Cool Job: Braille transcriber creates books, docs and even maps for the blind
by Amy Mayer | December 1, 2011
As a transcriber for the Boston-based National Braille Press, Marcia Cronin gets paid to read and to create collages. Her job as a staff transcriber is to transform printed material into tactile material. Cronin telecommutes to her job, and other braille transcribers work as independent contractors for various publishing houses.
How did you get and learn your job as a braille transcriber?
I was hired by National Braille Press to be a braille transcriber after answering a help wanted ad on Monster.com. They required two years' commitment because it takes a long time to learn how to do this job and to do it well. I was trained in-house. I started doing a braille transcription course interspersed with doing real work. To be certified, you have to take a course through the National Federation for the Blind.
If you want to become a braille transcriber, is it possible to do the transcriber training course online?
It may be at this time. When I took the course it was offered through the Library of Congress not through the National Federation for the Blind. NFB now has the contract to execute the course so how they do it is probably different.
Could you describe how you do your job?
Most people who start doing this begin with literary braille--magazines and novels--because you have to learn that before you can do any of the extended code. With plain text, I get files from a publisher, usually as PDF, and then I convert them to text. I use a text editor to put in the necessary coding for the braille transcriber and then put it through translation software. And then I go back through, because the translation software is not foolproof, and look for any errors. There are some things that you have to do by hand, like putting guide words in a glossary.
What happens when there's more than text, like charts or tables?
People are often surprised that a lot of things, like chemical ring structures, are transcribed using different braille symbols. For things like bar graphs or geometric diagrams, tactile graphics are used. I create at least parts of my graphics using words and then I use collage materials like string and glue and paper, etc. to add other aspects of the graphic.
Could you describe a particularly challenging graphic that you've developed?
I've done a couple of Atlases, which is probably the most challenging material I've ever worked on. There's so much information on any one map. You can't represent it all tactilely. And so, there is a lot of work that goes into trying to decide what should be included in the map, what should just be listed separately, whether you should turn the map into multiple maps and how to lay everything out. They're a ton of work.
What makes your job "cool"?
I get to work from home, which people do not exclusively get to do, but it's a nice perk. It was more stimulating working on literary materials, because you get paid to read novels all day, but I'm exposed to a huge variety of materials. Right now I'm working on a chemistry text book. I definitely have good Jeopardy skills from doing this stuff. And it's really cool to be able to read the ATM and the elevator when no one else can.
What's something you're particularly proud of that you've done?
Working on the last three Harry Potters was one of the most exciting things I've done. It was the first time a braille book was released simultaneously with the print edition, which was really cool. So instead of all these blind kids, who waited just as impatiently for the book, having to listen to their friends reading about the adventures of Harry while they waited even longer (in most cases it's months longer), the blind kids were able to get their books the exact same day the print edition came out. NBP even had the midnight release party. So the blind kids could read it just as quickly as all of their friends and be able to keep up and be on equal social footing when it came to a literary work. That's never happened before.
Why don't braille books typically come out at the same time as the print editions?
Intellectual property security issues. Print publishers don't want their books to be leaked before the publication date. With Harry Potter, we had to sign non-disclosure waivers, there was advanced security involved in how the book was handled, how the files were handled, even how the braille proofs of it were handled. They didn't even send us the files, they had someone courier them by hand from New York.
What would you say to people who are interested in braille transcriber careers?
People often say "wow, that's a really cool job," but this is not a big money-making career. It is not a status-making career--you have to like it. I find it rewarding. These days, I do a lot of standardized tests and I like knowing that there are kids out there who are taking the test I worked on and are potentially doing better on the tests or are learning more because I've created a quality product for them.
What's the starting salary range?
When I was hired 12 years ago, I want to say I started at $28,000 per year. I'm not sure what it is now.
More about Marcia Cronin
What did you eat for breakfast? Bagel, cream cheese
Which day of the week is your favorite? Saturday
Which day of the week is your least favorite? Wednesday
What was the first job you ever had? I wrapped gifts.
What makes you angry? Mess
What makes you joyful? My daughter
If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Party/wedding planner
If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? How to be a pastry chef.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I was going to be president.
Can money bring you happiness? Probably not. (But I think you need to have money to find out.)
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