Most people who aren’t visually impaired are generally aware of Braille. You see it on things like restroom signs and ATM buttons.

However, there’s much more we can learn about this communication system.

Braille can be a powerful tool for the blind community. Although its use has declined in recent years, it remains as important as ever.  Read on for some Braille basics.

What is Braille?

Braille allows blind people to read with their fingertips. It uses characters composed of raised dots that represent letters, numbers and symbols.

Each Braille character contains a certain combination of dots out of a “Braille cell” — six dots in two columns, much like the 6 on a pair of dice. Dots in a cell can be combined in 62 different ways.

Blind people read anything by running their fingers across the Braille characters. Even those with no visual impairments can learn Braille and read it with their eyes.

Learning Braille is not learning a new language, as many people mistakenly believe. You simply learn a new shape for each letter. Because of that, Braille works with almost any language, including Chinese and Arabic.

People can also use Braille to write. They use either a stylus with cardstock or a mechanical tool such as a Braille Writer.

Braille symbols take up more space than visual letters. For that reason, once a student learns full Braille, he/she often learns an abbreviated version, in which many words are shortened, much like contractions.

How was Braille Invented?

Louis Braille invented his namesake system when he was only 15 years old and attending a school for blind youth in France.

A bright boy, he grew frustrated trying to read the raised-type books available at the time. Braille adapted his raised dot system from one that had been used in the French military for soldiers to communicate at night, silently with no light.

The Braille system was adopted throughout the early decades of the 1800s. Amazingly, it exists today in the same form Louis Braille first created.


Why Braille Use has Been Declining

As summarizes, “Braille opens the doors to literacy, intellectual freedom, equal opportunity, and personal security” for the blind and visually impaired.

However, blind and visually impaired people are using Braille at a lower rate than ever. This NBC news feature cites a report that fewer than 10 percent of them use Braille. Braille’s usage peaked in the 1950s with 50 percent using it.

Many visually impaired people can read print with the help of magnification lenses and enlarged text, and therefore don’t need to learn Braille. Others rely on newer technology such as audio books and dictation tools.

Part of the decline may be due to a shift toward public schools in the 60s. At the time, many blind children began attending public schools instead of schools specifically for the blind. Public schools offer sparse resources for learning Braille. Teachers may shepherd students toward using the tools they’re more familiar with themselves. In other cases, parents may want their kids to be as integrated with non-visually impaired students as possible, and so steer them away from Braille.

However, research shows that blind people who know Braille are more likely to live independently and find employment. And of course, many of those who  Braille contend that audiobooks are no substitute for being able to read words on a page.

Now that you know some Braille basics, you can understand its purpose. Perhaps you will consider whether it can benefit someone in your life. We hope that in the future, people with visual impairments or blindness will have all the resources they need if they want to learn Braille. As a society, we can continue to make life easier for those with visual impairments.


PHOTO: antonioxalonso / CC 2.0