Braille production

I promised in my last blog that I would tell you a little bit about the practicalities of my work as a braille transcriber and proof-reader. Here’s a brief overview of how I do what I do.

Organisations and individuals commission me to convert conventional print documents into braille. They would like the braille version to work for a visually impaired person just as effectively as the printed version works for a sighted person, so I need to have a detailed knowledge of not just the content, but also the layout and format of the printed original. My visual impairment is pretty severe, however, so I can’t see or read the print version. I therefore work with a sighted personal assistant (PA) and it’s part of her job not just to read print documents to me, but also to describe how they are structured.

Most of my work comes to me in the form of email attachments. When a new piece of work arrives, I print a copy off for my PA and save the file. We then go through the document together and she will describe the layout, with particular emphasis on the types of headings that it contains. In print, those creating documents can use a whole battery of tools and techniques to emphasize particular lines and words, including colours, different fonts and font sizes, underlining, italics and emboldening.

Braille is more limited. There is a hierarchy of headings, such as centred, justified on the left with a blank line above it, and indented with or without italics. I have to decide which will be most helpful in a particular document. This means thinking about how it will be used.

Will it be read at home, or in a business meeting?” Does the customer need to find certain items quickly?

If the print version uses lots of different coloured headings, is this just for the sake of a pleasing appearance or is there some other significance? Can this be simplified in the braille version?

Once I understand the layout of the original, I run the file, usually a Word document, through a translation program which produces a braille version I can read and edit on my computer.

I read through the translation line by line on my braille display. This is a tablet in front of the keyboard with pins which come up to form braille signs which I can feel with my fingers as I move the cursor through the document. I can edit the braille cells using the A, S, and D keys under the fingers on my left hand on the qwerty keyboard, and the J, K and L keys under my right, which become equivalent respectively to each of the six braille dots.

Technically, I should produce the braille document to correspond exactly with the print version, otherwise I am in breach of copyright. However, there are sometimes errors in the original and these become a complete nonsense if translated into braille. For example, there is a braille sign for the conjunction “and”. If the print version misspells this word as “nad”, a sighted reader will usually be able to recognise that this is a mistake and work out what the word should be. If you feed “nad” through a braille translation program, though, the output will not resemble the sign for “and” in the slightest and the resulting pattern of dots simply won’t make sense to a braille reader. Where there is this kind of error, I will correct the braille version, though I never change grammar, however poor it might be.

Once I am satisfied that the braille is correct and that it is a faithful representation of the original print version of the document, I run off a hard copy on a braille embosser. This is a noisy machine which embosses dots on both sides. I then collate and tag the document, or my PA comb-binds it, if required.

Another part of my job is proofreading material produced by others. I am the proofreader for  a charity called the ClearVision Project which produces children’s books in braille. They take print books and interleave the braille on clear plastic. This enables a visually-impaired child to read with a sighted adult and vice versa. I loved reading these books with my nieces when they were young. ClearVision also produce chapter books for slightly older children which my assistant and I thoroughly enjoy proofreading together. She acts as “copyholder,” reading the print while I check the braille. To make sure we keep as alert as possible, we take turns to read a page each aloud.

And that’s pretty much it. Do get in touch at if you have any questions or if there is a braille job that you would like me to carry out for you or your organisation. Over the years, an interesting variety of work has come my way, including transcribing into braille for a PhD student the communications between Mission Control and one of the Apollo space flights, and proofreading the braille version of the Little Oxford English Dictionary in a mere 40 volumes!