All About Braille

What is Braille?

Braille is a tactile reading system that was invented in France in the mid-1800s and is named for its inventor, Louis Braille.

braille letter z

Braille enables children who are unable to read print to become literate and helps adults who lose the ability to read, due to blindness or low vision, to continue enjoying books, newspapers, and magazines.

The braille alphabet is based upon a "cell" that is composed of 6 dots, arranged in two columns of 3 dots each. Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed by using one or more of the 6 dots that are contained in the braille cell. (The letter "z" is pictured at left.) The chart below provides a good example of the design of the braille alphabet.

the braille alphabet

If you would like a copy of this chart, you can get a free embossed braille card from the National Braille Press website or you can go to the printable braille alphabet card available from the American Foundation for the Blind's Braille Bug.

Types of Braille

Braille has codes for writing text, music, and even technical material for math and science. Text or literary braille has two forms: non-contracted or alphabetic braille and contracted braille for saving space:

  • Alphabetic Braille, formerly called Grade One, writes out each letter and word exactly as it is spelled out in print. For example, in Alphabetic Braille the word "can" is written by using three separate braille cells—one cell for each of the three letters in the word "can." If you're interested primarily in writing shopping lists, playing card and board games, keeping telephone numbers, reading elevator buttons and room numbers, or writing labels or brief notes, Alphabetic Braille may meet your needs.
  • Literary Braille, formerly called Grade Two, is also called "contracted" braille. For example, in Literary (or contracted) Braille, the word "can" is written in a highly condensed or contracted form, using only one braille cell to represent the entire word. The majority of books and magazines are written in Literary Braille because it requires much less space than does Alphabetic Braille. If you want to read novels, magazines, or newspapers in braille, it is recommended that you learn to read and write Literary Braille.

Jeff Pledger, Senior Financial Analyst

Jeff with his guide dog Vincenzo

In 1984, when he was 27 years old, Jeff Pledger lost his sight overnight from optic nerve atrophy and a subsequent coma, during a hospital stay for routine testing.

Says Jeff, "At 6 feet, 2 inches, I'm a pretty tall guy and when I went into hospital I was 185 pounds. Ninety-three days later, after leaving the hospital, I weighed in at 133 pounds. Within a month I went my local agency for blindness skills training. I went because Debbie, my home health nurse, said she couldn't stand me any more! We both learned braille together, even though it didn't always go smoothly.

I know it didn't help when I would throw my braille books across the room. But Debbie would let me stomp off, not pick up the books, and wait until I came back. She was also there for me when I was learning how to type, to use the Perkins Brailler to write braille, and do a few things for myself around the home.

Learn more about Jeff's journey through braille and full employment, as he

Unified English Braille (UEB)

On January 4, 2016, which is Louis Braille's birthday, Unified English Braille (UEB) was officially implemented in the United States, replacing English Braille American Edition (EBAE).

Unified English Braille is a code developed by the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) to bring together several existing braille codes into one unified code for the English-speaking world. The proliferation of different braille codes has long been recognized as a problem and the adoption of UEB simplifies the issue by creating a standard code for braille in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria, and Singapore.

You can learn more about UEB at Making the Transition from English Braille to UEB in the January 2016 issue of AFB AccessWorld Magazine.

Learning Braille as an Adult

Learning braille as an adult is similar to learning a new language. In addition to memorizing the dot configurations of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, and contractions, you also need sufficient finger sensitivity to feel the dot combinations.

Do you enjoy reading for pleasure? Do you like taking educational courses? Do you have a job that requires reading? Are you interested in reading for religious or spiritual purposes? If so, you might enjoy the challenge of learning Literary Braille. Like any new skill, it can take a while to learn—perhaps a year or more of weekly lessons—but can be well worth your time investment if you are an avid reader.

If you have a minimal need for extensive reading and writing, except for preparing shopping lists, labeling items, and taking brief notes, you may find that Alphabetic Braille is sufficient to meet your daily reading and writing needs.

The choice is always yours. Learning and using braille can be a wonderfully liberating experience if you want to learn it, have a need for it, and are willing to invest sufficient learning time.

Finger Sensitivity

If you are thinking about learning braille, good finger sensitivity is important; it's equally important, however, to be able to memorize new information, have a good reason for using braille, and have the patience to master a new reading method.

Finger sensitivity varies from person to person. Most adults (unless they have repeatedly injured their fingers in occupations that have caused calluses, burns, or other damage) usually have sufficient finger sensitivity to read braille.

Some health conditions, such as diabetes, and some medications can cause neuropathy (loss of sensation) in the fingers, which could make it difficult for you to read braille. Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs can cause neuropathy and/or a "tingling" sensation in the fingers.

Braille is often read with the pad of the index finger, but other fingers can be used and might, in fact, be more sensitive than the index finger. Although some reading materials are also available in "jumbo dot" braille (which can be helpful to braille readers with reduced finger sensitivity from diabetes, for example), the range of books and magazines available in this format is limited.

Many of the newer braille instructional books now begin with sensory exercises that can help you assess your own ability to feel raised or embossed shapes, and discriminate between different patterns of dots and sizes of symbols. You can also be tested for "finger sensitivity." Tests include the two-point touch test, the pressure anesthesiometer, and the Roughness Discrimination test. These tests and others are used by health care professionals and vision rehabilitation professionals.

Family and Friends

As with learning anything new, it's always a plus to have a family member or friend learning braille along with you. By learning together, you can provide mutual moral support and make learning the braille alphabet an enjoyable activity. You can write notes to each other, check each other's progress, and celebrate together when you gain new skills.

I'm not totally blind, but I can't see very well. Should I learn braille?

The answer to this question depends upon your reasons for wanting to learn braille, which is always a personal choice. Some people have usable vision, but their eyes tire easily or become irritated or uncomfortable when reading for longer periods of time.

Other individuals, depending upon their eye condition or conditions, can see better on some days than on others. During those times, these individuals can use braille as a backup or secondary system for reading and writing.

If you have usable vision, consider having a low vision examination conducted by an ophthalmologist or optometrist who has a special qualification in low vision. A low vision examination can help you learn if low vision optical devices, such as magnifiers or magnifying reading glasses, or non-optical devices, such as task lighting, absorptive lenses, or electronic video magnifiers, can help you read or write more comfortably and efficiently.

After you've had a low vision examination and explored low vision optical and non-optical devices, you may still feel you could benefit from learning Alphabetic or Literary Braille. Again, the decision is yours to make.

Resources for Braille

The following resources can help you get started in learning more about braille:

Personal Stories

  • Father James Warnke: Living a Well-Integrated Life
    Father Warnke, who was born with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and glaucoma, has had a very successful series of careers as mental health counselor and Episcopal priest, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

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