Braille is named after its creator, Frenchman Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight due to a childhood accident. In 1824, at the age of 15, Braille developed his code for the French alphabet as an improvement on night writing. He published his system, which subsequently included musical notation, in 1829. The second revision, published in 1837, was the first digital (binary) form of writing.
Braille characters are small rectangular blocks called cells that contain tiny palpable bumps called raised dots. The number and arrangement of these dots distinguish one character from another. Since the various braille alphabets originated as transcription codes of printed writing systems, the mappings (sets of character designations) vary from language to language. Furthermore, in English Braille there are three levels of encoding: Grade 1, a letter-by-letter transcription used for basic literacy; Grade 2, an addition of abbreviations and contractions; and Grade 3, various non-standardized personal shorthands. So it is pretty much just like any other form of language we use across the world.
Though braille is thought to be the main way blind people read and write, in Britain, out of the reported 2 million visually impaired population, it is estimated that only around 15–20 thousand people use braille. Younger people are turning to electronic text on computers with screen reader software instead, a more portable communication method that they can also use with their friends. A debate has started on how to make braille more attractive and for more teachers to be available to teach it.
Braille is a tactile writing system used by the blind and the visually impaired. It is traditionally written with embossed paper. Braille-users can read computer screens and other electronic supports thanks to refreshable braille displays. They can write braille with the original slate and stylus or type it on a braille writer, such as a portable braille note-taker, or on a computer that prints with a braille embosser.
Braille was based on a tactile military code called night writing, developed by Charles Barbier in response to Napoleon's demand for a means for soldiers to communicate silently at night and without light. In Barbier's system, sets of 12 embossed dots encoded 36 different sounds. It proved to be too difficult for soldiers to recognise by touch, and was rejected by the military.
In 1821 Barbier visited the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris, where he met Louis Braille. Braille identified two major defects of the code:
- By representing only sounds, the code was unable to render the orthography of the words;
- The human finger could not encompass the whole 12-dot symbol without moving, and so could not move rapidly from one symbol to another.
Braille's solution was to use 6-dot cells and to assign a specific pattern to each letter of the alphabet. The expanded English system, called Grade-2 Braille, was complete by 1905. For the blind today, braille is an independent writing system rather than a code of printed orthography.
Braille cells are not the only thing to appear in embossed text. There may be embossed illustrations and graphs, with the lines either solid or made of series of dots, arrows, bullets that are larger than braille dots, etc.
So generally, as long as there is a beveled, embossed surface, it allows the visually impaired to feel out the shapes and imagery, which is basically how braille works.
Braille is derived from the Latin alphabet, albeit indirectly. In Braille's original system, the dot patterns were assigned to letters according to their position within the alphabetic order of the French alphabet, with accented letters and w sorted at the end.
The first ten letters of the alphabet, a–j, use the upper four dot positions: ⠁⠃⠉⠙⠑⠋⠛⠓⠊⠚.
The next ten letters, k–t, are identical to a–j, respectively, apart from the addition of a dot at position 3: ⠅⠇⠍⠝⠕⠏⠟⠗⠎⠞, and so on, and so on...
Originally there had been nine decades. The fifth through ninth used dashes as well as dots, but proved to be impractical and were soon abandoned. These could be replaced with what we now know as the number sign (⠼), though that only caught on for the digits (old 5th decade → modern 1st decade). The dash occupying the top two dots of the original sixth decade was simply dropped, producing the modern fifth decade.
Braille may be produced by hand using a slate and stylus in which each dot is created from the back of the page, writing in mirror image, or it may be produced on a braille typewriter or Perkins Brailler, or an electronic Brailler or eBrailler. Because braille letters cannot be effectively erased and written over if an error is made, an error is overwritten with all six dots (⠿). Interpoint refers to braille printing that is offset, so that the paper can be embossed on both sides, with the dots on one side appearing between the divots that form the dots on the other. Using a computer or other electronic device, braille may be produced with a braille embosser (printer) or a refreshable braille display (screen).
French artist and photographer Patrick Tosani did a series of portraits in 1985 where portraits were painted onto surfaces of embossed braille-like patterns, and the faces were blurred and obscured. For me, my interpretation of these pieces refer to my inspiration of the blind, representing the obscurity and fogginess of sight for the visually impaired, yet the braille represent how they experience the world and communicate through their own personal language and community.
I like the idea of creating a textured and bumpy surface, not necessarily embossed, and then covering it over with a pattern, painting or colour to make it seem like it is embossed.