The 4th of January marks World Braille Day. This day celebrates the creator of braille, Louis Braille, and acts as a reminder of the progress made for blind and partially sighted people since this tactile alphabet was invented.
What is braille?
Braille is a tactile writing and reading system for blind and visually impaired people. Its characters are represented by raised dots on a surface that can be felt with fingertips. Each character is a combination of six raised dots arranged in a 3x2 unit, known as the braille cell.
When was it invented?
Braille was invented in 1824 by Louis Braille. Born in 1809 in a small French village in northern France, Louis Braille lost sight in both of his eyes as a child, one lost to an accident in his fathers workshop and the other suspected to be due to sympathetic ophthalmia later on.
Though blind from the age of five, he was a happy, bright and creative child who at ten years old was accepted into one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth or as it’s now known the National Institute for Blind Youth.
He was taught from embossed paper that was imprinted with the Latin alphabet. This writing style or typeface was created by Braille’s teacher Valentin Haüy, a philanthropist and founder of the school who’s life mission was to empower those living with visual impairments. The children at the school learned to decipher the raised letters on the paper but could only read not write, creating problems for all sorts of communication.
Louis Braille was set on creating a system for himself and others like him that could bridge the communication gap between the visually impaired and the visually able. He is noted to have said:
“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronised by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals — and communication is the way this can be brought about.”
How was it invented?
Louis Braille learned a tactile communication system created by ex-soldier Charles Barbier. Barbier was interested in shorthand as he believed traditional writing techniques were leading to divides in the population between those who were literate and those who were not. He argued that people who have to earn their living such as farmers cannot devote the time to education.
His system of writing, using a 6x6 system to indicate the phonetic alphabet, is thought by some to have been invented as a means for soldiers to communicate with each other at night, known as “night writing”. Soldiers would memorise an alphabetic grid and communicate by senders flashing a torch a number of times to represent first the horizontal number, then the diagonal number on the grid. Receivers would use two columns to dictate the flashes and emboss paper with dots to read.
This method was seen as too complex to be used at the time but it was the beginnings of Louis Braille’s eponym writing system.
At fifteen, Braille had mostly completed the system of braille, simplifying it and making it more efficient. Instead of 12 dots, he reduced it to six and this was a successful move as one could feel a whole letter in just one touch of a fingertip.
What is it used for today?
Almost two centuries since it was officially invented there are still new variations being developed. Braille technology that allows visually impaired people to scroll online, type, print, chat online and various other features is meeting the needs of modern-day blind people.
Young blind children are able to learn braille today and it can hugely benefit their literacy skills. Instead of simply listening to audio, braille allows visually impaired people to grasp punctuation, spelling and grammar far easier.
A refreshable braille display (RBD), a tactile device, displays text as braille when connected to a computer, laptop, tablet or phone. This can be beneficial for blind people that want to read a published book as less than 1% of the world’s published books are available in braille.
There are various ways to write braille including the Jot a Dot, a lightweight device similar to a traditional typewriter. It has six keys, one for each dot in the braille cell, which punch paper. There are also mechanical braillers which are much larger, braille embossers and electric notetakers and braillers.
On top of hardware that aids blind people in their use of braille, many softwares have been developed. For instance Duxbury DBT can translate ink to braille and braille to ink and JAWS can send words to braille display screens.
Without the compassion and dedication of ordinary people over time, Louis Braille would never have developed braille. Thanks to braille millions of people around the world can engage with and access a world primarly made for the sighted. Braille has bridged a gap between the abled and disabled and as technology continues to advance, we can expect braille’s role in the everyday lives of visually impaired people to rise too.
Facts about braille
- It is universal and available for use in every country around the world
- It’s currently used by six million blind people globally
- Some people can write 125 words a minute in braille
- Games such as cards, Scrabble, Uno, Lego and Monopoly are available in braille
- Braille takes up more space than the traditional alphabet so braille books are considerably larger
Find out more about Tej Kohli: Tej Kohli the technologist investing in human triumph, Tej Kohli the philanthropist trying to cure the developing world of cataracts and Tej Kohli the London tycoon with a generous streak.