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Enlighten Me: Inmates produce braille textbooks for visually impaired

States have long had to provide textbooks and other classroom materials to children with disabilities at no charge. That includes large print and Braille formats for the visually impaired. But the cost for those Braille materials can cost upwards of a thousand dollars from a retailer or outside transcription service. School administrators do have other choices, though. As Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson reports, one option lies behind several fences topped with razor wire and surrounded by guard towers.

The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center’s sprawling campus east of Smyrna houses 2,500 men at any given time. Many have prison industry jobs, but only a handful get to spend their days in Building B.

There, 11 men meticulously peck away at keyboards, filling a screen in front of them with a series of staggered dots.

It’s a visual representation of what Homer’s Iliad or a Spanish textbook will look and feel like when it’s eventually embossed in Braille.

The program partners with the state Division of the Visually Impaired to crank out these materials requested by the 15 school-aged Braille readers in Delaware.

It’s produced nearly 370,000 pages of Braille since its inception in 1989 and more than 510,000 pages of large-print since 2001 for those who retain some vision.

Before the program began, the state relied on volunteers to do the job.

It’s a highly skilled profession that takes about a year to get initially certified and much longer to become proficient in more specialized areas.

That’s why the prison requires inmates to have at least eight years of their sentence left to serve to even be considered for an open position.

Robert Warrington and the other men I spoke with all told me you have to have empathy to create Braille – that tailoring it to your audience is just as important as accurately transcribing the book.

Warrington says the student’s age and subject matter help determine what he may or may not include in his descriptions to them.

“It’s more of an art than it is a science,” said Warrington. “You can learn the rules, right? But they’re not really rules. They’re principles of application and they’re never going to be able to tell you how to deal with every situation you’re going to come across.”

He was working on transcribing a trigonometry textbook the day I visited. He says it took him two grueling years to learn a separate coding language specific to math and science.

Warrington is also two lessons away from being able to transcribe sheet music for blind instrumentalists. He says it’s been a challenge to learn in part due to the prison’s safety regulations.

“You can’t know how to do music Braille unless you know music theory, so studying music theory – especially without instruments – has been a little hard, but I’m getting there. I’ve had to bang on the table and hum and imagine in my head what it would be like to hear it,” Warrington explained.

In addition to making copies of the actual text, the inmates sometimes manually produce graphics or illustrations to give the visually impaired a better understanding of whatever they might be learning.

Howard Parker has been certified to transcribe Braille since 2001 and digs through a box of their old drawings, showing me a few examples.

“We had to do something for a diabetic, trying to show them [this needle] has got to be filled up to a certain level and actually, as you feel it you can literally feel the gradation of the needle itself,” said Parker.

All of the inmates I spoke to say they have a passion for books and learning.

Russell Steedley says the job exposes him to subjects and well-regarded classics that he never got the chance to delve into when he was younger.

“I know in high school I did not read the Odyssey or Iliad and it’s a joy for me to go through it, read it myself and get what knowledge I can from it, said Steedley. “That’s one of the benefits of this job, actually. You enhance whatever your skills are and the reading material that’s provided is second-to-none in my opinion.”

Delaware isn’t the only state that’s turned to the incarcerated for help.

The National Prison Braille Network counts 36 different programs in 26 states among its members.

The organization says the first such initiatives began in the 1960s, but they became much more popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Nancy Lacewell heads the network and says that although some of the best Braille is being produced in prisons, inmates who serve their sentences are finding it hard to continue their work when they’re released.

“We’re losing extremely experienced and competent Braille transcribers, which is very bad for us and for the field and for the blind students. But they’re also losing these wonderful careers that they’ve developed,” Lacewell said.

She partially attributes the problem to the former prisoners having few resources to rely on in wider society – whether it be money or support from friends or family.

That’s why she’s trying to create a partnership with the federal government and the American Printing House for the Blind to provide ex-offenders grants to buy the equipment necessary to work.

Lacewell estimates someone would need about ten thousand dollars to get a computer, the necessary software and pay for living expenses for a few months, as transcribers don’t get paid until they hand over their work.

She says the printing house is looking into internally funding a pilot program before applying for federal and private grants next year. It’s expected to help between six and ten people every year.

Back at the prison, I ask Robert Warrington about his future plans when he gets out, but because the program seeks out long-term inmates, it’s not something that applies to many of the men.

“That’s an odd question in this room because most of us aren’t really going home,” said Warrington. “Most of the people in this room will be here forever. You can’t hurt me with the truth. I probably won’t be going home, but I’ll just keep doing this as long as I can.”

There is one current vacancy in the program, though. Prison officials say they’ll be holding interviews for the opening soon.

While the public was skeptical about the initiative when it began in the late 1980s, the state has continued to fund it ever since.

Nancy Lacewell says it instills a sense of self-worth and purpose into these men and women, who, in turn, provide a needed service to society.

“It’s one disadvantaged population helping another disadvantaged population and everyone wins.”