Braille in Modern World

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You may have seen braille in elevators and on ATMs and door signs, but brushed it off as a rudimentary guide for blind people. As a math student, you may have seen braille in a homework problem involving patterns and binary choices. As a puzzle enthusiast, you may have seen braille in a decryption challenge. But is that all to braille?

For an upcoming Toastmasters speech, I decided to get to know braille, by researching and interviewing locals who professionally work with people who are blind and visually impaired. Surprisingly, the more I looked into braille, the more I realized its diminishing role in the modern world. I want to address the problem today.

1. How to read braille

First, not every blind person can read and write in braille. An alarming statistic comes from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in their 2009 report. Less than 10% of blind people in the U.S. are literate in braille, and the rate is similar with blind children, which points to a dismal future. The NFB concluded with a hopeful plan to double the literacy rate by 2015, but has yet to indicate any change.

If we are to suggest using braille to people who are blind and visually impaired, we had better understand how it works. Braille is a 6-dot system:

cell

A set of 6 dots is called a cell, and the dots have the name 1-6, as shown above. Each dot in a cell can be raised or flat, so there can be 64 different cells. That does not seem like a whole lot to work with.

But braille, in fact, represents many things, including multiple languages, math, music, and programming. The trick is to allow assigning multiple roles to a cell and considering a group of cells as one entity. It’s ingenious, but at the same time, you can imagine how trying to represent everything with just 6 dots can cause problems.

With this in mind, let us look at the English language and math in braille.

a. English braille

English braille consists of two levels: Grade 1 and Grade 2. In Grade 1 braille, we turn each letter, number, and punctuation mark in a sentence into a cell, in a one-to-one fashion. Hence, if you already understand how words are spelled and sentences are constructed in English, you can write in Grade 1 braille.

Let us first examine the English letters in braille:

grade1_braille_part1
Figure 1. Letters in braille.

At a glance, this looks like a lot to remember. However, there are a couple of patterns. First, the bottom three lines of cells are copies of the top line, with one or both of dots 3 and 6 raised. Second, the “corner pieces” are assigned to the 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th letters, and show a counterclockwise rotation when taken as a sequence. The letter w appears as an afterthought, because it is not used natively in French. (Braille started in France in the 1820s.)

We can also “lower” the dots on the a-j line to write ten more cells. Many of these are used to show punctuation marks.

grade1_braille_part2.png
Figure 2. Punctuation marks in braille.

And here are the remaining fourteen cells, which involve dots 3-6:

grade1_braille_part3
Figure 3. The remaining cells.

Three of these merit a special mention.

  • Dots-6 (called capital sign) capitalizes the letter that follows afterward. You can place two of this to write a word in “all caps.”
  • Placing dots-3456 (called number sign) before the letter a-j creates a number between 0 and 9. The numbers are arranged in “keyboard” order. In other words, 1 and a share the same cell, 2 and b, and so on, with 0 and j sharing the last cell.
  • The cell with no raised dots indicates a space.

Now, you can imagine that long words would be cumbersome to write. We also know from experience that certain letters tend to appear together (e.g. as a prefix or suffix). Lastly, there may be words that are more useful to the blind. These words should be easier to read and write.

grade1_braille
Figure 4. A sentence written in Grade 1 braille.

Grade 2 braille addresses these problems by introducing contractions. Contractions occur in two ways:

  • A cell represents a group of letters, sometimes an entire word.
  • A group of cells forms the abbreviation of a word (e.g. bl for blind, brl for braille).

Almost every cell takes on a double duty to accomplish these two goals.

grade2_braille
Figure 5. The same sentence in Grade 2 braille.

Unfortunately, the contractions also create problems. There are many, carefully laid down rules for when to use contractions (based on spelling, phonetics, or optimality) and which contraction comes first. Imagine that you are a software engineer whose job is to parse a word into cells while accounting for all these rules. It is not easy to take the plunge and write code that can translate English to braille and vice versa.

Since 1992, efforts have been put into modernizing and standardizing English braille. The result is Unified English Braille (UEB). UEB removes and simplifies some of the contractions and punctuation marks in Grade 2 braille, in order to better reflect ideas that are relevant in the modern world and to pave a lasting future for braille. (The punctuation marks above remained the same.) In particular, standardization allows books and materials in braille to be more easily shared among the countries that use English. The schools for the blind, book lending programs, and braille certification programs in the U.S. are transitioning to UEB now.

b. Nemeth braille

Nemeth braille (pronounced ne-meth, not nee-muth) uses the six dots to represent ideas and notations that are common in math. Using the number sign (dots-3456), letter sign (dots-56), and punctuation sign (dots-456), we can write math along with English in a sentence, much like I do on this blog.

nemeth_braille_part1
Figure 6. Special signs in Nemeth braille.

Again, there is a long list of rules for representing math. We consider a small handful below.

First, the cells for numbers are not the ones used in Grade 2 braille and UEB. Instead, we use the “lowered” cells that we had previously used for punctuation marks:

nemeth_braille_part2
Figure 7. Numbers in Nemeth braille.

The number sign and punctuation sign allow us to understand whether we are looking at a number or a punctuation mark.

Next, let us consider operators. Note that two cells are needed to create the equal sign: dots-46, followed by dots-13.

nemeth_braille_part3
Figure 8. Basic operators in Nemeth braille.

If you are familiar with LaTeX, you will feel more at ease when you read and write an expression in Nemeth braille. Even if you aren’t, you can with practice by looking at examples. The key is to think about how you would describe an expression to a blind person or a computer, who cannot see the expression in print.

Consider writing a fraction in LaTeX. No matter how complicated the expressions in the numerator and denominator may be, we would write \frac{numerator}{denominator}. This line of code captures the essence of the fraction. We are telling LaTeX that there is a fraction ahead with the frac command, the numerator looks like numerator, and the denominator looks like denominator. Furthermore, we can write additional LaTeX code in numerator and denominator, so that we can describe how their expressions look in print more precisely.

We write a fraction in Nemeth braille in a similar manner:

nemeth_braille_part4
Figure 9. An equation that involves a fraction.

The fraction signs (dots-1456 to open, dots-3456 to close) indicate that we are writing a fraction, and the slash sign (dots-34) separates the expressions for the numerator and denominator. The numerator and denominator may hold additional braille code.

At the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the math teachers and braillists create and distribute homework written in Nemeth braille. In return, the students write their answers in braille using a typewriter such as Perkins Brailler.

nemeth_braille
Figure 10. A homework problem in Nemeth braille.

As you can see above, Nemeth braille works well. Word problems and multiple-choice questions can be given easily. Tables of information can be included as well, although they may require more space due to formatting.

One major obstacle is conveying visual information, such as drawings of geometric shapes, graphs of functions in 2D and 3D, and colors, shadows, and transparencies to highlight certain ideas. We may try to approximate the contour with dotted cells or explain what is shown in words. However, we must wonder how much information gets lost in doing so.

2. The decline of braille

Earlier I mentioned that the braille literacy rate among the blind is estimated to be 10%. This is a significant drop when you consider the rate in the 1960s, which passed 50%. What happened?

According to Ava Smith, the Director of the Talking Book Program, audiobooks became popular around the 1970s and a very disastrous decision took place: Blind children no longer need to be taught braille, since they can listen to audiobooks to learn English. As it turned out, listening by itself did not help them develop literacy skills.

When we read a sentence by sight, we observe how to spell, how to follow grammar, how to format a text, how to use punctuation marks, etc. Oftentimes, particularly in poems, the author uses these in a very deliberate manner to highlight his or her ideas. You can’t take in these ideas and learn to create your own, when you only listen to the sentence and never see it written.

In addition, when you listen to someone speak the sentence, you much depend on that person’s interpretation of the sentence. The pronunciation, the inflection, the emotion, the pace—they are theirs, not yours. How will you give that sentence your own voice if you never learn to read?

In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allowed students with disabilities to attend a public school. Unfortunately, most teachers in public schools did not know braille, and there were simply not enough outside resources—braille books, braillists, and Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs)—to help the blind students use braille to learn as well as sighted students.

Furthermore, alternatives to braille began to appear. People who had some sight could choose to read large print books. Compared to large print and audio, braille books are more costly to produce, bulkier in weight and number of volumes, and more crippling in the case of damage or loss. Refreshable braille displays—electronic braille—would certainly eliminate a lot of these problems. However, they are expensive (Humanware and Freedom Scientific sell their mid-ranged, 40-cell displays for about $3,000), can show only one line at a time, and are prone to failure.

If we are to advocate using braille daily, we need a display that is cheap (Transforming Braille Group is aiming for $320 for a 20-cell display), can show a full page of braille (without raising the price significantly), and is reliable. Computers and cell phones are almost universal now. They, by default, include accessibility options like high contrast, magnifier, and screen reader, as well as personal apps, for people who are blind and visually impaired. Braille is simply lagging behind in technology.

3. What can we do?

As sighted people, how can we help further braille? For the most part, awareness is key. Knowing what braille is—braille allows blind people to learn various ideas and share their own—is good, but knowing how to read and write in braille is even better. (It’s easier than learning a foreign language, in my opinion.)

We can start out small. The Talking Book Program does community outreach and teaches kids how to write secret messages in braille to their friends. Puzzled Pint loves to make adults read braille (albeit Grade 1) by hiding the solution to a puzzle in braille. Ask, what can you do to get you and others interested in learning braille?

If you work at a restaurant or a company, offer braille copies of your restaurant menu or company brochure. Blind people are like everybody else. They eat, they drink, and they conduct business. There are many braille production groups that can help you with creating braille copies.

We should also advocate for the inclusion of braille in mail and currency. Blind people get mail like everybody, but they cannot see what they just received. U.S. is the only country whose paper bills are of the same size, shape, color, and feel. There is no way a blind person can tell the denomination, unless the person had systematically placed the bills in a wallet or gets help from a money reader (which takes time).

There are a few additional things that we can do to help people who are blind and visually impaired. If you work in design—websites, games, electronics, and mobile apps—make sure that they can use your products with ease. Knowbility provides training for creating websites that are accessible, and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) a list of links for mobile apps.

Please spread word about programs like Bookshare and National Library Service (NLS). NLS suggests that 1.4% of the population in any state may be eligible for their program. However, the Talking Book Program serves fewer than 20,000 people in Texas, out of the possible 378,000 or so according to the formula given by NLS. With limited funds, the Talking Book Program cannot advertise itself. The only way to be known and heard by people with disabilities is word of mouth.

Lastly, treat people with blindness (and any other disability) with respect and kindness as you would any other person, and don’t be afraid to say words related to sight to them. If you are not sure whether you should help a blind person, just ask. Every one of us knows what help we want.

4. Resources

a. Helping the blind and visually impaired

b. Learning braille

Notes

I want to thank Gloria Bennett of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Ava Smith and Dina Abramson of the Talking Book Program. They were integral to my understanding of what is happening to braille nationwide and in the state of Texas, and were more than happy to give me a tour and introduce me to various equipment for printing braille and recording digital audio.

There is a lot of information that I did not cover here. If you are interested in learning more about what they do, please see the interview transcripts below.

References

Ava Smith and Dina Abramson, Talking Book Program, Interview.

Charles Petzold, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.

Gloria Bennett, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Interview.

National Federation of the Blind, Blindness Statistics.

National Federation of the Blind, The Braille Literacy Crisis in America.

Perkins School for the Blind, A Low Cost Revolution in Refreshable Braille.

TIME, Blind People Tell Money Bills Apart.

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