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Guidelines for Starting and Operating Prison Braille Programs

Part 2: Blindness and Braille


According to a 2002 report by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health and Prevent Blindness America, the number of blind people in the U.S. is expected to double over the next 30 years.

According to the 2006 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 21.2 million Americans have some vision loss. Statistics compiled by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) in 1994, the most recent year from which accurate statistics on blindness are available, indicated that 1.3 million Americans were legally blind at that time. Legal blindness is a level of visual impairment that has been defined by law to determine eligibility for disability benefits. It refers to central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction, or a visual field of 20 degrees or less.

The incidence of blindness is increasing at both ends of the age spectrum. Through advances in medical technology, premature infants with low birth weights, who would not have survived in past decades, are being saved. As a result, these infants often face complications and physical challenges — including vision loss.

Young boy reading braille.

Blindness is a “low incidence, high impact” disability — a relatively small percentage of the total U.S. population is blind, but for those who are, blindness impacts every aspect of their lives.

Although significant progress has been made worldwide in recent decades to reduce vision impairments and blindness caused by infectious diseases, age related causes are increasing. People are living longer today than ever before, and as life expectancy increases, incidences of age related diseases, such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and macular degeneration, increase as well.

Education and the blind

According to Holt and Kysilka in Instructional Patterns: Strategies for Maximizing Student Learning, 90% of all learning comes about through our sense of sight. This reality puts people who are blind at a serious disadvantage in education and employment arenas. Vision professionals and agencies serving this population try to fill this learning gap in a variety of ways, including the production of materials in braille, sound recordings, large print (for those with some usable vision), and the creation of screen-reading software with audio output.

Over the past few decades, there has been a major population shift in where and how students who are blind in grades K-12 learn, resulting in a broader need for access to print information. This change has dramatically increased our nation’s need for braille transcribers.

During the 1960s, prior to passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act — now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — 90% of students who are blind in the U.S. attended residential schools for the blind. There was typically one school for the blind in each state, and students throughout the state, ages 5-21 (but still working below college level), lived in dormitories and learned with others who had similar learning needs.

Now, in addition to the standard academic core curriculum that all students in the U.S. study, students who are blind are taught what is now called “expanded core curriculum” skills specifically related to their disability — such as braille, orientation and mobility, and daily living skills — by highly skilled professionals. When most students attended residential schools, textbook series were selected by individual state schools or by several states working together. In this scenario, few textbook titles were transcribed, but many copies of each title were produced.

Today, with an emphasis on mainstream education, living at home, and learning among peers of all levels of ability, more than 90% of students who are blind attend their local schools and fewer than 10% attend state schools for the blind. Textbook selection decisions are made at the local level today, resulting in a huge increase in the number of titles being used in classrooms across the country each year. Rather than transcribing many copies of few titles, braille producers are facing the daunting task of producing many more titles than ever before, but fewer copies of each. Since the major expense in producing braille is in the textbook editing process, the number of man-hours needed to transcribe textbooks has exploded in recent years.

Textbook editing requires that a certified transcriber carefully read each page in each print book to determine the most appropriate braille formatting methods to use. Editors must identify the purpose of each visual representation in a book, and visuals that are linked to educational content must be reproduced either as a written description or in a tactile format.

Transcription of a high school social science book from print into braille can easily take nine months and result in fifty volumes or more of braille.

Since textbooks today contain extensive visuals, transcription of a high school social science book, for example, can easily take nine months and result in fifty volumes or more of braille. Adding to the complexity of braille production is a national shortage of braille transcribers. Research conducted for a report issued in 2002 by AFB identified a critical national need for braille transcribers — and that need continues today.


Braille is a system of raised dots that people who are blind read by touch. People who are sighted — including braille transcribers, vision teachers, and parents of children who are blind — generally read braille by sight. Braille is not a language, but a code by which languages such as English and Spanish may be written and read.

Braille symbols are formed within braille “cells,” which consist of six raised dots arranged in two vertical columns of three dots each. Dots in a cell can be arranged in 63 different combinations. A single cell can be used to represent a letter, number, punctuation mark, letter combinations, or even a whole word.

There are two levels of literary braille: uncontracted and contracted. Uncontracted is a system in which braille is transcribed letter for letter, corresponding to the print alphabet. Contracted braille is more complex. It includes 289 contractions of braille cells and is intended to take up less space than uncontracted braille and facilitate faster reading. For example, when reading a contracted braille book, the letter “t” shown by itself translates into the word “that,” and the letter “y” is read as the word “you.” Most literary braille above the elementary level is transcribed into contracted braille.

In addition to representing letters, words, and other characters with dots, braille provides a consistent linear layout of text to enable the reader to better interpret information.

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Braille Alphabet Chart. A braille cell consists of 6 dots.

Learning braille

There are several national braille certification levels. Literary braille transcription certification, which is issued by the Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), is a basic requirement of all braille transcribers, including those in prison braille programs. It is also a prerequisite for advanced braille certifications, including Nemeth (math and science) code, music code, braille proofreading, and textbook formatting. All of these certifications are administered by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and issued by NLS except textbook formatting, which is administered and issued by the National Braille Association (NBA).

The length of time it takes to learn literary braille varies greatly with each individual. On average, beginning transcribers complete the literary, 19-lesson braille course in four to nine months, depending on the amount of time they spend studying and practicing. For the final lesson, transcribers must submit a 35-page braille manuscript to the National Federation of the Blind for evaluation. If the transcript receives a passing score of 80% or higher, NFB then recommends certification to NLS, and NLS issues a certificate for Literary Braille Transcription to the transcriber.

When offenders join prison braille programs as “transcriber trainees,” their first task is generally to request Literary Braille Transcription course materials from NFB. Instructional materials are provided free by NFB — either in print or as a download. A complete listing of resource materials is included as Appendix E.

In at least one prison braille program — Georgia Braille Transcribers (GBT) — instruction in basic braille begins prior to starting the Literary Braille Transcription course. Transcriber trainees at GBT begin by working through the New Programmed Instruction in Braille: Third Edition, (Ashcroft, Sanford & Koenig) as a way of providing braille basics and determining which trainees really want to pursue transcription. Decisions on instruction methods are made by the vision staff working with each program.

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The Georgia Braille Transcribers program provides braille production services for the Georgia Instructional Materials Center. A transcriber is pictured here working on a 4-Wave Pro Production braille embosser.

The Literary Braille course includes lessons covering the braille alphabet, braille contractions, and rules for transcribing braille. Lessons describe the elements of the braille system, give examples, and provide practice drills. At the end of each lesson is an exercise with sentences or short passages, testing comprehension and reviewing concepts and rules from earlier lessons. A vision professional who is certified in Literary Braille must check all exercises and provide feedback to the trainee.

Although this course can be completed through self-study and exercises can be reviewed via correspondence with NFB, the learning process can be greatly enhanced if a certified braille instructor is on site to teach lessons, answer questions, and correspond with NFB and NLS as needed. This is especially helpful when seeking advanced certifications.

The more certifications a transcriber receives, the more likely he or she is to earn a living wage transcribing braille on the outside, and the more money he or she can earn. Generally, transcriber trainees study the basic certification course full time and then begin producing braille. They must produce braille for at least six months before they can begin studying advanced certification courses. It can take Literary Braille certified transcribers one to two years of producing braille to become proficient transcribers.

Advanced certifications take longer than basic literary braille, since they are more difficult, typically studied on a part-time basis, and scheduled around braille production. Ongoing practice and study is highly recommended for transcribers to become proficient and gain a wide range of marketable skills.

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Braille takes up much more space than print. Unlike print fonts that can be enlarged or reduced, the braille cell is produced in a standard size that enables readers to distinguish which dots in each cell are raised with their fingertip. Braille cells cannot be condensed since braille dots (representing letters and words) would be lost. A high school geography textbook that is one volume in print could become 50 volumes or more when transcribed into braille with tactile graphics. This photo shows the braille version of a one-volume print atlas of the U.S.

Role of prison braille programs

Having a dedicated source for the transcription of textbooks and related educational materials is important to agencies and school districts across the country that provide educational materials for students who are braille readers. Many prison braille programs focus their efforts on meeting the need for accessible textbooks for students in grades K-12, since there is a growing demand for these materials. Although not yet required by law in many states, providing braille for post-secondary students across the country is on the rise, and many prison braille programs are entering this arena.

As the population of people in the U.S. who are blind increases, the need for braille continually outpaces its availability at all educational levels.

Older gentleman transcribing braille using a manual brailler.

Braille can be produced on a manual brailler (or braillewriter), which is much like a print typewriter. Many transcribers begin learning on a brailler and then switch to computers and software that aids in the braille transcription process. Braillewriters are used often in the production process for tasks such as creating labels for tactile graphics.

Historically, students who are blind have often found themselves without the textbooks they need at the same time that their sighted peers receive print copies, even though schools are required by law to have accessible educational materials for them. The serious disadvantage this creates for students who are blind is a major problem that special education professionals are trying to address by establishing and operating prison braille programs. Building this pool of highly qualified transcribers working full time in a focused environment is helping to “level the playing field” for students who are blind.

Because of the growing need for braille textbook transcription, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) currently augments its transcription staff by outsourcing work to 350 individuals and groups across the country — including several prison braille programs. An increasing percentage of braille textbooks produced in the U.S. today is transcribed in prison braille programs. A 2002 fact sheet released by AFB — Training and Availability of Braille Transcribers — reported that states access prison braille programs to recruit experienced transcribers 20% of the time they are hiring, since highly qualified braille transcribers are released from prison each year.

Braille transcription as a career

With appropriate training, experience, certifications, motivation, and planning, braille transcription can be a lucrative career. Several large transcription companies in the U.S. employ transcribers and often outsource work to qualified transcribers (see Appendix F).

Much braille transcription work in the U.S. is completed in private homes or offices as “cottage industries.” With relatively small business investment capital ($10,000 — $20,000), transcribers can purchase the equipment and materials they need. Braille files can be transferred via the internet if customers or contractors have the capacity to emboss (print out) braille onto paper. The more experience a transcriber has, and the more advanced certifications he holds, the more likely he is to succeed as an independent operator.

Braille transcription as a cottage industry is ideal for former offenders who have learned braille in prison and want to continue transcribing upon release. They can live anywhere, therefore abiding by any geographic parole restrictions. If they worked within a prison braille program for several years, their work may be well known to program customers, and they have had the opportunity to build a portfolio of their work which can be used to secure new customers. They may also have had time to secure advanced certifications.

Staying close to a support system of family and friends following release has proven to be an important factor in reducing recidivism. Independent braille transcription provides that option. Most long-standing prison braille programs across the country report a 0% recidivism rate among offenders who participated in the program for at least two years and then were released. Not all of these program “alumni” produce braille on the outside. However, through the braille program they gained a solid work ethic and learned enough about their own skills and abilities, business operations, and working cooperatively with others to secure a job and stay out of trouble.

Many long-standing prison braille programs across the country report a 0% recidivism rate among braille certified offenders who participated in the program for at least two years and were then released. One prison reports a 3% recidivism rate — the highest known rate of prison braille program “graduates.”

In Their Own Words…

Neill Rayford, Manager of Offender Work & Training, Texas Correctional Industries, Mountain View Braille Facility, TDCJ Mountain View Unit, Gatesville, Texas

Braille is the best tool I have ever seen to begin to do this — give skills to people they can use upon release.

Female transcriber, Mountain View Braille Facility, TDCJ Mountain View Unit, Gatesville, Texas

I have been in the (braille) program for nine and a half years. Looking back, this was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.

…Shortly after coming to work for Industry with my mom, as a folder maker, we were asked if we’d like to learn braille. At first I didn’t want to. My mom insisted that she was going to sign up regardless of whether or not I did. I signed up because it was something we could do together. I have never regretted that decision and have loved it since the first! … No one could have ever told me that I would ever learn all I needed to know to produce good error-free books for blind children.

At one time I was having difficulties from home concerning my son. I was told that there was a possibility that he was hearing impaired, and he was having problems with one of his eyes. That was when it really hit home that we do this for children just like ours, and I want them to have the best opportunity to learn and succeed that they can have. We help with that.

Braille has made such a difference in my life. I now have a focused direction and I know what I want to do. I have learned to work with others and value their opinion. I have learned to control my emotions, and not always jump to anger when someone doesn’t agree with me or when I make a mistake.

I will always take joy and pride in knowing that I do make a difference in someone’s life.

Avenal State Prison, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California

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Nine of the twelve men participating in the braille program at Avenal State Prison in California are pictured here. Prison officials are (l-r) James D. Hartley, Warden; James E. Tilton, Secretary of the Division of Adult Institutions; and Mary Gabriel, Material Store Supervisor.

The Avenal State Prison program began in 2005 as a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. This program is administered through the Alternate Text Production Center (ATPC), located at the Ventura Community College in Ventura, California.

In addition to producing quality braille materials for students, the program encourages and enables inmates to pursue multiple braille certifications. Currently, nine men are literary braille certified (two are working on this certification), one is Nemeth certified (nine are working on this certification), and three are textbook formatting certified (six are working on this certification).

Mike Bastine, Director of the ATPC, said, “This has been a stellar program, not only for the students receiving braille textbooks, but also for the inmates — to help them qualify for parole and become employed as braille transcribers.”

Ironwood State Prison, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Blythe, California

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Several officials with oversight responsibilities are shown here with inmates training to become transcribers. On the left side of the photo David B. Long, Chief Deputy Warden, is in the third row wearing a suit. Jamie Montgomery, E-Text Coordinator, is in the second row wearing a white shirt. Marcus Pollard, Correctional Facility Captain, is in the back row wearing a hat. On the right side of the photo Earl Pride, Staff Services Analyst, is in the third row wearing a white shirt. He stands next to Sandy Greenberg, wearing a dark suit and eyeglasses. Behind Greenberg and to the right is Mike Bastine, Director of the Alternate Text Production Center. Said ATPC Braille Coordinator Sandy Greenberg, “This program is similar to the Avenal (State Prison) partnership. However, it is a much larger facility with potential to expand even further in the future.”

Twenty-four men participate in the braille program at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California. The program began in 2008 as a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. It is administered through the Alternate Text Production Center (ATPC) located at the Ventura Community College in Ventura, California. Currently, all 24 inmates are working on NLS literary braille certification while they produce digital textbooks. All educational institutions in California can request braille textbooks from the Ironwood facility.

Kurt Pamperin, Coordinator, Braille Transcription Program, Oshkosh Correctional Institution, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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Transcribers at workstations in the OSCI Braille Program, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The Oshkosh Correctional Institution (OSCI) Braille Program officially began in July 1997. Now, 12 years later, the program has established its credentials as a top quality textbook provider within the braille community. In the beginning, a modest six inmates signed up for the program that would certify them through the Library of Congress to produce braille for the visually impaired. Since that time 31 students have entered the program and earned their Literary Braille certification. Five inmates have received certifications in Nemeth, two in music, one in proofreading, and six have passed the braille formats exam offered by the NBA. The braille program also provides education and on-the-job training in production and computer editing skills for additional inmates.

When the program started, the first six inmate transcribers worked together on one textbook. Now, the transcribers are often responsible for four or more textbooks each, per year. To date OSCI has produced over 225 textbooks, 150 literary books, and many other projects.

With the strong support of Warden Judy Smith the future looks bright for the Braille Program. The program is moving to a larger production site now under renovation. The new area will nearly double the size of OSCI Braille with hopes of more students, more transcribers, and more Braille products produced.

The men here are thirsty for advanced certifications. I have seen pride and responsibility grow in these men with every day they have spent in the program. …They will leave here with an excellent knowledge of braille transcription.

Male transcriber, Braille Transcription Program, Oshkosh Correctional Institution, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

…I like the fact that the blind get their world opened up through braille; reading, writing, the expression of ideas, education, and relating to others is broadened. I get to be a part of that service and that is a worthwhile pursuit.

…Braille has been challenging for me…Since I have come (into the braille program), weaknesses and strengths in my character have been exposed, as well as the talents I possess. This job is showing me more about myself; I am doing things that I didn’t think I was capable of.

…these last years have really tested me and shown me some things about myself such as the unsuccessful mindset I have had the larger portion of my life. During one project in which I had deadlines overdue I just felt like giving up. I wanted to finish the book but was only willing to work my assigned hours. This peevish attitude floated to the surface.

I decided to be thankful for my job, my co-workers, and the privilege of work and finally something broke in me. I then put in whatever time was needed to do the job well and get it done as soon as possible. This was no small victory for me. They challenge me to apply the principles of my faith, they give me practical experience with people in a work environment and my ability to focus has become stronger.

I have learned the value of work for work’s sake and not just a means of support.

D.W. Beckham, Assistant Division Manager at TDCJ Mountain View Unit, Gatesville, Texas, Manufacturing and Logistics Offender Work & Training Division, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

…There have been 11 offenders released after completing the intensive training and production program that is required in the Mountain View Braille facility. Those that have been released are doing very well using their braille skills to earn a good income. Their success after release confirms that this is a ‘great’ program.

© Copyright American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.