The History of Braille

The History of Braille

What is braille?

Braille is a system of written communication that has been empowering individuals who are blind or partially sighted for nearly two hundred years.

Through the use of raised tactile dots on a 2×3 grid called a braille cell, it provides a unique means of literacy and communication.

Each combination of dots represents a letter, number, punctuation, or symbol, allowing users to read by feeling these raised dots with their fingertips.

The CNIB Beyond Print Logo is positioned on the top left corner. On the right side, a close-up image captures a person's hand reading braille dots.

Types of Braille

Uncontracted Braille (Grade 1)

Also known as “alphabetic braille” or “elementary braille”, Grade 1 is simple and straightforward, with each cell representing a single braille character.

This form is particularly beneficial for individuals who are new to braille.

Uncontracted braille requires the largest number of cells, and therefore results in the longest texts and larger document sizes.

Despite this, Grade 1 remains an excellent starting point for beginners exploring the world of braille literacy.

Contracted Braille (Grade 2)

Contracted Braille (also known as Grade 2) is the most widely used form of braille in North America because most books and magazines are printed in this form.

Contracted braille is used by more experienced braille users because it is faster to read and write than uncontracted braille. It is a more condensed form of braille, using an array of “short forms” for commonly occurring words or groups of letters such as and or the, and th or ed. In other instances, a single braille cell may represent an entire word; for example, the letter “k” = “knowledge” and “p” = “people”.

In texts, contracted braille reduces the number of pages needed.

Grade 3: A highly condensed form of braille

A very shorthand form of braille, Grade 3 is not very commonly used.

This form of braille is not officially standardized and generally not used in public documents. Instead, this braille system is more common in casual writing or personal letters.

Like contracted braille (Grade 2), Grade 3 is contracted, but to a greater degree.

Multiple words can be condensed into one or two units, making it a valuable tool for those seeking maximum efficiency and brevity in their braille communications.

How Braille has Evolved Throughout History

The 1700s: A Landmark in Tactile Reading

The first recorded invention of tactile reading dates back to the 1700s.

One notable figure in this journey was Francesco Lana de Terzi, an Italian Jesuit priest and mathematician.

In his book Prodromo, Lana de Terzi introduced a tactile alphabet designed for people who are blind. His system utilized a 3×3 grid with raised dashes and dots to represent letters.

The flaw in this coding system was that dashes were not easily identifiable with a finger.

Later versions of tactile code adopted only dots, after discovering that they were easier to identify for readers, paving the way for the evolution of braille as we know it today.

The 1800s: Charles Barbier and the Birth of “Night Writing”

In the 1800’s, Charles Barbier, a French military veteran, made a significant contribution to the development of braille with his invention of “night writing”.

Barbier noted that soldiers in Napoleon’s army often made themselves identifiable to enemies when using a lamp to read combat messages at night.

To address this vulnerability, he devised a system of tactile reading to facilitate communication among soldiers under low-light conditions.

He took inspiration from Lana de Terzi’s system and used raised dots to symbolize letters.

Barbier created his code by using a blunt stylus to create impressions in cardboard that could be felt with a finger.

His initial model used a 2×6 grid and consisted only of letters (no punctuation or symbols).

Barbier brought “night writing” to the National Institute for Blind Youths in Paris, the first special school for blind students in the world.

The 1820’s – Braille is Invented

Louis Braille, a young blind student at the National Institute for Blind Youths, recognized the limitations of the bulky raised-letter alphabet systems being used during his time.

Motivated to find a better solution, Braille began experimenting with tactile codes after learning about Barbier’s raised-dot system.

Braille, who was blinded at a young age in an accident, created braille on a 2×3 grid, which allowed each letter or symbol to be read with one touch.

in 1829, this led to publishing the first six-dot cell system that bears his name.

Braille became increasingly popular amongst the blind community and became the official language of communication for the blind community in France.

By the 1860s, braille had crossed the Atlantic, making its way to North America.

Modern day Braille

Today, braille users can read any online document with braille translation software, ensuring that students who are blind have equal opportunities for education, especially in subjects such as science, math, and music.

With the advent of electronic displays, refreshable Braille devices allow for dynamic, real-time reading experiences. These devices use small pins that raise and lower to form Braille characters, making it possible to read digital content such as e-books, emails, and websites.

How Braille is Produced

When braille was first produced, paper and cardboard were the only materials available for embossing. Using these materials meant that the dots would flatten quickly with use.

Today, braille is embossed on special paper, which is more resistant to flattening.

Braille can be embossed onto most materials and is used on public signage, elevators, prescription bottles, and much more.

For single-copy embossed braille, a Perkins Brailler may be used. The device, which functions similarly to a typewriter, has six keys and allows users to type out braille characters one by one onto a sheet of paper.

The CNIB Beyond Print Logo appears on the top left corner above the text: The Perkins Brailler allows users to type out braille characters. A photo on the right, shows hands positioned with the index, middle, and ring finger of each hand on the keys of a Perkins Brailler.

This process can be labour-intensive, which is why braille is typically produced on a larger scale.

Mass braille production is done with high-speed industrial machines that receive digital information and emboss it into print braille.

Transcribing Braille

Unless a text is originally written in braille, it is transcribed by certified transcribers.

Both print copy and electronic files can be converted into braille. The text is extracted from a word file and run through translation software before being ready for use on electronic devices.

Hard copy texts can be scanned and translated automatically.

Electronic braille does not require the additional time and resources to print and assemble a physical copy.

Increased Availability of Braille and Alternate formats

In today’s digital era, there have been remarkable advancements in technology and the dissemination of digital content, enabling greater access to resources for readers worldwide.

However, despite these advancements, the accessibility of digital materials is often an afterthought.

Recognizing the importance of equitable access, CNIB collaborates with organizations like the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS). Together, they advocate for increasing the availability of materials in alternate formats, specifically designed for people with print disabilities.

People with print disabilities have the option to source information from a variety of accessible formats. For individuals who are blind or partially sighted, print braille, electronic braille, virtual assistants, EPUBs, and audiobooks offer vital avenues for information access.

For the blind community, braille is a key to literacy, education, employment, and success in life.

Why braille matters

Braille is Print

When children with sight loss are learning to read, braille is the best way for them to develop skills in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It promotes literacy, intellectual growth, and self-confidence by developing strong reading and writing skills. Audible technology doesn’t give new readers the tools that they need to read and write for themselves.  

Braille Enables Employment

Several studies have shown that people with sight loss who read braille are more likely to be employed than those who rely on any other information format.  

Braille Equals Independence 

Braille is a building block of literacy and a foundation of independence. 

Providing a variety of information formats for people with disabilities is a key to making resources fully accessible.

The CNIB Beyond Print Logo appears on the top left corner above the text: Providing options for people with disabilities is a key to making resources fully accessible. A photo of a young man walking with a white cane appears on the right.

💡Did you know? CNIB offers a variety of braille services, including reading and writing courses, transcription, and children’s activities.

Since its inception over a century ago, CNIB has built a library of close to 100,000 books, magazines, films, and newspapers in alternative formats such as audio, braille and electronic text that are distributed through CELA. These life changing resources enable access to the world for Canadians that are blind or partially sighted.

CNIB Beyond Print is a social enterprise that creates accessible materials that allow people who are blind, partially sighted or live with a print disability to gain equitable access to information in alternate formats.

All proceeds from CNIB Beyond Print are invested into CNIB to help create programs for Canadians who are blind and partially sighted.

Final Thoughts

Braille has come a long way since its inception in the 18th century.

The digitization of braille texts, along with the widespread use of braille software and technology, has made it easier for readers who are blind to access information.

Although audiobooks and text-to-speech technology have also improved access for blind and partially sighted readers, the importance of braille cannot be overlooked for literacy, employment, and independence.

Are you a publisher or author who wants to increase the accessibility of your documents, or looking to support braille readers? Contact Us.