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PHOENIX - The Arizona Instructional Resource Center at the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix has been transcribing books into braille for 20 years.
Production since 2016 has tripled. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the pace here is quickly increasing.
"Right now, we're seeing over 300 books that are being worked on this year and we have about 150 different imputes, said Jared Leslie, Director of Media Services for the Foundation for Blind Children. "So we have seen a growth with our program to be able to match the need of the state to make sure that no student starts their school year without their textbooks," said Leslie.
"Braille is a sequence of six different dots. So you have dots 1, 2 and 3 and then 4, 5 and 6 and so depending on that dot combination, that’s going to convey either a letter, or in the case of contractions, it would be a contracted word," explained Leslie.
Leslie runs the department and also oversees a very successful partnership with the Arizona Dept of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry program.
"Previously, we were around 100 transcriptions that we were creating throughout the year and now we’re over 300 transcriptions throughout the year.. seeing what we’ve seen with that is in our partnership with the Arizona Dept of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry program is that they’ve tripled their support with us as well," he said.
Leslie says the partnership is the largest in the nation.
Carefully chosen inmates spend six months to a year learning braille and how to transcribe it.
"There’s training in prison, but nothing like this," said "Tom", an inmate.
Tom wanted to remain anonymous. He did time in Eyman [Florence], Yuma, and Kingman where he studied braille. He spoke to us over the phone from his home office where he works on a computer the foundation provided.
"I was hoping I could work for Braille when I got out, but you didn’t know, you just don’t know and but doing it in prison was such a blessing to have a good job in prison and be paid well and then to be giving back, you know what I mean, but then the blessing was to be able to get out and actually have work I could get paid for," he said.
Over the last five years, six different transcribers became paid contractors with the foundation.
"We’re currently producing these books at four units. Like I said earlier, we have about 70 inmates who do this ," said Karen Hellman, Assistant Director for Inmate Programs and Rehabilitation at the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Hellman is proud of the inmates and the program as a whole.
"We have been very fortunate that during this pandemic we have been able to keep the program up and running and that has assisted again in the community because some other programs have shut down, we’re able to pick up some of that slack and produce more."
As the demand grows and even if the pandemic ends, there’s a huge possibility that this program will continue to expand.
"Any state that calls us, we’re saying yes, we will do it. And then we call the Department of Corrections and they get it done. So yes, it’s going to grow. The average braillist in this country is about 70 years old. Our braillists are going to retire and they’re going to retire very quickly as the bubble of the rest of the country retires, they’re all going to retire and so if we don’t have new braillists, we’re not going to be able to keep up, but the Department of Corrections and these inmates.. they’re doing it," said FBC’s CEO, Marc Ashton.
Ashton says the inmates are keeping up with the demand, translating everything from Latin, to Spanish to calculus, and even physics.
"We’re not only meeting the demand locally, we’re meeting it nationwide because we are one of the only few programs in the country that still open during COVID. The only way we’re able to make it through this COVID crisis and serve the whole country right now is because of the Department of Corrections. We have hundreds of inmates out there producing braille faster than anyone else in this country."
FBC serves 100 students on its own campus and hundreds more in public, charter and private schools in Arizona — and now because of the pandemic, several other states.
"Now more than ever, yeah it’s a completely remote setting for us because of our partnership within Arizona. We have facilities all over," said Leslie.
The facilities, the partnership, the inmates — all reasons why students who are blind or visually impaired are afforded the promise that they can keep learning in these uncertain times.
The foundation also has an extensive collection of library books that can be checked out by anyone interested.
Arizona Instructional Resource Center (AIRC) at the Foundation for Blind Children: https://www.seeitourway.org
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