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Braille through the years: past, present and future

Braille is a unique tactile writing system of raised dots that blind and partially sighted people can read by touch. It was pioneered by a young Frenchman in the nineteenth century, called Louis Braille, and since then the ability to understand braille means that people with sight loss have the same access to written word as sighted people.

A closeup of a person’s hand as they read a braille book. Their hand is tracing along a sentence in the middle of the page.

You can read more about the history of braille, how it has changed over time, and what the future may hold braille below.

The invention of braille

About Louis Braille

Louis lost his sight in a childhood accident. At age 10, he was sent to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth. It was at this Institute in 1821 that Louis was first introduced to the idea of using a coded system of raised dots.

Charles Barbier, a captain in Napoleon's army, visited the school to demonstrate his "night writing". This was a tactile system designed for soldiers to send and receive messages at night without speaking. It used raised dots and dashes rather than actual letters.

Finding the code

Louis quickly realised how useful Barbier's system could be, but thought it was too complicated. Over the following years he worked hard to develop his own version of the code, using just six dots (instead of Barbier's 12), arranged in two columns of three dots just like a domino to represent the standard alphabet.

By 1824, aged just 15 years old, Louis had found 63 ways to use a six-dot cell in an area no larger than a fingertip. He had also perfected his "planchette" or writing slate, which gave precise placing for the pattern of raised dots when writing braille.

He went on to develop signs for mathematics and even music.

It took two years after his death for his code, by now referred to as braille, to be adopted as the official communications system for blind people in France.

If you would like to learn more about the Louis Braille Story, then you can listen to a Radio 4 programme on his life, featuring the politician David Blunkett. There are also various books available in the RNIB Library.

Resistance to braille

While the use of braille spread to many countries, it continued to encounter strong resistance. This is thought to be because braille didn't look like print, and therefore wasn't easy for sighted people to read.

About braille today

Louis Braille's system of embossed type is now used by blind and partially sighted people for reading and writing all over the world. It has been adapted to almost every known language.

Over the years RNIB has continued to fight for braille and the rights of blind and partially sighted people to have access to information and the opportunity to express themselves in written word. Since our first braille book was published in 1871, our library now shares over 25,000 braille books and music scores with our members every year. We are the largest publisher of braille in Europe.

Braille is used in everyday life by many blind and partially sighted people. 

Keeping braille alive

Today RNIB strives to keep braille alive in several ways:

  • We put millions of pounds into subsidising the production of braille books every year.
  • We offer hundreds of different books and products for sale to help people read and write braille using new technologies, see our Products and publications in braille page.
  • Our training courses help people to learn braille.
  • Our transcription service helps people and companies turn information into braille.
  • We campaign for better access to information in different formats including braille.
  • We work with organisations all over the world to ensure people are trained in braille and technology continues to develop and become more accessible to people.

Two centuries after braille was invented, it's still going strong. But the world changes and new technology develops. It will be interesting to see, and even to shape, what the future of braille will be like.

The future of braille

There is some debate as to whether braille will eventually be replaced by new technology such as screen readers and print reading devices, which convert text into spoken words.