Editing has been made easier for blind employees at a Braille centre, says Mike Hewitt TECHNOLOGY AT WORK
I was being shown around the Royal National Institute for the Blind's production and distribution centre in Peterborough when I noticed a blind employee behind me, carrying a tray. I held the door open for him but Chris Day, the RNIB's assistant director, told me I should leave it shut. "He expects a door to be there. If he can't find one, it's just the same as you or me encountering a void,'' he said. ``We would get terribly disorientated."

If doors present potential obstacle courses for blind people, imagine the problems posed by a busy industrial production environment. Yet this is what the Peterborough site is: the biggest Braille production facility in Europe. But thanks to new technology, visually-impaired employees now play an active part in that production process.

Opened in 1989, the £6m factory turns out everything from Braille editions of the Radio Times and Mills & Boon romances to short-run technical manuals. Just before Christmas it was answering letters to Santa Claus in Braille and on tape.

The first stage is transcription, where computers are used to turn conventional text into Braille, large print, or Moonscript (a large-format tactile script for those unable to make out small Braille dots). Nearly 20 per cent of the transcription department's staff are visually-impaired; so how do they operate PCs and carry out complex tasks such as editing and page make-up?

Until two years ago, they could not. Braille had to be input manually, with a sighted person transcribing from a printed document. If a blind person got involved in the production process at all, it was simply as a proof-reader. Now virtually all text comes in as ASCII, which is either scanned through OCR machines, or else taken from disks or online services such as FT Profile. Files are passed round the building over a Novell network to be processed by special Braille translation software, developed in-house. Output has doubled.

There are two types of Braille: grades one and two. The first is a simple character-for-character transliteration. Grade two uses a large number of single-character ideograms to render commonly used words such as "the", "where", "mother" and "father". The program scans the text, looking for such words and isolating them. The accuracy of the translation depends on the nature of the document. Something undemanding, such as Princess in Love will score 95 per cent plus and need little additional editing; Nietzsche might require far more.

Because they cannot see the screen, visually-impaired editors use other methods of reading. One device that sits beneath a conventional PC keyboard converts screen text, a line at a time, into a corresponding line of Braille. Typical of these is the Navigator, manufactured by Telesensory. The ASCII characters cause piezo-electric cells to raise pins, in the form of a Braille matrix, along which the operator runs his or her finger.

Unlike conventional Braille, which employs a six-dot matrix, the electronic readers have eight. This allows them to represent the full range of ASCII characters and also additional ones, including control codes. These readers are also used when logging on to online services.

There are problems. The pins are delicate and need constant cleaning as films of skin cells build up on them. Also, operators sometimes have difficulty feeling the pins if their hands are cold. Some production staff, therefore, use speech synthesisers instead, but some complain that the computer voice sounds a bit too much like John Major on Valium.

Following this editing process, the text is routed to the printing department where heavy-duty embossing machines convert the ASCII characters into Braille and stamp them, dot by dot, on to zinc-coated metal sheets. The plates are then loaded on to printing machines that emboss the Braille into thick paper, collate the pages and bind them.

But producing Braille books and magazines in this way is expensive and the end-product is unwieldy. The average novel, for example, takes up to four volumes of heavy A3 paper. The shorter OED runs to 16 volumes. Hence the interest in hi-tech alternatives.

Of these, the best-known is the RNIB's electronic version of the Guardian, which is transmitted via a Teletext band. Subscribers, who pay £160 a year, have to plug a special decoder board into their PC, which is connected to the television aerial. Each evening, the newspaper text is captured to the computer's hard disk. Output can be through either a Braille reader, a speech synthesiser or a large format display.

But Chris Day believes the Internet is the best way of sending information cheaply to blind people: "There are no transportation or storage problems. You just need a modem and a PC. Documents can be sent anywhere in the world in seconds. There are plans afoot for the RNIB to become an official node on the Net."

Which brings us back to the question of display. A Braille reader such as a Navigator costs £5,000 and dedicated Braille-display computers are over £6,000. Good voice synthesisers are also costly. One of the reasons is that few units are produced. With Internet and Teletext, production volumes should increase, leading to a dramatic drop in the cost of providing information.