Joining the dots…

As this is, after all, the Swindon BRAILLE Services blog, I think it’s probably high time that I talked a bit about braille. I’ll tell you next week about how I actually do my job as a braille transcriber but let’s start this week with a quick explanation of what braille is and how it works. 

Braille is a tactile system of six raised dots arranged in different ways to form letters, contractions, word-signs and symbols. It was invented to help visually impaired people to read and write by the Frenchman Louis Braille, and there is a good Wikipedia article about him here, as well as a general article on the braille system itself. (As you can see, the modern convention is to use an initial capital “B” for Braille, the name of the man who invented the system, and a lower case “b” for braille, the writing system that he invented.)

The six dots are arranged in a block known as a cell and are numbered in two columns, top to bottom, so that the top left dot is 1, the middle left dot is 2, and the bottom left dot is 3. The right-hand column is then numbered as top dot 4, middle dot 5, and bottom dot 6.

Louis Braille was French and so developed his system to work in the French language. Today, there are many different national variations and, because I live and work in the UK, I will describe the version we use here in this country.

There are two grades of braille. Grade 1 is the alphabet plus punctuation. Grade 2 incorporates other signs as well.

For instance, in Grade 2 braille, there are combinations of dots representing frequently used words such as and, with, the, of and for. Each letter of the alphabet also stands for a word if written spaced from other words. Thus “B” stands for but, “C” for can and so on, through to “Z” which stands for as.

In addition, in Grade 2 braille, if you put a modifier in front of various letters, other words are formed. For example, “dot 5 W” stands for the word work. Dot 5 isn’t the only modifier, either. For instance, there are a series of words formed by placing dots 4 and 5 in front of a word. In fact, dots 4-5 in front of W create the word word!

Combinations of dots in the lower part of the cell often stand for punctuation. Thus, when all the dots used in the pattern which normally indicates the letter “f” are lowered by a row, the pattern instead becomes an exclamation mark. If, in addition, you put a dot 5 in front of this lowered “f” pattern, you get a plus sign.

I hope that this brief whistle-stop tour gives you some idea of how braille works. If you would like more information on Grade 2 braille, read the Wikipedia article on English Braille. It is mostly concerned with the version of Braille used in the United States, which is slightly different from that used in the UK, but some of the differences are briefly explained.

As a child, I was desperate to learn to read again, having lost my sight just at the point when I was discovering the joy of books. Thus motivated, I learnt the basics fairly quickly. I think I was reading age-appropriate material within a school term, possibly a little sooner. I was only seven years old, so my fingers were very sensitive. It can be much harder for older people or those with conditions such as diabetes, which affect sensitivity, to learn braille. When I taught at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) vocational training college, I found that people who had done manual work often had calloused fingers and found it almost impossible to feel the dots with which braille cells are constructed.