hand reading a black braille sign with the braille alphabet

June 21, 2021

Most people may think that braille is just raised letters on a page, but braille is much more complex than that! Braille is in fact, a tactile reading and writing system that is used by people who are blind or visually impaired. Here are the top 10 things that you should know about braille.

1. Braille is not a language. It’s a tactile alphabet system that can be used to write almost any language. There are braille versions of Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and many others.

2. While most think that braille was invented by Louis Braille (whom which the system is named after), it started out as a military code called “night writing.” Developed in 1819 by the French army, this system allowed soldiers to communicate at night without speaking or using candles. Fifteen-year-old French schoolboy, Louis Braille, learned about the code, and eventually developed the more usable, streamlined version of the braille alphabet we know today.

3. There are 63 possible combinations of raised dots used to represent the letters of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation. These dots are arraigned in two rows – numbered 1-6. A capital letter is distinguished by the 6th dot placed before a letter while numeral signs are distinguished by dots 3,4,5,6 placed before a character.

4. There are actually two versions of braille, contracted and uncontracted. Basically uncontracted (aka grade one) braille includes the letters “A” through “Z”. Contracted (aka grade two) braille consists of ‘shorthand’ where some words have shortcuts, such as the letter ‘C’ represents the word ‘can’ or ‘td’ is the word today. There are 189 Braille contractions. Other braille codes in the United States include; Unified English Braille (UEB), Nemeth Code (for science and math notation), Music braille and Foreign Languages.

5. According to the Perkins School for the Blind, a sighted person can read 300 words per minute, but some fast braille readers can whip through a book at a speed of 400 words per minute. You can identify a braille-reading pro by the way he or she uses two hands to move across the page. By using the index fingers of both the left and right hands simultaneously, a braille reader can reduce the time it takes to read a passage of the text.

6. While it might not have braille specifically, some of your favorite products may have design elements suited for those with visual impairments. This includes incorporating tactile design and embossing in their packaging that helps people with visual impairments distinguish between products. A great example is Herbal Essences (produced by P&G.) The company added four raised vertical lines on the base of the plastic shampoo bottles and a grid of eight circles in the same place on the brand’s hair conditioner bottles to allow those with low vision or blindness to quickly distinguish between the two products.

7. Braille also comes in digital forms, too. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, refreshable braille displays provide access to information on a computer screen by electronically raising and lowering different combinations of pins in braille cells. A braille display can show up to 80 characters from the screen and is refreshable—that is, it changes continuously as the user moves the cursor around on the screen, using either the command keys, cursor routing keys, or Windows and screen reader commands.

8. The largest volume producer of printed braille in the world is in fact Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired! Since beginning operations in 1914, The Clovernook Center Braille Printing House has grown to become one of the largest global producers of braille—over 30 million pages are shipped from our doors to individuals, libraries, and global consumers annually.

9. Through programs like the National Library Service, a division of the Library of Congress and The American Action Fund, individuals with visual impairments can receive free books and magazines in braille or audio formats, and some can even be instantly downloadable to a personal device or delivered by mail free of charge.

10. Not all individuals who are blind read braille. According to the National Braille Press, braille literacy rates for school-age blind children have declined from greater than 50% (40 years ago) to only 12% today. Part of the reason for this decline can be attributed to the mainstreaming of blind students into the public school system, where significantly less time is available for learning braille. Another factor is that many people believed that talking computers would replace the need to learn braille. However, listening alone is not enough. Research shows that braille provides a critical advantage for students to learn grammar, language, math, and science. National and state Braille Challenge competitions were conceived as a way to encourage students to improve their braille reading and writing skills. Now more than 1,200 youths compete each year.

Interested in learning more about braille? Check out our downloadable braille alphabet guide here.

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