“Hey Google, what was the score of the Panther’s game last night?”
“Alexa, do I need an umbrella today?”
“Siri, dial my sister. No, Siri, not that sister; the other one.”
With the technology we have in our lives today, does braille – those little symmetrical bumps you see by elevator buttons, on bus stop poles or next to a hotel room door – still have a role to play in the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired?
“Braille seems almost old-fashioned when you consider its history,” says Barbara Bryant, vice president of accessible document services for Metrolina Association for the Blind (MAB). “But it is very much alive and well in this amazing age of advanced technologies.”
Yes, technology is opening doors for those with visual impairment in many of the same ways it’s opening doors for the sighted world. And speaking of doors – literal doors, that is -- as long as we have the need to know what’s on the other side of a door, braille will be useful. Doctor’s office, restroom, courtroom, elevator: they all require a label, and braille simply makes those labels accessible to those who are blind. Medications, groceries, banking instructions, medical discharge papers. Braille makes all the “readable” things sighted people take for granted available to those without sight or with limited sight.
So Where Did Braille Come From, Anyway?
Braille is named after its creator, Louis Braille, a Frenchman who lost his sight because of a childhood accident. He spent nine years developing a system allowing blind people to communicate effectively. The eponymous “Braille” language was adopted by France as the official visual communication system for the blind in 1854, a year after Louis passed away. Braille was eventually adapted to the English language in 1902, but not adopted as the official way for the English without sight to communicate until 1918.
Bryant says a common question people ask about Braille is why it isn’t just “the letters of the regular alphabet in a raised form on paper.” This, among other methods, have been tried over the years as ways to help people with blindness read. However, the braille system has succeeded because it is based on a rational sequence of signs devised for the fingertips, rather than imitating signs devised for the eyes.
How Braille “Works”
Braille is read by moving one or both hands from left to right along each line of text. The index fingers generally do the reading. The average reading speed is about 125 words per minute, but greater speeds of up to 200 words per minute are possible.
“By using the braille alphabet, people who are blind can review and study the written word,” Bryant says. “They can also become aware of different written conventions like spelling, punctuation, paragraphing and footnotes.”
Most importantly, braille gives blind individuals access to a wide range of reading materials – think recreational and educational reading, financial statements and restaurant menus! Equally important are contracts, regulations, insurance policies, directories and recipes that are all part of our daily lives. Through braille, people who are blind can also pursue hobbies and cultural enrichment with things like music scores, hymnals and board games.
Not every person who is blind reads Braille. According to Bryant, there are a lot of reasons that people may not learn Braille. “Like learning a second language as an adult, Braille can be more difficult to learn,” she says. “Developing the ability to distinguish Braille via touch can take a very long time.”
Braille Fast Facts
- People who read braille can send and receive braille materials, books and equipment free of charge through the US Postal Service.
- A braille watch is read by touch, but it doesn’t have braille numbers – there’s not enough room on that tiny watch face! Instead, there may be a group of three dots or a short, raised line at the 12, two dots at the 3, 6 and 9, and a single dot to mark the other numbers.
- An asteroid was named in honor of Louis Braille. If you’re curious, here’s a photo of 1992 K (the official name for asteroid Braille.
Final note: The Braille line under the title above? Translates to: Why yes, it is.
Metrolina Association for the Blind is the pioneering leader in providing Braille and large-print statements and other documents for financial, utility and telecommunications corporations. Find out more.