People who are blind or have vision loss need an alternate method of reading and writing that does not depend on sight. A young blind man in France in the early 19th century, Louis Braille, invented a system when he was fifteen. He based his tactile system on the "Ecriture Nocturne" (night writing) code invented by Charles Barbier for sending military messages that could be read on the battlefield at night, without light.
Braille is essentially a code made up of raised dots which can be felt with the fingertips. People with sight can read braille with their eyes. The code is formed within units of space called braille cells. Each cell has up to six raised dots arranged in two parallel rows. Each different arrangement of the dots represents a letter of the alphabet, a number, a punctuation mark or sometimes an entire word. There are 64 possible combinations of the dots within a single cell.
There are different levels of complexity within the braille code. If every letter of every word is expressed in braille, it is called grade one braille. Since this type of braille takes up quite a bit of space, it is rarely used for books or other reading material. People who are newly blinded, however, might find grade one braille a good system for labeling items around the house.
In grade two braille, cells are used by themselves or in combination with others to create a number of contractions or whole words. A single letter might be used to represent an entire word. For example, the word "you" is represented simply by the braille letter "y". This cuts down on the amount of space needed to write braille. Most braille books are two to three times larger than their printed counterparts, even when they are transcribed into grade two braille.
People who are blind can write in braille using several different methods. The oldest and simplest method is using a slate and stylus. The slate is a sort of template, with evenly spaced indentions for the braille cells. Paper is placed in the slate, and the stylus is used to press the appropriate dots onto the paper. The paper bulges on its reverse side, and tactile dots are formed. Slates are portable and don't break down, so they are the best form of written communication for students and others who need to take notes. People using slates learn to write their sentences backwards, since the impressions appear on the reverse side of the paper.
Braille can also be created using a machine called a braille writer. While a typewriter has more than fifty keys, a braille writer has only six keys and a space bar. The keys are numbered to correspond to the six dots of a braille cell. All or any of the keys can be depressed at the same time, making the appropriate number of raised dots appear within the cell.
The computer industry has made revolutionary changes in the lives of braille users. Portable braille notetakers and software programs allow people to save and edit their writing, review it either by hearing it read back to them or reading it in braille, and then have a hard copy printed out from a desktop braille embosser. There is also braille display technology which displays the information on a computer screen in braille. Many more advances make braille an effective means of communication for people who are blind or have vision loss.
Braille is a crucial skill for people who are blind or visually impaired. Print surrounds us, every day, in the workplace, at home and during our leisure time. Braille makes it possible for people who are blind or visually impaired to be literate, and literacy plays a very big role in achieving employment and in developing a better quality of life. Skilled braille teachers are in short supply, but organizations like AIDB and the American Foundation for the Blind are working diligently to make braille literacy possible for the majority of people who are blind or have vision loss.
Alabama students who are blind can have braille or large print textbooks and learning materials provided at no cost through the Alabama Instructional Resource Center. There are other services available to make movies and television available for people with vision loss, and the National Library Service/Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped provides books on tape.