All About Braille

What Is Braille?

braille letter A
Braille letter “a”

Braille is a tactile reading system invented in France in the mid-1800s and named for its inventor, Louis Braille.

Braille enables children who cannot read print to become literate and helps adults who lose the ability to read due to blindness or low vision to continue enjoying books, newspapers, and magazines.

The braille alphabet is based upon a “cell” composed of 6 or 8 dots, arranged in two columns of 3 or 4 dots each. Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed using one or more of the dots in the braille cell. (The letter “a” is pictured at left.)

The following chart provides a good example of the design of the braille alphabet.

the braille alphabet

If you want a copy of this chart, you can get a free embossed braille card from the National Braille Press.

Types of Braille

Braille has codes for writing text, music, and even technical material for math and science. Text or literary braille has two forms: non-contracted or alphabetic braille and contracted braille for saving space:

  • Alphabetic Braille, formerly called Grade One, writes out each letter and word exactly as it is spelled out in print. For example, in Alphabetic Braille the word “can” is written using three separate braille cells—one cell for each of the three letters in the word “can.” Suppose you’re interested primarily in writing shopping lists, playing card and board games, keeping telephone numbers, reading elevator buttons and room numbers, or writing labels or brief notes. In that case, Alphabetic Braille may meet your needs.
  • Literary Braille, formerly called Grade Two, is called “contracted” braille. For example, in Literary (or contracted) Braille, the word “can” is written in a highly condensed or contracted form, using only one braille cell to represent the entire word. Most books and magazines are written in Literary Braille because it requires much less space than Alphabetic Braille. If you want to read novels, magazines, or newspapers in braille, it is recommended that you learn to read and write Literary Braille.

Unified English Braille (UEB)

On January 4, 2016, Louis Braille’s birthday, Unified English Braille (UEB) was officially implemented in the United States, replacing English Braille American Edition (EBAE).

Unified English Braille is a code developed by the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) to combine several existing braille codes into one unified code for the English-speaking world. The proliferation of different braille codes has long been recognized as a problem, and the adoption of UEB simplifies the issue by creating a standard code for braille in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria, and Singapore.

Learning Braille As an Adult

Learning braille as an adult is similar to learning a new language. In addition to memorizing the dot configurations of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, and contractions, you also need sufficient finger sensitivity to feel the dot combinations.

Do you enjoy reading for pleasure? Do you like taking educational courses? Do you have a job that requires reading? Are you interested in reading for religious or spiritual purposes? If so, you might enjoy the challenge of learning Literary Braille. Like any new skill, it can take a while to learn—perhaps a year or more of weekly lessons—but it can be worth investing time if you are an avid reader.

If you have a minimal need for extensive reading and writing, except for preparing shopping lists, labeling items, and taking brief notes, you may find that Alphabetic Braille is sufficient to meet your daily reading and writing needs.

The choice is always yours. Learning and using braille can be a wonderfully liberating experience if you want to learn it, need it, and are willing to invest sufficient learning time.

Finger Sensitivity

Good finger sensitivity is essential if you are thinking about learning braille; it’s equally important to memorize new information, have a good reason for using braille, and have the patience to master a new reading method.

Finger sensitivity varies from person to person. Most adults (unless they have repeatedly injured their fingers in occupations that have caused calluses, burns, or other damage) usually have sufficient finger sensitivity to read braille.

Some health conditions, such as diabetes, and some medications can cause neuropathy (loss of sensation) in the fingers, making it difficult to read braille. Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs can cause neuropathy and/or a “tingling” sensation in the fingers.

Braille is often read with the pad of the index finger, but other fingers can be used and might be more sensitive than the index finger. Although some reading materials are also available in “jumbo dot” braille (which can be helpful to braille readers with reduced finger sensitivity from diabetes, for example), the range of books and magazines available in this format is limited.

Many of the newer braille instructional books now begin with sensory exercises that can help you assess your ability to feel raised or embossed shapes and discriminate between different patterns of dots and sizes of symbols. You can also be tested for “finger sensitivity.” Tests include the two-point touch test, the pressure anesthesia meter, and the Roughness Discrimination test. Healthcare professionals and vision rehabilitation professionals use these tests and others.

Family and Friends

As with learning anything new, having a family member or friend learning braille with you is always a plus. By learning together, you can provide mutual moral support and make learning the braille alphabet enjoyable. You can write notes, check each other’s progress, and celebrate together when you gain new skills.

I’m not blind, but I can’t see very well. Should I learn braille?

The answer to this question depends upon your reasons for wanting to learn braille, which is always a personal choice. Some people have usable vision, but their eyes tire easily or become irritated or uncomfortable when reading for extended periods.

Depending on their eye condition or conditions, other individuals can see better on some days than others. During those times, these individuals can use braille as a backup or secondary system for reading or writing.

If you have usable vision, consider having a low vision examination conducted by an ophthalmologist or optometrist with a special low vision qualification. A low-vision examination can help you learn if low-vision optical devices, such as magnifiers or magnifying reading glasses, or non-optical devices, such as task lighting, absorptive lenses, or electronic video magnifiers, can help you read or write more comfortably and efficiently.

After a low-vision examination and exploring low-vision optical and non-optical devices, you may still feel you could benefit from learning Alphabetic or Literary Braille. Again, the decision is yours to make.

Resources for Braille

The following resources can help you get started in learning more about braille: