What Is World Braille Day?
Have you ever noticed small raised dots underneath the number buttons on an elevator, on hotel room plaques or on ATM keys? If so, you’ve likely seen braille. Braille is a system of symbols that helps people with visual impairments read and write.
World Braille Day, which takes place on January 4 every year, helps to raise awareness about braille literacy and the people who use this system to communicate. To learn more about the importance of braille, take a closer look into its history, the way it works and the significance of the holiday that celebrates it.
Who Was Louis Braille?
Braille is named for Louis Braille, who was born in 1809 in France. At age 3, he experienced a traumatic eye injury that became infected, spread to his other eye and caused him to go blind. While attending a school for blind students in Paris, Louis Braille learned to communicate using a system called sonography, or night writing.
Night writing was created by Charles Barbier, an army captain who wanted to design a method of communication military soldiers could use without alerting others to their presence. Rather than using a traditional alphabet, Barbier’s system of night writing used symbols representing sounds that people could feel with their hands rather than read with their eyes. Each sound was created with a combination of 12 dots. Though the system was still in its early days, Braille’s teachers were hopeful that night writing could provide their visually impaired students an effective way to understand information and express themselves.
Louis Braille embraced night writing, but because the system only included 12 symbols, it limited the ways people could use it to communicate. It was harder to read because, considering that each character could be made of up to 12 dots, people had to use multiple fingers to feel a single letter. Night writing also lacked grammar, punctuation and some other common communication conventions.
Louis Braille set out to improve night writing. He created a similar system that used six dots per character, making each character small enough, when embossed onto paper, to be felt by the typical human fingertip. This allowed people reading braille to identify words much faster. It took him several years to perfect the new form of writing and reading, but by the time he was 15 years old, Louis Braille had invented braille.
The Early History of Braille
Prior to braille and night writing, there were other efforts to make the written word accessible for people with visual impairments. Various forms of embossed writing were produced in Europe. Some simply used paper that had been embossed and wet during the printing process to make the ink rough enough to feel by hand. Others used embossed dots similar to braille that followed the pattern of written letters. Some developed triangular embossed alphabets to help.
These various systems were each popular in small pockets of the world and were mostly associated with individual schools for people with visual impairments. Many of the embossed writings at that time closely followed the Roman alphabet. But for people who had been born blind or become blind before learning how to read, it was more difficult to understand the Roman alphabet, even if they could feel it. People’s fingers could easily miss that alphabet’s loops, crosses and dots on embossed paper. Those who had become blind after learning how to read had a bit more success with these systems, but they weren’t ideal for everyone.
At first, Louis Braille’s new invention had limited success and was mainly popular at the school he attended. However, his school did not officially adopt braille as its system of reading and writing until after Braille’s death. As time went on, the structure of Braille proved to be much easier to understand than all other methods, and more schools began to adopt the system. It did take some time, though; braille was formally introduced in 1824, and the first effort to standardize braille for English speakers eventually took place in 1932.
A Look at Braille Today
Braille is a tactile code. This means that people read it using their sense of touch instead of their sense of sight. Braille can be used to write and read in a variety of languages. The alphabet English speakers use to spell words can be used to spell words in other languages that use the same alphabet, and braille is similar in that way.
Today, there are two forms of braille people use around the world. Uncontracted braille is the standard form of braille in many places. In this form of braille, all letters and punctuation are spelled out. Contracted braille is a different form of braille that uses shorthand for common words and common word endings. In uncontracted braille, the word walking may be spelled out with tactile symbols to represent each letter of the word. In contracted braille, W-A-L-K would be spelled out and followed by one tactile symbol that represents the common word ending I-N-G.
Contracted braille takes a bit longer to learn and requires someone to be familiar with uncontracted braille first. Many people learn uncontracted braille before they learn contracted braille. Braille literature uses more paper than printed literature, so many major publishers opt to print literature in contracted braille. For this reason, many people who use braille to read make a goal of learning contracted braille, even if uncontracted braille is more common in their part of the world.
Braille has come a long way, but it’s vital to ensure it remains common as more of our communication becomes digital. World Braille Day is a great opportunity to reflect on how organizations can make braille more accessible.
Celebrating World Braille Day
World Braille Day is observed annually on January 4, which is the birthday of the system’s inventor and namesake. The first World Braille day took place in 2019, and it was started by the United Nations. One of the main goals of World Braille Day is to raise awareness about its importance to the millions of people around the world who regularly use braille to give and receive information.
Braille literacy is also an important aspect of this annual observance. World Braille Day is the start of Braille Literacy Month. Throughout January each year, people celebrate Louis Braille’s achievements and raise awareness about braille’s significance as a communication system. Many people use the time as an opportunity to start learning how to read braille and better support loved ones who have visual impairments.
For people with visual impairments, having access to braille versions of signs, menus and other forms of written communication isn’t just a matter of convenience. Braille makes the world accessible for people who can’t see to read, promotes independence and provides equal opportunities. World Braille Day is a valuable opportunity to advocate for accessibility and ensure people with visual impairments have choices in the ways they communicate.