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Betsy Burnham, Chairman

Reprinted from the NBA Bulletin, Winter 2000/2001, with permission from the National Braille Association, Inc. 

I have been privileged to be a part of many exciting discussions this fall at the NBA Regional Meeting and at the Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum of American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The focus of these discussions has been the critical need for timely delivery of educational materials in an appropriate format for students who are visually impaired. I would like to share with you some of the information that stirred these discussions. I hope you may be moved to help in finding solutions.

The American Foundation for the Blind developed the Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum in 1998. The Forum includes textbook publishers, producers of specialized media, assistive technology specialists, policy makers, educators, representatives from Instructional Materials Resource Centers, parents, consumers, and others. Sally Hering has represented NBA previously; I attended my first meeting in October.

The Forum formed five work groups in 1998 to examine the "multifaceted process of producing and delivering educational materials in accessible media, and to determine ways to improve the delivery of textbooks and instructional materials in appropriate media." The five work groups are concerned with:

  1. Electronic Files and Research and Development 
  2. Legislative and Policy Making 
  3. Production 
  4. Training and Other Needs 
  5. Communications and Collaboration

Data from three national surveys, conducted during the spring/summer of 2000, was presented at the October meeting. The surveys dealt with multimedia, production, and training. Following are some of the revelations from the reports that have made the greatest impressions on me. I am not trying to reflect the overall import of the reports; these are facts that seem very meaningful to me.

Survey of Training and Availability of Braille Transcribers

  1. Blind children rely more on volunteers to produce their braille texts and materials than on paid employees. For example, 57.7% of the full-time transcribers reported in the survey are volunteers. 
  2. Of the full-time transcribers, both the employed and the volunteer, only 51.8% are certified by the National Library Service. 
  3. Within ten years there will be a need for 1,020 additional braille transcribers. 
  4. The regulations controlling the braille-providing agencies of several states would require that transcribers' proficiency in specific skill areas (e.g. tactile diagrams and foreign languages) be demonstrated through National Library Service certification. This certification, however, is only available for literary, mathematics, and music braille transcribing, and for braille proofreading. 
  5. The organizational status of braille transcribers is not clearly established. Braillists frequently do not enjoy appreciation or recognition.

Survey of Production of Textbooks and Instructional Materials

  1. All factors listed in the survey as "possibly important" in influencing the purchase and acquisition of braille, large print, and audio materials were deemed by those surveyed to be at least "somewhat important." The survey rated the most important factor for braille as the "quality of braille output." 
  2. The surveyed state agencies recognize a need for more transcribers but also realize that there are a lack of funds and a lack of recognition of "Braillist" as a bona fide job description. This may be why many states (40%) cite a need for more volunteers. 
  3. A large majority of state agencies are not addressing the need to use technology to increase the efficiency of their delivery systems.

For more details and to find out about the progress of each of these groups, visit the Forum's web site at:  http://www.afb.org/info_document_view.asp?documentid=1331.

One main effort of the Forum is toward achieving a uniform file type through which producers of textbooks can make it easier for transcribers to produce braille faster. The ideal file would be one that the transcriber could edit (format) without having to do any direct-entry brailling. The transcriber could use his time deciding how best to present the layers of headings, and the best ways to place picture captions, marginal notes, diagrams, tables, and so forth. The files that publishers currently produce are not compatible with the prevalent braille translation and editing programs. Publishers and writers of braille computer programs are cooperating to develop a file format that will work for all.

Read the following article for more information about these file types.

A Whole New Bowl of Alphabet Soup

Just when you thought you had figured out what all the acronyms stood for, along comes a whole new set for the twenty-first century. We'll try to continue your educational journey through some of the latest terms used when speaking about accessible textbooks.

Optical Character Reader (OCR)

Not particularly new to many who routinely use scanners, this device recognizes letters or other characters and stores the information as a computer text file. OCRs are usually limited to recognizing the styles and sizes of types for which they are programmed.

Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF)

The purpose of OEBF is to create and maintain standards and promote the successful adoption of electronic books (books stored on computer disks). It is composed of hardware and software companies, publishers and users of electronic books, and related organizations. http://www.openebook.org 

Digital Talking Book (DTB)

Reading talking books on cassettes requires winding and rewinding to locate various sections. A DTB is a group of digitally-encoded files containing an audio portion recorded in human speech giving the reader random access to the sections of the book by way of a talking table of contents. The full text of the electronic book is marked with the "tags" of a descriptive markup language, and contains a linking file that synchronizes the text and audio portions. (Tags are the symbols used to structure text.)

Digital Audio-based Information System Consortium (DAISY Consortium)

The DAISY Consortium is establishing the International Standard for the production, exchange, and use of Digital Talking Books. It is made up of organizations throughout the world who serve persons who are blind or print handicapped. Some of the organizations which have or will begin producing DTBs in DAISY format are Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D); American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), American Printing House for the Blind (APH), Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and the U.K. Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). http://www.daisy.org

National Information Standards Organization (NISO)

This is a U.S.-based committee working in conjunction with the DAISY Consortium on a specification for DTBs. NISO specifications will incorporate elements of structure needed to provide access to information and the synchronization of textual information with digitally recorded human speech. http://www.niso.org 

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

This is an international consortium to promote the evolution and operability of the World Wide Web. Working with the global community, the W3C produces specifications and reference software for free use around the world. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) established by the W3C, is working toward developing comprehensive and unified sets of guidelines to improve access to the Web by people with disabilities. Interestingly, a portion of the NBA Tape Recording Manual has been posted on the W3C web site for web developers in an effort to promote unified guidelines for describing illustrations, diagrams, and maps. http://www.w3.org 

Document Type Definition (DTD)

This is a formal definition of a discrete set of tags usually targeted at a particular type of application, for example, the DTD for the DTB would define tags for things one finds in a book--chapter, paragraph, footnote, etc.

The Extensible Markup Language (XML)

The XML is the universal format for structured documents and data on the web. It is a set of rules and guidelines for designing text formats for data in a way that produces files that are easy to generate and read by a computer.

Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML)

HTML is the common language used for publishing hypertext on the World Wide Web. It can be created and processed by a wide range of tools from plain text editors. It uses tags such as <hl> and </hl> to structure text into headings, paragraphs, lists, etc. http://www.w3.org 

Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL)

SMIL enables authors to specify what should be presented, enabling them to control the precise time that a sentence is spoken and make it coincide with the display of an image appearing on a screen. SMIL has been designed for ease of access for authoring simple presentations with a text editor. http://www.w3.org/AudioVideo 

Bob Stepp has written a paper in which he discusses computer languages and how they relate to the production of digital talking books, large print and braille. You may read the paper on the following site: http://www.c-a-s.com/brl2000/background.htm.