Once More, With Feeling : Twin Vision Translates Classic Children’s Stories Into Braille
Judged by their covers, the Twin Vision versions of “Bambi,” “Five Little Firemen” and thousands of other children’s books are normal. But these books, through an ingenious alteration invented by a San Fernando Valley housewife, allow blind people to participate in one of the most hallowed institutions of childhood--the bedtime story.
Facing each page of text inside a Twin Vision book is a page of Braille transcription, allowing a blind parent to read a story to a sighted child and the child, if old enough, to follow along by reading the text. Conversely, a blind child can read to parents, siblings or friends.
Based in Tarzana, Twin Vision has grown into a $100,000-a-year operation that uses more than 100 volunteers, ranging from Boy Scouts to prison inmates. Each year the volunteers collect, transcribe and re-bind about 1,500 children’s books, which are then loaned free to the blind.
The idea sprang from a comment overheard by Jean Norris, who is sighted, in 1959 at a meeting of the Valley Blind Blazers, a service organization. She had joined the group as a volunteer and had learned Braille.
“I heard this blind mother talking about her children,” Norris, now 72, recalled as she sat recently in her cluttered, windowless Tarzana office. On the walls were dozens of framed awards, commendations and letters from blind people all over the world who use Twin Vision books.
“She said, ‘My children just don’t understand why I can’t read books to them.’ ”
She went home that night and dug out a copy of a book her son had loved as a child, “Fuzzy Wuzzy Puppy.” Using a slate and stylus, the most labor intensive of Braille transcribing methods, Norris translated the text into Braille, bit by bit, and pasted it right over the words.
That book, looking a bit worse for wear, now sits in a place of honor on a shelf behind Norris’ desk. She carefully picked it up.
“Right away I knew I had made a mistake,” she said of her first attempt. “I realized that because I had pasted the Braille right over the print, the child could not read along.”
Norris got it right in her second effort with a Braille/print book that was an instant hit at the Valley Blind Blazers. She organized volunteers to meet in her kitchen and make more. The books soon came to the attention of The American Brotherhood of the Blind, a national organization based in Baltimore.
“There is something about a child and parent reading stories together that far transcends the imparting of the information,” said Kenneth Jernigan, executive director of the Brotherhood. “It’s part of being a parent and part of being a child. No one should be deprived of that.”
Jernigan knows what it’s like to crave books as a child.
“I grew up out in the country in Tennessee,” said Jernigan, 64, who has been blind since birth. When he was 6 his parents sent him to a school for the blind in Nashville where he learned to read Braille.
“I came home that first summer to a house where there was no radio, no telephone and nothing for me to read,” he said. “But I knew I would be getting a magazine in Braille sent to me each month for June, July and August. And I knew that each magazine was 60 pages long.
“So I rationed myself. I would only read two pages a day and not a bit more so that each magazine would last a whole month.
“It was all I had.”
In 1961, the Brotherhood began sponsoring the program and moved the operation from Norris’ kitchen to an office in Van Nuys. “They set me up with an office, a press and a binder, and we were in business,” Norris said. The volunteer transcribers were trained on Perkins Braillers, a kind of Braille typewriter that greatly speeded up production. Eventually, the Brotherhood provided funds to add computers and high-speed presses to the Twin Vision arsenal.
The operation has moved twice, each time because more space was needed. At the present location, the ground floor of an office building across from a lumberyard on Oxnard Street, about a dozen volunteers gather on weekdays to catalogue books, work Braille presses, enter data into computers, cut the spine out of books, re-bind them with the Braille insertions and process shipments to blind “subscribers” who have signed up to receive books.
Norris, who has the title of program director, receives a stipend from the Brotherhood to oversee the operation. Everyone else is a volunteer.
Part of her role is as a liaison to publishers--she calls on them to get books that can be re-bound. Norris, a diminutive woman who looks like the kindly grandmother that she no doubt is, does not seem like the combative type. Perhaps she caught publishers off balance. “The woman at the publisher of the ‘Charlie Brown’ books told us that she liked the idea but she could not give us any books,” Norris said with a smile.
“We kept going back. On the third contact we got 6,000 books.”
Golden Press, which puts out the hugely popular Little Golden Books series, has given her about 30,000 books over the years. Other children’s books are obtained through private donations and Boy Scout drives.
Twin Vision is now only part of the Tarzana operation. The group also puts out Braille transcriptions of books for readers who have moved passed the picture book stage, a biweekly Braille newspaper and a Braille calendar that was sent to 22,000 people last year. Like the book, all Twin Vision publications are distributed at no cost to the blind.
A product unique to the group are books with raised images that allow blind children to feel the shapes of things mentioned in the stories, items such as musical instruments or dinosaurs. Volunteer Harry Schuchman works in soft woods and other materials to make molds that are pressed into book pages via a heat process.
Schuchman, 81, like most of the volunteers, is retired. “The name of the game is to keep learning,” said Schuchman, who was willing to take only a short break from his work to talk. “When my wife died I bought a computer and taught myself how to use it. I use what I learn, here.”
Schuchman oversees the operation of the computers in the office that can transcribe Braille much faster than any of the manual methods. He is also computerizing the library operation that now has 30,000 books. Norris said it was the largest library in the world of books for blind readers up to the junior-high level.
She estimates that more than 3,000 people will make use of the mail-order lending library this year. In addition, some of their clients live close enough to walk in.
“I was totally in love with cats when I was little, so that was the first book I got in Twin Vision,” said Laurie Rubin, 11, a fifth-grader with long brown hair and braces who confided that she often reads books on the eighth-grade level. Laurie, who has been blind since birth, lives with her parents and brother in Encino.
She got her first Twin Vision book when she was 5. “I would read it and my mom would be able to follow along to see if I was right,” Laurie said. Although she now reads very well on her own, she still reads Twin Vision versions of some books, such as an abridged edition of “Little Women.”
Laurie’s world as a child is so different from Jernigan’s, that they seem centuries apart. She has plenty of distractions, including her computer (equipped with a voice synthesizer), Hebrew school and the theater. “I am totally in love with Michael Crawford,” she said with a giggle.
But like Jernigan, she loves to read. She runs through familiar hallways to her room to dig out a copy of a Snoopy book that the workers at Twin Vision gave her a couple of years ago. “The books were very important to her,” said her mother, Lily Rubin, “especially before I learned Braille and could help her. It gave her a chance to show her dad and I and her older brother what she could do on her own.”
It is not just blind people and their families who have been affected by Twin Vision.
Louis Isselin is serving a life sentence at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. He is the head of a group of inmates there who learned Braille in prison and call themselves the Cons’olidated Transcribers. They regularly receive shipments of books from Twin Vision that need transcribing.
Last year, Cons’olidated Transcribers did 313 books, almost twice as many as any other four outside group that transcribes for Twin Vision.
“I love doing this. It gives me a feeling that I am helping people,” said Isselin, 64, speaking by telephone from the prison. He was a dancer and choreographer in Reno until he went to prison in 1985. (He did not want to discuss what crime put him there.)
“It’s a lot better than kicking rocks, which is what we call the type of work you sometimes do outside here,” he said with a laugh.
Isselin is an especially valuable find for Twin Vision because he is multilingual and can transcribe children’s books in Spanish and French, in addition to English. He also teaches Braille to inmates who want to join the group.
“Some of the men in the program don’t have much of an education,” he said. “They get some practice in reading by doing the books for little kids.”
Each month the inmates who do the transcribing receive work credits worth as much as 10 days off their sentences. That doesn’t mean much to Isselin, who has a life sentence and “a ways to go” before being eligible for parole. But whatever happens to him, he said, he plans to continue transcribing Braille for Twin Vision.
“No matter who a person is and what the situation is, man has hopes and dreams,” Isselin. “Mine is that I will someday be in Mexico, living there. And I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll be taking my Braille machine with me. I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life.”
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