Unified English Braille: A Long Time Coming

Unified English Braille: A Long Time Coming

08 June 2017

"We, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg." – Helen Keller

A change has come to the English language recently, and though it may go unnoticed by the general populace, for many in the blind community, the change marks an important shift in literacy. As of January 2016, the United States adopted Unified English Braille, and it is changing the course of the future for the visually-impaired among us.

Braille is a touch reading and writing system in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet as well as numbers. By moving the hand left to right, just as the English language is read, one can read a sentence with the fingers just as easily as a sighted person could read it with their eyes. 

Though Louis Braille is credited with the invention of the Braille reading language, the origins of the braille go back to his childhood and the Napoleonic Army. In the early 1800’s, Charles Barbier was a soldier in Napoleon’s army when he was tasked with solving a prominent problem on the battlefield. For all of the army’s planning and commanding, the soldiers and captains were often literally left in the dark about plans once the sun went down. 

Barbier had developed a system by which the army could read correspondence at night without a candle on hand or the use of lamps which could easily lead to the soldiers being discovered and shot by their enemies. The system, called “night-writing,” was based on a combination of phonetic sounds and letters in raised two-dot wide and six-dot tall cells. Unfortunately, it was not only confusing, but hard to read entire words with only one touch. Though Barbier’s “night-writing” was a good start, the power of reading by touch would not be fully realized until Louis Braille entered the scene.

Born in Coupvray, France in 1809, Louis Braille was accidentally blinded at a young age by his father’s awl. When Louis was ten years old, he was lucky enough to become enrolled at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris, an opportunity that most visually-impaired in France did not have. By age eleven, Louis Braille was inspired to develop a reading and communication system that he and other blind individuals could use. 
Over the course of nine years, Louis Braille worked on creating the Braille reading code, using a 6-dot cell that could be completely understood by a single fingertip touch. For the first time in history, blind men and women could be trained to use the system to read and write. Braille’s code was a success, and though it took some time to catch on around the world, it is now commonplace. 

In 1854, Braille was adopted as the official communication system for the blind in France, just one year after Louis Braille passed away at age 43. By 1860, Braille had made its way to America and into The Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis, and it has been the gold standard for reading and communicating by the visually-impaired ever since. 

Most impressive of all, the system as Braille designed it has undergone a few changes, but still remains essentially the exact same as it originally was, which was causing some problems in the blind community.

In 2012, citing problems with the braille system including the inability to adapt universally to fit all cultures, as well as a call to standardize English Braille throughout the English-speaking world, the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) officially adopted Unified English Braille (UEB). UEB is based on the current English-standard braille system, but has been updated to include new symbols and, for the first time, offers flexibility for change regarding print. Contractions, another major hurdle for braille readers, have also been changed and adapted to suit modern readers, dropping nine previous contractions and adding several new ones. 

Though the system has been adopted, it is still rolling out slowly to the readers.  With the help of electronic systems, including audio books, websites that offer audio options as well as visual ones, and cell phone technologies integrating audio functionality into their systems, the UEB system is in no rush to take over the blind reading community. Instead, the system will be implemented slowly, is now being taught in schools for the blind in English-speaking countries, and has even made its way into some new printed books. 

The hope of the creators of Unified English Braille is that it will make communication all the more streamlined, and offer those who previously struggled with braille a way to develop stronger reading and writing skills that will stay with them forever. Thanks to those who helped develop braille and other systems of communication for the visually-impaired since the beginning, everyone has the means of communicating their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the greatest of ease at a time when everyone seems to be more connected than ever before.