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General Braille Information Center

What Is Braille?

Hands reading a Braille page.Named after its creator, Louis Braille, it is a system of making raised dots on paper to form letters and words that are read by the blind with their fingertips. The basic Braille 'cell' consists of two columns of three dots. The dots are numbered 1-2-3 from top to bottom on the left side of the cell and 4-5-6 from top to bottom on the right side of the cell. Each Braille letter, word, punctuation mark, number, or musical note can be made using different combinations of these dots. Braille can be written with a Braillewriter (similar to a typewriter) or by using a pointed stylus to punch dots down through paper using a Braille slate with rows of small "cells" in it as a guide. This method of writing Braille compares to writing print with a pen or pencil.

History of Braille

A blind boy reads a Braille book with the help of a blind woman.The Braille code is a relatively modern invention that has frequently met with opposition.  Louis Braille (1809-1852) developed and published the first manual on his code at the age of eighteen.  Blind students enthusiastically took to the Braille code as it was a faster, more efficient way of reading and writing independently.  Prior to Braille, blind individuals used embossed letters, which were difficult to read and even more difficult to write.  Despite the clear advantages of the Braille code and the enthusiastic support for the system among young blind students, sighted schoolmasters viewed it as simply another barrier between blind and sighted individuals, creating a significant obstacle for the code to overcome.  The Braille code was first introduced in the United States in 1869 but faced many struggles before its adoption as the Standard English Grade Two Braille code, in 1932. 

A blind senior types on his BrailleNote.From that point until the early 1960s, many blind people were routinely taught to read and write Braille from an early age.  However, by the 1980s, the Braille literacy rate among blind people was reported to be near 10 percent.  This meant that the vast majority of blind people were illiterate'they could not effectively use print or Braille to read and write.  A number of causes led to the decline in Braille literacy, including:

  • The emphasis, since approximately 1965, on teaching children with some remaining vision to read print, to the exclusion of Braille;
  • Negative attitudes toward blind people and the communication skills they need; 
  • Lack of standardized Braille teaching methods and of quality control to ensure high standards of teaching;
  • Discouragement of newly blind adults from learning Braille under the false belief that it cannot be mastered after childhood;
  • Lack of opportunity for older individuals to explore how some Braille might help them maintain their independence and manage their own medications;
  • Other misconceptions about Braille and its uses; and
  • Braille being underestimated and seen as unusual and, thus, the blind themselves viewed in a similar fashion.

A blind baby looks at a Braille book with her dad.Led by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a number of initiatives were undertaken, beginning in the 1980s, to change the decline in Braille literacy.  These included raising public awareness about the benefits of Braille and an effort to adopt state laws that strengthened access to Braille instruction and instructional materials for blind children.  While significant progress was made in the 1990s in changing public policies related to Braille and raising awareness of the importance of Braille to the blind, the literacy statistics for the blind show that far too few blind people have access to quality instruction in Braille.  This is true despite the fact that research conducted during this period demonstrates a significant relationship between Braille and employment.  That is, better than 80 percent of the blind people who are gainfully employed utilize Braille in their daily lives.  This is contrasted with an unemployment rate among the blind that is often cited to be 70 percent.  Braille, independence, confidence, success, and literacy are all tied together.  Donate now to support the NFB Braille Readers are Leaders Literacy Campaign!

Braille Articles and Research

Braille: What Is It?  What Does It Mean to the Blind?     
Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius      
Literacy: The Key to Opportunity    
The Impact of Braille Reading on Employment, Income, Education, and
          Reading Habits
      
Braille, Motivation, and Useless Trivia: How I Got on Jeopardy    
101 Ways to Use Braille
Helpful Hints About Teaching Braille Reading
Braille: A Renaissance  
Can Braille Change the Future?
Braille Usage: Perspectives of Legally Blind Adults and Policy
       Implications for School Administrators

Braille Resources and Books

Beginning Braille for Adults
The World Under My Fingers: Personal Reflections on Braille (Third Edition)
Reading by Touch: Trials, Battles, and Discoveries
Tools for Learning Braille
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Braille Authority of North America
UNESCO's World Braille Usage, 1990 edition (pdf)

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Louis Braille?
The Braille system of reading and writing was developed by a Frenchman named Louis Braille when he was just a boy. He became blind through an accident, and he discovered that trying to read raised letters was much too slow. He wanted a faster way for blind people to read and write. He modeled Braille after a system of codes used by the military, and then he expanded his system. For more information about Louis Braille, please visit your school or public library.

A blind girl reads a Braille story book.How do blind people read Braille?
It takes some practice to become a good reader of Braille, just as it does with print. We learn Braille by feeling the different dots in each Braille 'cell' and memorizing what the different combinations of dots stand for. It is best to learn Braille when you are young, even if you can still read some print. That way, you have had many years of practice and experience to develop good Braille skills by the time you are an adult. Blind adults can learn Braille through many different types of programs or classes. Good Braille readers'like good print readers'can read much faster than they can talk. Today blind people use Braille to take notes in high school and college, to write letters, to read books and magazines, to keep addresses and phone numbers, to keep recipe files, to write books and other materials, and to do the other things you might do using print. There are special libraries that provide Braille and recorded books and magazines for the blind free of charge. Most states have one or more of these libraries where blind people can borrow these materials.