Providing Literacy for Informed Citizenry through Braille

Joesph Sullivan is being recognized as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities.


I am deeply touched and honored to be named a Champion of Change for work that I enjoy doing -- towards improving opportunities for blind persons through literacy. This speaks to the high value that our great country places upon literacy for an aware and educated citizenry, not only within our own borders but throughout the world.

It was a blind man, Bob Gildea, who got me "hooked" on braille in 1969, enlisting me as a computer programmer on a joint MIT-Mitre Corporation project that allowed teachers within the Atlanta schools to have materials quickly translated into braille for blind students integrated into regular classes. At first I thought it interesting mainly because of the technical challenges, as the relationship between print and braille is surprisingly complex and different for every language and type of notation under the sun, from Arabic to Zulu and from math to music.  I still enjoy addressing those challenges through our little company, Duxbury Systems, Inc., which specializes in software for braille worldwide.

But as the years have passed and I have become involved with braille-related volunteer work on various committees of the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) and the International Council on English Braille (ICEB), I have come to realize an even greater satisfaction, based upon a deeper understanding of the importance of braille in the lives of blind men and women. Notwithstanding the value of speech-based technology, only braille provides a practical means for blind persons to experience true literacy.  Besides the enjoyment and enhanced personal freedom that comes from being able to read and write, blind persons who use braille are much more likely to be employed. BANA and ICEB set standards for braille in order to ensure that it serves blind persons as well as print serves sighted people, and that it can be produced in an efficient  and timely manner.  Work on these committees is time-consuming and can be challenging unless you're the type who enjoys word puzzles, but it is very motivating to know that one is enabling a vital resource.

A high point of this work for me was to be asked, in 1991, to chair the technical design subcommittee of a BANA-ICEB project that was charged with bringing together diverse English braille codes into a single Unified English Braille Code. This committee brought together expert Braille users, who formed the majority, and other knowledgeable volunteers from six countries, and it was my privilege to coordinate their work. The fruit of this effort, now known as UEB, was approved by ICEB in 2004 and is now in use in much of the English-speaking world.

Like so many others who have been named Champions of Change, I must first express my happiness for having found work that not only employs what capabilities I may have, and that affords an opportunity to work with so many people of enormous talent and dedication, but that is also useful to others in the worldwide community. It is a joy like no other. And now I am very thankful for this honor, and the values that give rise to it. 

Joesph Sullivan is president of Duxbury Systems, Inc., a company that has specialized in software for braille since its founding in 1975, and  provides braille translation software for more than 130 languages worldwide. 

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