What is braille?

Braille is a system of reading and writing for people with sight loss, allowing you to read your favourite books, helpful signs, useful product labels and much more. It uses a combination of raised dots which are read by touching them. Each group of dots represents a letter of the alphabet, word, number or punctuation mark. Punched into paper or raised into cardboard, the system was created by Louis Braille in the early 19th century and has since been transcribed into many different languages across the globe.

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What is braille used for?

Braille is used to help you read and write with a vision impairment. You read it from left to right with your fingertips.

It is still widely used, even with the introduction of alternative assistive technologies like screen readers, text-to-speech and audiobooks. In the UK, approximately seven per cent of people with sight loss use braille.

Braille can help you to gain a deeper understanding of texts, continue learning, and increases accessibility in the workplace. It’s also really useful to label things like medicine packaging and street signage. You might find it in the supermarket too as some food products also have braille labelling on their packaging.

What is a braille display?

A braille display is a piece of technology that converts text to braille. They include computers, tablets and smartphone braille displays, which help you to read things like documents, web pages, social media, books and more.

How many versions of braille are there?

There are two main versions of the braille code – uncontracted and contracted braille. Each have their own benefits.

Uncontracted braille

Uncontracted braille is where every word is written out in full braille, this is also called grade-one braille. Uncontracted braille is useful for labelling products and learning braille as a beginner. This is why you’ll often find children’s books written in this format, making it easier for children with vision impairment to learn literacy.

Here is an example written in uncontracted braille. The sentence translates 'She's over there.'

Contracted braille

Contracted braille, also known as grade two braille or literary braille, uses contractions of braille text. It’s the standard braille system, typically used for braille books and publications. In contracted braille, braille cells are used individually or alongside others to create a shorthand. There are 180 different letter abbreviations and 75 short-form words. 

Here is an example of a sentence written in contracted braille. The sentence translates 'She's over there.'

Braille displays are available in various shapes and sizes, from 12 lines of braille cells up to 80. They display information by raising and lowering pins to form braille code. When connected to a computer, you will usually require a screen reader to send information to the display. This means you can typically use text-to-speech functions at the same time as reading braille.

You can also upload text on a braille display using a USB cable, Bluetooth or an SD card. Some allow you to connect to more than one device, letting you switch between devices with ease.

Refreshable braille displays are tactile, updating braille information naturally using:

  • A computer cursor
  • Cursor routing keys
  • Command keys
  • Screen reader commands

Braille displays are useful for reading the spelling, grammar and punctuation of a text. These days, you can find light and transportable braille displays and notetakers with durable battery life, making them easy to take out with you.

What is a braille keyboard?

A braille keyboard is a specific type of keyboard for people who use braille. They look a lot like standard computer keyboards, but the keys have raised braille dots on them. 

If you learned to read braille instead of ever learning to read words, these may be better suited to you. Using a braille keyboard is easier than learning to type on a standard keyboard without braille markings.

To read and write contracted braille, you’ll need to understand uncontracted braille. Most people who learn uncontracted braille will naturally progress to learn contracted braille. It makes it easier to read braille quickly and helps reduce the amount of paper needed for printing braille books.

In public, some signs include braille to make spaces more accessible for people with sight loss. You can touch the braille on the signs to read instructions, directions and other helpful information. 

Braille writing

What does braille writing look like?

To sighted people, braille writing looks like a series of raised dots. The dots make up braille cells, each symbolising a letter, word, or punctuation mark.

A braille cell looks like six embossed points in two vertical lines of three side by side, or three rows of two dots on top of each other. Each braille character, whether it’s a letter, word, sign or symbol, is made from a cell of up to six dots.

When you run your fingertips over braille symbols, you’ll feel small, raised bumps. They signify a character, number or word abbreviation. 

Ways of writing braille

Besides braille notetakers like the BrailleNote and braille keyboards, there are various other ways to write braille, including:

  • Slate and stylus
  • Braille writers
  • Braille printers
  • Braille translators

How Louis Braille invented braille

Braille gets its name from the inventor Louis Braille, who became blind as a child following an accident. He was a student at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris, where he found inspiration for modern braille when a captain from Napoleon’s army visited. The captain demonstrated his ‘night writing’ code which used raised dots and dashes to communicate between soldiers without the need for sight. 

Louis adopted this format, creating his own combination of dots within two columns of three that we know today. He then created symbols for maths and music, publishing his first braille book in 1829 at just 20 years old. 

Braille alphabet

The braille alphabet, numbers and symbols are comprised of up to six raised dots. Each character is contained in a braille cell, and you can create 64 different characters by configuring the raised dots in different ways. 

Braille letters are unique, making it easy for beginners to learn and apply to grade 1 braille (uncontracted braille). The braille alphabet is standardised for most countries, although abbreviations and punctuation can vary. 

Braille numbers

Braille makes learning literacy, maths and science accessible to people with sight loss. The numbers use the same combination of dots as the characters for letters A to J, preceded by a character that indicates to the reader that a number will follow. Numbers are standardised internationally, with the exception of France.

Has braille become obsolete?

With the introduction of new devices and built-in screen readers on computers and smartphones, you now have more options than ever before. These amazing products can make life with a vision impairment easier. 

But, braille is essential for teaching people skills that can be used without the need for technology. 

  • Learning braille means you don’t need to rely on technology to find your way and read important instructions, offering more independence in everyday life. 
  • Reading braille labels is useful for accurately identifying products at home and in the supermarket. 
  • Tactile reading offers a different way to absorb information besides auditory learning, encouraging varied learning styles to suit you. 
  • Reading and learning spelling, grammar and punctuation through braille improves literacy, which is beneficial for educational and employment prospects. 

Frequently asked questions

Technically reviewed by: Subject Matter Experts on 02/11/2023

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