PLEASANT HILL -- Forty-four years after Ann Kelt saw a photograph of a blind girl on the front page of this newspaper -- the Pleasant Hill Braille instructor has received the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award for transcription by the National Braille Association.
"Since I've been active in the field, I suppose they'd heard of me," she says, downplaying an impressive history that includes the making of codes, teaching Braille, working with the Richmond Unified School District in their visually impaired department, transcribing for the state of California in the Clearinghouse for Specialized Media and Translations, and teaching inmates at Folsom Prison.
At 84, she could have been honored for her fiercely independent spirit alone.
"Oh sure, I still drive," she insists. "When the day comes and I can't drive, I'm going to turn up my toes and that's the end!"
Fortunately, for a long list of students and national Braille associations for whom she is a volunteer, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
"I'm starting a new class in September," she announces.
Among Kelt's clients, Vincent Wong of Walnut Creek speaks glowingly of his experience.
"Ann is a remarkable person and a solid leader. She was my instructor six years ago and I have loved this work ever since. When I receive a new assignment I cannot wait to open it and start immediately, (much) to the detriment of timely meals and household tasks!"
When Kelt received
Kelt's grasp of Braille's past and its future mark her as an expert, but she didn't start out that way. When the plight of a child and the announcement of a two-month class inspired her to become a certified Braille transcriber in 1969, the young mother of three set out on a course of discovery.
"I didn't know a thing about it," she admits. "I just knew that If you passed with 80 percent, you were a Braille transcriber and could go to work at it.
"To be certified, you had to write a 35-page manuscript, using a slate and a stylus, which meant each dot had to be done individually. It took me an hour to do each page!" she recalls.
Sending in her test, she waited for results from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Kelt scored an 80.
She was determined to obtain a Braille typewriter, which at the time sold for $100 that she did not have, so Kelt enlisted friends, who collected enough Betty Crocker coupons to pay for the machine.
Her work led her from one educational setting to the next, and in the late 1990s, a California Transcribers and Educators for the Blind and Visually Impaired newsletter led her to Folsom Prison.
"There was a blurb from a guard saying several inmates were interested in learning Braille and getting certified," Kelt explains. "They asked for a donation of Braille writers. We sent them 10 or 12. We were using computers by that time and no longer needed them."
Invited to a party to celebrate the inmates' certification, Kelt mentioned they would next have to learn textbook format, a method for putting Braille on a page. She was asked to teach the course and offered a tour inside the facility.
"It's one of the oldest prisons in California and built by the prisoners. It's all enormous stones and the entry gate clangs shut behind you, just like you would imagine," she says.
Expectedly, she took her can-do attitude inside and never felt afraid. In fact, she became a strong, outspoken advocate of Braille's reformative affect on the men she instructed.
"I don't know what they were like to get in there: all I could do is look at what they were like when I was there. They were some of the nicest people in the world," she remembers.
Braille, a deceptively complex six-dot cell pattern that follows strict, multilayered codes and includes interpretive information the human brain can understand, but modern-day technology has yet to fully grasp, taught the inmates discipline.
"They had to follow the rules," Kelt says. "And they were so happy to be doing something that gave them a sense of accomplishment. If they were ever to be released, it gave them a job they could go to.'
Kelt stays current with technological improvements, mentioning Braille Notetakers, portable transcribing devices with text scanning and speech capabilities, and JAWS, a screen-reading program with text-to-speech output and Braille display.
Still, Braille's human element is not bound to become obsolete, she insists, writing in a follow-up email that she has known four "lifers" who earned parole and have become model, Braille-transcribing citizens.