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How Does Braille Work?

There are many things about vision loss that society views as negative, but the use of Braille is not one of them. Whether small child or adult, most people are fascinated with Braille and curious to know how it works.

I offer the following quick and dirty summary as a public service to satisfy that curiosity.

First, think of learning Braille as something like learning a second language, whether you grow up learning it along with your first language or pick it up later in life. I didn’t have to learn it myself until I was twenty-seven, so, although I’ve been using it for decades, I’ll never have the speed or ease in using it as someone who learned as a child.

When you learned to read and write (and, for younger readers of this blog, there really was a time when schools taught a subject called “penmanship”), the two processes were relatively similar. While the printing in a book and the letters you learned to print in first grade weren’t exactly, the same, any discrepancies were relatively minor. That is, a word you read in print looked virtually identical to the same word when you printed it. Not so if you’re learning Braille.

Braille letters don’t look anything like their print equivalents. The letter “a,” for example, is just a single dot; a “b” is two dots, one on top of the other; a “c” is two dots side-by-side, etc.

In addition, the letters of the alphabet, when standing by themselves, may also represent entire words. The letter “b,” for example, may also represent the word “but,” the letter “c” can do double duty as the word “can,” etc.

The great drawback to Braille is that writing it takes up a great deal of space. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, for instance, fills up almost forty volumes of Braille, and each one of those forty volumes is, by itself, thicker than the printed dictionary.

To minimize this problem, at least to some extent, there are a number of symbols that may stand for combinations of letters that appear frequently in English. There are, for example, combinations of dots representing “tion,” “ful,” and “er.” Even with this effort at brevity, the dictionary is still forty volumes. As you might imagine, there are few examples of patrons successfully stealing books from a Braille library.

Before the advent of computerization, attempting to carry their books to class turned blind students into pack animals.

Fortunately, those days are in the past. Computerization has streamlined the reading, writing, storage, and printing of Braille.

There is, however, one important way in which writing Braille is very different from writing print. When you strike the appropriate key on a computer, you magically produce the desired letter – one key, one letter. Because you have to produce a series of dots when writing that same letter in Braille, the keyboard is different. The standard Braille keyboard has only six keys, one for each dot, in addition to the space bar. To type the letter “d,” you would have to press keys with the index finger on your left hand at the same time you were using the index and middle fingers on your right hand to press the appropriate keys on the other side of the keyboard. If it sounds confusing, it is, at least when you’re first learning. With a little practice, however, writing becomes as much second nature as typing on a conventional keyboard.

There are a couple of final observations to add to this admittedly superficial overview. First, the real hurdle in learning Braille is that you are depending on the sense of touch rather than vision for the inputting of alphanumeric information. There are a surprisingly large number of sighted people who can read Braille, and, if you have the luxury of looking at the text, the whole process is greatly simplified. After all, you only have to learn about 200 symbols.

Neurologists tell us that humans have evolved so that it is far easier for us to read and write letters and numbers visually. We can adapt to doing it by touch, but it is not as easy, and, as one neurologist once told me, it is “an extremely complex neurological activity.”

However, as anyone who has ever tried to teach a sighted child to read or tried to learn a foreign language themselves knows, learning to read and write is challenging for everyone in the beginning, but, with time and practice, it becomes second nature; and Braille is no different.

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