Five Facts About Braille

[In the picture: a bust of Louis Braille by Etienne Leroux].

Happy birthday Louis Braille!

Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France.  Blinded as a child during an accident, he nonetheless went on to receive an education and was accepted to France’s Royal Institute for Blind Youth. When he was still a student at the Institute, he developed a system for blind people to read and write, based on military cryptography developed by Charles Barbier. Though his system did not catch on during his lifetime, by the end of the nineteenth century, braille was used in much of the western world, and it was adopted by schools for the blind in the United States in 1916.

In honor of Louis Braille’s birthday—and National Braille Literacy Month—here are five facts about braille.

How Braille is set up

Braille is set up with cells. Each braille character lies within its own cell.  A braille cell can contain a letter, number, punctuation mark, or a whole word.

Braille contractions

In order to efficiently write words without taking up a lot of room on a page, a system was devised to condense words in braille. In contracted braille, cells are combined, forming “short cuts” to save space and paper. Contracted braille is considered the standard in the United States.

Stylus and paper

Braille can be written using a slate and stylus. The slate has evenly spaced depressions for making dots. The writer puts a piece of paper in the slate, and pushes out dots with the pointed end of the stylus into the paper over the depressions. On the other side, the paper bulges where the dots need to be.

Braille typewriters

There is a special machine that can produce braille, called a braillewriter. A braillewriter has only six keys, a space bar, a line spacer, and a backspace. The six keys are numbered to correspond with the six dots of a braille cell. Combinations of the keys are pushed at the same time since most braille symbols contain more than one dot.

Finger sensitivity

Most people have the right amount of finger sensitivity in order to begin reading braille.  However, many braille instructional books now begin with sensory exercises that can help a person determine how well he or she can feel, and discriminate between, raised shapes. A person can also be tested for finger sensitivity using the two-point touch test, the pressure anesthesiometer, and the Roughness Discrimination test.

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