January Is Braille Awareness Month
January is braille awareness month, in honor of Louis Braille, the inventor of the raised dot system of reading and writing. He was born January 4, 1809. If you were born without sight or limited vision, there is a very good chance you learned braille at an early age, and that is how you learned to read and write your way through school. For many of us who are able to read print or could access it at one point in our lives, braille is like another "language." In fact, we may even consider it a language that individuals who are blind or visually impaired use to communicate with one another. These are misconceptions about braille that I think sometimes get in the way of learning or using braille for individuals who acquire a vision loss later in life.
The Creation of Braille
Louis Braille developed a system of raised dots that simply provided a symbol that could be felt for each character of the alphabet and punctuation symbols. At the time Louis Braille invented his system, students who were blind like him often used raised print letters. They also used embossed letters on paper to learn the alphabet and read the few books that existed in embossed print. Raised dots on paper were easier to create, both for reading and writing notes, and later for embossing books. In fact, long before braille was widely adopted, the students at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where Louis Braille went to school, quickly adopted his system of writing to pass notes among themselves that no one else could read!
Louis Braille’s idea for using raised dots was inspired by Charles Barbier’s more elaborate system of "Night Writing." Barbier developed this system for French soldiers so that they would have the ability to pass written communication back and forth at night, without needing to use a light. Ironically, braille was originally inspired by raised dot writing developed for fully sighted soldiers needing to read in the dark!
Braille Is Not Another Language
While there are certain rules in braille one would not find in print and contractions that do not exist in print, it is nonetheless just an alternative set of tactile symbols for the language of the user—whether that is English, French, Spanish, or virtually any other language. Therefore, braille is not another language but more a communication or literacy tool used to access information for those with vision loss.
Braille Not Just for Literary Pursuits
Another misconception seems to be that braille is primarily used for literary pursuits, like reading journals, books, and school textbooks. One of the handiest ways to use braille is for creating quick labels for clothing, appliances, food, spices, cleaning chemicals, CDs, and so much more. The level of expertise for reading these tactile labels does not have to be high. A very slow braille reader could quickly tell the difference between a gallon jug of bleach and a jug of glass cleaner with a few letters transcribed to braille on an adhesive plastic label or a note card tied to the neck of the bottle.
Braille Is Still Relevant with Advancements in Technology
With the proliferation of screen readers, converting the text on a screen into speech on computers, tablets, and smartphones, we’ve heard again and again that the need or relevancy of braille is much less than it was before these electronic devices. Ironically, these devices have embraced braille in the last few years to make braille even more available! I shared about this braille technology in a previous post on VisionAware. Many off-the-shelf devices including Windows 10, Mac and iOS devices, Android tablets and phones, the latest Kindle Fire tablets, and many more support a variety of braille displays. By connecting a braille display, users are able to read email, web pages, and books in braille using a portable braille display that can easily be put in a pocket or backpack! In fact, as we celebrate the 208th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birthday and his invention that transformed reading for individuals with a vision impairment, we are awaiting the distribution of the Orbit Reader 20 from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) among other organizations. This distribution will reduce the cost for an electronic braille reader to below $500!
Lack of Interest in Braille When Vision Loss Is Later in Life
Lastly, it’s been my experience, with the occasional exception, most individuals with an acquired vision loss who did not grow up using braille express little interest in learning even the alphabet. Learning the alphabet would be enough to do some simple labeling around the house, workshop, or office. I wonder to what degree braille, like the long white cane, may simply be stereotypical symbols of vision loss that some are just not ready to embrace regardless of their value? If that describes you, the beginning of a new year is always a great time to stretch and make a commitment to try something new!
I have shared four misconceptions about learning and reading braille, but I am sure there are more. So, let’s get the conversation going as we honor Louis Braille this month. What misconceptions have you heard about braille? Have you learned braille? Why or why not? Is braille an important part of your life? Share your thoughts and comments in the section below.
For readers interested in learning more about braille, a great place to start is through a correspondence course taken via postal mail with the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The courses are at no cost, and there are several on braille. For more information, visit www.hadley.edu or call 800-323-4238. Readers may also find a local service provider by consulting the Directory of Services on VisionAware. Many state agencies providing vision rehabilitation services will have professionals who can teach braille.
Learn More About Braille
Check out Steve’s blog post, "31 Days of Braille"