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American Foundation for the Blind Textbooks and Instructional Materials
Solutions Forum

Training and Other Needs Work Group

What is a braille transcriber?

A braille transcriber determines how to most accurately present information from a print textbook into a braille version and then transcribes it into braille so that a student who is blind or has low vision gets the same benefits from the information as his or her sighted peers.

What skills must a braille transcriber have?

In addition to deductive reasoning, transcribers must have specialized computer skills to effectively transcribe a textbook into braille. They must be fluent in the English Literary Braille Code, be knowledgeable in the use of braille translation software, be able to import publishers' electronic files, and be knowledgeable in formatting principles from Braille Authority of North America (BANA). Braille Formats: Principles of Print to Braille Transcription (1997). Louisville, KY:American Printing House for the Blind.

Formatting principles influence the placement of information on a page. This enables the reader to tactually pick out information presented in a print book, as quickly as a sighted reader gathers information by glancing at a page. The reader immediately can know there are footnotes, paragraphs, lists of items and tables by scanning the page with his/her hand. The formatting principles are highly structured and specific to braille.

What challenges do braille transcribers face?

Current print textbooks are highly visual and graphically rich, known in the publishing industry as "extreme" textbooks. The more colors, boxes, maps and artwork printed on the page, the longer it takes to format a book for the braille user. All the information must be presented to the reader in a clear and consistent manner, so they understand the context, as well as the content on the page.

Why does the job of braille transcribing require special training?

There are complex and distinct codes and rules that have to be mastered and executed to produce error-free textbooks. Up until now, braille transcribers have been trained and certified through a self-study correspondence course through the Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).

At the end of the correspondence course, the applicant develops and submits a manuscript and then applies for NLS literary braille certification. However, the self-study training does not integrate many critical areas necessary to become a proficient braille transcriber or a braille textbook transcriber, such as using textbook formatting and working with publishers' electronic files. The NLS training program is the predominant way transcribers are trained now, but the reported rate of success is only 30 percent.

Who is currently transcribing textbooks?

Textbooks are currently transcribed by a very dedicated group of braille transcribers. There are some transcribers who receive pay for their work, but most transcribers are volunteers. Braille transcribers working throughout the United States have provided a tremendous legacy in braille textbook production. Braille transcribers have been ensuring that quality and professionalism are embedded in each book or instructional material they produce.

As the numbers of blind or low-vision children have grown over time and the pool of volunteer braille transcribers has decreased, states and local school districts cannot meet students' ever-expanding demand for braille textbooks and ancillary learning materials. In addition, we know there is a limited pool of braille transcribers familiar with using publishers' electronic files and appropriate textbook formatting.

What is the contribution of a braille transcriber to the education of blind and low-vision schoolchildren?

Access to the general education curriculum is vital to all students and when textbooks arrive late or not at all, students with visual impairments miss out on educational opportunities. This is a national issue with complex fiscal, technological and political implications.

Braille transcribers have a tremendous impact on the education of blind and low-vision students. Transcribers allow blind and low-vision students to be on equal footing in the classroom. They provide them with the same information that their sighted peers receive, but in the format they need. Braille textbook transcribers play an important role in helping students achieve their goals both now in their education and in their future endeavors.

Why is the development of the new career—braille textbook transcriber—so important?

There is a significant shortage of braille transcribers throughout the country. Because of this shortage, blind and visually impaired schoolchildren go weeks and sometimes months without the textbooks that their sighted peers have for their core or elective classes. This significant shortage of braille transcribers impacts the college-bound students too. It is estimated that the United States needs 380 full time transcribers now, will need 735 additional transcribers in five years, and 1,020 additional transcribers in ten years.

Braille transcribers are not always paid for their invaluable work, and the U.S. Department of Labor does not recognize their job as a formal profession. Unless this changes through advocacy efforts, the children will continue to suffer. They will not have access to the general education curriculum and will not be learning on a par with their sighted peers.

What are the trends surrounding the career of braille textbook transcriber?

The AFB Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum conducted three national surveys in 2000 concerning production and delivery of textbooks, training and recruitment of braille transcribers and access to multimedia textbooks (www.afb.org/solutionsforum.asp). From the national surveys, and a response from 43 states, it was found that:

  • Forty percent cited a need for more braille transcribers,
  • One in every five textbooks arrives late,
  • States recognize a need for more braille transcribers and admit there is a lack of recognition of a braille textbook transcriber as a bona fide job or career,
  • Fifty-eight percent of the current full-time transcribers are volunteers,
  • Only half of the full-time transcribers have attained certification by NLS,
  • Blind children rely more on volunteers to produce their braille texts and materials than on paid employees, and
  • Ninety percent of textbooks are produced from paper copies and into paper copies.

Why has a college curriculum been developed and what will it provide?

Despite the immense efforts of our current braille transcribers, the profession is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor or by businesses as a bona fide job or career. The college curriculum was developed to gain acceptance for the braille textbook transcriber career at the federal and state levels, and to ensure the future of quality braille for students and adults.

The results from the AFB Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum's 2000 surveys provided a clear direction for defining steps to eliminate the shortage of braille transcribers, providing timely access to textbooks and instructional materials, and increasing the quality and quantity of accessible materials. To see the surveys and fact sheets, go to www.afb.org/solutionsforum.asp and to the Production and Training Work Groups.

The AFB Solutions Forum, in conjunction with the AFB National Education Program, AFB National Literacy Center and the Texas Education Agency, partnered with Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas, to develop a series of courses and a curriculum to train people to become braille textbook transcribers.

In August 2001, Northwest Vista College used a three-stage employability skills assessment process called WorkKeysTM to define the tasks and workplace skills necessary for the profession. Two ACT WorkKeys Occupational Profiling meetings were conducted by Northwest Vista College with nationally recognized braille transcribers who were NLS certified and knowledgeable of publishers' files.

From the WorkKeys process, 31 tasks were found to be critical for the job/profession of a braille textbook transcriber. To view these tasks, visit the Training Work Group area at www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=44&TopicID=16&SubTopicID=35. For more information about the braille textbook transcriber courses, visit Northwest Vista College at www.alamo.edu

What courses are included at Northwest Vista College?

There are 12 courses assigned to this four-semester program. The program consists of 39 credit hours leading to NLS certification and a college certificate. Among other course objectives, the curriculum includes reading and writing braille, transcribing and formatting braille textbooks, working with publishers’ files, creating tactile graphics, technology for braille transcription and production, and managing a small business. The future goal for the college-based program is to replicate the curriculum and program at community colleges in strategic states across the United States and target these course for an online format. For more information about the college curriculum at Northwest Vista College, go to www.accd.edu/nvc/areas/braille.

How will the AFB and Verizon National Campaign address access to textbooks and eliminate the shortage of braille textbook transcribers?

The National Campaign for Literacy, Textbooks, Transcribers and Technology is a public awareness and advocacy program promoting the new career of braille textbook transcriber at the federal and state levels and raising general awareness of the needs of blind and low-vision schoolchildren for timely access to textbooks and learning materials (www.afb.org/verizon.asp).

In addition, Erik Weihenmayer, legendary blind mountaineer, is serving pro-bono as Verizon Literacy Champion and Campaign spokesperson.

The campaign has four distinct goal areas:

  1. Raise broad-based awareness across America of the needs of blind or low-vision schoolchildren for access to textbooks and instructional materials.
  2. Achieve acceptance at the policy level for the new career and advocate for the employment of trained and credentialed transcribers.
  3. Deliver broad access to the career course work by replicating the series of courses through community colleges across the country.
  4. Promote the new career and access to the training to potential recruits across America.

How does the publishing process work?

The selection of textbooks is conducted in two different ways across the United States. Twenty states use the state adoption process where the state adopts the same textbooks for all school districts. Thirty states use the open territory process where every local school district selects the textbooks to be used that year. For the most part, states and local districts enter into contracts with publishers to create and publish the textbooks.

Transcribers do not receive publishers' files from the publisher. They receive the production order from an authorized entity such as a state braille production center or local school district.

Production and delivery of braille are handled differently in each state. Some states contract with transcribers in their own state and in other states to develop the braille files. Embossing and proofreading textbooks are handled in a variety of ways, but most often at a braille production center. Many states or local districts purchase the finished braille textbook from another production center in another state. Publishers do not pay the transcriber and publishers do not distribute braille textbooks.

For more information on braille production and delivery, go to http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=44&TopicID=192&DocumentID=1286.

What national support systems are available now for braille transcribers?

There are two membership organizations supporting braille transcribers. The National Braille Association (NBA) has been an active leader for more than 40 years in supporting braille transcribers as a membership service organization. The California Transcribers and Educators for the Visually Handicapped (CTEVH) is another membership group for braille transcribers. There are continuing education programs offered by both organizations.

To receive their journals and additional information about their conferences and workshops, contact NBA at www.nationalbraille.org or at their headquarters in Rochester, New York, at 3 Townline Circle, Rochester, New York 14623-2513; phone: 585-427-8260 and CTEVH at www.ctevh.org; CTEVH, 741 North Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, California 90029; phone: 323-666-2211.

Selected Resources

American Foundation for the Blind
Professional Development

11030 Ables Lane
Dallas, Texas 75229
469-522-1803
Fax: 214-352-3214
E-mail:

AFB—Atlanta
100 Peachtree Street, Suite 620
Atlanta, Georgia 30303
404-525-2303
Fax: 404-659-6957
E-mail:

American Foundation for the Blind CareerConnect®
AFB TECH
949 Third Avenue, Suite 200
Huntington, WV 25701
304-523-8651
Fax: 304-523-8656
E-mail:

Selected Readings:

Dots for Braille Literacy
(free newsletter from AFB's National Literacy Center)—
www.afb.org/section.asp?SectionID=6&TopicID=19

CTEVH Journal
CTEVH Publications
719 Boyer Road
Marysville, CA 95901
Phone: 530-742-8537

NBA Bulletin
National Braille Association
3 Townline Circle
Rochester, NY 14623-2513
Phone: 585-427-8260

Web Resources:

To order an AFB Press Publication, visit the AFB Bookstore or call: 1-800-232-3044 or fax: 412-741-0609.

June 2003