Central Florida Braille center ‘desperate’ for new home

Blind reading text in braille language

LONGWOOD, Fla. (AP) – A Central Florida nonprofit that produces children’s books, scholastic texts and health brochures for the blind will soon lose its home and is “desperate” to find a new one.

Despite high praise and constant demand for its work, the all-volunteer Braille Association of Mid-Florida is struggling to find a space for its hefty production equipment and graphics center. It’s currently housed at Longwood Elementary School, which has been closed to students since 2011 but is set to be renovated and reopened in 2017.

The Braille center has to be out by year’s end. The movers are coming Dec. 15 to put everything in storage.

“Until 2015, we had been housed at the old Audubon Park Elementary for almost 30 years, but we had to move out of there when that school closed,” says Mariann Witengier, the Braille association’s president. “Moving is very difficult and very expensive for us, so we are desperately searching for a place where we won’t have to pay rent and won’t have to move again in another year or two.”

In two cavernous classrooms in Longwood, the charity has equipment that creates the raised dots of Braille code and molds images for illustrations. Other machines print, separate and collate pages and bind the pages into books.

The machines can cost as much as $20,000 apiece and weigh hundreds of pounds. There are also dozens of boxes storing materials used to create graphics.

“This is a little storybook we did on bugs,” says volunteer Peggy Straw, 67, running her fingers over a plastic spider and dragonfly glued on a page. “The text is in Braille, but we make these little tactile additions. Kids need to have something fun to read, too.”

The charity donates many of the books it produces; for others, it charges only the cost of materials. It squeaks by on contributions from Lions Clubs, infrequent grants and donations from its own members.

With only 18 regular volunteers, nearly all of them retirees, the agency does no fundraising. No one enlists to plan a charity gala, Witengier says. Members want to help blind children read.

“They do wonderful work,” says Marielhi Rosado, who teaches students with visual impairment at Princeton Elementary School. “I have kids who don’t like to read at all – unless I make it about Pokémon. So I’ll ask Mariann to find a book about Pokémon, and she’ll just whip something out in Braille and bring it to us. And now that student is finally picking up on Braille because it’s fun and not just a big page with dots on it.”

Though Orange County Public Schools have several Braillists on staff – and Seminole County has one – there is frequently more demand than supply.

“There is a significant shortage of Braille transcribers throughout the country,” the American Foundation for the Blind reports. “Because of this shortage, blind and visually impaired schoolchildren go weeks and sometimes months without the textbooks that their sighted peers have for their core or elective classes. This significant shortage of Braille transcribers impacts the college-bound students too.”

The Braille Association of Mid-Florida also hosts a yearly academic competition – the Braille Challenge – and has classes on Braille transcription, which is no simple task to master. Witengier, 72, a lifelong teacher of visually impaired children, drew 60 students to her most recent course, and nearly half of them dropped out when they learned the requirements. Of the remainder, only seven have succeeded in becoming certified.

Suzanne Dalton, supervisor of the state-funded Florida Instructional Materials Center for the Visually Impaired, says the Braille association is “invaluable,” but no state funds are available to pay rent for a volunteer organization.

“Last spring, we heard from (state health officials) that they were doing a Zika campaign, providing a pamphlet to all the schools,” she says. “We called the Braille Association of Mid-Florida, and they stopped everything else they were doing and produced 150 pamphlets for us practically overnight.”

Officials at the Orange and Seminole school districts say they appreciate what the charity does, but that their hands are tied.

“We’d love to help them. We just don’t have the space available right now,” says Lauren Roth, a spokeswoman for Orange County Public Schools, which added about 5,000 students this year. “There is turnover every summer, and we’ve told them we would keep them in mind.”

Seminole County Public Schools found a potential location for the center in Sanford, where the Braille association would have had to buy portable offices and spend $10,000 to run water and electricity to them. Witengier says her group might have agreed – despite its being a long commute for some of the volunteers from Orange and Osceola – if the district had been able to offer a long-term lease. It couldn’t.

“It’s really unfortunate, and we love what they do, but we just haven’t found a good solution so far,” says Seminole schools spokesman Michael Lawrence. “We’re trying to work with them, but because their volunteers would come and go during the day, for security reasons the location has to be near a front office, and not all our schools have front offices. And the ones that do don’t have the space.”

Despite advances in other types of technology for the visually impaired and the relatively small number of students who are totally blind – about one-tenth of one percent of all students, Dalton says – no one expects the need for Braille to disappear anytime soon. And without it, blind children will become functionally illiterate adults, even if they are well-spoken.

“Reading Braille exposes you to the nuances of language,” Witengier says. “It’s as important to blind children as reading print is to sighted children. We just want them to have the same opportunities.”

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