Oldest braille printing press up and running remotely to keep reading accessible

BOSTON — During the shutdown, reading is one of the leisure activities many of us are still grateful to have. For people who are blind, it’s essential they have access to books printed in braille.

The National Braille Press, founded in Boston in 1927, was the first of its kind. Officials there have had to figure out how to keep their presses running even as the country shut down.

Tim Vernon, who is blind and lives in Mansfield, said reading is an escape and one he’s particularly happy to have during the shutdown, “Reading has always been an important part of my life.” Right now, he’s reading “The Teammates” by David Halberstam.

“I find that reading gives me the chance to take a break from the variety of emotions that everyone is experiencing during the pandemic and focus on the characters, the people in the book,” Vernon said.

The National Braille Press is a non-profit producer and publisher of braille and tactile graphics, according to its president, Brian MacDonald. He added that their focus is on braille literacy: “... for a child, braille is literacy by definition. It’s the only way to learn to spell and do sentence structure, and grammar.”

When the pandemic hit, they shut down for two weeks to regroup, but MacDonald was determined to get the presses running again while keeping his staff safe in their tight quarters. With the right software and security, head pressman Khith Nhem is now able to operate the presses from his home in Billerica.

As a result, specially adapted children’s books remain available.

“What we do is we put clear braille labels on so a sighted person or parent can read while the child is learning braille, and vice versa," MacDonald said. "We have parents who are now reading bedtime stories to their children using these same books.”

Current bestsellers like “The Water Dancer,” as well as textbooks, are rolling off the presses too. The National Braille Press is also supplying hard copy braille materials for the Library of Congress.

All of this makes Tim Vernon pretty happy: “Oh, it’s a vital part of quality of life, being able to read books and utilize braille on a daily basis. It’s critical to success and to happiness.”

Printing in braille requires a lot more space per page than a traditional book. For example, a single Harry Potter book requires 12 volumes, about a foot high.

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