THE 16 bulky volumes drop down with a thud on a reading bench. To the uninformed eye, it looks like a research document put together painstakingly over weeks, if not years.
But it’s not. It’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in JK Rowling’s epic children’s fantasy series. At 765 pages for the British edition, the longest of the Harry Potter novels is a hefty weight in its original print format.
Converted into Braille – the tactile writing system used by the blind and visually impaired – the millions of raised dots and thick, 150gsm double-sided paper translates into a two-foot-high set of volumes, more akin to an encyclopaedia.
This is the latest book in the series to have been printed in Braille, under the stewardship of Scottish Braille Press manager John Donaldson.
Visually-impaired readers are charged no more for the specialised Braille version, despite the difference in size, thanks to the specialised Scottish press service, meaning the wonder of the best-selling works by JK Rowling can be enjoyed by children who might otherwise miss out. And as Mr Donaldson points out, Harry Potter is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of titles and magazines produced by the Craigmillar Park-based printing house.
The press is funded by Royal Blind – the charity being backed as part of this year’s Evening News Christmas Appeal.
Donations to the appeal will make a real difference to the lives of blind and visually-impaired people across Scotland, helping to fund essential services like the Scottish Braille Press.
Founded in 1891, it has been producing monthly magazines since 1902, ranging from sports to lifestyle and cooking. The facility specialises in Braille, audio and large print formats.
Mr Donaldson said the printing facility’s output was split between commercial and charitable work. The country’s financial sector and the Scottish Government are among major clients.
First Minister Alex Salmond has had a series of business cards produced for him that carry Braille.
British restaurant chain Harvester has also had Braille-only food menus printed, along with two of Scotland’s most renowned golf courses at Gleneagles and Turnberry.
The types of novels produced by the Braille Press are not limited to Harry Potter.
A strong relationship with the Scottish publishing industry has meant print and Braille versions of certain books have been released in Scotland on the same day.
Mr Donaldson conceded the number of books printed was “tiny”, adding: “We only have the facility here to do really limited numbers. If we get anywhere between six and ten books out each year, we’re doing pretty well.”
Despite limited facilities, press deputy manager Sandra Wright said it was easier to print novels for the visually impaired than ever before.
She said: “In the past we had to go out, buy copies of the book, cut the spine out and scan it [to convert]. It was a big, long, drawn-out process. But we’ve developed a good relationship with various publishers now in Scotland and they’re quite happy to send us the actual files for the books, which makes it an awful lot easier for us to produce. They’re now coming to us and saying, ‘would you like this one?’.”
Ms Wright said: “We are a supported employer. Although our main objective is to provide employment for the visually impaired we do also employ quite a number of other people with various disabilities.
“We provide opportunities for people to upskill, to try and give them a better skill base to move on to employment in other areas.
“What we do, for example, with the visually impaired here – and it’s great because a lot of them have guide dogs as well – they’ll work with a buddy, a sighted partner.
“Our proof readers tend to work in pairs. The beauty of having visually impaired people checking the Braille documents is they’re going to make sure it’s right because they’re the users of it.”
Among the press’ employees are receptionist Kevin Turner and senior editor Allan Balfour, who are both former students of the Royal Blind School.
Mr Turner, 44, graduated from the school in 1987 and has worked at the neighbouring press ever since.
He said: “It’s hard enough for sighted people to get jobs at the moment. Nothing is guaranteed now, so I feel lucky to have this.”
Another former Blind School pupil, Jim McCafferty, who has completely lost his sight, represents the Braille Press on the UK Association for Alternative Formats board.
He has travelled as far as Germany to attend meetings.
Ms Wright said: “Jim’s very active. He has his own Braille reader and writer so he can write out minutes and notes.”
For some, work may never have been possible without the press.
“We have a few people here who have high-level autism and they find it very difficult to communicate and integrate,” Ms Wright said.
“I don’t want to mention specific names, but in those particular individuals we’ve seen a marked change in their behaviour. They’ve been much more relaxed, they’re able to engage more and they’re very good at what they do.
“These people generally have very good levels of intelligence. We found they’re brilliant at doing proof reading, for example, because they pay attention to detail.
“Everybody has this attitude where they’ll come alongside and if someone’s struggling with something, they’ll automatically help. They don’t have to be prompted.
“People settle in here quickly. It’s almost a bit like a family.”
Like most agencies, the Braille Press is attempting to keep up with the times. It produced a special Olympic edition earlier this year of weekly magazine Braille Sporting Record. A Braille version of Scottish best-seller The Broons’ Days Out has also been printed.
However, there some challenges that remain to be met.
The Scottish Braille Press is pushing for all English countries to adopt a unified Braille code to make books more widely available.
Releasing Braille translations as close as possible to original print releases also continues to be a stumbling block.
Mr Donaldson said: “Braille books tend to follow on, it can be months or years after the originals have been published. Some of the work we’re most proud of is where [Braille books] have been available at the same time, so people are not being disadvantaged.”
In the meantime, avid Harry Potter fans amongst Scotland’s Braille literate will have to remain patient, with the final two books of the series still to be translated.
Named after its creator
• Braille is a system of touch reading and writing for the blind in which raised dots represent the alphabet, numbers, and symbols.
• Embossed dots are evenly arranged in a cell. Each cell contains six dots, three high and two wide, that can be embossed in various patterns to create 63 different characters.
• The written code is named after its creator, Frenchman Louis Braille, who went blind following an accident.
• Braille developed his code for the French alphabet in 1824 as an improvement on night writing, going on to first publish the system in 1829.
• An expanded English system, called Grade Two Braille, was completed by 1905.
• In English Braille, there are three levels of encoding: grade one, a letter-by-letter transcription; grade two, an addition of abbreviations; and grade three, various shorthands.
Facility established in 1891
THE Scottish Braille Press was originally set up by Royal Blind in 1891, as a way of helping expand the charity’s work and helping to provide texts for children at the Royal Blind School.
It’s principle purposes remain the same today as they did when it was originally established: To enable written materials to be accessible to blind people, enabling their education, knowledge, empowerment and inclusion, and to provide employment for people with a visual impairment.
Today, the Scottish Braille Press is a leading provider of high-quality alternative formats and offers a transcription service to create Braille, large print and audio for all types of business regardless of size. One of the most experienced companies of its kind, the press is renowned for its professionalism and the quality of its output.