While many reasons can be cited for the lack of braille adoption among students and other readers, the cost of the various tools required to produce braille is certainly one of the most formidable barriers. Braille transcription software often costs several hundred dollars per license, braille embossers are priced in the thousands, and high-quality transcriptionists are a rare commodity.
The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has sought to knock down at least some of these barriers through the introduction of Braille Blaster, a free transcription suite that enables relatively painless conversion from a variety of formats. While the software is designed, at its core, to be a tool for producing textbooks for students, many of its features make it a viable option for a wide variety of users, from braille producers to those seeking a simple way to emboss short files.
Installation and Setup
APH offers the software for free on the Braille Blaster website, with versions available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The only thing required to download is your email address. We used the latest Windows version released in November 2018 for this review.
The User Guide is available through the Help menu of the program, which links to a manual on the APH website. The documentation does a decent job of describing the various menus and their functions, though it is apparent the intended audience is professional braille transcribers who would be used to some of the advanced transcribing terms that are used. Some of the basic set-up steps, including configuring an embosser, are not described in the manual (to be fair, the embosser feature was added in a more recent version of the software).
Speaking of embossers, Braille Blaster has built-in support for newer models of Index and Enabling Technologies embossers. If you have another type of embosser, you can select the generic option, which should still allow you to send basic commands to your device. I set up an Index Everest embosser and the process was straightforward.
Loading and Transcribing Files
Braille Blaster supports a variety of formats for braille transcription. Its primary focus is files in the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) format, the primary filetype for textbooks for students. Files can also be loaded in other formats including EPUB, .DOCX, and HTML. The EPUB format may be of particular interest to Bookshare users, as this is one of the options available for downloading books from its online collection.
We tested out the basic features of Braille Blaster by loading in a copy of A Christmas Carol, a freely available book from Bookshare's collection. Upon loading the book, the cursor is placed in a window that contains the entire print text of the book. From here, normal editing commands can be used to make changes to the book, apply styles and formatting, or add other specialized elements described below.
Pressing Control + Tab will move focus to the braille window, which displays the text of the book in braille form. For a screen reader user, this may sound like gibberish, because braille characters are spoken using their print equivalents. For example, a braille comma, which is represented by dot-2, will be spoken as the number 1, since the number 1 is represented by dot-2 in computer braille. While not a problem for those used to computer braille, a way for braille characters to be read as dots while arrowing through the text may be helpful.
One can painlessly move between the print and braille windows at any time, though all editing must take place in the print window. This negates the need to run a separate translation command to turn print text into braille, as translation is performed on the fly. For editors, especially those who lack an advanced knowledge of braille, this should make it easier to make changes to a document on the fly.
Embossing a Document
Embossing a document can be as simple as loading a file and then selecting the Emboss command. Once the braille embosser has been set up, pages can be sent to the device within seconds. The reason I say it "can be as simple" is because many professionally produced documents may require additional formatting before they are rendered into braille.
Tools for Professionals
For professional producers, Braille Blaster offers a variety of tools to lessen the burden of transcribing large and daunting textbooks. Although the NIMAS standard for textbooks provides a flexible framework for publishers to provide high-quality textbooks for producers, the quality of these files varies widely. Typically, additional work is required to turn a file into a student-ready braille book.
Braille Blaster includes tools to manage some of the most typical, and some atypical, transcribing needs. These include the means to separate books into multiple volumes, the ability to automatically add Transcriber's Notes, which are typically added at the beginning of a volume to explain any special braille symbols that are used, and a TOC Builder that can be used to generate a robust Table of Contents. A special editor is included for mathematical content, and there is even a tool for providing the proper formatting and numbering for poetry. The effectiveness of these tools depends on the quality and file format of the book or document that is loaded. As stated above, most of these tools are intended for professionals who produce braille materials on a daily basis.
Screen Reader Support
I was happy to find rather robust support for screen readers included in the software. In my testing with NVDA, major functions were voiced while navigating the program. Some of the advanced screens could benefit from additional verbal output. For example, it would be nice to hear the dots or letters that are entered while using the six-dot input mode. Believe it or not, there are actually some braille transcription programs that do not include accessibility support, and while I am not at all surprised that APH included this as a core part of the program, it is still worth commending their efforts.
Braille Blaster is an excellent and versatile tool for educators and braille professionals. It also includes some basic tools for those who wish to produce simple braille documents. It would be great to see more features for average braille readers added in the future, which could make braille production more accessible to everyday consumers. Recent updates have added support for modern Microsoft Word files among other formats, which is a welcome addition. Expanding the range of formats to include accessible PDF files would increase the apps versatility. Additional embosser support and versions for iOS and Android should also be considered.
In the year that Braille Blaster has been available, it has blossomed into a far-reaching tool for those who produce braille. Although it may lack the familiarity and extensibility of other paid options such as Duxbury, Braille Blaster provides a means for producing high-quality braille more affordably. Between Braille Blaster and the Orbit Reader, APH has become a trendsetter in increasing access to braille materials, and they should be commended for their efforts. We look forward to future developments with Braille Blaster and other efforts to increase the proliferation of braille worldwide.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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