The Origins of Braille

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At the root of accessibility technology lies braille, a code composed of 63 characters that can be depicted using a six-position matrix of raised dots. The inspiration for braille came from a 12-dot system designed by Charles Barbier. His intent was to enable communication between the mostly illiterate soldiers in the French army and to make communication possible at night; the embossed dots represented sounds that could be felt. This system was not a great success in the army, but young Louis Braille recognized the start of an ingenious concept.

Louis was blinded at the age of three during an accident in his father’s shop and began attending the National Institute for Blind Youth at a young age. At the time, students were taught to read by tracing raised print letters—the technique was tedious and extremely challenging to master. Further, writing demanded that students memorize letter shapes before attempting to replicate them on paper. Neither technique was efficient nor entirely accessible.

After his exposure to Barbier’s idea, Braille refined the system to a 6-dot code and published his initial invention by 1829 before introducing a more expansive version in 1837. The system labels the left column 1-2-3 and the right column 4-5-6; different combinations of flat versus raised cells represent individual letters and symbols. Braille comes in two print forms: contracted and uncontracted. Contracted braille uses shorthand to represent certain words. “Can” could be represented by the letter ‘c’, and so on. There are also a number of offshoots from the original code. Nemeth Code was invented by Dr. Abraham Nemeth in 1946 and is used for notation in math and science. Braille codes for music and foreign languages have also been created. Braille itself is not a language, and the symbols can take on different meanings based on the surrounding symbols and context. Punctuation marks found in text print are assigned braille equivalents.

The Perkins Brailler, a “braille typewriter” is a faster way of producing this code. In the past, braille writers had to use a stylus and slate, or a fragile braille-writing machine. Invented by David Abraham in 1951, the machine has keys that correspond to each of the six dots used in the code, and paper is fed through the device in a way that prevents the freshly imprinted dots from being crushed.

In the United States, the size of braille is standardized by laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). Guidelines are provided that outline the diameter, height, and spacing of the dots down to the thousandths decimal place. The ADA also requires that braille be included on signage in any business, other than in prisons and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This explains why relatively inaccessible places, such as drive-through ATMs, have braille.

The rise of smartphones and other technology have revealed an opening in the market for braille smartphones and other technology to compensate for visual impairment. Companies such as Kriyate made news in 2013 for developing the first braille smartphone, which included a braille display and haptic touch feedback controls. Since then, smartphones have taken on a number of accessibility features that make regular smartphones more user-friendly for the visually impaired – these features include screen readers, adjustable display settings, and voice controls. Features like haptics have been around since the 1970s and come to life in a plethora of technology beyond smartphones. The vibrations in controls warn pilots of turbulence, are associated with specific actions in video games, and provide feedback to users of Apple watches.

Additionally, refreshable multi-line braille e-readers like The Canute, Blitab, and DotWatch have risen in popularity. The e-readers are similar to tablets, but with heated wax or electroactive polymers to raise the refreshable braille dots. The largest challenge surrounding this technology is the cost; due to low production numbers and limited funding, the devices are extremely costly to the civilian consumer. Accessibility for the visually impaired has certainly come a long way throughout history, and today’s technology has the capability to advance it even further.