Globally, more than 44 million people are visually impaired. Illiteracy among this group is very high, much of which is attributed to the lack of reading material in accessible formats such as braille. But as technology advances, print-to-braille conversion tools are becoming better and faster. Nizam Ahmed, president and COO of IBH Process Solution, one of the few vendors with extensive experience in braille projects, said, “Duxbury Systems' latest translation software, for instance, is capable of converting Word, WordPerfect, HTML and other file formats into braille automatically. Its macro tools can also be tweaked to preserve original document formatting so that nothing is lost in conversion.”

But the process does not just involve running a program and hitting the command keys. The hard copy from the client would need to be first scanned and converted to text using OCR (optical character recognition) software. Ahmed said, “During this process, highlighted words, graphs, photo captions, columns, etc., may be lost or corrupted. Therefore, the challenge, even before starting a conversion project, is to select the right type of scanner and OCR software in order to minimize cleaning up and extra work. As a rule, our team kick-starts a braille project by establishing scanning parameters and conducting a test run. We use OmniPage OCR software, save the scanned document as ASCII text and then check it against the original for accuracy. In our experience, this step will eventually save time and produce better results.”

Recently, Mumbai-based IBH received two projects with a 30-day turnaround time. The first, containing 1,500 pages, required grade 1/uncontracted braille while the other, a 2,000-page project, was in grade 2/contracted braille, where contractions and abbreviations are utilized. The team was asked to follow BANA (Braille Authority of North America) standards, which have specific rules for literary, math (using Nemeth code), chemistry, computer and musical material. “Our 15-member team could have converted 15,000 XML pages in the time taken to finish these 3,500 braille pages,” noted Ahmed of the complexity and time involved. “Even the simplest formatting, such as indentation, is presented differently in braille. Tables and charts are particularly hard to represent, and footnotes have to be turned into endnotes.” Braille graphics, he added, are even more daunting. “Experts disagree on the best way to present graphics such as maps in tactile form. Some graphics work better without an embosser than others. Duxbury's QuickTac software, for instance, allows the creation of embossed graphics, but, as is the case with any braille material, the inability to construct a continuous line is a major constraint.” Last year, IBH extended its braille service to libraries for their huge archives of journals and books. “Our team is capable of converting data into braille from any format—hard copy, soft copy in PDF or word processing formats, and audio files,” said Ahmed, whose clients are mostly publishers and universities in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

Over at Chennai-based Lapiz Digital, English and Spanish reading titles made up a recent braille project. “There were some 12,000 pages altogether, and we took about seven days to turn around 1,000 pages,” noted CEO Indira Rajan. “Our task was to prepare the content for braille conversion. The tagging part was not overly complex. I think the most difficult conversion would be those pertaining to mathematics.” Lapiz has a 150-member conversion team capable of handling 20,000 pages per month, and the capacity can be easily ramped up for larger volume, in braille or typical XML, as and when required. “We use one of the most accessible standards, NIMAS [National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard], which is also applicable to alternate formats such as braille, large print and Digital Talking Book for those with learning or cognitive disabilities. We typically receive PDFs as input files. Our team would convert them into MS Word files and then format and proofread them prior to ASCII braille conversion. The resulting document is then ready for braille printing.”

For these two vendors, new software such as WIMATS (Webel ICEVI Mathematics Transcription Software) from Kolkata-based Webel Mediatronics and the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI) is a big help. WIMATS tools are specifically tailored for converting mathematical and scientific text into braille using Nemeth code. For the 94,000 visually impaired students currently in the U.S. education system, it could mean better and timelier SSTM publications in braille for them.

This is part of a regular series highlighting content/publishing services provided by India-based companies.