The beauty of braille

Today, as we mark World Braille Day, we take a look at the surprising origins of this ingenious tactile reading system and its future.

What is braille?                                               

Braille is a touch-based reading system that uses cells of six dots which are raised in combinations to represent alphabetical and numerical symbols. Scientific, mathematical and musical symbols can also be represented. The system has given the blind and partially sighted the ability to read for pleasure and education, as well as enhanced their independence as more and more braille-based products make their lives easier and safer.

Military origins

It may surprise you to learn that braille has its origins in warfare. Charles Barbier, a soldier in Napolean Bonaparte’s army in the early 1800s, created a 12-dot reading system called “night writing” so that soldiers could communicate silently after dark.  Each combination of dots represented a letter or phonetic sound. Unfortunately, the system didn’t work very well as it was difficult to feel all 12 dots with the small area of the fingertip.

Enter Louis Braille

Born in France on 4 January, 1809, Louis Braille lost his sight at a young age after an accident in his father’s workshop. At the age of 11, he began to create his now-famous reading system by fine-tuning Barbier’s “night writing” technique.

Louis’ system utilises just six dots in a cell, which the fingertip can easily feel in one touch. He perfected the system over nine years, and his invention spread across the world, changing the lives of millions by enabling access to education and careers.  

Braille vs audio

For a long time, braille was the only way for the blind and partially sighted to access reading material, but technology has changed that. Smartphones and other digital devices now offer a world of information and literature in audible files that can be enjoyed at the touch of a button.

As climate change becomes more of a pressure point, the advantages of a paperless option are obvious.

Historically, proficiency in braille was the first step towards literacy for the blind, but tech such as screen readers that convert text to audio files and speech synthesisers make reading and education much more accessible for many.  

There’s an app for that…

Apps such as Audible from Amazon, provide the latest fiction in audio format for all ages. Getting around is also easier, with software such as Microsoft’s 3D Soundscape offering audio navigation guides for the blind. And the advances just keep coming, many still incorporating braille. Braille has now jumped from the page to the screen with the updated version of Narrator, the screen-reader for Microsoft Windows, supporting digital Braille displays and keyboards.

Braille remains relevant

In first world countries, braille appears to be falling away as a mainstream literacy tool, but the same cannot be said of the third world. Access to the internet and technology may be growing in less-developed nations, but braille books still play a major role in providing literacy and education to the blind. This empowering reading system is still expanding horizons and ensuring the basic human right of access to information, and will be for a long time to come.