As 12th October is World Sight Day, we thought we would devote this blog post to the subject of braille.

The most amazing thing about braille is our perception of it. This was well observed by the artist Scott Wayne Indiana who put braille stickers on public buildings around the city of Portland in 2007. If it were a script most understood, it would have been seen as graffiti and removed. Instead it was largely ignored. Perhaps it wasn’t noticed. Perhaps assumptions were made that it was an official notice. Food for thought.

You probably know something about braille. It’s one of humanity’s most inspired and progressive inventions – a code which changes letters into dots. When printed, the dots are raised and can thus be read by touch by the visually impaired. Its brilliance is its simplicity.

However, as humans we like to make things slightly more complicated for ourselves. The problem with braille is that it is large. It needs to be large so fingers can feel the bumps accurately. However, this means that when it is printed, a page of computer processed text can easily run to three pages of braille. In the modern world, this rampant slaughter of trees is a bit of an environmental faux pas.

Secondly – if there’s one thing that unifies humanity it will be the realisation that humans are intrinsically built lazy (or built to be as efficient as possible, depending on your world view): you know that thing you do when you are reading and you don’t really look at all the letters/words in the sentence…you just kind of skim through it? Well, visually impaired people do that too. But with their fingers. Painstakingly reading every single letter just gets tedious.

The solution? Contracted braille. Braille readers got bored of all the long words and commonly used words and even pairs of letters and replaced them with contractions. So, for example, the braille symbol for ‘b’ ⠃is also the symbol for ‘but’. The braille symbol for ‘c’ ⠉ is also the symbol for ‘can’. Hence,

You like him

Uncontracted braille:
⠽⠕⠥ ⠇⠊⠅⠑ ⠓⠊⠍

Contracted braille (literally: “Y l hm”):
⠽ ⠇⠓⠍

After that it starts to get more complicated. For instance there are contractions for the letter pairings “be” “ea” and “ar”. Which ones do you use to make the word “bear”? There’s a contraction for “th” – you can use it in “think” but you can’t use it in “pothole”. There’s a contraction for “mother”… but you can’t use it in “chemotherapy”. Why? It’s all based on the pronunciation of the word. And this is where you need a native braille user and some professional grade equipment.

Braille in other languages
Each language and country has its own braille system. There are increased layers of complication depending on the size of alphabets, accents, etc. Some countries use contracted braille and some don’t. Some countries have agreed a standard – Unified English Braille (UEB) is a unified code for seven English speaking nations so that everyone uses the same contractions. Others are working on it. Interestingly, a universal convention with braille is to write it from left to right, even in languages such as Arabic where the underlying language is written from right to left.

The best thing about braille
Due to advances in technology braille can now be produced cheaply and quickly, reducing barriers for the visually impaired in a way that was previously just not possible. If you want to make your world accessible to the visually impaired, you might be surprised how easy it is.