Lasting Impressions

The little braille shop that could.

Cheryl Orgas in one of ABLE’s sound studios.
Cheryl Orgas in one of ABLE’s sound studios.
According to U.S. Census figures, slightly less than 1 percent of Wisconsinites under the age of 20 have a visual disability. That’s about 14,500 children and young adults, and each needs a path to educational success, just like their 20/20-vision peers. For this, Milwaukee teachers rely on an organization called ABLE – Audio and Braille Literacy Enhancement. It dates to 1965 and has roots in the efforts of a local nun and teacher, Sister Melmarie Stoll, to help a young blind student. ABLE relies upon a small army of volunteers: The primary braillist team for Milwaukee Public Schools, which turns class assignments and reading materials into audio recordings and braille, is about 30 volunteers deep and put in about 10,000 hours of work in 2015.

Teachers email assignments to them, and volunteers use computer software to translate everything into braille. Once the finished product is returned to the teacher, it’s reproduced at the school on a special printer. Many assignments are translated the same day, but others can take much longer, like a language arts book for a fifth-grader that required more than 550 hours of volunteer work.

“Our goal is to make the lives of our teachers easier,” says Cheryl Orgas, ABLE’s executive director and a user of the organization’s services since childhood. “Teachers teach differently now. There’s so much at their fingertips to use, and there are so many materials coming in at the last minute.”

MPS isn’t ABLE’s only client, just its largest, and now a new ABLE recording studio at the Central Library is getting calls from libraries as far away as Los Angeles looking for translations. “It’s very rewarding work,” says audio specialist Richard Robbins, who oversees the studio’s dual soundproof rooms and editing equipment. “There are two patrons: the people who want the books, and the volunteers. And we love them both. It’s just that simple.”

‘Lasting Impressions’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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