Volunteer Braille Services ends decades of services to readers

Volunteer Braille Services (VBS), which provided Braille materials of all types for almost 60 years, is closing down. The nonprofit […]

A person teaching another person braille.

Volunteer Braille Services (VBS), which provided Braille materials of all types for almost 60 years, is closing down. The nonprofit provided countless Minnesotans with an array of transcribed documents over the years. 

The closing is another loss for Minnesotans with visual disabilities. BLIND Inc., which provided a wide array of services, suspended its operations as of January 1. 

VBS turned down a request to talk to Access Press. Others who work with Minnesotans with visual disabilities see the VBS closing as significant. 

Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or who have low vision. 

Although other reading options are available besides Braille and Braille use has declined, advocates for its use contend that learning and using Braille is still important for people with visual disabilities. Braille skills can help people find and retain employment. 

Matt Kramer is executive director of Vision Loss Resources. While Vision Loss Resources didn’t work directly with VBS. Kramer noted there will be a ripple effect. “We have had several students who have used their service in the past and who were very satisfied with them.” 

Jay Maruska is Braille Supervisor for Minnesota State Services for the Blind, part of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. The state provides materials for Minnesota adults who are legally blind, with six full-time Braillists and a number of volunteers. Priority is for K-12 textbooks, but the state can provide other Braille materials as requested. Maruska has had regular contact with VBS and said its services will be missed. 

People who prepare Braille documents use machines called Braillers. The predominant machine is the Perkins Brailler, which was invented in 1951. 

The transcribers are also called Braillers. Volunteer Braillers were the heart of VBS. 
VBS had roots in a 1950s campaign to provide school materials for blind children. The effort attracted volunteers from around the United States, including members of the Temple Israel Sisterhood in Minneapolis. 

VBS spun off from that effort. It appears that volunteers went back and forth between the two programs. Some histories indicate VBS began in 1967; others say 1968. VBS began in the basement of a Robbinsdale savings and loan office. It later moved to Golden Valley. 

Volunteers took a free six-month training course to become Braillers. By 1980, more than 100 volunteers had trained through VBS. 

Most Braillers in VBS’s early days were women. Patronizing news coverage sometimes focused on how “housewives” kept themselves busy. Volunteer knew their work was important. 

Martha Schafer of Crystal was among the VBS volunteers featured in a 1980 Star Tribune story. The Crystal woman used her dining room table for her Braille volunteer work. The article noted that her volunteer work meant family meals were in the kitchen. 

The article stated: 

“To be a Braillist, you’ve got to be serious about it. . . . You need interminable patience.” 
VBS provided Perkins Braillers if volunteers agreed to transcribe at least 60 pages of Braille each month. Most volunteers put in about 10 hours weekly converting books and documents to Braille. 

At the time of her death in 2007, Schafer’s 40 years at the keyboard had produced almost 160,000 pages of documents. Family members said her own love of reading inspired Schafer to make sure that others could read, too. 

Times changed for Braille. By 1988, only one woman affiliated with Temple Israel was preparing large-print manuscripts for distribution by the Jewish Braille Institute of America. The remaining Sisterhood Braillists were working out of their homes, with assignments from States Services for the Blind. 

VBS kept going but by 2011, VBS and other organizations were trying to promote use of Braille as opposed to other options. By then VBS was the only nonprofit offering Braille transcription in Minnesota. 

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