The following is one in a monthly series featuring the extraordinary people who make up the LightHouse staff
“I draw lines,” BJ Epstein, LightHouse’s Accessible Media Specialist, humbly states to describe her work at the LightHouse. To say BJ “draws lines” is like saying Luciano Pavarotti could sing—while true, it severely understates BJ’s skills and mastery of accessible print, braille, tactile and 3D media.
BJ is part of a team which has now made numerous maps of universities such as Berkeley, Stanford, San Francisco State and beyond. She holds a Master’s in Architecture and converts complicated maps, transit layouts and architectural designs into tactile models. She told us, “It’s surprisingly challenging to translate a printed map into a tactile one. For example, a map of the Civic Center BART station contains a myriad of information: two platforms, one for Muni and one for BART, several different ticket booths, multiple exits and entrances, elevators, stairs, escalators and emergency exits need to be represented. To complicate things, most official print BART maps contain even more information, most of which won’t fit on a tactile map. I have to work with agencies and the public to determine what must be represented on each tactile map, while always considering how I will represent such information.”
When BJ joined the LightHouse Access to Information Services (AIS) team in March 2011, she immediately set to work teaching herself braille. BJ emphasizes, “Learning braille takes commitment, but it’s not as hard as learning a totally new language. Really, it’s a different kind of alphabet and set of punctuation marks; you don’t have to learn new words or grammar rules, though braille contractions do take some memorization.” She urges people not to let their concerns hold them back from learning braille. “Our braille instructor, Divina Carlson, makes learning Braille fun and easy. You’ll make progress faster than you ever imagined.”
Braille translation and embossing is just one among many of BJ’s tasks. “My background in architecture enables me to translate blueprints, maps, and graphic designs into tactile and 3D representations, making complex print material fully accessible.” BJ reminds us, “Most people aren’t totally blind, so we also make designs that allow people with low vision to use both tactile and high-contrast, large print, low-clutter print representations of maps and designs.”
BJ’s skills and deep understanding of access to print materials for the blind has enabled her to lead several projects, like designing BART and Muni Accessible Station Maps. “I’ve also worked with UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon to produce maps for their blind students and visitors. LightHouse even designed maps for some world renowned theme parks,” BJ coyly states, “we can’t name the corporation, but I can tell you they have major theme parks on three continents, and are one of the world’s most recognizable brands.”
LightHouse’s accomplishments in the tactile map industry has exploded, thanks in large part to the work BJ does every day. She tells us, “We’re wrapping up a project with the Calgary, Canada transit system, and have been approached by other major transit authorities.” In addition to leading the industry in making tactile maps, BJ is also at the forefront of creating teaching materials and establishing a pedagogy for tactile literacy beyond braille. “We’ve found that people need to learn how to use our tactile maps. They need to familiarize themselves with the symbology and the different embossing techniques to better understand the maps we create. For some blind people, tactile maps are the first maps they’ve ever been able to personally experience. Many sighted people take for granted their acquired knowledge on how to read a map, orient themselves to a map, follow a route, and identify directions. Our teaching materials take into consideration the fact that some people need basic map usage instructions in addition to tactile literacy training.” One entertaining game our teaching materials use is the familiar “which of these is not like the other” game, where students learning tactile maps have to differentiate shapes and symbols by identifying the outlier in a group of symbols. BJ explains, “It’s a simple game with easy directions, and it teaches people how to refine their tactile perception abilities.”
BJ reminds us, “AIS has many projects going, and we’ve been fortunate to have some amazing volunteers and interns help us complete our projects. I actually started as a volunteer in AIS in 2010, helping to draw architectural maps of BART, and now I love working here and I love what I do. I can’t ask for more than that.”
BJ—part-cartographer, part-architect, part-braille transcriber—somehow finds time to pursue personal endeavors. “My husband and I recently discovered opera. We went from opera-ignorant to opera-enthusiast in one show: Cinderella (or La Cenerentola, in Italian). We’re excited for the upcoming season of the San Francisco Opera—planning to attend at least one performance of each show.”
And she and her husband have made a small herd of rabbits a part of their family, taking in bunnies whose humans have abandoned them. “When my husband and I rescued our first rabbits, all we had to transport them in was a Styrofoam cooler. We promised them that they were not, in fact, food, and that they’d soon be in a happy and loving home.”
If you need to have something translated into braille, or if you’re interested in having blueprints or maps translated into tactile designs, contact MAD Lab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-694-7320. And if you’re interested in volunteering with AIS, contact Justine Harris-Richburgh, our Volunteer Engagement Specialist at email@example.com to sign up.