The brilliance of braille
When a young Frenchman named Louie Braille was first introduced to the idea of using a coded system of raised dots for reading and writing in 1821, he couldn’t possibly have predicted the massive impact his revolutionary system would have on the lives of so many blind and partially sighted people.
This week celebrates National Braille Week (4-11th January) and is a perfect opportunity to reflect on what a life changing invention braille was and still is. Comparable to the invention of the printed press for sighted people, it is no understatement to say that braille has bought knowledge, independence and freedom to the thousands of people across the world who use it.
Around 18,000 people in the UK use Louis Braille’s revolutionary code of six dots to help them read, write and carry-out everyday tasks.
It’s not just about reading books. Think about how you would select a music CD, read music, tell the difference between aspirin and paracetamol, take notes at a lecture or read food labels? How about reading bank statements? RNIB research shows that 64 per cent of the general public would feel ‘uncomfortable’ if they had to rely on a neighbour to read out their bank statements, but for many blind and partially sighted people they would not have a choice, if they were not able to get bank statements in braille.
Does braille still have a place in this age of technology? The short answer is yes. There is of course much debate as to whether braille could be replaced by new technology such as screen and print reading devices, which convert text into spoken words, but currently new technology is actually helping to move braille forward and open up new opportunities for users.
Technological developments have made braille far more usable for blind people. Apart from making it easier to convert text to braille, it also makes braille far more portable. A whole braille book can now be stored on a small disk or memory stick, rather than taking up reams of paper and shelves of storage space.
Future developments are set to be even more exciting, for example a team of US researchers have devised a way for blind and partially sighted computer users to use the touchscreen of a tablet such as an iPad as a braille keyboard. Users can type directly onto a flat glass screen, where the buttons actually find the fingers. The impact of technology such as this would be massive.
There are almost two million people in the UK with sight loss that impacts on their daily lives, and every day 100 people in the UK start to lose their sight. Of course, many blind and partially sighted people don’t use braille and there are other reading options such as Talking Books which are hugely popular with many book fans who still want to enjoy their favourite literature. However, blind and partially sighted readers face a dramatically limited choice of book titles. Only seven per cent of books are available in large print, unabridged audio and braille, including titles available in these formats as eBooks. And as Jo Brand (who supported the recent ‘Read for RNIB Day’ campaign) sums it up: “Reading must be one of my greatest pleasures. I would happily spend the rest of my days in a comfortable chair with every book I’ve ever read plus the thousands not yet in my repertoire! I cannot imagine being denied of the sight to do so.”
The history of RNIB itself is rooted in the movement to bring braille into mainstream society and this is something that we are very proud of. When Louis Braille died in 1852, it looked as though his revolutionary system would die with him. But his mantle was taken up in 1868 by Dr Thomas Armitage and his group of four blind men who founded the British and Foreign Society for Improving Embossed Literature for the Blind. This small band of friends would later become RNIB.
Today, RNIB provides a range of braille services, including our National Library Service and products from labelling equipment and pill containers to magazines, and produces more than 12m pages of braille per year. We also offer information about learning braille and services allowing other organisations to provide braille including exam boards, banks and utility companies. We are also leading on a project to significantly reduce the cost of portable braille.
We want to ensure that braille will continue to be taught to new generations of blind people and to make sure everyday items without braille, such as buttons in a lift, or numbers on hotel doors, are the exception rather than the rule in the future, helping blind people experience life to the full.
It’s clear that technology will continue to make huge breakthroughs in enabling blind and partially sighted people to communicate in new ways in the future. But for almost two centuries little has equalled the practicality and simplicity of braille, and for me personally – I absolutely rely on braille everyday of my life for work, study and leisure.Tagged in: blindness, RNIB, sight, vision, world braille day