All About Braille

Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or who have low vision. Braille is not a language. Rather, it is a code by which many languages—such as English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and dozens of others—may be written and read. Braille is used by thousands of people all over the world in their native languages and provides a means of literacy for all. How was braille invented? What does it look like? What types of machines are used to create and read braille? Keep reading for these answers along with product suggestions from ILA. Information for this blog came from What is Braille?, Braille Invents His Code, Braille Alphabet and Numbers, Braille Alphabet Guide, Braille Alphabet, and product suggestions from the ILA website.

Night-Writing to Modern Day Braille

The history of braille goes all the way back to the early 1800s. A man named Charles Barbier who served in Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army developed a unique system known as “night writing” so soldiers could communicate safely during the night. As a military veteran, Barbier saw several soldiers killed because they used lamps after dark to read combat messages. As a result of the light shining from the lamps, enemy combatants knew where the French soldiers were and inevitably led to the loss of many men.

Barbier based his “night writing” system on a raised 12-dot cell; two dots wide and six dots tall. Each dot or combination of dots within the cell represented a letter or a phonetic sound. The problem with the military code was that the human fingertip could not feel all the dots with one touch.

Around the same time, Louis Braille was born in the village of Coupvray, France on January 4, 1809. He lost his sight at a very young age after he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with his father’s awl. (Braille’s father was a leatherworker and poked holes in the leather goods he produced with the awl.)  He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France, as a student.

In 1821, shortly after becoming the Institute’s new director, Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier invited Charles Barbier to address his students. At eleven years old, Braille found inspiration to modify Charles Barbier’s “night writing” code in an effort to create an efficient written communication system for fellow blind individuals. Between the ages of 13 and 16 Louis worked on perfecting an embossed dot system. Like Barbier’s, Louis’ system used raised dots, but beyond that similarity Louis’ ideas were his own. For three years Louis spent his free time refining his code. On the weekends, evenings, and summer vacations in Coupvray, Louis could be found with paper, slate, and stylus, diligently working.

When at age 15 he felt he had an adequate code, he shared it with Dr. Pignier, who had become his mentor. Louis’ system, based on a six-dot cell, was both simple and elegant.  Dr. Pignier encouraged the students at the Institute to use Louis’ code. With it, they were able to achieve a level of literacy previously unavailable to them.

What Does Braille Look Like?

Braille code is a writing system which enables blind and partially sighted people to read and write through touch. Braille consists of patterns of raised dots arranged in cells of up to six dots in a 3×2 configuration. Each cell represents a braille letter, numeral or punctuation mark. Some frequently used words and letter combinations also have their own single cell patterns. There are 63 possible combinations of raised dots used to represent the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation.

When every letter of every word is expressed in braille, it is referred to as uncontracted braille. Some books for young children are written in uncontracted braille although it is less widely used for reading material meant for adults.

The standard system used for reproducing most textbooks and publications is known as contracted braille. In this system cells are used individually or in combination with others to form a variety of contractions or whole words. For example, in uncontracted braille the phrase you like him requires twelve cell spaces.

If written in contracted braille, this same phrase would take only six cell spaces to write. This is because the letters y and l are also used for the whole words you and like respectively. Likewise, the word him is formed by combining the letters h and m.

There are 180 different letter contractions used in contracted braille (including 75 short form words like “him” shown above, which are simple abbreviations). These “short cuts” are used to reduce the volume of paper needed for reproducing books in braille and to make the reading process easier. Most children learn contracted braille from kindergarten on, and contracted braille is considered the standard in the United States, used on signs in public places and in general reading material.

Braille Code Versions:

  • Grade 1: consists of the 26 standard letters of the alphabet and punctuation. It’s mainly used by people who just started reading braille.
  • Grade 2: consists of the 26 standard letters of the alphabet, punctuation, and contractions. The contractions are employed to save space because a braille page cannot fit as much text as a standard printed page. Books, signs in public places, menus, and most other braille materials are written in Grade 2 braille.
  • Grade 3: is used only in personal letters, diaries, and notes. It is a kind of shorthand, with entire words shortened to a few letters.

Braille Readers and Writers

Just as printed matter can be produced with a paper and pencil, typewriter, or printer, braille can also be written in several ways. The braille equivalent of paper and pencil is the slate and stylus. This consists of a slate or template with evenly spaced depressions for the dots of braille cells, and a stylus for creating the individual braille dots. With paper placed in the slate, tactile dots are made by pushing the pointed end of the stylus into the paper over the depressions. The paper bulges on its reverse side forming dots. Because they are inexpensive and portable, the slate and stylus are especially useful for to jot quick notes and for labeling such things as file folders.

Braille is also produced by a machine known as a braillewriter. Unlike a typewriter which has more than fifty keys, the braillewriter has only six keys, a space bar, a line spacer, and a backspace. The six main keys are numbered to correspond with the six dots of a braille cell. Because most braille symbols contain more than a single dot, combinations of the braillewriter keys can be pushed at the same time.

Technological developments in the computer industry have provided and continue to expand additional avenues of literacy for braille users. Software programs and portable electronic braille devices allow users to save and edit their writing, have it displayed back to them either verbally or tactually, and produce a hard copy via a desktop computer-driven braille embosser. Because the use of computers is so common in school, children learn both the braille contractions and also how to spell words out letter for letter so they can spell and write using a keyboard.

Product suggestions:

Orbit Reader 40: The Orbit Reader 40 is a unique 3-in-1 electronic braille device that enables a blind or visually impaired user to read books and documents in braille, take notes and save them as braille or text files, and to easily access all of the functions of a computer or smartphone such as web browsing, email and text messaging. It is the world’s most affordable, full-feature 40-cell braille device and serves as a self- contained note-taker, braille display, and book reader.   It also can connect to a computer or smartphone via USB or Bluetooth. 

Orbit Reader 20 Plus: The Orbit Reader 20 Plus is a unique 3-in-1 electronic braille device that serves as a self-contained note-taker, braille display, and book reader.  It also can connect to a computer or smartphone via USB or Bluetooth. Supported systems and programs include Android, iOS, Windows, Fire OS, Chrome and Linux.  It provides the highest quality braille in the world at the lowest price.

Orbit Writer Keyboard for Smartphones: If you are a braille reader who uses a smartphone, the Orbit Writer is an excellent device which allows a braille keyboard user to have a physical input device for their smartphone.  The Orbit Writer is a small, wireless Perkins-style keyboard that connects to your smartphone or computer via Bluetooth, allowing you to control your smartphone or computer with intuitive key combinations. 

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