The small office of three workers at the Ogden Resource Center is mostly quiet.
But in a back room are two large $40,000 Braillo Norway-brand machines. When they’re fed long sheets of American Thermoform paper — a special type of paper, thick like cardstock — suddenly the office sounds something like a construction site.
That’s because — at the signal of Kandi Lukowski, Braille program specialist and coordinator at the center, located on the Washington State School for the Blind campus — the machines indent thousands of tiny raised dots into the paper. The process, called embossing, makes it possible for those who are blind to read products in Braille.
On a recent Wednesday, Lukowski embossed four copies of meeting minutes and a November agenda for the Detroit Department of Transportation.
“This one is for Telelanguage,” she said, referring to the company that is handling the job for the government agency. “We deal with other language companies that are needing Braille. They send us the print file. If it’s a quality file, we can pull it into our program and massage it. If it’s not, then we’re hand typing it.”
Lukowski, who is not blind herself, has worked since 1998 at the Ogden Resource Center, a fee-for-service business arm of the Washington State School for the Blind. The Braille Access Center opened in 1992 and began providing transcription services in 1996.
“We’re just a business enterprise of the school, so all of our funding is what we raise. The school does kick in and help us when we need help, but the majority is of raising it ourselves,” she said. She has created a formula over the years to charge for jobs — there is a transcription price and per-copy price — tweaking “when the economy changes,” she said.
‘Little House on the Prairie’
Lukowski became interested in learning Braille when she was young.
“I grew up watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ all the time. When the character Mary went blind and started working at the blind school, that intrigued me. So, as a child, I had already decided what to do,” Lukowski said. She got an associate degree in special education at Clark College and volunteered at the school and found her true passion was Braille. She earned a certification from the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
“It was just something that clicked in me, like that’s something I want to do. So I pursued it. Everybody thought I was crazy,” said Lukowski, who also runs a small business on the side in her spare time.
Now, Lukowski, 43, oversees the center’s 145 projects with businesses and governmental departments all over the country, from large-scale jobs like transcribing Braille on business cards for Starbucks and Microsoft, Lukowski said, to chemistry books for Harvard.
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The center also employs 18 women, including two apprentices, at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Lukowski said they’re getting ready to hire more. Paid between 75 cents to $5 per hour depending on experience, the inmates help transcribe material.
“We do the textbooks for all the blind kids in the state. Since we’re not a textbook adoption state, every school district has their own curriculum that they’re using. So we’re constantly transcribing new textbooks,” she said. There are 1,835 blind and visually impaired students in Washington, according to numbers provided by the resource center. According to 2016 data by the National Federation of the Blind, there were 161,900 people in Washington who reported having a visual disability.
‘A quiet, predictable workplace’
The resource center’s proofreader, Adrienne Lattin, 30, is one of them. She was born with a condition called Leber’s. Impacting her retina, she can see some shapes and shadows, but no details or color. After Lukowski transcribes and embosses the jobs, Lattin checks them for errors. That day, so far, she had only found two errors in a copy of a Core Connections geometry book.
“It’s been good working here. It’s a very quiet, predictable workplace, which I enjoy. Kandi is great to work with, she’s very organized and on top of everything. She barely ever misses work,” Lattin said.
Many blind people in the United States aren’t literate in Braille, she said, adding that often people use audio transcribing or other technology services to hear text. Technology has impacted business for the center, Lukowski said, adding that they don’t transcribe as many history and English books anymore.
“However, the math and science are on the rise,” she said.
Requirements for businesses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act also has helped the business.
“I get calls every so often from agencies and business going, ‘Hey we know we’re supposed to be ADA compliant. We haven’t had any requests yet, but if we were to do so what’s the process for getting the Braille?’ So I walk them through the process. I’ve had others go ‘Hey we’re supposed to be compliant; we want all these done,’ then they never use them,” Lukowski said.
Lattin added that one challenge is local restaurants not having menus in Braille.
“I think people have found a lot of loopholes around accommodations, or accommodations they think are OK, but maybe the person with the disability doesn’t think is OK,” Lattin said.
‘I’ve got my dreams’
Lukowski enjoys transcribing, and noted a few particularly fun projects.
“We had a client who was really into horses and doing equine trainings and therapy. Along my wall, we’ve done some art history work for one of the colleges. We took some famous paintings and made them tactile. I never would’ve thought of a blind person taking an art appreciation course, but they did, and it worked out beautifully,” she said.
After 21 years of working at the center, she dreams of a management position. But something else too.
“I’ve got my dreams. I’d love to be management, but it’s such a small field it doesn’t happen often that there’s openings in that position. I think my biggest dream is that the girls we’re working with at the prison are successful when they get out and we work with them to be as successful as possible,” she said.