In 2011, a group of 20-somethings gathered at a restaurant in Boise, Idaho, to share a meal. Casual observers may not have noticed that each diner was blind or visually impaired. But since the restaurant didn’t offer Braille menus, some of the diners struggled to order and needed assistance from other members of the party.

Later, the same group met at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired where the facility’s training center confronts issues impacting citizens with vision problems. Raelene Thomas, the commission’s management assistant, said the incident triggered a discussion about the lack of Braille menus in Idaho restaurants.

The commission, which provides vocational training and assisted living for visually impaired state residents, responded with a free program to help alleviate the problem. The program, launched in 2011, lets Idaho restaurants submit menus to the commission and receive copies printed in Braille and large text. Thomas said roughly 2 percent of Idaho’s population (about 2,500 individuals) has some degree of visual impairment.

Through a partnership with the Idaho Lodging and Restaurant Association, the Idaho Lions Club and Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the program has been able to serve restaurants on a statewide level.

Braille Meets World

The commission uses specialized software and printing technology to produce Braille and large-text versions of books and documents into Braille-friendly versions. That same technology assists commission staff with translating menu text for the visually impaired.

Kris Grant, the commission’s receptionist who has a visual impairment herself, starts the conversion process at her desk by using a tool to magnify the menu’s lettering. The enlarged text appears on a separate screen next to her computer where she transcribes the list of menu items into Duxbury Braille Translator software, which at first blush looks like a traditional word processing tool.

One day in mid-July, Grant typed up a menu for a local pizza restaurant in the Duxbury program. Her computer screen listed a variety of dining options and their respective ingredients — all of which were entered into the software.

The process may seem a bit tedious, but Grant said it’s imperative to type the menus line by line into the software since the tool doesn’t recognize symbols commonly found on dinner menus.

After some reformatting, the menu is embossed using a device that prints in Braille, the Juliet Pro made by Enabling Technologies.

After pulling the newly created menus from the printer, Grant’s fingers glide across the bumps on the pages to read the text. “[The Braille menus make it so] blind people would be able to have access to the same information at the restaurants that everyone else does in print,” she said.

Once printed, the new menus are sent to the participating restaurants for customer use.

Menus come to the commission from across the state, in addition to the other Braille conversion projects the commission is tasked with. To alleviate some of the workload, the organization outsources some of its Braille conversion and printing jobs to the state prison. The commission donated Braille printing equipment to the prison so trained inmates could help complete the extra projects. So far, the prison has finished about 50 Braille menus and will continue to help as more restaurants join the program.

Since its inception, more than 100 Ohio restaurants have submitted menus for conversion. Restaurants that are part of nationwide franchises like Pizza Hut, P.F. Chang’s and Buffalo Wild Wings have all gotten on board, according to the commission. Participating restaurants receive a free decal to display in their windows that states, “Large print menus available here,” to help get the word out.

Thomas said the project has garnered so much interest that restaurants outside of Idaho have requested Braille versions of their menus. Most of those requests have been from neighboring states Montana and Oregon, although priority is given to in-state restaurants.

Thomas said no major costs are involved in the menu project, except for staff time and the purchase of specialized Braille printing paper — an expense of $45 per 1,000 sheets.

Creating Awareness

As technology advances in nearly every scope of daily living, it also has helped assist individuals with vision problems. But some say assistive technology for the blind is underutilized.

Allison Shipp, an assistive technology specialist with the STAR Center, a nonprofit organization that works with the blind, said many individuals don’t know about technologies capable of assisting the blind and that more education and awareness can help close that gap.

“I definitely feel like the main barrier is people’s lack of knowledge of these products,” Shipp said.

But with programs like Idaho’s Braille menu distribution, the underlying goal is to strengthen awareness on blindness and visual impairments, not necessarily the technology that goes with it.

“This is kind of above and beyond,” Thomas said. “One of our focuses is outreach to the community and what can we do to bring awareness to those around us.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer
Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.