Second Acts: From Programmer to Braille Transcriptionist

Individual in business casual standing in a kitchen

Steve Dresser had a solid career working for 30 years as a computer programmer for the state of Connecticut. But after he retired from the position in 2002, he started his own business: Jennco Productions, which is dedicated to producing high-quality braille materials from electronic documents.

Blind since birth due to retinopathy of prematurity, Steve attended a school for the blind, where he learned braille until he was a freshman in high school. He then attended public high school, followed by the University of Connecticut.

“I spent a lot of time goofing off at the radio station because that’s what I wanted to do more than anything else, but there was no degree program in radio,” Steve says. “I started off as a physics major, but it took about one semester to convince me that wasn’t going to be for me. I knew engineering would involve too much drawing, so I majored in sociology.”

After graduation, Steve spent three years working as a drug counselor, but he says the job burned him out quickly. One day, while listening to the radio, he heard an ad for a nearby computer school. He took the test and scored 90%  – and one-third of the test involved flowcharts, so he couldn’t complete it.

“I figured if I could get 90% taking only two-thirds of the test, maybe I should think about this,” Steve says. “So I went to that school and took the nine-month course; that was all the training I ever got.”

A talent for computer software

Back in the 1970s, computer coding was very different than it is today. Steve says someone had written a computer program to teach a computer printer to punch holes in the paper to create braille, but he often didn’t get any braille materials to work with. Nevertheless, he learned his way around the day’s computer systems and supported his family, earning a pension that let him retire at age 55.

While he was still working, Steve was already doing some braille transcription for the state affiliate of the American Council of the Blind: the Connecticut Council of the Blind. He didn’t consider it a business endeavor because he didn’t want two full-time jobs – he wanted to leave time to spend with his family.

“I decided this would be a great way for me to learn how to use the Duxbury Braille Translator,” Steve says. “In 1994, I started learning that piece of software by reading all the books I could find. So, I really cut my teeth at the Council, producing their newsletter.”

When his late wife, Marcia, got a job in Massachusetts, and they moved there in 2002, Steve decided it was time to retire.

“I thought I could take this knowledge of Duxbury and turn it into a business,” he says. “The advantage was that if the business worked out, that would be great. If it didn’t, then I could do what I wanted. I had my pension, so I wasn’t under the gun to earn a living at it.”

Doing what he wants – for a fee

Steve quickly became successful as a braille transcriptionist. Jennco’s first contract came from Ann Morris Enterprises, which at the time was well-known for selling products to the blindness community. He says that Ann gave Steve a contract to produce a braille version of her catalog, which contained about 1,000 items. Eventually, Ann sold her business to Independent Living Aids, which Steve continued working with for a while.

Another of his projects was brailling program guides for SiriusXM satellite radio. But Steve’s most longstanding contract was with the Perkins Library, which he was a subcontractor for from 2007 to 2017, when they brought the transcription work back in-house. When he first started, he had skills with the Duxbury software that others didn’t, making him a real asset.

“Because Perkins is a nonprofit, they can afford to do braille transcription – but it’s not something you really make a lot of money doing,” Steve admits. “The irony of braille transcription is that if you charged what it’s really worth, you could price yourself right out of the market because it’s so labor-intensive. It’s kind of a labor of love for me.”

After his wife passed away – who was also blind and served as Jennco’s proofreader because Steve has always been a stickler for accuracy – he started doing less braille transcription. At the suggestion of a friend, he began working with Slate Roof Press, a poetry cooperative in western Massachusetts. His friend really wanted her poetry books recorded, so she and some of the cooperative’s other poets read their own work, and Steve edits and cleans up the recordings before they’re released as CDs or downloadable .mp3 files. Slate Roof Press is Jennco’s only contract right now – in a way, bringing him back to his first love of radio.

“That’s one of the joys of being retired,” Steve says. “You do what you want when you want. I’d be willing to use my services if someone wants to use them. But I’m not in a hurry to chase anything because I like the idea of not being under a whole lot of pressure.”