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American Foundation for the Blind® | Reader's Digest Partners for Sight

All About Braille

What is Braille?

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

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.

braille letter zThe 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 chart below provides a good example of the design of the braille alphabet. (If you would like a copy of this chart, you can go to the printable braille alphabet card, available from the Braille Bug.)

The braille alphabet

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 alphabetical 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, keeping telephone 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.

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.

braille letter z

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 kind of language.

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 individuals 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 devices or non-optical devices, such as magnifiers, special lighting, or magnifying reading glasses 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.

Alternatives for Reading

There are several alternatives to braille for reading:

Audiocassettes, CDs, and Digital Books

  • You can listen to books, newspapers and magazines, either on audiocassette, CD, or in digital format. The primary source for audio literature is the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. There are branches in all 50 states and all services are free. You can arrange to receive these materials through your local library.
  • You can purchase audio books at most bookstores and online. See Reading and Vision Loss on this website.
  • You can create recordings on cassette tapes or digital recorders that contain information for your personal and home records. For example, one tape or folder can contain names and telephone numbers, and another tape or folder can contain your checking account records. See Cassettes, CDs, and iPods on this website.

Resources for Braille

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

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