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Reading by touch

A braille printed page
A close-up of a braille book page
Image source: Anne Zbitnew

A former soldier, Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre, invented the use of raised dots for reading and writing. Interested in a means of coding and reading instructions by touch, he presented different writing systems including "Écriture Nocturne" (Night Writing) in a booklet titled An Essay on Various French Expediting Processes. The system was originally designed for people who were blind but was later used by diplomats and military personnel for discreet night-time communication (Musee Louis Braille, 2022).


The braille alphabet
The basic braille alphabet, braille numbers, braille punctuation and special symbols characters.
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Braille is a code, not a language. The braille alphabet is used by people who are blind or who have low vision for reading - done by gliding the fingertips over lines of embossed braille dots and writing, using a variety of tools. People who are sighted can also learn braille by touch, or by using their vision. There are different grades and versions of braille - the most basic is grade one braille, where every letter in the English alphabet has a corresponding braille character made from a combination of raised dots in the braille cell.

The braille cell is comprised of six dots arranged in two columns and three rows. Each dot is numbered between 1 and 6. Beginning in the top left corner of the cell is dot 1. Moving down the column to the middle row is dot 2 and in the bottom left corner is dot 3. In the top right corner is dot 4 while the middle dot in the right column is dot 5. The bottom right corner is dot 6.

This short video, produced by the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) in Sydney, Australia, demonstrates how braille is read.

Braille alphabet in LEGO
Multi-colour braille alphabet LEGO blocks
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Facts about braille

Braille Books

The Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) is a public/private alliance that includes the World Blind Union, the DAISY Consortium, the International Council for the Education of People with Visual Impairment, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the International Authors Forum, the International Publishers Association, and the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations. ABC aims to increase the number of books in accessible formats worldwide and to make them available to people who are blind, print disabled, or have low vision.

ABC recognizes braille as means of educational advancement for people who are blind or have low vision and supports the teaching of braille and production of both embossed and electronic braille. Braille is a medium for literacy and currently the best way to provide a blind person with access to spelling and punctuation. ABC encourages book publishers to adopt "born accessible" practices.

On their resource webpage, Braille Literacy Canada lists sources of braille books, resources, downloadable publications, braille technologies, and websites for a variety of courses and organizations.

In January 2021, BookNet Canada produced Improving access to braille in Canada, a podcast episode that discusses what the Canadian book publishing industry can do to improve braille accessibility in Canada.

The truth about stories is that’s all we are. - Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian
Perkins School for the Blind white logo on a blue background
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In the age of audiobooks and accessible technology, is braille still necessary?

Perkins School for the Blind believes in using technology such as screen readers and audio devices for learning and leisure but at the same time, they teach and believe in the relevance and power of braille.

Literacy means different things to different people. Braille might not work for someone who is blind or has low vision and has a mobility impairment. If someone cannot steady a hand, or has a limb difference, an audiobook might be the best option for accessing books and written material. Audiobooks or magnified text may not be accessible for someone who is DeafBlind, so books in braille are a reading option. No one mode of reading works for everyone.

Listening to the written word is different than reading it and audiobooks won't enable a listener to know how every word is spelled, sentences are punctuated, words are made possessive with apostrophes, or when two sentences are properly joined with a semicolon, to name just a few of the grammar elements lost to audio. For people with mobility issues, braille can be the most effective way to learn grammar and syntax, necessary for both reading comprehension and writing.

Refreshable braille displays - electro-mechanic devices that connect to computers and tablets to deliver braille outputs - have made it so the braille readers can go paperless as well. They work as writing tools, as well, enabling the user to write and have their words appear on the screen and they can connect to devices like Alexa, which can then speak their words.

It's important to remember that just as sighted readers have their preferences between hardcover book, paperbacks, e-books, and audiobooks, so do people who are blind or have low vision - many people simply prefer braille.

Tactile Books

In 1786, Valentin Hauy, the founder of the first school for the blind in Paris, took ordinary printing typecast in reverse and pressed it against the back of the paper to create embossed Roman letters that could be read with the fingertips. In 1824, Louis Braille, a 15-year-old student at the Paris School for the Blind, developed braille - a 6-dot cell system that could also be read by the fingertips. For tactile readers, dots were easier to discern than other raised-letter types, which also didn't offer a practical writing system for people who were blind. They were also extremely difficult to read by touch, and many students in the 19th century were unable to master them. For several years, Braille refined the system and added notation for music. In 1829, a book was published, outlining the dot system.

Tactile pictures are made using different materials and varying textures to define image boundaries. The pictures in a tactile picture book consist of raised shapes in different materials that are read with the fingers, and they are often simplified to make them easier to understand. In early tactile books, pinpricked alphabets and string glued to paper were experimented with, but these methods were laborious and time-consuming.

- From Perkins School for the Blind - Tactile books

An open book with Moon Code braille
An open book with an example of Moon Code braille raised lettering
Image source: Perkins Archives

Other early tactile printing systems included "New York Point" - two dots high and four wide - and Moon Code, a 19th-century version of simplified regular print, curves, and lines to mimic words - thought to be ideal for those who'd been taught to read previous to any visual impairment.

Before 1950, there were few standards among braille systems - many were conflicting, and codes needed to be adapted for mediums other than written language, such as math and music. Braille was eventually standardized through the efforts of volunteers across the US and Canada.

- from CNIB - Reading by Touch: Pre-1950