BRL: Braille through Remote Learning

Intro to Braille Course

Session 1 main page
Session Objectives

Session Topics
  • Writing for the Blind: A Brief History
  • The Braille System
  • Pre-Modern Day Braille
  • Modern Day Braille
  • Assessment Exercise

    Other BRL Courses
  • Transcribers Course
  • Special Codes Course

  • Session 1: Introduction to Writing for the Blind

    Part 1:
    Introduction to Writing for the Blind: A Brief History

    Before beginning your journey into braille and braille transcribing, it is helpful and useful to learn a little about the historical attempts to develop a system of writing for visually-impaired persons. There is documentation to prove that inventors and educators as early as 1640 made attempts to create materials that would allow blind people to engage in reading and writing. Even a basic understanding of this history is important, for this reason: there are fairly substantial innovations being developed today, mostly involving the use of technology enhancements, that could have a profound impact on how blind people read and write. Might this even include the end of braille as one of the primary modes of preparing "print" materials? The argument is that an understanding of the development of print media, leading to the current use of braille, is key to following and understanding the discussions currently prevalent on how materials will be prepared in the 21st century.

    Early Methods

    A wide variety of methods and materials for enabling blind persons to read and communicate with each other have been tried and evaluated. Examples include the use of wax tablets, the manipulation of wooden letters, letters made out of wire, the use of pin-pricked letters in heavy paper, and the use of knots in a rope tied at various intervals. In 1640, Pierre Moreau, a printer, attempted to provide a method of creating written documents by casting moveable leaden type. The common denominator of all of these methods was (and continues to be a "benchmark" for the suitability of a method) that each required materials that were difficult to make or manipulate. It is unfeasible, for example, for someone to be able to carry enough wooden blocks with them to communicate effectively with another individual! The criteria of ease of production, permanence, ease of understanding, and portability of production materials are all important standards for any form of communications technology.

    One of the first concentrated efforts to create a system of writing occurred in Paris in the 1780s. Valentin Hauy, founder and director of the first school for the blind, produced raised letters on heavy paper using a metal pen with a rounded tip. He also made the observation that printed letters could be seen in reverse through regular paper, and was able to produce reverse metal-cast letters that were able to produce raised letters using wet paper. The first book using the technique of raised or embossed letters was published in 1787 and was, appropriately, an essay on the education of blind children. One of Hauy's objectives was to maintain a close similarity between the way sighted and blind children were educated. His theory was that education of the blind should not deviate significantly from educational tools and technologies used by sighted students.

    Hauy's system of producing raised letters on paper underwent a number of modifications, some by Hauy himself, some by others. A blind man in England, Dr. William Moon, created a system of embossed letters that used the regular alphabet, with some of the letters modified or simplified. In the Moon alphabet, eight of the letters remain the same, fourteen have parts left out, and five are completely of new design. Moon's code was, for the time, simple and elegant, and it was used by a relatively wide audience for a substantial period of time.

    The precursor to the modern-day standard -- braille -- was the raised dot system created by Charles Barbier, another French citizen. In 1815, Barbier created a system of raised dots, which he theorized (probably correctly!), that raised dots provided a medium that was more easily interpreted tactually (that is, by touch.) Barbier's system consisted of two rows of six vertical dots. Based on a phonetic, or sonographic, methodology, Barbier's system replaced the letters of the alphabet with a complicated set of symbols representing different sounds in the language. The complexity of Barbier's system was its ultimate downfall, as was the size of the individual units. Twelve dots, it was determined, were too large for an average individual to completely cover the cell with his or her fingertip. One of the innovations that did endure was his development of the slate and stylus, tools that are still in use today. A slate consists of two metal pieces, connected together by a hinge. The bottom metal plate contains indentations in the shape of the dots. The upper plate has guided holes or openings that allow the user to form the dots. The stylus -- a wooden holder with a sharp metal pointer -- is used to push dots into the paper, using the upper metal plate as a guide. The paper, which is inserted between the two metal plates, is removed and flipped over, and the dots are then ready to be read.