November 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 6


She Rules the Braille Domain: An Interview with Judy Dixon

Judy Dixon in her office

Caption: Judy Dixon in her office

Some 2,300 people have already subscribed to an Internet service that is barely three years old. When you consider that the service in question is one that is available only to braille readers in the United States who are patrons of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and have computers and devices capable of reading Grade 2 braille files, that number is significant, indeed. The service is Web-Braille and—although Judy Dixon humbly protests that it is the collaborative work of many colleagues—many of the elated consumers who have benefited from Web-Braille tend to think of the site as synonymous with her. Web-Braille offers all of the books and magazines embossed for the Library of Congress NLS program as downloadable Grade 2 braille files. Dixon's own love of braille and understanding of how other braille readers can best use the site have played a vital role in shaping this popular Internet realm.

For over 20 years, Dixon has promoted the use of braille and been a frequent pioneer in pushing the limits of technology and exploring its benefits for people who are blind. The brand of energy, enthusiasm, and creativity that helped bring Web-Braille to the fingertips (and sometimes ears) of blind consumers has apparently been a part of Dixon's essence since babyhood. It may even run in the family.

"When I was 9 days old," Dixon said with laughter and affection, "my mother found out I was blind. When I was 10 days old, she was on a plane to Boston where the rest of her family lived. And when I was 11 days old, she was touring the Perkins School for the Blind!"

The family lived in Cocoa, Florida, so Dixon's earliest education was at the Florida School for the Blind. "At age 3 or 4, I could see newspaper headlines," she recalled, "so they put me in 'sight-saving' class. Then they decided my sight wasn't worth saving and started teaching me braille."

Her elementary education took an unconventional turn when Dixon's aunt learned of a new classroom for blind children in a Boston-area public school. From the second through the seventh grades, Dixon lived with her Massachusetts aunt and uncle during the school year and loved being part of a big family and going to school every day where she had loads of friends. Braille was the top priority in that early classroom and academic expectations were high, so when she returned home full time to fly solo as the only blind student in a Florida public school, she was prepared.

School of Dots

Her parents located a group of volunteer braille transcribers who, as Dixon put it, "sort of swarmed around me, putting all my books into braille for the next five years." Dixon described her adolescent self as "a bad kid who got good grades," meaning, mostly, that she had a great social life in a beach community in high school. College is where she described herself as absolutely thriving. By that time, her understanding with the transcribers was that they would provide books for math, science, and foreign language courses in braille; for psychology, English, and other humanities texts, she used books on tape. When applying to universities to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, she received 2 acceptances out of her 30 applications. The others, she recalled, said, "You're qualified—but you're blind."

Although Dixon was successful academically in her graduate work in psychology, she recognized during her internships that she had not yet found her niche. "Most people were planning to go into private practice," she said. "My temperament wasn't right for that. I couldn't listen to somebody for 50 minutes! I thought I'd work in a hospital or teach."

Although she got experience working one on one with patients, Dixon thought that she was never good at it. Then, in the late 1970s, two unrelated events helped determine her career path: She attended her first Ski for Light International event and did some work (conducting interviews with blind people for a research project) for the American Foundation for the Blind. In both settings, she said, "I was so comfortable being with blind people." In 1980, she learned of the newly created position at the NLS and applied for the job.

A Perfect Fit

Although her job description as consumer relations officer does not specify working with technology per se, it was perhaps inevitable that technology would become a significant element at both work and home. To keep pace with literacy and blindness in the 1980s meant keeping pace with new computers that were enabling blind people to read and write with electronic braille. A natural inclination led Dixon to do more than keep current: she is generally well ahead of the curve.

Although she wasn't involved with technology at the time, it could be that her first job was a bit prophetic. When, at age 15, she complained to her father that she wanted a summer job like everyone else, he mentioned it to a friend in the newspaper business who did some recruiting on her behalf. The next thing she knew, there were three executives from IBM in her living room, interviewing her for a typing job in personnel.

Dixon began using her first tape-based VersaBraille in 1981 and was one of the first blind people to go online when she became a CompuServe subscriber in April 1982. An avid online shopper in the mid-1980s, she said that she bought everything, from computer disks to panty hose, online and has carried that habit to shopping on the World Wide Web. From a CP/M-based system to MS DOS to the world of Windows, she has tested the boundaries of most popular technology for its usefulness for blind people. She has taught librarians how to search the Internet and presented a paper in Sweden on developments in electronic braille.

The woman who remembers "taking a math course whenever I needed an easy A in college" said that today, it is difficult to separate which technology skills she has perfected for her professional life and which for personal: It's all just part of what she loves to do. Not only is she a whiz at online shopping, searching, or organizing information, but she has perfected techniques for computing pursuits that people who are blind do not generally attempt. She enjoys experimenting with graphics, for example, and has successfully used clip art in editing the Ski for Light newsletter, as well as adding images to web sites.

Dixon's own web site addresses a personal passion, which also serves as testimony to her commitment to braille. Dixon has collected braille writers and braille slates and styluses for years. Her collection of 32 braille writers was donated to and is now on display at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Her 265 slates are in her home—except for at least one that she carries with her at all times. Currently, that one is a four-line 23-cell slate from Portugal, accompanied by a stylus from Japan. And, yes, despite her love of technology, she said that she uses the slate daily. On her web site, <>, images of many of the slates are displayed. Her hope in establishing the site is to inspire the development of a new model, but so far, that has not happened.

Dixon blends old and new technology in whatever ways are effective. An Optacon user since 1974, she reads with remarkable facility and sees the device as a continuing vital element in a blind person's toolbox for literacy. Although the Optacon is no longer produced, she and her husband, Doug Wakefield, the Access Board's designated federal official for Section 508, have collected nine units to ensure that they always have a backup if one Optacon fails. (The Access Board is the federal agency that establishes guidelines for compliance with disability-related laws; Section 508 is the portion of the Telecommunications Act requiring that technology in government settings be made accessible to people with disabilities.)

For many years, Dixon used braille exclusively as a means of accessing a computer. A few years ago, however, she added Window-Eyes and Keynote Gold Multimedia speech to her existing workstations of Dell computers and Baum DM80 refreshable braille displays both at work and at home. She travels extensively, both professionally and for pleasure, and uses a ThinkPad T21 with a Baum 40-cell Vario for braille and Window-Eyes Professional with Eloquence for speech. Although she does not have a braille notetaker, a fact that will certainly surprise some readers, she said at the time of this interview that she was ready to buy one. Here is an even more astonishing fact: She just recently read her first entire web braille book

The Birth of Web-Braille

Although her job as a consumer relations officer has involved many layers of working with consumers, librarians, and coworkers on every detail related to delivering reading material to NLS patrons, Web-Braille is a particular point of pride, a tangible project that Dixon tends and feeds daily. Since 1992, NLS has collected disks from all five braille-production houses containing the files of every book translated into braille. Before Web-Braille, these disks were accumulating in an enormous box. When Dixon had the simple but brilliant brainstorm of putting those files on the web, she approached the problem of learning how to write HTML code for executing the task the same way she does most things: She read a book to figure out how to do it.

Initially, there were 50 titles and about 175 readers testing the idea. The project was officially launched on September 10, 1999, already has about 2,300 subscribers and 10,000 volumes, and each of the 25 magazines produced by NLS is posted to the site the same day that braille production of the paper copy is completed. Dixon worked out the mechanics of the site, posts new books to it weekly, and updates the Frequently Asked Questions and About Web-Braille sections from time to time.

The excitement over Web-Braille, of course, comes from dedicated braille readers who are reveling in the fact that they can finally carry reading material without the bulk and limitations of large hard-copy braille books. With a braille notetaker or disks for a laptop with braille display, one can easily have a dozen books and a dozen magazines at the ready at all times. Heady stuff for book aficionados who are accustomed to agonizing over which one (or maybe two) books to pack for work or pleasure reading on vacation. Rather than the familiar feeling of exclusion or boredom in the dentist's office, Web-Braille subscribers can now flip open their note takers and browse such current periodicals as National Geographic, Seventeen, or PC World—all downloaded as Grade 2 braille files from the Web-Braille site.

Any U.S. subscriber to NLS services is eligible to access Web-Braille. There is no charge, but subscribers need to request a password and user name from their regional librarians. Because the files are translated Grade 2 files used for embossing the paper braille books, magazines, and musical scores, a "braille-aware" device is required to read them. In other words, a notetaker with braille translation capabilities, a refreshable braille display with translation software, or a braille embosser is needed to make use of the files. Although some users emboss pages or read Web-Braille files on a PC's braille display, most download files to a braille notetaker. That situation may change, however, when Dixon's next great idea becomes a reality.

Thinking that it would be more convenient to read Web-Braille files with a laptop or desktop PC if there was a program to facilitate reading, Dixon developed criteria for WB-View, and NLS has hired a programmer to create it. With WB-View on a PC, users will be able to bookmark sections of text, toggle between books, move up or down by braille-page increments, autoscroll text, and perform other tasks that are customized to make reading on a braille display more efficient and fun.

And speaking of efficiency and fun, Dixon has mastered both into routines that spell success. As hooked as she is on technology, she maintains a large Rolodex in her office, seeing paper braille as the most efficient and reliable way to keep phone numbers and addresses. And what about the fun? She has attended every Ski for Light event since 1977 and has held every office in the organization. She never goes far, however, without her laptop and braille display. As for reading tastes, she says she reads everything—from cookbooks to magazines to "junky" romance novels. And what was that first Web-Braille book that she finally read from start to finish? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, of course, both braille volumes!

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