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Braille: Reading by Touch

Updated on April 11, 2010

In the 14th century a blind Arab professor devised a method for writing notes that he could later read. This may have been the first written alphabet for the blind. Various experiments in writing for the blind were made through the years, and a few blind people learned to read with each system. The first system to be taught to many blind students was that of Valentin Hauy in the 18th century. He used raised large italic Roman letters. Other systems were invented, using embossed roman letters or raised dots, but the letters were too big and slow to read and the dot systems too complicated for the average blind person to learn.

The only system now in use in English-speaking countries that is based on our alphabet, the roman one, was invented by Dr William Moon of Brighton in 1847. He became blind at the age of 21, learned all the alphabets then available for the blind, and decided to make one that was simpler and clearer. His system uses only nine characters, depicting different letters depending on which way up they are. The Moon alphabet is the best for older people whose touch is not sensitive enough to read braille. Its great drawback is that it cannot be written, only read.

Moon Type
Moon Type

Most of the early alphabets for the blind, in fact, could be read but not written by the blind. Louis Braille, born near Paris, who lost his sight through a childhood accident, published his first alphabet in 1829 at the age of 20, and an improved one in 1834. His system consists of 63 possible variations of six dots in two rows. These dots can be called one, two, three downwards in the first row, and four, five, six downwards in the second row. Letter A is dot one, B dots one and two, C dots one and four, and so on. The first ten letters are formed from the top four dots, the second ten repeat the first ten with the addition of dot three. Twenty-six characters form the letters of the alphabet and 27 are used for other symbols. There are several grades of Braille. Grade One spells out all words in full. Grade Two has certain contractions to save space and make reading faster. Higher grades use more contractions. There are also braille codes for shorthand, music, mathematics, electronics, science, computer programming, phonetics, and many other subjects.

Braille was introduced to England by Dr Thomas Armitage, the blind founder of what is now the RNIB, after much controversy, for each teacher preferred to keep his own system. Universal adoption of braille in the USA took longer, as each state made its own decisions. Three different systems of braille were adopted by different states, two of which may have had advantages over the one used in Britain, but, as it was too inconvenient to have more than one alphabet, in 1918 the USA adopted the system used in Britain. In the 19th century braille alphabets were worked out for many non-European languages, starting with an Arabic braille in 1878, a Chinese one, and a Japanese one in 1887. Since 1949 UNESCO has worked to unify braille usage throughout the world, setting up in 1951 the World Braille Council, which became a part of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind. The International Federation of the Blind (formed in 1964) combined with World Council for the Welfare of the Blind to create the World Blind Union.

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