65th IFLA Council and General
Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999
The role of the Malaysian Braille Press in the promotion of computerised braille production
Christina Anne Lau Mei Kheng
Malaysian Braille Press
National Council for the Blind Malaysia
Founded in 1986, the National Council for the Blind, Malaysia (NCBM) is an umbrella body of five major organisations serving the blind in the country with each of them sending two representatives with voting power to its Council meetings. This means that all recommendations are extensively deliberated and decisions arrived at through consensus. In the course of identifying weak links in the provision of services and in the introduction of new programmes for blind people on a national level, NCBM concluded that the shortage of braille materials is but one of the many problems that could be solved if full attention is given to this service.
In 1994 when Mr. Tetsuji Tanaka, Director of the Japan Braille Library, offered to conduct computerised braille production training workshop in Malaysia for countries in this region, NCBM gratefully seized the opportunity for we realised computerisation is the solution. In the following year the idea of having a fully equipped braille production setup began to crystallise and a project paper was circulated through the Think-Tank Committee to get feedback from Council members.
Officials from NCBM including myself were sent to make study visits to the National Braille Press in USA, The Scottish Braille Press and the Royal National Institute for the Blind to learn from their experience. We were shown different levels of braille production and were convinced that computerisation is the best way ahead. Moreover, since organisations for the blind in Malaysia has not invested large sums of money to purchase expensive and bulky equipment, it is only logical to invest in computerisation.
After going through the various stages of discussion, approval was finally given on 15th November, 1997. MBP was set up on 1st April 1998 with equipment donated by the Japan Braille Library, The British High Commission, Leo Club of Sekolah Menengah Subang Utama, BAKTI and many well-wishers with NCBM earmarking RM500,00 for the purchase of heavy-duty equipment and employment of full-time staff.
MBP is set up to meet the acute shortage of braille materials for education, employment, leisure and to complement the efforts of organisations serving the blind and the Department of Special Education in the production of braille textbooks. It is not set up to compete with any existing facility but will instead try to assist anyone who is in need of braille materials.
The purpose of setting up MBP is as follows:
- To have a fully-equipped and operational braille press to meet the needs of braille users in the country.
- To ensure that braille will not be replaced by other media, but rather, to complement it.
- To ensure that blind people, as far as possible, have access to the same information as their sighted counterparts, whether when attending official functions, religious services or private gatherings.
- To provide facilities where organisations and individuals may have prompt and reliable access to braille materials.
- To create opportunities for blind people to hold responsible and administrative jobs by making available appropriate reference materials.
- To work towards being the official standard setter for the braille system used in the country.
The initial plan of MBP is to help in the following:
- The production of textbooks and reference books to try to solve the shortage of braille materials currently being faced by our blind students, undergraduates and blind individuals.
- To produce tactile materials electronically wherever possible as this is one of the most difficult, time-consuming and costly tasks.
- To assist the Government and companies to make available information for the blind in braille.
- To provide the opportunity for employers/employees to acquire information regarding their work in braille.
Right from the start, the Department of Special Education has always been very supportive of MBP; in fact, it has a representative sitting on the Management Committee and it is currently MBP's biggest customer.
At present MBP has six medium-duty and one heavy-duty embossers to cope with the workload. NCBM have even commissioned the Duxbury Systems Inc. USA to develop a Window-based Malay Braille Translation Software which will convert Malay text into Malay Braille. The project will cost NCBM RM100,000 but once completed, it will contribute significantly to the production of braille books in the Malay language. NCBM through MBP will conduct training courses on the use of the new software and to make it available to all organisation interested in upgrading their braille production capacity.
"Equalisation Of Opportunities" among the disabled as reflected in the International Year Of The Disabled 1981, The Decade of the Disabled 1983-1992 and The 2nd Asia-Pacific Decade Of The Disabled 1993-2002, steps have been taken to encourage the Leaders of the world to open up more avenues for blind children and adults to gain education and employment. The explosion in awareness of the rights of the blind to be educated and employed has resulted in the rapid increase of demand for reading materials in braille in a more diverse subject. No braille printing house/press in the world using the traditional method i.e. manual brailling, thermoforming, zinc plate printing etc. can cope with the increasing demand. The solution to this problem is computerised braille production. Unfortunately, many countries especially the less developed once are unable to switch to computerised braille production due to the following restrictions:
- The capital cost required to establish a computerised braille production center is quite high though the operation cost in the long run is very much lower as compared to the existing braille production centre/press. The organisations are worried what to do with their existing equipment and staff if they make the switch. Since their current production method is still functioning, they will rather wait until such equipment are unusable before cracking their heads to find alternative. When this happens, the production of braille materials will be seriously disrupted and the blind individuals urgently needing such materials will suffer.
- Most of the staff operating existing braille production centre/press does not have the knowledge and skills in computerised braille production. Therefore they are fearful of making the change in case they might not be able to cope with the new method which will undoubtedly threaten their future in the organisation.
- Information and materials regarding equipment and techniques in computerised braille production are not available especially in the less developed countries. Most of the time, such information is so technical and those people in this field find it too difficult to understand.
- Most of the decision-makers in the blindness field either are not computer literate of do not have a positive attitude towards computerisation. Due to their ignorance, they will try to avoid the topic of computerisation by giving excuses such as the cost factor, lack of trained personnel and equipment for this purpose.
The points discussed above are very serious and need to be addressed urgently. You can rest be assured that computerised braille production is the way of the future. The success of our colleagues in Europe, USA and Japan just to name a few is enough to convince us that computerisation can increase the production of braille materials 4 - 5 times. I will try to briefly explain how to establish and maintain effectively a computerised braille production centre.
1. Computer and Word Processor
Basic Personal Computer, Disk Operating System and suitable Word Processor is required for the staff/volunteer to key in data to be translated into braille.
2. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) System
An OCR is a machine that scans the image of a page and convert it into a readable file that can be stored into a computer for processing. The accuracy of the page scanned depends very much on the clarity of the page, writing patterns, colour of the words and whether the page is placed straight on the glass for scanning or not. There are some adjustments in the software to deal with columns, colour contrasts and the position of the page. Usually to scan a thick book with satisfactory results, you are advised to tear the book so that the pages could be placed straight on the glass.
OCR systems have still not reached perfection. The current accuracy level among most of the systems is about 95% - 98%.
After the book is scanned, converted and stored into a text file, it will be good if you could run the text through a spell checker which is included in most word processors to try to correct as much you can the misspelled words. Then you should delete all the unnecessary characters produced during the scanning process. Finally, you check the text against the book to ensure its accuracy before preparing the text file for braille translation.
3. Braille Translation Software
After editing the file, it needs to be converted and formatted into braille. To do this, you need Braille Translation Software that has the capability to convert text into braille contractions of your language. If it is not available in the market, it is best that your organisation initiate the development of such software.
There are some Braille Translation Software that have the flexibility for users to input their own braille contractions into the braille table which will than be incorporated into the braille translation software. This feature enables users from countries without any Braille Translation Software for their respective languages start to develop their Braille Translation Software for Computerised braille production.
Another interesting feature is direct input of braille character. The A, S, D and L, K, J keys in a normal computer keyboard can be turned into braille keyboard. Alternatively, a special braille keyboard can be attached to the computer to allow the users to input directly the braille characters. The braille characters will appear as computer braille or the exact formation of the dots on the screen. As conversion and formatting of the text is not necessary since it is done by the user during imputing of text, it guarantees accuracy. This is particularly useful in inputting music notations and mathematical signs. As a temporary measures, users from countries without their own braille translation software's can use this method while waiting for their own braille translation software to be developed.
4. Braille Embosser
On completion of the translation process, you are now ready to produce your first perfect braille copy on paper through a braille embosser. The cost of the braille embosser depends on the speed and several other features.
5. Braille Display Unit
In a braille production set up, the best person to prove-read the braille text is a blind person. A braille display unit enables a blind person to read the text straight from the computer in the actual braille form. Any errors can be corrected on the spot.
HOW TO GET STARTED
Firstly, you need to identify a suitable place with at least 3 rooms with the necessary furniture such as comfortable typist chairs, computer tables, adequate electrical power points, enough lighting and if possible air-conditioned to give comfort to the workers in ensuring high productivity and to keep the equipment in good working order. Room 1 will be for the computer typists, room 2 for prove-reading (cubicles should be built if there are more than 1 prove-reader) and room 3 for printing, binding and packing of the braille materials.
Then you need to think seriously of the right type of equipment to be purchased for your need. The most important consideration is the cost, maintenance, suitability and support. In getting funding for such equipment, please bare in mind that no equipment will last you forever. You need to cater for maintenance, upgrading and replacement.
Paper is a very important factor to be taken into consideration. You need to conduct test and experiment on different types of paper to get the best that suit your braille embosser, blind readers and the climate. The wrong type of paper may be disastrous to your braille embosser, so be very careful in this matter.
In ensuring the efficiency of your computerised braille production, trained staff/volunteer is a vital component. Such staff/volunteer should be given the necessary training such as in word processing, braille translation, manipulation of the OCR and the braille embosser and binding. Such training can be obtained either locally, getting trainers from other countries to conduct short-term courses or sending them to more advance countries for training. MBP is more than grateful to providd training through close cooperation with the Japan Braille Library.
You need at least 6 months before your computerised braille production can run efficiently. During this period, you might face numerous problems but do not be discouraged nor give up hope. The ultimate success is worthwhile striving for.
- Your staff/volunteer might not pick up skills required to handle this new method of production. Give them some time to familiarise themselves by practice, experiment or if necessary refresher courses.
- The equipment might not be running smoothly due to the wrong settings. The settings differ from country to country. Do check in the manuals and if you still cannot resolve the problem, consult the supplier.
- The Management and blind users who are keen to see the results of this new project might put in some pressure on you to get it running properly. Explain to them your problems and do not simply make the conclusion that this system is not good and the old way of production is actually better.
- The capital cost of starting the computerised braille production is high and you might face problems getting the approval for such funds. Bear in mind that the running cost is very much lower. The cost of braille papers is only 15% of the cost of braillon. It is cheaper still if you use double-sided braille. Furthermore, the possibility of getting braille papers locally can save postage cost of getting them from elsewhere. You also save cost on personnel, as you do not require one staff to operate the braille embosser full-time like the thermoform. Braille embosser does not pollute the air so it is environment friendly.
In conclusion, I would like to request all of you to try to develop computerised braille production in your organisation. You can use this paper as a guide and if necessary, you can get consultancy services from people who are experienced in this field. I myself is very convince that computerised braille production is the only way to prevent our blind children from being illiterate. Literacy is the gateway to success for our future generation.