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The inventor

Louis Braille, the inventor of braille, was born in the French village Coupvray, close to Paris, in 1809. At the age of 3 years, he had hurt himself seriously with a tool at one eye. Overleaping inflammations resulted in total blindness of both eyes. Intelligent and lively as Louis was, he was promoted by his parents and by the pastor and visited the village school. Beginning in 1819, he visited the royal institute for the young blind in Paris. Already in 1825, he presented the writing for the blind developed by him to the public. At this time, Braille was only 16 years old.

The system

Of course, there have been precursors to braille regarding to the embossed representation of writing. The crucial stimulus for Braille’s system came from Charles Barbier, an artillery captain, who had developed a night writing, based on 12 dots.

Louis Braille revised the system several times until it had the form which is still valid today: six dots are arranged in two columns and three lines – like the number 6 on a dice. This form fits comfortably under a fingertip and therefore it is ideal to read. The combination of the dots allows 64 different possibilities of grouping. These are enough to represent all letters, accents and punctuation characters in the languages that use – like the French – the Latin alphabet as written language.

Braille in different languages

Braille was also adopted in languages whose common print is not based on the Latin alphabet. In these cases, braille represents the transcription of the actual writing system (e.g. Russian, Arabic or Chinese) of the Latin writing. Only three languages have matched totally different phonetic values to the braille characters: Japanese, Korean and Tibetan.

Contracted braille

Braille characters need much more space than common print letters. Thus, there are contracted versions in many languages. These are space-saving and faster to reed. To be able to use contracted braille, many sign combinations have to be learned.

Other areas of application

Braille is also used in other areas but sheer reading. Thereby, the same 64 combinations are used but they have another meaning. There are for example the music notation (invented by Braille himself), writings for chemical and mathematical characters, and writings for knitting, chess and computer braille (often consisting of 8 dots).

The production

At the beginning of its history, braille could only be produced manually by the help of a slate and a stylus. Later, braille typewriters were developed. Today, in the digital age, a braille display can be connected to a computer. And also, the transcription of longer texts for books and magazines happens computer-assisted. Common print is converted to braille which is embossed with different embossers or simply converted to mobile devices.

Braille in the 21st century

Since its invention, braille is indispensable for education, employment and social participation of blind people. It is a big factor for the mediation of world knowledge to print-disabled people. In the digital age, the vision of a global library, where every book is available in appropriate quality for everybody at the same time, can become reality. If on paper, medicine packs, convenience goods, in the elevator, on handrails or as dynamic display on computer, mobile phone, PDA & Co.: Braille’s dots are always involved into the fundamental human right to information.

However, due to the presence and its rapid technological developments, we are faced to big new questions in our handling with braille and have to answer them:

  • How are blind people enabled to experience texts in their own way and pace?
  • Can we ensure that braille is affordable for everybody who would like to use it?
  • How can we guarantee that also blind people are profoundly skilled in spelling in times of talking reading devices?
  • Why notes in braille if there are dictating machines?
  • Sighted people do not waive learning reading and writing because of pictograms and acoustic media. Why should blind persons do this?
  • Why using braille on paper in times of notebooks and dynamic displays?

The answer to these questions has to be seen as challenge and chance for the advancement of braille – not as its crisis. Braille21 will meet the challenge and promote the positive development of the six dots.


picture Saliya Kahawatte

Saliya Kahawatte (42),

»Braille builds bridges«

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