Touching words: how Braille brought light to the blind

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 14 minutes

Few of us could imagine being unable to see. Survey data suggests that we fear blindness more than we fear losing our hearing, our memory, or even a limb.

And yet for over 200 years, blind and visually impaired people have been able to read, write, and live normal lives - all thanks to a teenager from France.

Louis Braille was just fifteen years old when he created a system that would allow millions of visually impaired people around the world to ‘see’ with their fingers. Incredibly, he was also completely blind himself.

Today, Braille continues to be the fundamental form of written communication for the visually impaired. It remains almost exactly as Louis Braille invented it and can be used for

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 14 minutes

Few of us could imagine being unable to see. Survey data suggests that we fear blindness more than we fear losing our hearing, our memory, or even a limb.

And yet for over 200 years, blind and visually impaired people have been able to read, write, and live normal lives – all thanks to a teenager from France.

Louis Braille was just fifteen years old when he created a system that would allow millions of visually impaired people around the world to ‘see’ with their fingers. Incredibly, he was also completely blind himself.

Today, Braille continues to be the fundamental form of written communication for the visually impaired. It remains almost exactly as Louis Braille invented it and can be used for any language based on the Latin alphabet.

Braille is not a language, but a system of writing that allows for dozens of languages – from English and Spanish to Chinese and Arabic – to be read and written by the visually impaired. Nearly every language has its own braille system, which means it can be used by people all over the world.

Born in Coupvray, France, in 1809, Louis was three when he injured his eye with a tool in his father’s workshop. The resulting infection spread to his other eye, and within a few years, he was blind.

In those days, teaching resources for the blind were almost unheard of. Louis attended school as normal and learned through recitation but was unable to learn how to read or write. It was clear, however, that he was exceptionally intelligent, and his parents were determined that he make the most of his abilities. So, at the age of 10, Louis was sent off to The Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.

Despite catering specifically for blind children, the teaching of the blind was rudimentary at best. Learning to write remained impossible; instead, the students were given a form of embossed print that had been invented by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy. Each raised letter had to be laboriously traced with the fingers and sounded out. The books that had been printed with this raised text were huge and could only hold a limited number of words.

This might have remained the case if it weren’t for Charles Barbier. An artillery officer in Napoleon’s army, Charles Barbier was tasked with creating a system of communication that soldiers could use in the dark. Napoleon was concerned that too many of his men were being killed when trying to read maps at night.

Barbier went on to create ecriture nocturne, or “night-writing”: a system that could be used to transmit messages through touch. It included an alphabetic grid using patterns of raised dots and dashes, with each tactile pattern representing a letter. Although intricate, the system had many problems. The human fingertip could not feel all the dots with one touch, nor was there any way to show capitalisation or punctuation. Despite Barbier’s efforts, the military decided it was too complex to use.

Not to be put out, Barbier later turned to the Royal Institute for Blind Youths in Paris: Louis’ school.

Louis was only 12 when he attended Barbier’s first lecture on his night-writing system. While his fellow classmates quickly lost interest, Louis was fascinated. He was to spend the next three years developing and refining the system of raised dots so that it was simpler to read. By the time he’d turned 15, his work was complete.

To begin with, Louis abandoned Barbier’s dashes and dramatically reduced the number of dots to six instead of 12. Each letter was represented by a tiny cell measuring just three dots high by two across, like the ‘6’ on a domino. The first ten letters of the alphabet used the four upper dots, the next ten added the lower-left dot to the earlier combinations. The letters u, v, x, y, and z were formed by adding both of the lower dots (w doesn’t belong to the French alphabet so was added later). The system also included symbols for capital letters, punctuation marks, and could even be used for mathematics.

Most importantly, the dots were arranged in such a way that a fingertip could trace the entire cell at once before moving onto the next. It also meant that every letter of the alphabet and every necessary symbol could be easily reproduced by hand. For the first time, blind people could write for themselves.

A musician himself, Louis also invented Braille music. Like the literary code, Braille music uses a six-dot cell. Unlike in print music, a stave and clefs are not needed and instead, the dots are arranged to represent the pitch and rhythm of each note. Braille music also has its own syntax and abbreviations.

Louis went on to become a teacher at the National Institute for Blind Youth. By the time he was 35, the Braille system had become the school’s standard reading mode. When he died at the age of 42 from tuberculosis, his six-dot method was already changing the lives of blind children and adults around the world.

Interestingly, research has since suggested that reading Braille is processed in the same area of the brain that sighted people use when reading print. Brain imaging studies show that when blind people read Braille, they activate the same ‘visual region’ that sighted people use when they read print, even though they are using their sense of touch.

In many languages, including English, Braille comes in uncontracted and contracted forms. Uncontracted Braille or grade 1 comprises the basic dot combinations for each letter of the alphabet, numbers, and the main punctuation signs. This makes it useful for labelling items such as food in a supermarket, and objects.

In languages such as English and French, contracted Braille is the form most commonly used. It adds dedicated short forms to represent common words or groups of letters. For example, words such as ‘the’, ‘for’, and ‘will’ are written as contractions, along with common letter combinations such as ING, ER, and SH. This makes Braille texts quicker and easier to read and more compact to print.

Contracted Braille is also used in English for transcribing longer, hardcopy materials such as books. However, the advent of ‘Braille displays’ now allows for devices that include a digital single-line Braille screen along with a keyboard. This allows users the flexibility to change the Braille grade to their liking.

With smartphones and computers providing ready access to reading via synthesised speech, it’s estimated that only one in 10 blind people today can read Braille. Prior to the 1980s, Braille was taught in specialist schools as the default education method for practically all blind students in New Zealand and many other countries.

Research over time into how many people use Braille and what for is lacking. But despite many Braille users insisting that Braille is a valuable tool for blind students along with the rise in availability of Braille displays, this 200-year-old reading system may be on the decline.

Learning Braille: Áine Kelly-Costello’s story

A campaigner, musician, journalist, and former Kiwi Paralympian swimmer, Áine has been blind all her life.

Áine began learning the basics of Braille at age three and was enrolled at a school for the blind for a year at age four. She credits her blind teacher with helping her to grasp Braille contractions, while her mum also reinforced her learning at home. By age seven, Áine was reading fluently.

Now in her daily work, Áine uses synthesised speech (called a screen reader) on her laptop and smartphone, in combination with a Braille display. A Braille display is a separate device with a single electronic line of refreshable Braille along with a Braille, or sometimes, a QWERTY keyboard.

 

A talented musician, Áine used Braille when she was studying classical music. In Norway, where she now lives, Braille is usually provided on medications, lifts, and in most public areas. And it still comes in handy in her media work.

“Whenever I am learning a new language, I usually do a fair bit of reading in Braille, particularly if the language is not a phonetic one,” she says. Áine can read and speak English, Spanish, French, some Swedish and even some te reo.

When reading for leisure, however, she prefers audiobooks, “unless it’s poetry, because synthesised speech really butchers that!”

Braille can be helpful at times when listening to the screen reader would require extra concentration. For Áine, that includes when delivering presentations, taking notes in class, or proofreading audio transcripts.

“Listening to the audio and the screen reader at the same time isn’t very nice – lots of audio – so I use Braille for that,” she says.

The availability of Braille is totally different from what it was 10 or 15 years ago, she adds, but the cost of Braille displays can be prohibitive: most are a few thousand dollars.

“In New Zealand, it can be difficult to get funding to help with those costs if you want the Braille display for personal use,” she explains. “Most countries have libraries with some hardcopy materials in Braille, but those are always going to be a lot more limited than what you can find online.”

For those setting out to learn Braille, she advises starting with manageable goals. “You might eventually want to become fluent at reading out loud, but a better first goal might be to read the buttons on the lift or a medication label. As with learning any new language, it’s easier if you do it when you’re younger. But it’s totally possible to learn it later.”

Her own thoughts on the future of Braille? “While sighted students are learning to read print, blind students will ideally be taught Braille at school, whether that’s a specialist school or in a mainstream setting with sighted classmates. In practice, this doesn’t always happen, and sometimes students with low vision are pushed to strain their eyes rather than be exposed to this alternative, less strenuous method. Adults can learn Braille too, even if – similar to learning a foreign language – it takes more dedication. Still, even learning uncontracted Braille can be especially useful for everyday tasks like reading buttons on the lift or labelling items.”

Despite the plethora of alternatives now available for the visually impaired, Áine insists that Braille is still a useful tool in many situations.

“We’d never think of using the rise of video and podcasts as a justification to deny sighted students the chance to read print. Equally, I’d argue every student who might benefit from knowing Braille now or later has the right to learn the code as early as possible,” she says. “It gives them choices about how they read and write, not just now but for the rest of their lives. And receiving a Christmas card you can read in Braille never gets old.”

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