My name is Brian MacDonald, and I began working at National Braille Press (NBP) on May 1, 2008. NBP was founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927, for the purposes of providing timely access to information in braille in the United States and Canada, to promote "finger reading", and to assist people who are blind or have a visual disability "to become happier and better informed citizens of their communities". While NBP's early mission was braille specific, it certainly parallels DAISY's broader interest to provide people with disabilities equal access to information and knowledge.
I am sighted, and I'm often asked how I got into this field, and if I had a personal connection to "blindness". Most of my adult working career had been working with non-profit organizations, but with a focus on education and the environment. I still remember the phone call I received from an executive recruiter in New York, when she mentioned the open position for the president at National Braille Press; she asked if I was familiar with them.
I had never heard of NBP, but I immediately had a flashback to my youth, and my maternal grandmother who was blind and would often sit me on her lap to teach me braille. My grandmother, Josephine Ululani E. Moore, grew up in the territory of Hawaii. When she was a young woman in her twenties she was already married with three young children. One evening she was working in a Honolulu theatre when she lost her vision. This was caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu, the pandemic that infected 500 million people and was responsible for killing 20-50 million worldwide. The specifics of her vision loss are not known. She said that her only symptoms prior were that she had a cold, but it is assumed that the infection damaged her optic nerve.
I remembered my grandmother as the most upbeat, happy and enthusiastic person I'd ever met. She had lived through extreme economic challenges. Her first husband left her. She survived the depression, remarried and had a couple more children. When her children were adults they moved to the US west coast, and she spent her life living with each one for a few months at a time. My mother was the only child living on the east coast (in Massachusetts), so when it was her turn to host my grandmother, she would live with us for at least a year at a time. My grandmother had authored a cookbook, she gave lectures on the spiritual interpretation of the Hula dance, and she was an avid swimmer (like my own mother who dived for pearls as a kid); she could tread water at the beach for hours at a time. It is her spirit, attitude and independence that attracted me to help support the mission of NBP.
Adapting to Technological Change
I was hired by the board of National Braille Press because my background beyond non-profit management included new business development, turn-around management, and some entrepreneurial experiences. One of the challenges NBP faced was how to leverage new technologies to support braille, and how NBP would adapt to the fastest moving technological advancements in history. We founded the Center for Braille Innovation to research and develop accessible technology solutions to support the production of braille and tactile graphics. However, our motivation was also to find more affordable solutions to e-braille, since the cost of electronic braille devices is prohibitively high for individuals, schools and families of children who are blind. NBP also wanted to offer our original publications and books in many formats, and we added DAISY to the mix a couple of years ago, as an option for our customers.
My first connection with DAISY was when I met George Kerscher at the initial DIAGRAM Project Advisory Board meeting a couple of years ago. The participation with DIAGRAM meshed with our interest at NBP to help influence publishers and content providers to integrate digital inclusion for all formats, including braille and tactile images.
Center for Braille Innovation
Through our Center for Braille Innovation we have created a team of 25 volunteers that provides a forum and advice for our projects. The first project that we are close to completing on is an Android driven, 20 cell portable braille display named the B2G (Braille to Go). Our goal is to sell this high speed processing computer and advanced notetaker for around $2,500 which is $4000 less than comparable products.
Deane Blazie, is our dedicated Senior Engineer on the project; he has volunteered his time for over three years to support our work. Many of you may know of Deane for his pioneering development of the Braille 'n Speak, and the line of notetakers that he built 25 years ago.
The Tactile Graphic Challenge
National Braille Press is a major producer of braille tests and textbooks for the education market, and we produce thousands of tactile graphics and diagrams as supplements for this material. My personal interest is to find technical solutions that provide students who are blind or visually impaired with the same opportunities to interpret and understand supporting materials (images, diagrams, etc.). Although digital output for a graphic can be created and stored, an output device (embosser, 3D printer, or swell paper e.g.) to output the tactile images is still required – this has been one of our greatest challenges.
NBP has been testing an open source, low cost 3D Printer kit called the Ultimaker (from the Netherlands) to see if there are better, more accurate and efficient ways to create tactile graphics ( DAISY Planet, September 2012 article on SVGs and 3D Printers). The radical reduction in costs of 3D printers will make them more affordable for schools and individuals. I believe that this provides a very good intermediate solution, however it would be fantastic if we could eliminate this step entirely.
A Truly Accessible "Tablet"
This could be accomplished with a device that would be a "tablet" that was truly accessible for people who are blind. It would have multiple lines of braille to accommodate math and science calculations with a graphical array of pins that can provide a graphical representation on the device. NBP began working on a multi-line braille display in January 2011, and last July we demonstrated a proof-of-concept prototype with one of our partners in the project, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Since then we have developed a very promising new method of actuation (movement) for the braille cells using a tiny solenoid we made from a shape memory alloy. We are excited with the possibility that a durable, low cost, tablet for the blind, one that hopefully will support graphics, can actually be created.
Then, Now, & to Come
My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep at our home when I was in high school. This was many, many years ago, before the personal computer was invented. I often think of her and how she would marvel at the technology of today.
My goal is to find technological solutions that will enable people who are blind or visually impaired, regardless of age or position, with a comprehensive information tool – a tool (or tools) that will put them on an equal playing field to compete in the world.
Brian MacDonald has collaborated with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), American Printing House for the Blind (APH), American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to develop affordable accessibility products to support braille literacy. Research collaborations include Code Factory (Spain), IBM, Google, UCLA, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, M.I.T., Northeastern University, University of Tokyo, University of Pisa, NC State, Penn State, RNIB, and China Braille Press in Beijing.
Prior to his employment at NBP, MacDonald worked for organizations in both the profit and non-profit sectors, as a CFO, COO, and Senior Director, with experience in business development, environmental protection, educational programs, and international marketing. He received his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Vermont, did graduate research in Bio-environmental oceanography, and has a MBA in finance and marketing from Boston College. Brian is a sports enthusiast who coached baseball and soccer for over 20 years, and enjoys skiing with family and hiking in New England.