

She works with school districts that need Braille textbooks and steers them away from inanities that would wound a kid without sight.

She is a whiz at graphics, which have revolutionized Braille over the past 15 years or so. Braille used to be almost exclusively straight text, but is now full of the maps and bar charts and graphs that reflect the new reality in learning today. Maps take ages to make because they are composed of different surfaces representing different locations for a blind person to identify by touch. (In one she's making, the Mediterranean feels like corrugated cardboard.)

``The field is still trying to catch up to the sea change in graphics," says Eileen Curran, vice president for educational services at National Braille Press, a nonprofit printing and publishing house in Boston founded in 1927.

So far, not so good. The majority of Braille transcribers and proofreaders are over 50, and they learned their trade before the explosion of graphics that began in the late '80s.

The current shortage in both jobs is severe and will only get worse when this aging cohort retires. Cronin, 28, says she is always the youngest person at the transcription conferences she attends.

Braille transcription, to put it mildly, is not for everyone. The pay is unamusing and the repetition numbing. If you work at home, as she does in the apartment here she shares with her husband, the job is isolating, so it's got to be something close to a labor of love.

``It's tedious, and there's a lot of minutiae . And working for a nonprofit, you don't get big pay either," she says. ``But I like it a lot. It's always different. One week I'm doing first-grade math, the next a new book on Anne Frank. From December to April, it's the standardized test season. That's all I do. It's my favorite thing to do, but by May I'm ripping my hair out."

Cronin never saw this coming. ``It was a total fluke," she says. She came out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a bachelor's degree in English and started trolling for a job on One day, she saw an ad for a Braille transcription opening with the following directive: ``Strong literary skills required." She gave it a try and six years later is still at it.

So hats off to Marcia Cronin and her colleagues. She does this arcane thing, all by herself, day after day, that improves the lives of millions.

Remind me again how many of us do the same?

Sam Allis's e-mail address is

End of article.

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