Couple has clear vision of vocation
At 94 years old, Paddy Evans appreciates her good eyesight. More than 20 years ago, her vision was threatened, and only through serious surgical procedures was her sight saved. In great relief, she said to herself: “I owe a tremendous debt to repay my good fortune.”
At the time, Paddy and her husband Ed Evans were living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She read in her local newspaper that classes would be starting soon to train transcribers in Braille, and she decided to investigate if her age (72) or the commuting distance would be barriers, or if she would be able to tackle such a project.
“Ed didn’t want me to apply,” she said. “He preferred that I not ride the commuter train into the city to do it. I rarely opposed him in anything, but in this case I said, ‘It’s something I will do if I can.’”
When she followed up on the notice at the Assistance Services for the Blind in Philadelphia, she learned that the training is offered by the Library of Congress, and requires a 10-month commitment. “It is an extremely challenging program,” she said. “Anyone who starts this must have plenty of free time without interruptions or distractions, and must commit to the entire term.”
It wasn't long before Ed joined her in the decision to take it on. “We were the first husbandwife team they had ever enrolled,” she said. “The timing was perfect, as Ed had just retired and we had plenty of time to do it.
“The way it was organized, we attended training class all day Monday and took home study materials for the week. Each Friday we were given a test, and anyone who did not pass the test was released from the program. There was no catchup period built in.
“At the end of the 10 months, we had a final exam. This one did allow a person to take it over if necessary. I was worried about it but made a 95 on the final. Ed made a 97 and never failed to remind me.”
She emphasized that transcribing literature into Braille is very exacting and meticulous work. The Braille system, named for its inventor Louis Braille who was blind, involves a domino system of dots with a code to represent letters and numbers and symbols. The first instrument was a small typewriter like machine with six keys and punched holes in paper to be touched by the blind reader. Any mistake meant throwing away that sheet and starting over. Like other forms of word processing, computers have improved this technique greatly, and now corrections can be made before printing the raised symbols.
Once a transcriber has been certified, that person tackles projects alone. The Library of Congress will assign any material wanted for translation. “Many start with children's books,” says Paddy. “Not only do you transcribe the written material, you insert a description in Braille of the illustrations. Can you imagine trying to describe a rainbow or a red apple to a child who has never seen one? I have worked on books in other languages: French, Latin, Italian. You don’t have to understand what you are reading, just know how to copy it into Braille.”
Ed did College Board exams for Princeton University. Both did a variety of religious books for Jewish and Episcopal and other churches. They worked separately but together for 18 years, until he became ill and she devoted herself to caring for him.
“I was charmed with the assignment of transcribing the Episcopal prayer book,” she said. “I recognized it in the King James style, and immediately I thought of the church in Ireland where my mother and father were baptized. When the work was completed, I had a copy made for that church, Bush Church in Carlingford, County Louth, Ireland, and Ed and I made a trip there to present the book.
“I made it a point not to put it in an expensive impressive leather cover. I was afraid that it would be put into a glass display case to look at. I wanted this book to be used by anyone with vision difficulties, so it is plain like all the others.”
Ed and Paddy moved to Columbia three years ago to escape the Pennsylvania winters. They became active in Northeast Presbyterian Church here until he died in 2009. Paddy moved into the Presbyterian Retirement Community of Columbia the next year.
She emphasizes that the Braille transcribing skills have to be used regularly to stay fresh. She does not try to do it any more but is glad for the years she was able to make it possible for blind readers to read. She hopes that others will consider taking the training and using their free time to help the blind.