After 25 years, Treasure Coast's only Braille printer is shutting its doors

STUART, Fla. - Braille is a way of life for David John Fee.

He learned to read it when he was 5 years old.

He became a certified Braille proofreader when he was 25.

For most of the past 13 years, he has worked full time proofreading pages that roll off the presses at Braille International south of Stuart.

But at the end of this month, Fee and his fellow employees will be out of work.

After 25 years of printing Braille books, magazines and other materials, the nonprofit is shutting down its plant on Slater Street. Its final day of business will be July 31.

The news came as a shock to Fee and some of the other 32 employees of Braille International.

"You grieve your job, and you want to save it," said Fee, a 47-year-old Stuart resident who has been blind since birth.

Braille International is one of a handful of large Braille printing facilities in the country, and it has been struggling financially for years.

Part of the problem was the recession, which eroded the budgets of its clients — many of them government agencies or nonprofits.

The other part was that Braille's popularity has waned as audio books and other digital options for the visually impaired have proliferated. Only about 10 percent of today's blind children learn to read Braille, according to the National Federation for the Blind.

Not since 2007 has Braille International turned a profit, said President Jamie Redditt, who also will lose his job at the end of the month.

"So the last five years, we've just been chipping away at reserves a little bit every year," Redditt said.

Braille International's board of directors decided they didn't want to let the business deteriorate any further. Its budget was $1.6 million this year, and it's barely staying afloat.

"We're in a position now where we can pay off all our vendors, try to treat our employees the best we could, and not stick anybody with any bills," Redditt said.

That didn't make the news any easier on his staff, six of whom are visually impaired.

"They put their heart and souls in this business for so long, and for it to come to an end like this, it's terrible," Redditt said, adding that the average age of his workers is more than 50 years old.

The employees at Braille International will receive severance packages ranging from two to four weeks' pay depending on their years of service, plus compensation for any time off they have accrued so far this year, Redditt said.

He added that any money left over after bills are paid will be distributed to employees.

Braille International has been unusual in the world of nonprofits because its focus is manufacturing — not fundraising or providing services.

It was founded in 1978 as a test plant for Braille printers made by Triformation Systems (now Jensen Beach-based Enabling Technologies), then became a separate company in 1984.

Three years after that, it became a nonprofit so it could have a competitive advantage when bidding for government contracts. Its clients have included the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Park Service.

When I visited the plant early last year, I saw stacks of King James Bibles printed in Braille. I watched proofers read through cookbooks and other publications.

Braille International is the only Braille printing plant on the Treasure Coast, and that poses a dilemma for the employees who will be laid off.

Fee wants to continue working as a Braille proofreader, but the closest large-scale Braille printer is American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky.

I asked Fee about his prospects for finding another job.

He's still working 40-hour workweeks, so he hasn't had much time to job-hunt.

"I honestly don't know," Fee said.


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