Despite digital audio, cell phones and pads, Braille continues to be the accepted method for people who are blind to read actively. With Braille, they don’t listen to the words whizzing by their ears. They touch them, sense them, read them with their own hands. They can add their own inflection and feeling to the words they read.
What Braille Looks Like
Braille is named for its inventor, Louis Braille, a French teenager who invented the code at age 15. He had become blind as a boy after an accident in his father’s leatherwork shop. Before the Braille code, books were written in raised print letters. They were created using a printing process, but a person had no way of writing them by hand.
Braille got the idea for his system from the inventor of a code of raised letters that soldiers could use to communicate with each other in the dark.
Braille is a system of six dots, arranged in a rectangle three dots long and two dots wide. Each dot has its own position and its number. The top left dot is dot 1, the middle left dot 2, the bottom left dot 3. The right dots are 4, 5 and 6 in the same order.
The six dots may be arranged into 64 combinations. These combinations have different roles, depending on whether they are part of a newspaper article, a chemical equation or a piece of music.
There exists literary Braille, or the words we use to communicate; mathematical Braille for equations; computer Braille; scientific Braille; music Braille. There are Braille cookbooks, calendars, embossed jewelry, greeting cards, menus and games, textbooks, library books, musical scores, and even maps.
Why is Braille Useful?
Braille is useful for the same reasons print is useful. People who are blind, like everyone else, need an alphabet, their own literacy, a way to create symbols that stand for words and concepts.
Here are some scenarios that demonstrate the need for Braille:
- You’re going to a conference and you want to thumb through the schedule to decide which presentations you want to attend.
- You want to mark your CD cases so you can quickly find the music you like.
- You want to mark envelopes, file folders and documents that contain print information so you can find them easily.
- It’s your night to play “Go Fish” with your friends and you need Braille playing cards.
- You’d like some stories you could read aloud to your little sister or your friends.
- You want to bake a cake and you don’t want to get flour all over your computer while you’re checking over your list of ingredients.
- Your friend, who is blind, is having a birthday and you want to send a greeting he can open up and read – right at the mailbox.
- You’re learning French and you need to understand the words in writing. Listening to a recording of a native French speaker may be too hard at this point.
- You are in third or fourth grade and you want to know what a long-division problem looks like. You need to “see” the numbers because you can’t multiply and divide in your head.
- You have three pairs of pants and they all feel nearly alike but are different colors. How about putting a Braille tag in the pocket of each pair, or on each hanger, to make certain you know which color you’re wearing?
- It’s moving day and you’ve got 12 boxes full of stuff. Why not mark in Braille what’s in each of them?
- You’ve got a book report due and you have to give an oral report to your class. It’s a good chance you’ll want to read your notes rather than listen to them and try to talk while you’re listening.
- You long to sit on the porch in the sunshine and just READ.
Writing that’s done with a pen or pencil is called “print,” not “English” or “writing.” Writing using dots is called “Braille.” Braille is the English language written in Braille, and it is, like print, a kind of writing. An avid Braille reader probably will make an unhappy face if you say, “Do you want this recipe in Braille or English?”
Other Fun Facts
Braille that’s printed professionally is done on two sides of the paper. The page is aligned slightly differently on each of the two sides so the same dot doesn’t come out on both sides of the page.
Braille pages are big and bulky. One reason why it’s bulky is because the dots are three-dimensional – in other words, the dots stick up like little round points. So, Braille pages don’t stick as tightly together as printed pages do. That’s one of the reasons why a small book in print might have two or three Braille volumes. Connecting a computerized Braille display to an Android or iPad keeps all that bulky Braille virtual, so it saves lots of space.
Forms of Braille
Braille might be spelled out, letter by letter. This form of Braille is called uncontracted or, in older references, “Grade 1.” To save space, the regular kind of Braille that people who are blind read is called contracted Braille. In earlier references it was called “Grade 2.”
Think of contracted Braille as Braille with lots of signs – not just for “and” or “at” as in print, but for lots of other letter combinations. There are signs for “with,” “of,” the letters “ound,” “ment” and many other combinations. Children learn these “many signs” in elementary school. So, they learn what the word looks like spelled out and what it looks like with “signs” in it. Magazines, menus and other documents written in “normal Braille” are written with these contractions.
A Braille shorthand exists, called “Grade 3.” This is super-contracted Braille and is not in common use. But, like print shorthand, it’s very helpful for people who want to take rapid notes.
The numbers 1 through 0 are the same as the letters a through j in Braille. But there is a “sign” before the character to let the reader know this is a number.
How Braille is Written
The earliest means of writing Braille is with a slate and stylus. The slate is a metal or plastic grid with lines of Braille cells. The paper goes between the two hinged parts of the slate. The stylus is a pointer that the writer uses to punch the dots into holes in the grid.
Writing Braille with a slate and stylus requires writing from right to left and making the characters in reverse, so the paper can be flipped over to reveal the dots. The process sounds difficult, but long-time slate users learn it and can write easily.
Next came the Braillewriter. This is a machine that works somewhat like a typewriter. It has six keys for the six dots, and the user presses one or more keys in combination to make the characters. The paper is rolled into the machine, and there is a carriage, spacebar, backspace and a “next line” button. Although these sound old-fashioned, many adults who are blind still love them for writing without a printer and without electricity.
Next came the electronic Braille note-takers. These are computerized devices with the same six keys and a “refreshable” display that changes as the person writes. They allow the user to read Braille and hear it in a synthesized voice. These note-takers have other, more advanced functions, such as calendars, stopwatches, alarm clocks, spell check, and Microsoft Word programs. The user can read Braille from the display, edit the text or download it into a computer.
For more information (resources):
Disclaimer: Please note that the websites and webpages shown below are not all inclusive of all websites containing this type of information. Always consult your child’s health care provider(s) and educators for additional reliable and accurate information.
- American Foundation for the Blind: http://www.afb.org
This non-profit agency’s website has a reading club called Braillebug. The site, http://www.braillebug.afb.org has games and information about Braille that can get sighted friends of your children interested in Braille.
- Blind Children’s Fund (http://www.blindchildrensfund.org)
BCF has Braille and twin (one side in English, one side in Braille) books for sale as well as a lending library. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.
- National Braille Press. http://www.nbp.org
National Braille Press offers blind children the power of literacy and blind adults access to the printed word. It sells children’s books in conventional Braille and in electronic Braille. Its Children’s Braille Book Club offers a new print/Braille book each month.
- Seedlings Braille Books for Children: http://www.seedlings.org
This Michigan-based non-profit sells more than 1,200 high-quality, low-cost Braille books for children.
- American Printing House for the Blind: http://www.aph.org
This world leader in Braille and talking book production, based in Louisville, KY, has a database for searching out specific books. To search for a particular Braille book, try APH’s Louis database search! If the book is available, it will tell you where.
- Braille Bibles International: http://www.brailbibles.org
This organization provides Braille Bibles including a Twin Vision (print and Braille) Children’s Bible
- BRL: The Beulah Reimer Legacy: http://www.beulahreimerlegacy.com/
Sells low-cost print/Braille picture books
- Braille Institute of America: http://www.brailleinstitute.org
This California-based organization has five centers in that state, plus more than 220 outreach locations around southern California. It has a free library of more than 1.4 million books in Braille, large print and audio. It also sponsors the Braille Challenge, an academic competition that motivates young blind students to emphasize their study of Braille. The Challenge has fund-filled and challenging local and national events.
- Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund: http://www.mi-braille.org/transcription-services.php
This Jackson, Michigan-based organization provides textbooks and quick transcribing projects. It also transcribes other materials such as contracts, legal documents, tests, exams, manuals, restaurant menus, election ballots, etc. The organization prides itself on its ability to transcribe graphics into tactile form.
- National Federation of the Blind: http://www.nfb.org
This nationwide organization of persons who are blind sponsors Braille Reading Pals, a club to help young children learn literacy. Participating club members will receive: A print-Braille book and a plush reading pal; a monthly parent e-newsletter promoting tips for early Braille literacy; Quarterly Braille activity sheets for young children; Braille birthday cards for child participants; access to a network of resources devoted to serving parents of blind children and subscription to Future Reflections, a publication for parents of blind children
- National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, A Service of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/nls/
Through a national network of cooperating libraries, NLS administers a free library program of braille and audio materials circulated to eligible borrowers in the United States by postage-free mail.