Mary Ann Ramirez spends her workday helping students — a not-so-unusual job description for someone working in education.
But Ramirez's focus is quite specialized: She's responsible for producing materials in Braille that range from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to the most complicated math assignments to early-reader primers. Ramirez supports students who are blind or visually impaired, and their teachers, through the San Diego County Office of Education's North Coastal Consortium for Special Education (NCCSE). The consortium supports 14 school districts in North County, from Bonsall to Del Mar.
Ten teachers, three aides, and 150 students rely on Ramirez's work. A classroom packed with materials and machines at Oceanside's Ditmar Elementary School serves as Ramirez's Braille workshop. Braille is a code, not a language. It is a system for reading by touch through raised dots that can be read with the fingers.
"This is my way of making life better for kids," Ramirez said of her work. "It takes a lot of communication between the teachers, parents, and aides."
Ramirez became NCCSE's Braille transcriber three years ago. Before that she worked with students who use Braille for 14 years. For eight of those she was paired one-on-one with a boy in the Vista Unified School District. It was during that time that she decided to learn to read Braille.
"The student was learning Braille and he was struggling," she said. "So one summer, I sat down and completed the National Library of Congress Braille transcriber course and earned a certificate, to help him, to be able to transcribe papers. His family and teachers were very excited.
"Anyone who picks up Braille has a real advantage. Braille is everywhere and we're just not aware of it."
Much of the Braille work is now being done electronically. Often, the multistep process begins with a Microsoft Word document exported to a Braille document, which is then cleaned up by Ramirez and sent to an embosser machine for printing. Some students get much of their materials with a BrailleNote computer. With a BrailleNote, a student's work can be sent to a traditional printer for the teacher to read.
While Ramirez misses being in the classroom and watching students learn and progress in their Braille reading, she said she finds great joy and fulfillment in her work as a transcriber.
"Turning the books into something the kids can enjoy is a lot of fun," she said.
And it's not just words and numbers that Ramirez and aides transcribe to Braille. They also ensure that students have tactile illustrations with their materials.
"The little guys get readers. They have to learn to read just like everybody else does. So when it comes out in boring Braille, we add illustrations," she said. "The aides for the visually impaired make it tactile, otherwise the students would only get words."
Ramirez and the aides tap into their creative side using art supplies like puffy paint and felt, as well as adaptive technology, including a PIAF (Pictures in a Flash) Tactile Image Maker. Andrea Lopez, an instructional aide who works with a visually impaired student at Oceanside High School, recently used PIAF to create images of Shakespeare and The Old Globe theater to get the student excited ahead of reading Julius Caesar.
"We use lots of different media so that it's fun for the kids," Ramirez said. "It's important for the kids to have full access."