Braille is a tactile language made up of a system of raised dots. The reader feels the dots to recognize a letter. This system allows visually impaired, blind, and deaf-blind users to read, write, take notes, and communicate.
Braille was invented in 1824 by Louis Braille, a blind French student. He based his system on a method of raised dots and dashes called “night writing” or sonography.
Sonography was developed by Charles Barbier de la Serre to enable soldiers to read messages passed during night manoeuvres. Braille and Barbier met to discuss possible alterations to the system. When Barbier insisted that the method remain unaltered, Braille developed a new system that involved raised dots in a fresh configuration.
Although the braille system was met with enthusiasm by blind users, it was not officially accepted by educators until thirty years later in 1854. This may have been caused by a resistance to change from the proven methods of instruction, a lack of willingness on the part of sighted instructors to learn a new method, or the simultaneous development and promotion of other new language systems for the blind.
The braille system is based on a cell, a configuration of dots forming two columns of three dots each. Each letter of the alphabet and each punctuation mark is made up of one or more of the possible six dots that make up a cell. Sixty-three combinations or patterns are possible. In addition to the alphabet, there are 189 contractions and short forms or abbreviations for words that are formed in the cells. These same braille cells are also assigned different meanings to write music, foreign languages, numbers, and science terms.
Different forms or grades of braille are available. Grade one braille is the form developed by Louis Braille and utilizes one character per each letter of the alphabet. It contains no contractions. Grade two braille was developed in England and contains over 200 contractions and short forms for common words. In 1932, grade two or Standard English Braille was officially adopted as the braille of choice for English-speaking nations. Grade three braille is an expansion of Grade two. It extends the list of contractions and deletes vowels. Grade three is used most often for ease in writing rapidly or for taking notes.
Braille is embossed onto thick paper or plastic sheets by a braille press, braille writer, or brailler, braille computer printer, or manual slate and stylus. Because braille requires a large amount of space, the braille edition of a book or magazine is several times longer than the print edition and is much heavier.
Braille is read with the finger tips of the index finger and/or the middle finger or ring finger of one or both hands. An average reading speed of a reader using one hand is approximately 104 words per minute. Ambidextrous (using both hands) readers may increase the rate to 200 or more words per minute.
Braille is not used by all visually impaired or blind people. Some have sufficient remaining vision to read with the use of such an optical aid as a magnifier. Others with less useful residual vision may opt to forgo learning braille because of such physical problems as diabetic neuropathy (decreased sensitivity in the fingers caused by diabetes), or because of advanced age. The wide availability of recorded books, other reading materials and synthetic speech output for computers may have had an effect on the willingness of visually impaired persons to learn braille. However, braille reading is accepted as a necessary skill for learning the basic literacy skills of reading, grammar, and diction.
Paperless braille, or cassette braille, is an information system that is stored on disks and accessed in braille. The system reduces the storage space normally needed for thick braille texts. To use such paperless braille systems as VersaBraille, the individual runs his fingers over display cells to read the text. The push of a button accesses the next segment of recorded material. The user can produce, edit, and record braille with the system. Although it consists of several pieces of equipment, the system is portable and can be adapted to computer terminals, calculators, and typewriters.
Braille, Louis was the inventor of the braille system, a language comprised of raised dots which are read by the fingers. Braille was born in 1809 in Coupvray, France, the son of a harness maker. At the age of three, he injured his eye while playing with his father’s leather-working tools. The initial injury became infected, spread to the other eye and left him completely blind. He was sent to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris when he was ten. The students were taught orally through lessons repeated to them by their instructors or through books printed in enbossed letters in a system developed by the founder of the school, Valentin Haüy. Later, the school adopted sonography, an adaptation of a system of night writing developed by an army captain, Charles Barbier de la Serre. Sonography employed a complicated system of raised dots and dashes that spelled words phonetically. It was based on a 12-dot cell for each letter that used considerable space on a page. Braille began to experiment with the writing system, making changes and improvements. He met with Barbier, who rejected the changes and insisted that his system remain as introduced.
Over the next three years, Braille worked continuously to develop his own language of dots. In 1824, at the age of 15, his work was complete. He had developed a reading and writing system of dot patterns or characters based on a six-dot cell. Each character represented one letter of the alphabet or one numeral. He went on to adapt systems that could be used for musical notations and a method of drawing letters, using a slate and stylus, called raphigraphy.
Although Braille’s method was immediately adopted by pupils at the school, it was officially rejected. This may have been for reasons of fear on the part of sighted teachers, hesitancy to revamp current teaching methods, and reluctance to make obsolete teaching tools that had been difficult and expensive to purchase. It was not until 1843, at the inauguration of the new building of the Institution for Blind Youth, where an exhibition of the system was given, that braille gained official recognition. In 1854, at the insistence of the students and blind teachers, braille was adopted as a teaching method by the school. Acceptance for the system spread throughout Europe. It was first taught in America around 1859 or 1960 at the St. Louis School for the Blind. Today, braille is universally used as a language of reading and writing for the blind and visually impaired.
Louis Braille did not live to see the acceptance of his writing system. He died in 1852 of tuberculosis. A century later, in 1952, his remains were moved from his native Coupvray for reburial in the Pantheon, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a French citizen.
Braille Music has traditionally been produced manually by a limited number of people who specialize in the service. Musicians were often frustrated by having to wait weeks, sometimes months, to have their music transcribed. In 1997, a company called Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology introduced a braille music translator program that allows music to be produced locally by sighted copyists. The service is based on a software program called GOODFEEL. With this program, braille music can be produced by people with no special training. Braille scores are produced from the same computer music files that are used to print staff notation. The technology was spearheaded by Bill McCann, president and founder of Dancing Dots, who is also a blind musician and programmer. The company also offers other music-related products for the visually impaired. Dancing Dots is out of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and has a website with more information in English, French, and Spanish: http://www.dancingdots.com
Braille Writer, or brailler, is a machine used to write braille. Similar to the function of a typewriter, braille writers come in manual or electric forms. They are more practical for large writing tasks than a slate and stylus, which is the equivalent of paper and pen for a sighted person. The first brailler, the Hall Braillewrite, was introduced in 1892 by Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind. Braille writers have six keys and a space bar. Each key corresponds to a dot of the six dot braille cell. To form a braille letter, the user simultaneously pushes the keys corresponding to the needed dot combination. The dots are pressed onto lightweight manila tag paper. Users can attain writing speeds of up to 60 words per minute. Braille writers vary in size, but generally are approximately fifteen inches by nine inches by five inches and weigh ten pounds. Current braille writers include the Perkins Brailler, the Lavender Braillewriter, and the Hall Braillewriter.