The Evolution of Braille: Recognizing Louis Braille on His Birthday

Louis Braille, the French educator and inventor of the Braille reading and writing system, was born on January 4, 1809. As a result of an early childhood accident, Braille lost vision in both eyes. Thriving academically, he received a scholarship to France’s Royal Institute for the Blind. It was there he began to develop a reading and writing tactile code for people who are blind. This writing system provided people who with visual impairment with the ability to communicate efficiently as well as independently. Since the development of the Braille system, technology has changed, changing the way we use the language.

Audrey Schading, Academic and Communication Skills Instructor at Lighthouse Guild, shares her knowledge and long experience of using Braille, and gives some information on the development in new Braille technologies.

To learn braille, contact our Academic and Communications Skills Program at 646-874-8497.

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As an avid reader of Braille books since the age of six, and as an enthusiastic teacher of Braille, I am indeed privileged to work with it in so many forms and to have witnessed its technological evolution.

People observe me reading Braille all the time, and marvel at what they feel is a mystery. “What are you doing?” “How can you read that?” “How does it work?” For many years, I’d be carrying a large Braille book, or a smaller Braille magazine. I still love holding a book, and turning pages; however, these days, most people will see me reading from a small electronic Braille note taker/computer, which contains a refreshable Braille display, rather than an actual screen. I agree with them when they say how amazed they are by the refreshable Braille dots which pop up and down as I read and write. I usually try to explain that the computer is interpreting the Braille dot code, rather than the audio code of speech or music, or the printed code of lines and circles, which is what they’re most familiar with, that is, the printed word on a page.

For me, as well as for thousands of others, reading Braille has the same wonderful impact that reading the printed word has for a sighted person. Words come vividly alive for me, and I still marvel about this, though it’s been several decades since my fingers learned to fly across each page.

I would have loved to watch Louis Braille when he began punching out the first dots with his newly-invented slate and stylus. We still use and teach this method of writing Braille today, which punches out one dot at a time. I can just imagine his awe as he saw this “pencil/paper” method evolve into Braille typewriters (Hall, then Perkins), and, for the past three decades see Braille embossers (printers) refreshable Braille displays, Braille note takers, computers, (including the newest BrailleNote Touch, which uses an actual touch-screen tablet) to apps for our smart phones. (MBraille and BrailleTouch.)

Newly blinded adults are drawn to refreshable Braille displays which they can connect to their computers or phones, or a Braille electronic notetaker such as the Apex, BrailleNote Touch, and BrailleSense. I find that my students enjoy reading one single continuous line of a Braille display, as following this straight line avoids reading lines on paper which are written very closely together.

Going hand-in-hand with technological advances is the new UEB (United English Braille) code which globally unites all those who read English-speaking Braille. This comprehensive work done by BANA (Braille Authority of North America) has given us a code which is much easier to read and translate to text. Now, hashtags, URLs, e-mail addresses are just a few of the items which are more easily understood, translatable, and therefore more accessible.

Though electronic Braille is still quite expensive, technology is constantly improving, and more affordable methods are being tested, and ready for the general public. We are all eagerly awaiting American Printing House for the Blind’s newest device “Orbit”, which is due to come out in January, 2017. If this affordable reading device is a success, I believe it can revolutionize and truly spread the use of Braille.

Today we recognize Louis Braille for the introduction that has united so many.