The world observes World Braille Day on the 4th of January every year. It honours the birth of Louis Braille and his efforts. For many of us, many questions may have popped up in our minds when we think about Braille. How did Louis Braille come up with the codes that help the visually impaired to read and write? How did he decide which code would represent which alphabet or number? Well, this blog explores the history and development of Braille.
What is Braille?
Braille is, simply stated, a system of touch reading and writing for visually impaired people. The alphabet or numbers are represented by raised dots. Other than the numbers and alphabets, it also has equivalents for punctuation marks and symbols for showing letter groupings.
Braille is read by moving the hand(s) along each line from left to right. Usually, both hands are involved in the reading process, and it is the index finger that is generally used for doing so. While the average reading speed is about 125 words per minute, greater speeds (of up to 200 words per minute) are also possible.
Why is Braille so important?
By employing the Braille alphabet, people who are visually impaired can read, review and study the written word. Different written conventions like punctuation, spelling, paragraphing and footnotes are also made aware of.
Perhaps the most important thing about Braille is that it gives those individuals access to a wide range of reading materials. These include educational and recreational reading, restaurant menus and financial statements, insurance policies, regulations, contracts, cookbooks and directories which are all a part of our daily adult life. And through this system, these individuals can also pursue hobbies and cultural enrichment with the use of materials like hymnals, music scores, board games and cards.
Over the years, there have been attempts at many other methods to enable reading and writing for the visually impaired. However, many of them failed because they were only the raised version of print letters. The braille system is successful due to the fact that it is based on a rational sequence of signs designed for the fingertips, and not by imitating the signs that are designed for the eyes.
Receiving early education in braille is vital to literacy, education and employment among the visually impaired. However, each day brings new education policies and screen reader software. And despite the fact that technologies like braille displays have made the system more practical and accessible, braille usage has significantly declined in recent years.
Charles Barbier’s ‘Night writing’
Braille has its roots in the early 1800s. Charles Barbier was serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army. Barbier developed a unique tactile military code, known as night writing. This was in response to Napoleon’s demand for a form of communication that enabled the soldiers to communicate at night, sans a light source. While serving in the army, Barbier witnessed many soldiers being killed as they used lamps in the dark to read combat messages. The light from the lamps alerted the enemy combatants of their location, which inevitably led to their deaths.
Barbier’s night writing system was based on a raised 12-dot cell- two dots wide and six dots tall. Each of the dots or combination of dots in the cell stood for an alphabetical letter or a phonetic sound. However, the problem with the system was that the human fingertips failed to feel all the dots with one touch. So it proved to be difficult for the soldiers to recognize the dots by touch. Hence, the night writing system was rejected by the military. However, it would serve as the basis for Braille’s system.
Louis Braille’s contribution
Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France on January 4th, 1809. His father was a leatherworker who poked holes in his leather goods with an awl. Braille lost his sight at a young age after he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with an awl.
A year before Braille turned eleven, he enrolled at the National Institute of the Blind in Paris. It was there he attempted to modify Barbier’s night writing system to create an effective system of written communication for visually impaired individuals like himself. For the better part of the next nine years, Braille spent his time developing and refining the system of raised dots that came to be named after him.
It was in 1821 that Barbier met Braille during a visit to the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris. According to Braille, there were two major defects in the night writing code. First, the code failed to render the orthography of the words since it represented only sounds. And second, the human finger couldn’t feel the entire 12-dot symbol unless moved and couldn’t move from one symbol to another in rapid succession.
The solution that Braille came up with was to use 6-dot cells. A specific pattern was assigned to each letter of the alphabet. Initially, Braille was a one-to-one transliteration of just French orthography. But soon, many contractions, abbreviations and logograms were developed, thus moulding the system into something more like shorthand. Grade-2 Braille, as the expanded system was called, was completed by 1905.
Braille is derived indirectly from the Latin alphabet. In the original system that Braille developed, the dot patterns were assigned to the letters based on their position within the alphabetic order of French alphabets. Ascending letters and ‘w’ were sorted at the end.
The first ten alphabetic letters (referred to as the first decade) a to j, are represented by four upper dot positions, as shown in the table below. These also represent ten digits, 1 to 9 and 0. The next ten letters, k to t, are identical in their representation to a to j, respectively, except that a dot is added at position three. This can be seen in the table below.
The next ten letters or the next ‘decade’ are the same too, but dots are added at both positions 3 and 6. This is shown in the table. The letter w was left out since it was not part of the official French alphabet at the time Braille developed this system. Hence, the order of the French braille is u v x y z ç é à è ù.
The next ten letters which end in w are the same again, only that position 6 is used while there is no dot in position 3. In French Braille, these stand for the letters â ê î ô û ë ï ü ö w. The letter w was added at the end of the French alphabet, to accommodate English. Removing the dot from position 3 also forms the ligatures ch, gh, sh, th, wh, ed, er, ou and ow.
Braille may be produced by hand, by the use of a slate and stylus. In this method, each dot is made from the back of the page, written in a mirror image. Other methods include using a braille typewriter or the Perkins Brailler, or an eBrailler (electronic Brailler). Since the letters of Braille can’t be exactly ‘erased’ or written over when an error is made, an error is overwritten by using all six dots.
Many languages, including English, have different versions or grades of Braille.
Grade 1 Braille
Grade 1 Braille is basically a letter-to-letter substitution for its printed counterpart. It is the preferred code for beginners since it lets people recognize and get familiar with the different parts of the code when learning to read in Braille.
In English, grade 1 Braille is made of 26 standard letters of the alphabet and also includes punctuation.
Grade 2 Braille
Grade 2 Braille code uses contractions. That is, shorter sequences of otherwise the full spelling of the most common letter groups. The contractions are similar to those in English print. For example, using ‘can’t’ instead of ‘cannot.’ In a similar way, words are shortened in grade 2 Braille. For example, ‘the’ is usually represented by a single character in Braille.
The grade 2 Braille code is used for a number of reasons. First, the standard Braille cell is rather large. This means that a single page in print can turn into three pages of Braille. So contractions help to decrease the number of characters, thereby decreasing the overall size of the document. Second, reading and writing Braille may be time-consuming. Through the implementation of contractions, it takes less time.
Grade 2 Braille is the most common form of Braille to be used. It is found in books, restaurant menus, and public signage, to name a few. It is made of 26 alphabets, punctuation and contractions.
Grade 3 Braille
Grade 3 Braille is the least used form of Braille code. Considered the ‘shorthand’ of Braille, this version compresses complete words into merely one or two characters. Since grade 3 Braille hasn’t been officially standardized, official publications don’t use it. More often, it appears in diaries, personal letters and notes.
While the system derived by Braille is used to date, there have been many instances when the six dots of the traditional Braille cell were inadequate for a particular task. Teachers, enterprising inventors and Braille users have often tried to expand the braille cell. This they did by increasing the number of dots from six to eight. As a result of the expansion, there exists a Braille cell that is two dots wide and four dots high (the traditional one is three dots high). So, in the eight dot cell, there are 256 possible dot combinations, as opposed to the 63 possible dot combinations in a six dot cell. The additional dots are numbered 7 (the lower-left dot) and 8 (the lower-right dot).
Academic texts sometimes employ the eight dot cell system rather than the six dot one, which enables them to encode a greater number of symbols.
Punctuations used in the Braille system vary according to each language. In English, the basic punctuation marks include the following-
⠦stands for both the question mark and the opening quotation mark. How it is read depends on whether it is placed before or after a word.
⠶ stands for both opening and closing parentheses. It is interpreted by its placement relative to other characters and spaces.
When the dots in the first decade (a to j) are shifted down by one dot space, it stands for punctuation. The letters, a (⠁) and c (⠉), use only the dots in the upper row. When shifted two places, they stand for the apostrophe (⠄) hyphen (⠤).
In addition to this, there are ten other patterns based on the first two letters when their dots are moved to the right. These were assigned to non-French letters (ì ⠌) (ä ⠜) (ò ⠬), or stand for non-letters:⠈ (superscript; in English the accent mark), ⠘ (currency prefix), ⠨ (capital, in English the decimal point), ⠼ (number sign), ⠸ (emphasis mark), ⠐ (symbol prefix).
Braille writing machines
Braille writing machines are typewriters with six keys, which permit to write in the Braille alphabet on a regular white page.
The first Braille typewriter that gained general acceptance was the one invented by Frank Haven Hall. Hall was the Superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind. His typewriter was presented to the public in 1892.
In 1903, Henry Stainsby developed a typewriter which came to be known as the Stainsby Brailler. It is a mechanical writer equipped with a sliding carriage that slides over an aluminium plate as it embosses the Braille characters. An improved version of the same was introduced around 1933.
David Abraham, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind, produced an advanced typewriter in 1951, known as the Perkins Brailler.
It was in the 1950s that Braille embossers or printers were produced. In 1960, a teacher at MIT, Robert Mann, wrote DOTSYS. DOTSYS is software that permits automatic translation of Braille. The first Braille translator written in a portable programming language, DOTSYS II, was developed by the Mitre Corporation team of Robert Gildea, Jonathan Millen, Reid Gerhart and Joseph Sullivan. DOTSYS III was developed as a public domain program for the Atlanta Public Schools.
In 1991, the Mountbatten Brailler was developed by Ernest Bate. It is an electronic machine employed to type Braille on Braille paper. The machine also permits many additional features like embossing, word processing and audio feedback. An improved version was introduced in 2008, with an erase key.
In 2011, the first SMART Brailler machine was produced by David S. Morgan. The machine has a text to speech function and permits digital capture of data entered.
Louis Braille’s legacy has enlightened the lives of individuals who are visually impaired. They benefit from Braille’s work every day of their lives. Today, Braille code is transcribed in many different languages all over the world.