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Shortage of Braille Transcribers Creates Opportunities

There is a significant shortage of braille transcribers throughout North America. This shortage will create career opportunities for good transcribers willing to seek out work.

Basically, braille transcribers -- also called braille transcriptionists or braillists -- convert anything in print form into braille for use by those who are trained to read it. A transcriber uses several ways to do this, from manual methods to computer software-based conversions.

In earlier years, braille was mainly transcribed by volunteers, many of whom are now elderly and have either retired or passed away, says Randolph Cabral. He is president of the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute in Wichita.

"Many preferred braille readers are forced to rely on personal readers and audiotapes, or simply do without braille," Cabral says. "Lack of information, especially timely and in a preferred format, causes blind people to fall woefully behind their sighted peers."

It's currently estimated that there are more than 10 million blind Americans, states Cabral. The number is increasing rapidly, in large part, due to people living longer. Age-related illnesses, such as diabetes, can often lead to vision loss and blindness.

"Volunteerism is a much less viable option for many people than in the past," says Davey Hulse. Hulse is chief executive officer of Braille Plus Inc. in Salem, Oregon. "Thousands of young housewives became volunteer braille transcribers through the churches, schools and social consciousness organizations like the Jewish Braille League.

"In a day of needing two incomes to support a household of growing children, the volunteer base depended on for decades is not being replenished. And the women who moved into the volunteer situations are retiring or dying."

Karen Taylor is director of production and technical services at a library for the blind. She says that most of their transcribers are volunteer.

"We currently have three paid braille transcribers on staff, and we also use contract braillists," Taylor says.

"The rest -- over 100 -- are volunteers. We realize there may not be an unending pool of those wishing to learn braille and volunteer, so I am always very interested in initiatives that might support a good braille transcribing course at the college level."

Taylor points out that the educational community does pay for transcribers.

"Often the lure of computer-generated speech has led many to believe that learning braille may decrease in significance," says Taylor.

"This is not the case, as a student needs braille, the equivalent of print, to become literate. One does not learn spelling and grammar listening to computer-generated speech. And more complex subjects such as math are poorly handled this way."

The political landscape has also created a need for more braille transcribers, Hulse explains. Government agencies and businesses have an urgent need for transcribers to prepare brailled materials for their visually impaired clients and customers.

Obstacles to Overcome

Taking on the study of braille is a "tough journey to mastery," says Hulse. Students must learn and execute complex and distinct codes, rules and formats to produce error-free materials.

Until now, the Library of Congress, National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has trained and certified braille transcribers. This training is usually through a self-study correspondence course.

That program itself creates many barriers, Hulse says. Statistics show the dropout rate is high for the program.

With the time it takes between completing lessons and mailing lessons to the NLS, most students lose interest and find other ways to jump-start their career, Hulse explains.

More schools are providing more structure and a better learning environment for those studying to become braille transcribers. These include the Kansas Braille Technical Institute and the American Braille Career School.

Cabral says that until recently, braille transcribers were regarded as volunteers and not paid professionals. This trend will continue to take time to evolve to guarantee good jobs for transcribers.

"However, due to the overwhelming need for braille transcribers, and federal mandates requiring braille, a 'good' transcriber should not have problems bidding on braille contracts," says Cabral.

Braille Textbooks Needed

Students from pre-kindergarten through post-secondary level education critically need braille, according to Cabral. Blind and visually impaired students don't always receive their textbooks on time. And at times, they don't receive them at all.

Students need mathematical and science textbooks in particular, says Hulse. "There are few folks who are skilled in the preparation of these texts," he explains. "And getting through a course of study of this nature without braille can kill certain career paths."

Many braille transcribers work on a contract basis. A school district, for example, may need transcribers from April through August to provide materials for students in the fall. Schools may need other transcribers to do worksheets and tests off and on throughout an academic year, Hulse says.

Most braille transcribers work in their homes or in small offices. A small number of employers have several transcribers working in a facility at the same time, but this is uncommon.

Those seeking steady employment as braille transcribers must turn to major institutions, such as school districts, universities and corporations.

To guarantee a steady income, Hulse predicts that many transcribers will need to become entrepreneurs. They will need to find niches, develop long-term relationships and collect potential sources of work over time as contract-type transcribers.


American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
Find information on research, events and advocacy

National Braille Association
Provides transcriber support, information on continuing education and other resources

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) -- Braille
Contains a braille alphabet card, facts about braille, and information on transcription courses

The Kansas Braille Transcription Institute (KBTI)
Find information on training, active transcription and production

Braille Games
See your name in braille and try some trivia

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