What is Braille?
Braille is a tactile system of raised dots that enables students with low vision or blindness to access information by touch. The pattern of raised dots is arranged in cells of up to six dots, creating a total of 63 different combinations possible. Each cell represents an alphabet letter, numeral or punctuation mark. Some frequently used words and letter combinations also have their own single cell patterns.
Why Learn Braille?
Braille can be the building block for language skills and a way to teach spelling, grammar, and punctuations to students with vision loss or who are deaf-blind. Not only do braille codes represent alphabets, they also denote numbers, symbols, music, and mathematical notations, enabling students to learn about different subjects in school. Braille books are available in all subject areas, ranging from modern fiction to mathematics, music, and law. As with printed text, Braille makes it possible for students to take notes in class, study educational material, read watches, and label personal belongings, etc.
In order to enjoy intellectual freedom, personal security, and equal opportunities when they grow up, students need to be literate—to read, write, and count. Although only a relatively small percentage of people with visual impairments or blindness use braille (around 10%), it is essential that schools are able to provide students options with how they wish to access their information. Other alternative formats such as audio and speech generating software on computers provides access to written materials, but they fail to give new readers the basic literacy skills they need to read and write for themselves.
Types of Braille
There are two different grades of braille:
- Grade 1 (uncontracted) braille consists of the 26 standard letters of the alphabet and punctuation. Many learners start by studying the basic dot combinations for the letters of the alphabet, the main punctuation symbols, and the numbering system. It is suitable for students who are first starting to read braille, or young children who are learning spelling of words. This type of braille is also useful for labeling notebooks for different subjects, or accessing small portions of text in a picture book. Research has shown that children who learn grade 1 braille benefit from early success and helps with learning grade 2 braille later on.
- Grade 2 (contracted) braille uses the same 26 letters of the alphabet, punctuation, and numbers as grade 1 braille, with the addition of shorthand that combines groups of letters into one braille cell. Because a braille page cannot fit as much text as a standard printed page, the use a contracted version of braille reduces the size of braille documents by 25 per cent and allows for more rapid reading and writing. Almost all books and magazines are written and printed in grade 2 braille; therefore, it is encouraged for students who prefer to read large volumes of text in braille to learn the contracted version.
- Unified English Braille (UEB) is a set of rules and codes for braille symbols that is shared across most English speaking countries. In the past, there were different braille rules and codes for different countries or groups of countries.
- Other types of braille have been created for different purposes. For example, Nemeth Braille was created for mathematical and scientific notation, and has partially been included into UEB. Music Braille is another type of braille that is used for musical notation for those reading or writing music in braille.
A Teaching Guide for Introducing Braille
One Is Fun is a useful guide for educators to introduce braille to students of all ages and abilities, from preschool to primary grades, to secondary school students or adults who are starting to learn braille. This guide includes considerations for students with learning disabilities or English as a second language, activities for preschool students with or without multiple disabilities, and detailed guides for braille phonics programs. Both educators and parents can benefit from this guide in obtaining valuable resources and understanding the complexities different learners face when learning braille.
Low and High Technology for Reading and Writing Braille
Modern technology has made various useful tools for people who read and write braille. There are some devices that produce books or handouts in Braille and others that enable students to read information on computers and from the Internet. Some devices are simple and inexpensive while others are very complicated.
- Refreshable braille display – Refreshable braille displays are electronic devices used to display braille characters, and read tactually by means of raising dots through holes on a braille display. The device is connected to a computer, tablet, or smartphone phone, enabling students using computers to “read” the content off the screen through outputs on the braille display. In 2017, refreshable braille tablets are entering the market; to date, these use different refreshable dot technology with multiple lines and are paired together with mobile devices as the operating system.
- Braille embosser – A braille embosser is a hardware device for “printing” a hardcopy document of text in braille. Braille translation software is required in order to translate word-processing text files into braille suitable for embossing on a braille printer.
There are pros and cons to both types of braille formats (refreshable braille and paper braille), so it is important to consider these when working with a student learning or reading in braille. An article by Christian Coudert, the editor in chief of the Louis Braille, shares some general advantages and disadvantages of paper and refreshable braille (2015). For example, braille because it provides additional information (e.g. structure of a paragraph), which is especially key for new braille learners, whereas a refreshable braille display provides a compact device that can access many books and documents in braille (Coudert, 2015).
- Perkins Brailler – The Perkins Brailler is a portable low-tech “braille typewriter” with keys corresponding to each of the six dots of the braille code. When pressed simultaneously in different combinations, students can create any characters of the braille code. Like a manual typewriter, it has two side knobs to advance paper through the machine and a carriage return lever above the keys. There are many models of the Perkins Brailler that suits the needs of different students. Features include: reduction of force required to press braille keys for students typing for longer periods of time or have decreased hand strength; enlarged spaces between dots on braille cells for people with tactile problems; and unimanual braillers enabling students to take notes with one hand.
- Non-display based PDA – Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are handheld portable devices that act as organizers, note takers and/or communication devices. Non-display based PDAs were designed mainly for people with visual impairments who do not utilize touch screens, handwriting recognition, and miniature keyboards. They typically either have a braille chording keyboard or a QWERTY keyboard, and newer models also have touchscreens with software for a touch keyboard.
- Slate and Stylus – The Slate and Stylus is a low-cost, highly portable low-tech writing tool. It is equivalent to the pencil and paper concept, enabling students with visual impairments to create braille notes. The slate is made from two panels that stabilizes the paper and the stylus is used to punch through the holes through one of the panel to create the braille dots. The slate comes in many sizes, from two-line to full-page.
- Jot-a-Dot – The Jot-A-Dot is a low tech writing tool made of light weight plastic material that is small in size and portable. Braille is embossed through six keys entry onto note-sized paper. The Jot-A-Dot is useful for taking quick and short notes on the go. It is considered a brailler and has a similar typing set-up to a braille typewriter.
- Dymo Braille Labeler – This tool is used to make quick braille labels. It is a wonderful tool for classroom teachers who have little to no knowledge about the braille code, but would like to label materials in the classroom or school. This portable and lightweight tool includes print letters that are viewed on a wheel. Simply spin the wheel to select the letter and press on the handle to emboss that letter onto the label.
Coudert, C. (2015). Digital Braille Versus Paper Braille. Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm15/bm1502/bm150205.htm
- Canadian National Institute for the Blind—offers braille courses and general information about braille.
- Ross MacDonald School for the Blind—has a free Early Intervention braille program for children ages 0 to 6 years of age. Their Sight Substitution Centre also provides assessments for assistive devices such as braille embossers, braille notetakers, refreshable braille displays, and Perkins Braillers.
- Royal National Institute of Blind People—provides braille resources for schools and teachers, providing free downloads for the entire braille education pack, English alphabet cards, and links to braille courses for educators, adults, and children.
- American Foundation for the Blind—promotes all aspects of accessibility, including braille, and a vast information repository
How Braille Relates to the AODA legislation
Braille relates to the following sections of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Integrated Accessibility Standards, specifically some of the following sections in the Information and Communication Standards:
In the Ontario public education system, the Alternate Education Resources of Ontario service of the Provincial Schools Branch provides alternate formats like braille, which helps schools in meeting AODA requirements.
- Braille is an alternative format used by persons who are blind or who have low vision to communicate and convey information. A Braille Embosser with the braille translation software are necessary technology required in order to create braille materials.
- People interact, learn, and communicate in diverse ways. Learning opportunities are increased when flexible ways of engaging with learning materials are provided. Considering how people communicate is important for knowledge to be exchanged. Alternative formats take into account diverse ways of exchanging information.
- The AODA legislates that educational institutions and their employees know how to produce accessible or conversion ready versions of textbooks and printed material. Educators, teachers, and staff are to learn about accessible program or course delivery and instruction and be knowledgeable at interacting and communicating with people with disabilities who may use alternate formats.
To learn how this section relates to the core principles of the AODA Customer Service regulation, visit the AODA page on SNOW.
To learn of ways to innovate, develop, and design for accessibility, visit OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) website and the IDRC’s floe project website.