Braille is a tactile writing system used by the blind that was invented by Louis Braille in France in 1824. It gradually spread beyond France, and it is now in widespread use across the globe.
The blind read Braille by feeling letters with their fingertips. Letters in Braille are formed by raised dots arranged in specific places in a six-position matrix. The matrix consists of two vertical lines of three points each. Various combinations of raised dots in the matrix stand for each letter in the Roman alphabet. For example, the letter A is indicated by one raised dot in the upper left of the matrix; the letter B by two dots, the upper left and the one beneath it; the letter T by four raised dots, the middle and lower left and the middle and upper right. In standard English Braille, some common words such as and, of, and the are also represented by a single Braille character, as are some dipthongs and vowel-consonant combinations. For compactness, Braille also makes use of many phonetic or syllabic abbreviations, such as "ing," as in shorthand. There are 189 of these abbreviations in standard English Braille. Braille can also indicate punctuation and accent marks. The first 10 letters of the alphabet double as numbers in Braille. There is also a modified Braille code, the Nemeth Code, that incorporates signs and symbols used in scientific notation, used by blind scientists and mathematicians.
Before the invention of Braille, the blind were generally not taught to read and write, and many European cultures considered blind people to be mentally deficient. A precursor to Braille was invented by Valentin Hauy, a Frenchman who founded a school for the blind in Paris in the 1770s. Hafiy printed books in large, embossed type, so that his students could feel the outlines of the letters. The principal drawback to this system was the size of the letters. Because the letters are so large, one sentence might take up an entire page. A cumbersome volume written in Hauy letters might consist of no more than a few paragraphs of actual text.
Louis Braille, born in 1809, was blinded in an accident at the age of three. An exceptionally bright child, he was sent to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris at the age of 10. He expected to learn to read there, but was disappointed to find that the Institute's library consisted of only a few of the Hauy books. The young Braille became acquainted with a different system of writing using raised dots, invented by a military signalman named Barbier. Barbier had developed a code made of groups of raised dots and dashes punched in cardboard, for use by an army sending messages at night, when a light to read by might be dangerous. He showed his "night writing" system to the head of the Royal Institute for the Blind, hoping it could be used by the students there. Barbier's system used the dots and dashes to denote sounds, instead of letters, and it took considerable time and patience to read or write even a simple message. Louis Braille, introduced to night writing at the age of 13, struggled to modify Barbier's system, coming up with the simpler six-position matrix for letters, and eventually incorporating signs for accent marks and punctuation. Braille unveiled his writing system when he was only 15 years old, and it instantly revolutionized how the blind could learn. Using a tablet and stylus, blind students could quickly and easily write in Braille. Whole books could easily be transcribed, for the blind to read. Braille was officially adopted in France in 1854, and in the English-speaking world in 1932.
Louis Braille also invented a form of type-writer, which he called a raphigrapher. This embossed large Roman letters on paper, and both the blind and the sighted could read the results. Early Braille writing machines were similar, but embossed Braille letters. The first was the Hall Braille writer, invented in 1892 by Frank Hall, a superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind. Braille writing machines currently in use employ only six keys, one for each position in the Braille letter matrix. Skilled operators who have gone through a certification process use these Braille writers to produce manuscripts for Braille publication.
Raw materials for a Braille publication are not significantly different from those used in other publications. Standard size paper for Braille books is 11 x 11.5 in (28 x 29.21 cm), and the weight is heavier than for other books. Some Braille is printed on more specialized paper, such as swell paper, a heat-sensitive paper that rises where printed upon. Zinc is an important raw material for Braille books, because the maste of a Braille text is punched on a zinc plate. Because Braille books are large format, they are often bound in plastic ring binders rather than in the hard or soft-cover format of conventional books.
- 1 Unless a manuscript has been written originally in Braille, it needs to be translated. This is generally done in one of three ways. A typist using a special six-key typing machine may re-type the manuscript in Braille. Braille transcribers are specially trained and certified. Professional Braille typists must take a two-year training course administered by the National Library Service for the Blind, and pass a accreditation examination. So though this method is generally more laborious than the newer, computer-based alternatives, Braille typists bring their insight and experience to the work, and assure a high level of quality. The two alternate methods utilize computer software to make the translation. Text in English may be fed into a computer program through a scanner, which reads the text electronically and stores it in Braille form. In this way, previously published material such as a novel by Dickens or an article from The New York Times can be converted into Braille. In the case of a new publication such as a journal released simultaneously in Braille and in conventional format, the text may be already stored on a computer disk. Special software developed for this purpose converts the text on the disk into Braille. Braille conversion technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated as well as speedy. Entire books can be converted in seconds.
- 2 If the manuscript has been typed by a Braille transcriber, it is now ready for proofreading. If the manuscript has been converted using computer software, it must be printed out. Braille printers similar to other computer printers produce the manuscript. Then the manuscript is proofread so that any errors can be corrected or changes made before the manuscript is published. At this stage, a blinder reader and a sighted reader work side by side, comparing the original text with the Braille version.
Making the master
- 3 After the manuscript is completely proofed and corrected, a master copy of it is made for the printing press. The master is cast on a zinc plate. A special machine, separate from the actual printing press, is used to stamp the Braille impressions in the metal. Each page of the manuscript has its own zinc master. The zinc plate is bowed in the middle. It fits onto a rotating barrel on the printing press.
- 4 After the zinc plates are fitted onto the press, a worker running the press feeds paper into the machine. The press is not significantly different from a conventional printing press, except that the letters are embossed. There is no ink. The paper is pressed against the zinc master as the barrel rotates, and the impressions of the raised dots are transferred to the paper. Then the sheet of paper is ejected.
Collating and assembling
- 5 The pages of a Braille publication must be collated by hand. Though this is extremely labor intensive, mechanical collators are not adequate for Braille books. Because a mechanical collator would hold and handle stacks of pages, it tends to mash the dots, thus destroying the text. Instead the pages are carefully placed in order by hand. Then the book can be finished in a number of ways. Some books are bound in a three-ring binder, and for these, the pages need to be punched. Other publications are saddle-stitched and bound in a conventional hard-back book format. Finished books can then be boxed and shipped to customers or to a warehouse for distribution.
One aspect of quality control in Braille publication is the training of Braille typists. Though some Braille typists are volunteers, often producing books for a visually impaired family member, professional transcribers go through a rigorous training course. Then they must pass a national examination. Another aspect of quality control for Braille text is adherence to common editing standards. Whereas in conventional print text, there are any number of ways text can be embellished, with bold print, italics, margin size, use of headers and sidebars, different fonts, etc., in Braille there are only a few possibilities. For example, a blank line in Braille text is used to separate distinct blocks of text, and is never simply decorative. Text size and width of indentations is fairly standardized. Non-standard text layout may be confusing to Braille readers, or just make the reading process more difficult. Taking care of layout problems may be done at the proofreading stage. New computer programs are also under development that can reliably convert widely differing print manuscripts into standardized Braille formats.
There are many new developments in Braille publication technology. Software for converting text to Braille is still undergoing improvement and refinement. As software gets better, more of it is available to individuals. Blind users need not rely only on specialized printing houses to provide Braille materials if they have a personal computer, conversion software, and a Braille printer. While many printers and programs are still too expensive for many users to own their own, some manufacturers now specialize in low-cost equipment. Some Braille printers meant for individual use utilize a narrower paper than conventional Braille paper, because this is more economical. Common in Europe, and increasingly so in the United States, is socalled paperless Braille. A handheld unit attached to a computer can raise a line or so at a time of Braille text on a board, using small pins. Another Braille technology just introduced in Korea prints Braille using a clear, glue-like substance on glossy paper.
Braille printing and conversion technology is still advancing, and Braille itself is under development. John Gardner, a physicist blinded late in life, has created an improved Braille system for writing equations. Called Dots Plus, it uses conventional Braille for letters and numbers, but renders mathematical symbols just as they appear to sighted people, only magnified and raised. This renders mathematical formulas more compact, and so they are easier to read and reread. Gardner, in collaboration with a blind mathematician, is also developing a different Braille language for math that uses an eight-dot matrix instead of six.
Voice output technology, which allows computers to speak text, is also improving rapidly, and is very useful for the blind. But even as great leaps are taken in voice input, Braille maintains its importance. A listener using voice output technology has to rewind or go back, to have text repeated. Some text, such as complex mathematical formulas, are difficult to represent in speech. Even as voice technology gets more sophisticated, Braille is not likely to give way to other approaches.
Where to Learn More
Bryant, Jennifer Fisher. Louis Braille, Teacher of the Blind. Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Kumagai, Jean. "Inventions Born of Necessity Offer New Tools for the Blind to Study and Do Science." Physics Today (March 1995): 82-84.
Lazzaro, Joseph J. "Unix Helps the Disabled." Byte (April 1997): 51-52.
"Printer Helps the Blind Help Themselves." Design News (April 11,1994): 44.