The How Braille works.


How does Braille work?

Braille is one of the most amazing inventions today. It has the ability to allow blind people the ability to read, even though they cannot see the words that they are reading. Although this may seem like a small thing, being able to read gives blind people an entirely new way to communicate and it also allows them opportunities such as the chance to gain an education. Before Braille was invented, schools for the blind mostly focused on basic skill training with academics often falling by the wayside and teaching reading or writing was seen as completely impossible. Another amazing thing about Braille is that it was developed almost 2 centuries ago yet it is still used on a daily basis today. We see it just about everywhere we go, public signs, elevator numbers, and in government and other local offices. Not only is it still extremely relevant and important but another amazing fact about Braille is that it was developed by a 15-year-old!

Louis Braille was a teenager when he attended the Royal Institution for Blind Youth when in 1828, a visitor to the school by the name of Charles Barbier came. Barbier showed Louis Braille a form of writing known as night writing, that was used mainly be military personnel so that they could speak to each other at night while away at war and not be heard. This system used cells and dots to represent the sounds letters made, rather than the letters themselves but the idea of night writing had never really taken off but it did give Louis Braille the idea that if a system such as this could be used for night purposes, it could also be used to teach the blind how to read and write. Basing his method on the same cell and dot system that night writing used, Louis Braille determined that you could fit six dots under the tip of your finger, in a cell that consisted of 3 dots lengthwise and 2 dots across. Using these six spaces, Louis Braille determined that you could strategically place dots and dashes to create a system that would represent the letters of the alphabet.

Understanding Braille

The Braille system that is used today is pretty much the same system that Louis Braille invented in the 1800s however there are some slight variations, such as dashes are no longer used and instead of using phonetic sounds, today’s Braille represents the actual letters of the alphabet. Also in today’s Braille, pages on a page consist of cells and each cell contains 6 spaces where there could be possible dots. Each dot is assigned a number and there are 3 dots running down the left hand-side of the column and 3 dots running down the right-hand side of the page. Each of these dots are assigned a number so dots 1-3 appear down the left while 4-6 appear along the right. In addition to Braille that represents letters of the alphabet, cells are also used to indicate such things as grammar, punctuation marks, and just about anything else that you could imagine writing down! For example, a Braille cell with only one dot in the bottom right (or position 6), indicates that the letter in the next cell is a capital letter. As well, some Braille cells are used to indicate 2 different things. For example, the Braille cells that indicate letters ‘A’ through ‘J’ are also the same Braille cells that are used to represent the numbers 0-9.

One line of Braille on a page is approximately 40 characters long and a typical page of Braille consists of about 25 lines. This is about half of what fits onto a page written in English text as standard typing fits approximately 80 characters per line and about 50 lines onto a page. In addition to this, Braille pages are much heavier and thicker than standard print and they are much larger, as they need to be able to lie flat so that someone reading them can read the Braille the lies near the binding of the book. Because of this, Braille books are generally much larger and heavier than other books. The Braille version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was large in standard print but much larger in Braille – it took 14 volumes to complete the whole book!

Because Braille takes up so much space, some people choose to learn contracted Braille, which is a shortened version of Braille and is also known as Grade 2 Braille. Unlike the original, longer version of Braille (also called Grade 1 Braille), Grade 2 Braille uses single cells to represent entire words or phrases, instead of just a single letter. The American English version of contracted Braille contains over 200 common words, phrases, and combinations of different letters such as ‘ing’, ‘ed’, ‘you’, and ‘me.’ Whether or not a person should learn Grade 1 or Grade 2 Braille is a topic that is largely debated. Arguments work for both sides, with those in favor of Grade 2 Braille arguing that Grade 1 Braille is too long and takes too much time to learn while educators who are in favor of Grade 1 Braille argue that although longer, the simple letters and symbols are most likely easier for small children to learn and that if Grade 2 Braille should be taught, it should only be taught after Grade 1 Braille has been fully learned and understood. However, those on the side of Grade Braille make the rebuttal that it is extremely unnecessary that anyone should need to learn 2 different codes, making it even more confusing.

Learning to Read and Write in Braille

Braille is read just as a person with sight would read words on a page – from left to right, only with the fingertips instead of the eyes. When writing Braille however, it’s done from left to right with the dots being physically pressed down into the page so that when they appear on the other side, it’s in the reverse order. There are a few different ways that are used when writing in Braille. The first is placing the paper onto a slate and physically making the dotted impressions with a stylus. There are also devices called Braille writers that have one key to represent each of the dots within a Braille cell. One can also use a QWERTY keyboard that has been hooked up to a Braille printer.

Learning to read and write Braille, although the tools may be a bit different, is not that much different than learning to read and write in English print. First, one needs to understand the difference between the different letters, including their shapes, and they then need to understand how these different shapes and symbols sound, after which they can then learn how these sounds come together to form sounds and full words. Basic reading primers are still used when teaching blind children how to read and write however, because these primers for seeing children most often include pictures along with text, the Braille primers have been developed using charts, stories and tools. Different tools are used depending on whether it is a child or an adult that is learning Braille.

One of the reasons why Braille has continued to be used and developed, unlike many of its early competitors is because it’s much faster to write in Braille than in the other methods. Still, it can take a very long time to translate a book from English text into Braille and until very recent technology was developed, the process depended on sight translators who would do it all by hand, which could take hundreds of hours! People can now scan books into a Braille version thanks to optical character recognition (OCR) technology. This in addition to Braille printers has made it much easier to translate English text into Braille and print it out into an embossed version.

Because it takes longer to feel something than it does to look at something, it does take longer to read in Braille than it takes to read printed text. One who is fluent in Braille can read on an advanced eighth grade level, being able to read about 200 words per minute. However, even someone fluent in the language can only read 120 words per minute. Because of this, blind people often use other methods of communication in addition to Braille including books on tape, recordings of family members or friends reading a book on tape, or screen readers, which are computer programs that can detect the print on the screen and read it out loud. But the slow process of learning to read and write in Braille are just the beginning of the challenges that a person faces when they want, or need, to learn Braille.

Difficulties in Learning Braille

One of the biggest challenges in understanding Braille is that there are many different versions. Each cell in Braille has the possibility of having any one of 63 combinations. This may sound like a lot but aside from the letters and numbers, there are also punctuation marks, mathematical and scientific symbols, as well as symbols such as musical notes. Consider that anything that you could look at on a piece of paper needs a Braille counterpart and you can quickly see how it’s impossible to fit it all within 63 different combinations. It’s partly because of this that Braille has so many different versions.

Because there are so many different letters, numbers and symbols, some countries have developed certain versions of Braille, to be used for different purposes. In the United States, the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) is responsible for controlling Braille publications and versions and they have created 5 different Braille codes. The American edition of English Braille is used for literacy purposes such as novels and magazines, while the Nemeth Code of Braille Mathematics and Scientific Notation is used in the United States for math and science. There is also Computer Braille Code, Braille Code for Chemical Notation, and Music Braille Code. In addition to the several different codes of Braille, some specialized codes use 8 cells instead of 6, which can add to the confusion.

But those 5 codes are just the different codes that the United States uses. Consider that every country also has their own versions of Braille, used for different purposes, and you can quickly see why so many combinations within the 63 that can be used need to be used for different meanings and representations. Because of this, the International Council of English Braille (ICEB) has published Unified English Braille, which includes a standardized English Braille alphabet, mathematical and scientific codes and notations, and music notations. Basically, it combines 3 different codes into 1 that everyone who speaks English can understand. Consider also that if a blind person wanted to learn to read and write Braille in another language, there would be a whole new set of Braille versions to learn and then Braille becomes an even trickier thing to grasp.

The versions of Braille that are set in place today are not necessarily those that will be in place 10 or even 5 years down the road, although they may be. Countries have entire organizations and agencies that constantly evaluate their Braille system and create new solutions or easier ways to read the Braille. The technological advancements that are also constantly being made in this area, such as the new optical character recognition system, also changes the way that Braille is read and written and therefore, will also have an impact on future methods. All of these developments are constantly trying to make Braille more accessible, easier to obtain, and cheaper to produce.

The Braille Alphabet


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