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The importance of braille: What it is and how it’s used

person reading braille with their fingers

What is braille?

Have you ever seen the raised dots on bathroom signs or elevator numbers and wondered what they were? These raised dots are braille, a writing system that allows people to use their sense of touch to read words and numbers. Braille is used by people who are considered blind or who have low vision.

What does braille look like?

Braille is composed of 6-dot cells that have 2 columns and 3 rows. These cells use different patterns to convey certain letters or punctuation. A single dot or pattern of dots may be raised in any of the 6 positions. There are 64 possible combinations of English braille.

Braille takes up more space than print, so standalone books or novels that are long in print can often come in a large number of volumes when transcribed to braille. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth Harry Potter book and the longest addition to the series. The hardcover print version of the book has around 870 pages. The braille version has 1,415 pages.

  • The da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is one of the highest selling novels of all time. Its paperback version is just under 500 pages long. The braille version of the novel consists of 9 volumes.

How is braille used?

A common misconception about braille is that it is its own language. This is not true. Rather, braille is a writing system that has its own versions in many other languages besides English. There are even different forms of braille in English for music, math and computer science that follow their own unique rules.

Braille can be transcribed (written) or translated. Transcription refers to transferring printed text to braille cells, while translation refers to translating braille in one language to another.

In everyday life, braille is used to annotate public signs like bathroom placards. Refreshable braille displays can be connected to computers to transcribe words into braille of up to 80 characters at a time. There are also braille printers and braille keyboards to assist with online navigation.

READ MORE: How to make the internet easier to navigate with impaired vision

How is braille written?

There are three grades (types) of braille writing. They vary in rules, difficulty and general writing techniques.

Grade 1 braille

This style of braille writing is the most simple. For grade 1 braille, letters are substituted with their braille counterparts one by one. This is a form of transcribing. Grade 1 braille in English consists of 26 alphabetical letters, as well as punctuation.

Grade 2 braille

Grade 2 braille is known as the “literary code.” It utilizes contractions for certain commonly used words, like “but” and “very.” The purpose of these contractions is to optimize the process of reading and writing braille since going letter by letter can be time-consuming. Grace 2 English braille consists of the 26 alphabet letters, along with punctuation and at least 50 contractions. 

This is the most common type of braille that is used. It is observed in most books, printed menus and public signs.

Grade 3 braille

This form of braille writing uses shorthand to fit entire words or phrases into a single or small string of characters. Grade 3 builds on the rules established in grade 2. However, many of the shorthands used in grade 3 braille are not standardized. This grade of braille is the leased used form.

Interesting facts you might not know about braille

  1. You don’t capitalize the word braille — unless you’re talking about the person who created it. Braille is not capitalized when it is describing the writing system. However, Braille is capitalized when it is referring to Louis Braille.

  2. There is braille notation specifically for math and numbers. The Nemeth Code (also called Nemeth Braille and Nemeth Braille Code) is a type of braille notation that is used specifically for mathematics and science transcription. It was developed by Dr. Abraham Nemeth and has been in use since 1952.

  3. Experienced braille readers can cover the same number of words per minute as sighted readers can with print. The average reading speed of braille readers is between 200 – 400 words per minute. This is comparable to the average reading speed for sighted people, which is between 200 – 300 words per minute.

  4. Braille exists in 133 different languages. Braille is a writing system that can be applied to many languages that are spoken worldwide. These include French, Spanish, Chinese and more.

  5. Students can put their braille skills to the test. The Braille Challenge is a yearly competition held for blind students throughout the United States and Canada. The students compete with peers in their own age group and can participate in three different categories: proofreading, reading comprehension and spelling.

  6. Braille isn’t as widely used today as it was many decades ago. According to reports done around 2009, only one in ten or fewer people who are legally blind can read braille. Braille literacy and usage has gone down since the 20th century. This shortage could be attributed to there being few teachers qualified to instruct braille, as well as the advancement in audio technologies.

FURTHER READING: Guide for college students with visual impairment 

The creation of braille

The first incarnation of braille dates back to an early concept called “night writing.” Charles Barbier, a French native, invented many different forms of alternative writing that were published in a book in 1815. Night writing was the name given to the tactile system he developed using raised dots in 12-dot cells.

This system was first proposed to the French military to encourage communication that did not require a light to see. However, it was rejected by the French military because it was too difficult to understand.

Braille as we know it today was created by Louis Braille. Inspired by Charles Barbier’s night writing system, Louis Braille took the 12-dot setup and streamlined it to 6-dot cells that can correlate with many letters, words and numbers.

Louis Braille was a student at France’s Royal Institute for Blind Youth when he began his work with braille. He spent at least nine years developing the system and worked throughout his life to refine and improve it. Unfortunately, he was never able to see the success of braille in his own lifetime.

Braille’s impact on the blind and low vision community

Many things have changed since the creation of braille. With audio resources being much more available to those with blindness and low vision, some might wonder how relevant braille is in today’s world.

While braille literacy has gone down in the last few decades, it is still used in many places and is a cornerstone for blind literacy. Events like the Braille Challenge help maintain interest in the writing system for students throughout the United States and Canada. When paired with audio assisting devices, braille helps thousands of people navigate through the sight-centric world each day.

READ NEXT: A typeface designed specifically for low-vision readers

History of braille. Braille Works. Accessed March 2022.

What is braille? Braille Works. Accessed March 2022.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Future Aids: The Braille Superstore. Accessed March 2022.

The Da Vinci Code. WorldCat. Accessed March 2022.

World braille usage. Perkins School for the Blind. Accessed March 2022.

What is braille? American Foundation for the Blind. Accessed March 2022.

Refreshable braille displays. American Foundation for the Blind. Accessed March 2022.

12 things you probably don’t know about braille. Perkins School for the Blind. Accessed March 2022.

Braille — What is it? What does it mean to the blind? The World Under My Fingers:

Personal Reflections on Braille. National Federation of the Blind. Winter 1996.

The braille literacy crisis in America. National Federation of the Blind. March 2009.

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