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About Braille

Reading by Touch

Braille is a system of touch reading and writing in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet and numbers, as well as music notes and symbols. Braille contains symbols for punctuation marks and provides a system of contractions and short‑form words to save space, making it an efficient method of tactile reading.

Braille is read by moving one or more fingers along each line. Both hands are usually involved in the reading process, and reading is generally done with the index fingers. Usually, one hand reads the majority of one line while the other hand locates the beginning of the next. Average reading speed is approximately 125 words per minute, but greater speeds of up to 200 words per minute are possible.

By using braille, blind people can review and study the written word. They may become aware of conventions such as spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, and footnotes. Most important, braille provides blind individuals access to a wide range of reading materials—educational and recreational reading as well as informational manuals. Blind people also are able to pursue hobbies and cultural enrichment with such braille materials as music scores, hymnals, playing cards, and board games.

The History of Braille

The system of embossed writing invented by Louis Braille in 1821 gradually came to be accepted throughout the world as the fundamental form of written communication for blind individuals.

Various methods—many of  them raised versions of print letters—had been attempted over the years to enable blind people to read. The braille system has succeeded because it is based on a rational sequence of signs devised for the fingertips, rather than imitating signs devised for the eyes. In addition, braille can be written by blind people and used for any notation that follows an accepted sequence, such as numerals, musical notes, or chemical tables.

Braille has undergone many modifications, particularly the addition of contractions representing groups of letters or whole words that appear frequently in a language. The use of contractions permits faster reading and helps reduce the size of braille books, making them less cumbersome.

Several groups have been established over the past century to modify and standardize the braille code. The major goal is to develop easily understood contractions without making the code too complex.

The official braille code, English Braille, American Edition, was first published in 1932 by what is now the Braille Authority of North America (BANA). This organization represents many agencies and consumer groups and has been responsible for updating and interpreting the basic literary braille code and the specialized codes for music, mathematics, computer braille, and other uses in the United States and Canada. Other countries have similar authorities.

Louis Braille: A Remarkable Inventor

In 1821 a blind twelve-year-old boy took a secret code devised for the military and recognized in it the basis for written communication for blind individuals. Louis Braille, enrolled at the National Institute of the Blind in Paris, spent many years developing and refining the system of raised dots that has come to be known by his name.

The original military code was called night writing and was used by soldiers to communicate after dark. It was based on a twelve-dot cell, two-dots wide by six-dots high. Each dot or combination of dots within the cell stood for a phonetic sound. The problem with the military code was that a single fingertip could not feel all the dots with one touch.

Braille created a reading method based on a cell of six dots. This crucial improvement meant that a fingertip could encompass the entire cell unit with one impression and move rapidly from one cell to the next.

Early Life

Braille himself was blind from the age of three. He was born in the village of Coupvray near Paris on January 4, 1809. One day he was playing with a sharp tool belonging to his father, a harness maker. The child accidently injured one eye with the tool and developed an infection that later caused total blindness.

Until 1819, Braille attended the local village school, where his superior mental abilities put him at the head of his class. He received a scholarship to the National Institute of the Blind, where he was the youngest student. Soon afterward, he began the development of the embossed code. In 1829 he published the code in Procédé pour Ecrire les Paroles, la Musique et la Plain-Chant au Moyen de Points, which also contained a braille music code based on the same six-dot cell.

After he developed his system for reading and writing, Braille remained at the institute as an instructor. Eventually an incessant cough made it impossible for him to lecture. He died at the age of forty-three, and was buried in the family plot in the village cemetery in Coupvray. In 1952, on the centennial of his death, his body was ceremoniously transferred to the Pantheon in Paris. A monument to Louis Braille stands in the main square of Coupvray.

The Braille Alphabet

The braille cell, an arrangement of six dots, is the basic unit for reading and writing braille. Sixty-three different patterns are possible from these six dots. For purposes of identification and description, these dots are numbered downward 1-2-3 on the left and 4-5-6 on the right:

1 ●  ● 4
2 ●  ● 5
3 ●  ● 6

(Note: As shown here, the “●” symbol represents a raised braille dot in the six-dot configuration. The “○” symbol represents a position in the cell where no braille dot occurs.)

The first ten letters of the alphabet (a–j) use only the dots in the upper two rows of the cell.

a b c d e f g h i j
●  ○
○  ○
○  ○
●  ○
●  ○
○  ○
●  ●
○  ○
○  ○
●  ●
○  ●
○  ○
●  ○
○  ●
○  ○
●  ●
●  ○
○  ○
●  ●
●  ●
○  ○
●  ○
●  ●
○  ○
○  ●
●  ○
○  ○
○  ●
●  ●
○  ○

The next ten letters of the alphabet (k–t) are formed by adding dot 3 to each of the first ten letters.

k l m n o p q r s t
●  ○
○  ○
●  ○
●  ○
●  ○
●  ○
●  ●
○  ○
●  ○
●  ●
○  ●
●  ○
●  ○
○  ●
●  ○
●  ●
●  ○
●  ○
●  ●
●  ●
●  ○
●  ○
●  ●
●  ○
○  ●
●  ○
●  ○
○  ●
●  ●
●  ○

The remaining letters, except for w, are formed by adding dots 3 and 6 to each of the first five letters.

u v x y z   w
●  ○
○  ○
●  ●
●  ○
●  ○
●  ● 
●  ●
○  ○
●  ● 
●  ●
○  ●
●  ● 
●  ○
○  ●
●  ● 
       ○  ●
●  ●
○  ●

The letter “w” is an exception because the French alphabet did not contain a “w” when the code was created; the symbol for “w” was added later.

Braille and Advances in Technology

Access to information in braille has evolved considerably in recent years. Braille can now be translated and formatted with a computer. Braille characters can be entered directly into a computer with six keys on the computer’s keyboard. In addition, text that is entered into a computer via scanning or typing can be put into braille by using special software programs. Braille embossers can take output from a computer and produce single- or double-sided braille materials in a fraction of the time it took to create braille by hand. While this process represents a major advance in braille production, computer-assisted braille translation is not perfect and materials must always be checked by a qualified braille proofreader.

Blind individuals use devices with refreshable braille displays to take notes, read braille materials, prepare school assignments, and perform many other tasks in braille that were not possible even twenty years ago. These advances in braille technology have had a profound impact on educational and professional opportunities available to blind braille readers.

Braille Transcribers and Proofreaders

Throughout the United States, dedicated braille transcribers and proofreaders work, often on a volunteer basis, to produce braille materials. These materials supplement the books and magazines produced in quantity by NLS and other organizations. Sighted and blind individuals may become certified after completing a lengthy, detailed course of braille transcribing, culminating in the award by the Library of Congress of a certificate of proficiency in the appropriate braille code.

Their activities include transcribing print material into braille, duplicating/embossing copies, binding braille books, preparing materials for use with electronic refreshable braille displays, and proofreading.

Many braille transcribers and proofreaders work as volunteers for NLS and its national network of cooperating libraries that distributes books and magazines to blind and physically handicapped readers, state departments of special education, and local school systems.   

Many individuals work as volunteers to gain the experience necessary to be hired by braille production agencies and school systems. The National Braille Association (NBA), a professional organization for transcribers, provides transcribers with guidance and professional development opportunities.

Brailling is a skill that requires training, intellectual curiosity, patience, meticulousness, and the abilities to work under pressure and to understand and follow directions. Braille transcribers report a great sense of accomplishment in learning a completely new system of reading and writing, and in empowering blind people to independently access the reading materials they need for education, work, and other life activities.

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Posted on 2014-12-02