You may have already noticed those small raised dots on elevators, medicine boxes, door signs… You might know they are used by blind people, as a form of making the world inclusive. However, how do they actually work? Who invented it? And How has it evolved?

What is Braille?

Braille is a universally accepted writing and reading tactile system used by visually impaired persons. The raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet. 

By using the braille alphabet, visually impaired people can review and study written words. It consists of a code of 63 characters, each made up of one to six raised dots arranged in a six-position matrix or cell. It also contains equivalents for punctuation marks and prives symbols to show groupings. 

Braille is read by moving the hand or hands from left to right along each line. The reading process involves both hands, and reading is generally done with the index fingers.

Who invented the Braille system?

Before the Braille system was accepted in the 19th century, many agreed that the sense of touch as a way to teach the visually impaired how to read.

The system began by running one’s fingers across written letters of the alphabet, however, this proved inefficient.

In the 17th century, the Italian Jesuit Francesco Lana de Terzi developed the Lana System in his book Prodromo. Unlike previous systems, Lana believed that it did not have to mimic the regular handwritten or printed letters. He developed a system based on lines and raised dots on thick paper on a three-by-three grid containing the alphabet letters.

In the early 1800s, a man called Charles Barbier who served Napoleon in the French army developed a unique system, based in the Lana system, known as “Ecriture Nocturne“ (night writing). This was so soldiers could communicate safely, without speaking or using a torchlight during the night. He created this system on a raised twelve-dots cell, two dots wide and six dots tall. Each dot or combination of dots within the cell represents a letter or a phonetic sound. 

When Louis Braille entered the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children), in Paris, he decided to improve the Barbier system himself. He created a code still used today, which lends his name: Braille. Louis was blind in both eyes as the result of a childhood accident and infection, and he intended to make knowledge accessible.

Louis Braille created a reading method based on a cell of six-dots instead of twelve, like Barbier. This crucial improvement meant that a fingertip could encompass the entire cell unit with one impression and move rapidly from one cell to the next.

Modern day Braille

Over time, Braille gradually became accepted throughout the world as the fundamental form of written communication for blind individuals. It has been adapted to almost every known language. Today it remains basically as he invented it. 

Louis Braille has truly changed the lives of millions, giving them access to an education, a fundamental right!

Braille impacted several areas, such as mathematics and music, which allowed blind and visually impaired people to develop new skills and hobbies.

The pencil/paper method evolved into Braille typewriters, then computers, and finally to apps for our smartphones. With the evolution of technology, the internet became a way to promote this writing and reading system. It has helped millions of people around the world!

For people who cannot access print, listening to audiobooks is also valuable. In addition, popular games (such as Bingo and Uno) are available in Braille or can be adapted by adding labels.

As we have seen Braille brings several advantages to visually impaired individuals in their day-to-day lives, however, it also has some disadvantages. Braille books are often very bulky and in many volumes; and it also requires an acute sense of touch, and some readers’ finger sensitivity may be reduced.

COVID-19 and visually impaired people

For the visually impaired, life under lockdown has posed several issues in terms of independence and isolation, especially for people who rely on the use of touch to communicate their needs and access information. 

People living with visual disabilities/impairment are more likely vulnerable to contract COVID-19. This means more than 253 million people globally are at a higher risk of being affected by this virus. Since there’s a lack of information and many restrictive and control measures, including the adoption of new behavioral changes (for example, social distance or limiting touch or tactile contact) pose immense challenges to individuals with a visual loss. 

An online survey that studied the long-term impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on loneliness in people living with disability and visual impairment, concluded that individuals with disabilities such as blindness or lack of sight experienced consistently higher levels of loneliness than those with no disabilities throughout the pandemic. 

During the pandemic, the United Nations has implemented many good practices to promote a disability-inclusive response to the COVID-19 and disseminate information in Braille. 

So, what can be done?

Mental health services are crucial to the visually impaired during the pandemic, particularly if people are feeling isolated. 

If you know someone who is blind or has poor vision, reach out to them and ask if they need help. Help them embrace technologies, and keep them connected with the latest developments and information about safety and health guidelines. Having regular contact with people will help them to stay feeling positive! Here are other tips you can do to help these individuals during COVID-19.

World Braille Day

Since 2019, the 4th of January marks World Braille Day. In recognition of Louis Braille, born on this day in 1809.
This day spreads awareness about Braille and other accessible forms of communication. Everyone deserves (and is legally entitled to) the same accommodations and services, regardless of ability. Let’s remember to do our part in making the world more accessible to all.

Author: Rita Muñoz

Rita is an intern at SPEAK. She just finished her Master’s Degree in Tourism and Communication in Lisbon. She loves cooking, going to the beach and exploring new places.

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