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What Is Braille?

The basic Braille cellBraille is a way to read and write without sight, so Braille is a way to maintain literacy. Braille is a series of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or whose eyesight is not sufficient for reading printed material. Teachers, parents, and others who are not visually impaired ordinarily read Braille with their eyes. Braille is not a language. Rather, it is a system of tactile letters designed to allow a language to be read with the fingers. Thus English Braille and Spanish Braille and German Braille are all completely different.

Braille is formed in Braille cells. A full Braille cell consists of six raised dots arranged in two parallel rows each having three dots. The dot positions are identified by numbers from one through six. Sixty-four combinations are possible using one or more of these six dots. A single cell can be used to represent an alphabet letter, number, punctuation mark, or even a whole word. This Braille alphabet and numbers page illustrates what a cell looks like and how each dot is numbered.

Who Invented It?

Louis Braille was born in France in 1809. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France, as a student. While attending the Institute, Braille yearned for more books to read. He experimented with ways to make an alphabet that was easy to read with the fingertips. The writing system he invented, at age fifteen, evolved from the tactile "Ecriture Nocturne" (night writing) code invented by Charles Barbier for sending military messages that could be read on the battlefield at night, without light.

How Is Braille Written?

When every Braille word is fully spelled out letter by letter, that's Grade 1 Braille. Because there are unused dot combinations and becauser letter-by-letter braille takes up a lot of space, the unused patterns have sylables and even whole words assigned to them. These short cuts are used to reduce the volume of paper needed for reproducing books in Braille and to make the reading process easier. This is the gist of Grade 2 Braille. Often a single letter or a pair of letters denote a word, as in the letter Y all by itself meaning "you", and "nei" is short for "neither". There are 189 different letter contractions and 76 short-form words used in Grade 2 Braille.

Braille can also be written in several ways. The Braille equivalent of paper and pencil is the slate and stylus. This consists of a slate or template with evenly spaced depressions for the dots of Braille cells, and a stylus for creating the individual Braille dots. With paper placed in the slate, tactile dots are made by pushing the pointed end of the stylus into the paper over the depressions. The paper bulges on its reverse side forming "dots." Because of their portability, the slate and stylus are especially helpful for taking notes during lectures and for labeling such things as file folders.

Braille can also be written with a typewriter-like machine called a Braillewriter. Unlike the typewriter, the Braillewriter has only six keys and a space bar. These keys are numbered to correspond with the six dots of a Braille cell. In that most Braille symbols contain more than a single dot, all or any of the Braillewriter keys can be pushed at the same time.

Technological developments in the computer industry have provided and continue to expand additional avenues of literacy for Braille users. Software programs and portable electronic Braille notetakers allow users to save and edit their writing, have it displayed back to them either verbally or tactually, and produce a hard copy via a desktop computer-driven Braille embosser. Since its development in France by Louis Braille in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Braille has become not only an effective means of communication, but also a proven avenue for achieving and enhancing literacy for people who are blind or have significant vision loss.

The Braille Alphabet

Braille alphabet