What is Braille?

Braille is the system of touch reading and writing that utilises raised dots to represent the letters of the print alphabet for persons who are blind or visually impaired. The Braille system also includes symbols to represent punctuation, mathematics and scientific characters, music, computer notation, and foreign languages.

Braille is not a language. It is a code by which all languages may be written and read. Through the use of Braille, people who are blind are able to review and study the written word. It provides a vehicle for literacy and gives an individual the ability to become familiar with spelling, punctuation, paragraphing and other formatting considerations.

Braille is used mainly by people who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired. It is critically important to the lives of these people as the ability to read and write in Braille opens the door to literacy, intellectual freedom, equal opportunity, and personal security. Teachers, parents and others who are not visually impaired ordinarily read Braille with their eyes.

Braille symbols are formed within units of space known as Braille cells. A full Braille cell consists of six raised dots arranged in two parallel vertical rows each having three dots. The dot positions are identified by numbers one through six. Sixty-three combinations are possible using one or more of these six dots. Cells can be used to represent a letter of the alphabet, number, punctuation mark or even a whole word.

At The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh pupils start to learn Braille by strengthening their fingertips. Students play with items such as macaroni and peas in a tray and try to sort them using their fingertips. They then progress to learning actual Braille that is taught by their teachers, printing their own stories on Brailling machines. Finally as teenagers they can progress to Braille notebooks that are a really fast and professional means of writing and transcribing Braille.

When every letter of every word is expressed in Braille, it is referred to as Grade 1 Braille. Many newly blinded adults find Grade 1 Braille useful for labeling personal or kitchen items. Books or other reading materials can also be transcribed in Grade 1 Braille.

The system often used for reproducing textbooks and publications in English is known as Grade 2 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 Grade 1 Braille the phrase "you like him" requires twelve cell spaces. If it were written in Grade 2 Braille, this same phrase would use only six cell spaces. The letters Y and L are also used for the whole words "you" and "like" respectively. Similarly, the word "him" is formed by combining the letters H and M.

There are 189 different letter contractions and 76 short form words used in English Grade 2 Braille. These short cuts reduce the volume of paper needed for reproducing books in Braille and make reading faster.

Just as printed matter can be produced with paper, pencil, typewriter or printer, Braille can also be written in several ways. The Braille equivalent of paper and pencil is the slate and stylus. The slate or template has evenly spaced depressions for the dots of the Braille cells. The stylus is used to create 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 to form "dots". Because they are easy to carry, the slate and stylus are especially helpful for labeling and taking notes during lectures.

Braille is also produced by a machine known as a Braille writer. Unlike a typewriter which has more than 50 keys, the Braille writer has only six keys and a space bar. These keys are numbered to correspond with the six dots of a Braille cell. Since most Braille cells contain more than a single dot, all or any of the Braille writer keys can be pushed at the same time.

Computers provide and continue to expand additional avenues of literacy for Braille users. Software programs and portable electronic Braille notetakers 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.

The Braille code has undergone continuous modification over the years, particularly through the addition of contractions for words which appear frequently in English. The use of contractions allows for faster Braille reading and helps to reduce the size of Braille books. Since its development in France by Louis Braille in the early 19th Century, Braille has become an effective means of communication and a proven avenue for achieving and enhancing literacy for people who are blind or visually impaired.