Braille is a coded language of raised dots that blind people read with their fingers. Each braille character (or cell) is a six-dot matrix. Picture the six bumps of an upside-down muffin tin. Letters, numbers, and symbols are made by raising one or more characters within each cell.
Braille is the only language system that affords blind people true literacy: the ability to read, write, and read what you have written.
Who Invented Braille?
Louis Braille (1809-1852) developed the language that bears his name in 1825. He was just 16 and a student at the Institut National de Jeunes Aveugles (Royal Institute for Blind Youth) in Paris. An accident at age three in his father's harness shop blinded Braille.
At the Institute, Braille met Charles Barbier, who'd developed a phonetic raised-dot language called night writing for the French military. Braille quickly mastered and refined the language. He reduced the dots in each cell from 12 to six, far easier for a fingertip to scan. He also made dots correspond to letters, rather than sounds. Raising one or more dots in a six-dot cell created 63 possible formations -- enough to represent all letters, numbers, and punctuation marks.
Braille's simple code eventually supplanted all other embossed writing systems and remains the primary language for blind people.
Where Does One Learn Braille?
Most blind children begin learning braille from a certified instructor in school, usually as part of an Individual Education Plan in a special education program. Most braille readers begin learning the language at an early age in public school. Adults can find introductory books and videos online through organizations such as National Braille Press and get help finding local programs and instructors through state chapters of the National Federation of the Blind.
How Are Braille Dots "Raised?"
The three main ways to write braille are with a slate and stylus, braillewriter, or printing a digital document on a braille embosser.
A slate is two hinged pieces of metal, wood, or plastic a writer closes over a sheet of braille paper. The slate provides a guide for raising rows of braille characters using a stylus -- a blunt awl with a knob handle -- the writer pokes through the paper. The dots appear on the reverse side. Words are written backwards, beginning in the slate's upper right cell, so dots appear in their proper order when the paper is turned over.
A brailler is essntially a braille typewriter with six keys corresponding to the six dots of the braille code. Pressing keys punches small styli through braille paper, raising dots on the reverse side. A brailler's "home row" includes a space bar between the six keys, a backspace key, line space, and carriage return. David Abraham built the first Perkins Brailler in 1951. A Next-Generation model appeared in 2008.
An embosser is used to print braille documents from a computer or the web. Text documents can be converted into braille with translation software.
Are There Digital Technologies for Reading & Writing Braille?
Yes. Digital technologies, in addition to translation software, there are refreshable displays -- in both desktop and portable notetaker models -- that now enable braille users to read, write, and share documents virtually anywhere. There's also a growing library of Web-Braille content from institutions such as Bookshare and the National Library Services for the Blind & Physically Handicapped (NLS), which publishes books and music scores. Web-Braille files use the .BRF (Refreshable Braille Format) extensiuon and can be embossed or read on a display.
What About Braille Use with Popular Mobile Devices?
Braille is tactile and thus can't be read on a mobile device. There are apps, including Visible Braille, for learning the language by sight. Braille technologies do exist, however, that enable blind people to access and navigate devices such as Apple's iPhone. The BraillePen 12, for example, has a wireless braille keyboard with a 12-cell display that gives users hands-free control of their mobile device via BlueTooth technology.
Mobile devices can help braille readers, however, by providing access to text-to-braille conversion websites such as RoboBraille.
Who Publishes Braille Books?
The National Library Service publishes braille books (its collection has over 15,000 titles), magazines, and sheet music. The NLS also certifies braille transcribers and proofreaders. The American Printing House for the Blind is a primary source for braille textbooks. The National Braille Press offers a wide variety of braille books and reading programs for young children, and adult title in areas that fiction, technology, and health.