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Blind U. of I. staff member creates Braille diploma for recent graduate


Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

braille diploma
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Blind staff member Bryan McMurray created a Braille diploma that could be read by its recipient. The Braille was created in a clear Plexiglas-type material that covers the original diploma.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Christie Lynn Gilson recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a doctorate in special education. Because she is legally blind, she wouldn’t have been able to read her own diploma without the assistance of some dedicated university staff members.

When she was finishing her graduation plans, she asked a staff member in the records division of the Office of Admissions and Records if she could receive a Braille diploma. It was the first time staff member Pam Santic – or anyone else in the office – recalled receiving such a request. Santic brought Gilson’s inquiry to the attention of campus registrar Carol Malmgren, who directed Santic to seek assistance from the U. of I.’s Disability Resources and Educational Services division in the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Answering the call at DRES was visual/hearing coordinator Bryan McMurray.

McMurray, who is blind, said he believes the diploma he was able to create for Gilson is the first of its kind awarded by Illinois. It may even be the first given by any university, though McMurray said he’s not certain of that.

He said the reason a request for a Braille diploma is so rare is that in the 1980s, there was a trend in schools to begin phasing out the use of Braille, replacing it with speech-recognition technologies.

McMurray said, however, that many people – including him – prefer the more tactile experience of being able to read actual text.

“There’s a resurgence now in Braille use,” McMurray said. “People still are using it a lot.” Among the 30 or so legally blind students enrolled at U. of I., he said about five use Braille.

McMurray, who had worked with Gilson, was more than happy to do what he could to get a Braille diploma into her hands. The process for creating it wasn’t as simple as it may have sounded.

Brian McMurray
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Bryan McMurray is the only staff member in the Disability Resources and Educational Services division who has been trained to use the office's Perkins Braille writer.

“I had to do many renditions,” said McMurray, the only staff member at DRES who has been trained to use the office’s Perkins Braille writer. The decidedly low-tech machine, which is used to create the punched and raised Braille characters, looks like something from a 1950s stage set, especially when juxtaposed on McMurray’s desk with his computer monitor.

“People asked me, ‘Couldn’t it be computer-generated?’ The answer is ‘no’; you have to hand-copy the diploma,” he said. Another complication: “Braille can’t be reduced. They (the characters) are what they are. Everything has to fit on the page. So I went through hours of time brainstorming how to do it best because it has to last for years.”

He also had to figure out how to construct the whole package so that the original diploma could be preserved and viewed underneath the Braille version in a frame. His solution, after lots of trial and error and consultation with the staff of a local Kinko’s, was to create the Braille diploma using a clear Plexiglas-type material.

Since the material had to be inserted and rolled through the Braille writer, “it had to be something that can’t wrinkle, bubble or break,” McMurray said.

After many hours of experimentation, he thinks he may have perfected the process, and hopes to be able to use it again to honor any future requests by graduating students.

Despite the time and labor McMurray devoted to the project, he remains humble regarding his role.

“It’s a cool thing, but Christie did all the work,” he said, referring to the effort by Gilson to earn the academic degree.

The Braille diploma was presented to Gilson at a graduation celebration earlier this month.

“Being there was amazing,” McMurray said. “I wanted to cry. Christie was excited like a little kid.”

“The Braille Bryan wrote for my diploma is beautiful. He did a lovely job,” said Gilson, who recently moved to Pennsylvania to accept a position on the faculty in the education department at Moravian College in Bethlehem.

“I commend the Office of Admissions and Records for meeting their obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act by providing me an accessible copy of my diploma.”