Braille is an international language system using raised dots that enable people who have a vision impairment to read and write. It was developed in 1824 by Louis Braille, a young French man, who went blind as a child. The introduction of this tactile alphabet has opened doors for people with a vision impairment, enabling them to be on a more equal footing with their sighted peers.
How does braille work?
Braille consists of six raised dots that are arranged in two columns – dots one to six in the first column and dots four to six in the second column. Different combinations of these dots make-up letters of the alphabet. Letters from “a” to “j” also signify numbers when preceded by a “number sign”.
Many words in braille are shortened by abbreviations and contractions. In abbreviations, a single letter represents a word; for example the letter “b” makes the word “but”. Contractions, which are shortened words, are used often in braille. For example, three letters are used to make the word "afternoon".
There are different levels of braille. For beginners, grade 1 braille uses the individual braille symbol for every letter of a word. Grade 2 braille is for proficient braille users and includes abbreviations and contractions. Even in grade 2, braille is a much bulkier format than the printed word. A standard novel would require up to 12 braille volumes.
When I was learning braille as a six year-old, my teacher covered my right index finger with chalk. This kept my finger from slipping all over the place on the page. As my finger grew accustomed to reading braille, I no longer needed chalk to prevent my finger from losing its place.
The use of play dough helped me to learn the different positions of the dots for each letter. My mum rolled the play dough into six small blobs to demonstrate different combinations. This helped me to mentally visualise the shape of the letters.
Becoming literate and computerised speech
Braille played a crucial role in helping me to become literate. When spelling a word, I visualise the combination of dots in my mind. While I’d learnt how to write the English alphabet before losing my sight, I soon thought of letters in terms of the position of braille dots rather than a printed letter. I often find it more difficult to spell words that I’ve heard but haven’t read with my finger: for example, certain names.
It took a bit of time for me to transition from reading and writing in braille to typing using a QWERTY keyboard. Braille relies on my sense of touch, whereas typing on a laptop with screenreading software requires me to process auditory information. At first I didn’t feel as confident typing on a computer as I could not physically feel the words there. Now however, using a laptop with a screenreader feels much more natural than reading or writing in braille.
Some argue the transition from braille to computerised speech has not been welcomed by many people with a vision impairment. In my view, modern technologies have put people with a vision impairment on a more equal footing with sighted peers. For example, we no longer have to wait months for printed material to be transcribed into braille. But even with technology I believe braille will always have an important place in the lives of people who have a vision impairment.
Still using braille
I still use braille today. I find it can be handy in labelling kitchen appliances or other objects. I also recently used braille in my anatomy studies. With the help of my lecturer, I braille-labelled all the different muscles on an anatomical model I recently purchased.
While the need for braille in my life has reduced over the years, I’ll always be thankful for its existence. The embossed braille alphabet has opened up many doors in my life and in the lives of other people.