The World at Your Fingertips – Braille Literacy and the Digital Age

Should an individual who is blind use speech or braille as a means of access to the printed word? This is a complex question with answers that will vary from one user to another, but there’s no denying the power of having so much information available at our fingertips. In honor of Louis Braille’s birthday, we will explore the benefits of the system that made literacy possible for people who are blind and which continues evolving in today’s digital age.

Where Braille Began

Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809 in Coupvray, France. During his early childhood, he sustained an injury to one eye while playing in his father’s workshop. Infection set in and spread to the other eye, leaving him completely blind.

While a student at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Braille worked diligently to come up with a viable means of reading and writing for the blind. At the time, students read by tracing raised print letters with their fingers. This was a slow process that was difficult to master.

Braille’s inspiration to develop a code using embossed dots to represent letters derived from a note-taking system invented by retired artillery officer Charles Barbier. It used raised dots to represent sounds and was created so soldiers could pass notes among the ranks in the dark so as not to alert the enemy.

When the army did not adopt Barbier’s system, he brought it to the institute where Braille was a student. Braille subsequently improved on Barbier’s idea, and by 1824, had developed the braille code that is still widely used today.

Why Braille Matters

Braille is an essential tool that cannot be substituted by any other means of access for promoting literacy among persons who are blind. Since its inception, braille has provided a means of reading and writing at home, in the classroom, and in the workplace. Braille literacy increases opportunities by providing a means of mastering grammar, spelling, math, and other subjects.

Braille in the Digital Age

Though braille is still widely produced on paper, it has also evolved to meet the demands of the fast-paced world of technology. Refreshable braille displays were developed to provide braille access to text shown on a computer screen. These devices can contain up to 80 braille cells on a single line.

Each braille cell incorporates pins that are raised or lowered to form different combinations of dots that make up braille characters. As you navigate text using keyboard commands, the characters displayed reflect the position of the active cursor.

A braille display benefits users by:

  • Providing direct access to information
  • Permitting verification of spelling, formatting, and spacing
  • Offering a quiet alternative for reading and writing

Braille displays can be connected to a computer via USB or Bluetooth, and pair to a smart phone to provide access to text messaging, social media, and other widely used features.

The Takeaway

Louis Braille once said, “Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge.” The combination of speech and braille gives you the ability to communicate with others from all over the globe, placing a wealth of information at your fingertips. Whether you’re accessing news, conducting scholastic research, or collaborating with co-workers, the opportunities for acquiring and sharing knowledge are endless.

Want to learn more about how using braille can help level the playing field? Visit our Focus Family page for information about our line of refreshable braille displays, and join us on Thursday, January 16 at noon Eastern for our live webinar, Access at Your Fingertips, the Focus Blue Braille Display.

1 Comment

  1. Deborah Armstrong

    Low-vision folks use speech in conjunction with magnification all the time. Braille works the same way; you often check out the spelling of unfamiliar names or addresses in Braille while using speech to get through a long website or email. Also you can use a Braille display while still learning to read Braille because JAWS has Braille study mode which lets you master the system a little at a time. Even if Braille is very new for you, I encourage people to use JAWS to learn it, because you can always use speech to check what you read is accurate! I mastered UEB this way by just letting JAWS read while I touched the dots.

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