Soniya Patel's 3-year-old daughter loves getting a book in the mail each month. It comes from the Dollywood Foundation's Imagination Library, which sends free books each month to hundreds of thousands of children. But Patel is blind, so reading new books to her daughter isn't so simple. Patel has the book read aloud to her, and she transcribes the text on her Braille typewriter — and then she can read the new book to her daughter.
"I've Brailled several [books] since she was born, because that's the only way that I'd be able to read it to her," Patel says. "If it's not done, then you've got to find a way to do it."
On Friday, this process will get easier. The Dollywood Foundation will begin a partnership with American Printing House for the Blind to expand their offerings to include books in Braille. Patel says getting already-Brailled books will lift a barrier between her and her daughter.
The books will be produced at the APH factory in in Louisville, Ky., which is filled with modern dot-making machines — as well as some from the 1800s. Plate embossing devices punch out text. For graphs, charts and pictures, the printing house uses a device that looks like a sewing machine.
APH is the official educational materials supplier for legally blind grade school students in the U.S., producing everything from books to standardized tests. But the company also does contract work and develops technology, too; last year it released an iPod-like device that reads and stores text as audio. The company also released a machine called a Braillo, which embosses pages electronically and eliminates the need for a person to hand-collate the sheets.
There's no shortage of synthetic speech programs for computers or talking toys for kids, but Patel says you can't replace the developmental value of learning to read Braille and the independence that comes with it.
"It's empowering for me as a parent to be able to read to my child at this age," Patel says. Introducing children to Braille is even more powerful. "They kind of get an idea of: These dots are words, you know?"
After all, Patel says, for children who are blind, learning to read Braille is learning to read.