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Braille in the spotlight

More than 200 years after it was invented, Louis Braille’s tactile writing system is inspiring designers and artists to get creative

A close-up of a sheet of braille.

When 11-year-old Louis Braille first came up with the idea of a simple tactile alphabet, few could have foreseen the impact it would have.

His ingenious system revolutionised communication for people with visual impairments, enabling them to read independently for the first time. The characters, made up of different combinations of six dots set in a 2×3 grid, can be used to represent everything from basic letters and numbers to advanced mathematics and music.

Today, more than 30,000 people in the UK use braille to help them communicate. And even in the modern digital age, this 200-year-old invention is holding its own alongside smartphones and modern technology.

“Braille fulfils many uses that other technology cannot – it’s about finding the right solution for each individual and set of circumstances,” says James Bowden, a braille expert at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who is also a braille user. “Screenreaders, which convert text into synthesised speech, can allow someone to digest a long document at speed, but this doesn’t always provide precision. Reading the same document in braille would enable you to spot spelling inconsistencies, and go back over any complex passages or sections to memorise or critique them.”

“Blind people must be treated as equals, and communication is the way this can be brought about”
Louis Braille

A close-up of the yellow braille bricks, which feature braille characters on the top.

Tactile bricks to teach braille

A close-up of the yellow braille bricks, which feature braille characters on the top.

Braille Bricks look like Lego. But there’s a subtle difference: the studs on each brick spell out letters in braille. The aim is to help blind children learn to read and write by piecing together the characters to form words. The bricks can also be used by children without visual impairments, so both groups can play and learn together.
They were developed by the Dorina Nowill Foundation in Brazil, which has released a limited run of the toys.

Many braille users extol the benefits of tactile communication, saying it’s far quicker for everyday uses such as labelling CDs and DVDs, identifying food packaging or organising paperwork. Using braille for such tasks is becoming more widespread: in October 2005, an EU directive decreed that all pharmaceutical products must be labelled to make them accessible for people with visual impairments.

Cleaning products such as bleach have, for years, featured warnings in braille, yet many organisations have now taken this further: some supermarkets have started including braille on their own-brand packaging, and many restaurant chains offer braille menus. There are also hundreds of books and magazines produced in braille, including novels, puzzle books, music magazines and chess guides.

It’s a far cry from the world Louis Braille experienced in the early 19th century, where there was little support available for people with disabilities, and no reliable way for blind people to read and write independently. Louis had been blind since the age of three, after accidentally stabbing himself in the eye with one of his father’s tools. As he grew up he was offered a place at one of the first schools in the world for blind children, the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris.

Some supermarkets have started including braille on their own-brand packaging, and many restaurants offer braille menus

Graffiti you can touch

‘The Blind’ is a 34-year-old graffiti artist from Nantes in France who, despite his name, has full vision. He uses oversized braille characters to create urban art that can be appreciated by people with visual impairments.
The artist came up with the idea of tactile graffiti in 2004. Using a stencil, a glue gun and tiny half-spheres of plaster, which he prepares in advance, he decorates walls in his home town of Nantes, as well as further afield in Europe and the US.

When Louis was 11, his teachers invited a French army captain, Charles Barbier, to give a talk at his school. Barbier had invented ‘night writing’, a military code created for Napoleon, who wanted his soldiers to be able to communicate silently in the dark. Barbier’s system, which used up to 12 dots to represent individual sounds, was deemed to be too difficult for soldiers to learn. But scientists thought it might be useful for people with visual impairments.

Barbier’s system piqued young Louis’s interest, although he spotted some flaws: the characters were based on sounds, not letters, which made it difficult to write, and each 12-dot symbol was too large for people to read without moving their hand.

Louis’s idea was to simplify the code, using up to six dots in specific patterns to represent each letter of the alphabet. He worked tirelessly on his system, and at the age of 15 he presented the fruits of his labour for the first time. He continued to revise it over several years, and the expanded English version, published in 1905, is almost unchanged today.

Louis’s idea was to simplify Barbier’s code, using up to six dots to represent each letter

A sheet of music with Braille notation above it.

Hitting the right note

A sheet of music with Braille notation above it.

Louis Braille was a keen musician – he taught music and played the piano – and he also invented a method of braille musical notation. It uses the same six-dot cells as the main braille alphabet to represent pitch and rhythm.
Braille music must be memorised: it’s impossible to play and read at the same time. The notation can be combined with a portable braille e-reader or refreshable braille display, which converts on-screen notation into braille by raising and lowering pins in response to an electronic signal.

As braille use becomes more widespread, and awareness about accessibility grows, organisations are keen to get on board. Many designers and artists are taking the opportunity to get creative with tactile communication. But it’s not quite as simple as just translating a few words, or slapping a braille sign on a wall.

“Incorporating braille into your work should not just be a tick-box exercise,” says Bowden. “The most important first step is to consider your audience.

“If you do decide that braille would help, the next step is to obtain guidance to make sure the braille is accurate and positioned or published in the most user-friendly way. I’ve seen examples where braille has been inaccurately produced or stuck onto surfaces upside down, meaning it’s not particularly useful. I’ve also been told about instances in hotels where the braille numbers on the doors of the rooms are different to the print numbers.

“Designers often forget, sadly, that braille is not a visual medium. Those who use it need to use their fingers to read the raised dots, meaning that it is no use to have a braille sign where it cannot be reached. Having said that, there are some incredibly helpful uses of braille in public buildings, such as on the buttons in lifts, allowing blind and partially sighted people to find their way around with confidence.”

Bowden says the main barrier for braille use is lack of knowledge and understanding among the public, as well as professionals working in education, health and social care. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

“Learning the braille alphabet is relatively simple,” he explains. “Anyone can do it, although it can take a while to train your fingers to sense the dots by touch. But just like reading standard print, the more you practice, the better you get. The commitment can put people off, as can the mistaken belief that it’s too complicated or that braille is outdated. But with time, it can be extremely worthwhile, improving access to information and independence.”

The RNIB provides information and support about living with sight loss. Visit www.rnib.org.uk or call 0303 123 9999

“Anyone can learn braille, although it can take a while to train your fingers to sense the dots”

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