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Braille Translation Software
David Johnson, Column Editor
Braille Translation Software
[Ed.: "EASI Access to Library Technology," a regular feature of Library Hi Tech News, examines new technology, information sources and services, and other news of interest to librarians concerned with providing quality services to their patrons with disabilities. EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), in affiliation with the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), is concerned with new and emerging technologies for computer users with disabilities.]
To make your library resources fully accessible to blind patrons, you may need to create Braille versions of documents such as information sheets on library resources and hours, and instructions for using the computers. To obtain Braille versions of such documents, you can either use a Braille transcription service, or you can make Braille versions in-house. Braille transcription services produce Braille versions of print materials, usually for a per-page fee. Local organizations for the blind, such as the Lighthouses that exist in many larger cities, should be able to provide referrals, if they do not offer transcription services themselves. (In the Washington, DC, area, where I live, the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind closed its own Braille transcription service last year because it was losing money, but other local organizations continue to make Braille copies.) In Boulder, Colorado, the Boulder Public Library's Braille Computer Center will create Braille versions of anything from personal letters to menus to textbooks for 10 cents a page, working from computer disks or print ( http://bcn.boulder.co.us/human-social/agency/a30.htm).
If you wish to create Braille versions of documents in-house, you will want to use Braille translation software. Braille translation software turns documents in standard text formats such as ASCII, Microsoft Word, and HTML into electronic Braille documents that can be printed on a Braille printer (also called a Braille embosser) or displayed on a Braille display. Braille translation software generally includes editing functions, but not all Braille editors are Braille translators. Braille translation software should be thought of as like the conversion functions that convert documents from one word-processing format to another. Programs like Microsoft Word will convert files from and to many other formats (Braille not yet being one, although perhaps someday someone at Microsoft will think of adding it). These conversions are quick and easy, but as we all know from experience it is never safe to assume that a document has been converted without problems. Usually these problems involve punctuation and other non-alphabetic symbols, or formatting. When you convert a document using a word processing program, you always need to at least glance over the document in order to see if the formatting is still correct and to make sure there are no unwanted meaningless symbols in place of punctuation marks.
The same sorts of problems can and do arise when a Braille translation program is used, and in the case of Braille translation software these problems are exacerbated by the fact that there are actually multiple Braille codes with different formatting conventions and non-alphabetic symbols. The American (or North American) code differs in these respects from the English code used in the UK. Furthermore, just within the USA and Canada the Braille Authority of North America (http://www.brailleauthority.org) recognizes a total of four codes (including Nemeth code for mathematics, computer code, and music code, in addition to the literary code), differing with regard to non-alphabetic symbols and formatting.
A further complication is produced by the fact that different languages have quite different Braille codes, even when they share the Roman alphabet for print, because most Braille publications are produced in what is called "grade II" Braille, with many contractions and abbreviations for common words and letter combinations. These are meant to reduce the bulkiness of Braille books, but since each language has different frequently-occurring words and combinations of letters, each language uses a different set of Braille contractions and abbreviations. These language differences would be easier for a Braille translation program to handle if each document was entirely in one language; then the program could just translate an English-language document into American or English Braille, and a Spanish-language document into Spanish Braille. Problems increase when a book in one language contains words in another language. One convention is to use grade I Braille (i.e. Braille without contractions or abbreviations) for foreign words; but how does the software know which are the foreign words?
For all these reasons, it is not a good idea to use a Braille translation program without proofreading the result, and correcting the electronic Braille files if necessary, using the Braille editing function. So, if you are going to do Braille versions in-house, you will need to learn about Braille codes and electronic Braille.
Braille Translation Guidelines and Courses
A free online distance learning program called Braille through Remote Learning (BRL this is the Braille abbreviation for Braille) teaches the essentials of Braille transcription for sighted individuals interested in producing Braille (http://www.brl.org). The program consists of three courses, one on the basics of Braille, the second on Braille transcription, and the third on advanced Braille codes (grade III Braille), such as mathematics and music codes. Coursework can be completed using Braille editing software available from Duxbury or MegaDots, or by using free software downloadable from the BRL web site that enables a computer keyboard to emulate a six-key Perkins brailler (http://www.brl.org/intro/braillers.html).
EASI, the project from which this column takes its name, has on its Web site a set of papers on the process for converting text and other information to Braille, written by Richard Jones of Arizona State University ( http://www.rit.edu/~easi/easisem/jonescon.htm). The papers discuss each stage of the process for converting textbooks into Braille, from scanning with OCR (optical character recognition), to using Braille translation software to turn electronic texts into electronic Braille. Other topics include conversion of mathematical symbols to Braille and conversion of graphics to raised line drawings.
A brief set of "Guidelines for the Production of Braille Materials Through the Use of Braille Translation Software" is on the Web site of the Braille Authority of North America (BANA; http://brailleauthority.org/Guidelines.html). A document on "Braille Formats: Principles of Print to Braille Transcription," written in cooperation with BANA, appears on the BRL Web site at http://www.brl.org/formats/
Choosing a Braille Translation Program
Two Web sites that contain information on available Braille translation software are ABLEDATA (http://www.abledata.com), a large database of assistive technology for all sorts of disabilities, and Tiresias, a Web site devoted to information on visual disability (http://www.tiresias.org). Tiresias, a British site, aims to be more international in its coverage. There are numerous programs listed on these two sites, including commercial programs costing several hundred dollars, free downloads, specialized software for music and math, software handling grade I or grade II Braille in various languages, and software from more than half a dozen countries.
Here are some considerations on choosing software:
Language Are all your documents entirely in English, or will you need Braille for other languages? The first Braille translation programs were monolingual, but the trend is towards software packages that can handle more than one national code. The current version of Duxbury Braille Translator, for example, includes grade II Spanish, French, English, and American codes, along with grade I for other languages (http://www.duxburysystems.com). British companies such as Dolphin (http://www.dolphinaccess.com) and Pia (http://www.pia.co.uk) produce software that supports numerous European languages. The German company Blista Brailletec (http://home.t-online,de/home/brailletec/) produces a Braille software package that supports grade II German and English Braille codes in its standard version, and Arabic codes in its international version. Sensus Braille of Denmark (http://www.sensus.dk) currently supports English, Danish, and Swedish Braille.
English versus American Braille codes Besides the use of capitalization in American Braille, the primary differences concern non-alphabetic symbols, including punctuation marks, but these differences are serious enough to make it very important to pick a program that produces the right sort of Braille for your patrons. Check to make sure. There is a program called BrailleMaster (http://www.braillemaster.com) that allows the user to modify the Braille rules as he or she wishes, but this feature may not be helpful to users who are not highly familiar with Braille.
Operating systems Braille translators are available that work in DOS, the various versions of Windows, Unix, and Macintosh environments.
Source files Some programs work only from ASCII text files; others can work directly from HTML or word processing programs such as Microsoft Word and WordPerfect. It isn't necessary to pick a program that works directly from the sorts of files in which you keep your documents, however, as long as the documents you want to put into Braille can easily be exported into a translatable format. For example, at my own library, the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC), we use a database program called DBTextworks. Duxbury Braille Translator does not work directly from any database program, but we can create Braille documents from our database by exporting to ASCII text and then applying Duxbury.
Free software NFB-Trans can be downloaded free from the National Federation of the Blind web site (http://www.nfb.org). It only works with ASCII files. Some Braille printer manufacturers will also supply free Braille translation software with the purchase of one of their Braille printers (which, of course, are considerably more expensive than Braille software). For example, WinBraille editing and translation software is supplied with Index brand embossers (http://www.indexbraille.com/winbr200.htm).
News and Comments
Blindness AT mergers
Last year two of the leading makers of Braille software in the USA, Duxbury Systems and Braille Planet, merged as Duxbury purchased Braille Planet's product line. Braille Planet was the nonprofit successor to Raised Dot Computing, maker of MegaDots. Earlier this year there was another merger in the field of blindness products, as Blazie Engineering, maker of Braille displays and note-takers, announced a merger with Henter-Joyce, the producer of the screen reader program JAWS for Windows. The new company is known as Freedom Technologies ( http://www.blazie.com or http://www.hj.com). As usual when industry leaders merge, some people are concerned that the merged companies may feel less competitive pressure to hold down prices and continue product development and service. But actually there is still quite a bit of competition in Braille software, and Blazie and Henter-Joyce were mostly in different product fields. A more hopeful view is that merger into bigger firms may help to guarantee that the companies will continue to be around to provide service and product updates. (Duxbury promises to continue MegaDots.)
New edition of international directory
The fourth edition of the International Directory of Libraries for the Blind has been published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), replacing the third edition issued in 1990. The Directory is available online at http://dserver.dinf.ne.jp:591/. Just as the name implies, the Directory is primarily a list of institutions with contact information, covering 242 organizations in 78 countries, but it also contains information on holdings, acquisitions, and lending policies. Information on holdings includes the number of books in major and minor languages, and the type of media used for talking books. The print version contains an index of languages, but the online version is searchable only by country and name of institution. It would be helpful if the database were set up to allow users to call up all the libraries with Braille holdings in Spanish, or with four-track cassettes in English. And incidentally, why is one institution listed for Rhodesia, while three others are listed for Zimbabwe?
The print version can be ordered from K.G. Saur Verlag GmbH., Postfach 70 16 20, 81316 Munich, Germany; Fax 48-89-79602-150/250; e-mail CustomerService_Saur@csi.com. The price is DM98 (DM73.50 for IFLA members).
David Johnson is an abstractor/ information specialist at the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). Readers with questions, comments, or suggestions may e-mail him at DJohnson@kra.com