Every day’s a school day this World Braille Day
Thursday 4 January is World Braille Day but if that wasn’t enough to celebrate, 2024 will mark the 200th anniversary of Braille, the system of raised dots that has enabled blind people to read and write.
Though now 200 years old, Braille is as vital as ever, and made even more so because of the advances in new technology, says leading sight loss charity RNIB NI (The Royal National Institute of Blind People in Northern Ireland).
In a world that relies more and more on computer technology, you would be forgiven for believing that traditional Braille is now overlooked by children and young people with a vision impairment. However, school students still feel Braille offers that vital first step on their education journey.
Thursday 4 January will mark the anniversary of the birth of the inventor of Braille, Louis Braille (1809-52), the French man who himself became blind at the age of four. The Braille system is based on variations of six dots, arranged in two columns of three. Variations of the six dots represent the letters of the alphabet, punctuation, numbers and groups of letters.
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 necessary to write in Braille.
Louis Braille’s system of embossed type grew to be used by blind and partially sighted people for reading and writing all over the world and has been adapted to almost every known language.
Eryn Kirkpatrick is aged 12, from Fivemiletown and is enjoying first year in Fivemiletown College. Eryn has been blind from birth because of Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and is an avid Braille user since starting school.
Eryn says: “I love reading and writing with Braille. I also love learning about all the new technology that is out there now but still enjoy reading story books in Braille sometimes. At the moment I’m reading ‘Just Call Me Spaghetti Hoop Boy’ by Lara Williamson and it’s ok. Jackie from RNIB has taught me so much about the different assistive technology that’s out there and it’s all really exciting. It’s important to me that I’m able to read the same books and do my schoolwork as well as everyone else my age. I love reading and Braille helps me to do that.”
Eryn’s mum, Evanna Kirkpatrick, said: “Ever-since Eryn was born, we’ve learnt to trust that she’ll find her own way in life. At school, Eryn’s textbooks and work sheets are all produced in Braille for her by the teachers and QTVI staff. She does a lot of her schoolwork using Braille and even though she enjoys audio books, she does like to have a hard copy book in Braille to read as well. It’s amazing to watch Eryn embrace assistive technology like the speech software JAWS on her laptop but still read using Braille too. In fact, for Christmas, Eryn asked for a Braille bible.
“As parents, when Eryn was very young, we were worried about the future and how she would manage at school or growing up but she continues to amaze us with the way she approaches every problem that’s thrown at her. We knew that she was blind but we didn’t really know what that would mean for her growing up. Would she be able to read and do all those things that children do.
“I’d say to other parents, have faith in our kids. It was important to us as parents, that from a young age, Eryn got every opportunity to learn skills that would help her progress in life. The QTVI staff at the school have been working with Eryn from a young age which really helps. I think back to when Eryn was born and just wish that someone could’ve told us then not to worry and to trust that things would work out. We just didn’t know anyone else who was blind and so had no source of support or inspiration. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of support from Guide Dogs, the Western Health and Social Care Trust and of course Jackie from RNIB who is now working with Eryn on expanding her knowledge of not only Braille devices, but other technology that can help and support Eryn now and as she progresses through secondary school.”
RNIB continues to champion 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 RNIB’S first Braille book was published in 1871, the RNIB library now shares over 25,000 Braille books and music scores with members every year and the sight loss charity remains the largest publisher of Braille in Europe.
Jackie Brown works as a Technology for Life Coordinator with RNIB in Northern Ireland and advocates passionately for Braille to unlock the world of literacy and numeracy for people living with sight loss.
Jackie Said: “Close your eyes and think of all the ways you use the written word in your daily life. Those scenarios are just the same for a person who can’t see. That’s why Braille is still so important. Don’t get me wrong, advances in computer technology and screen reading or magnification software can be life changing, but if you’ve restricted access to computers or need to read independent from other technology, Braille is still the go-to because Braille exists with or without computers, tablets and smartphones.
“My love of Braille began when I started at a school for children with a vision impairment at the age of four. Being totally blind, I learnt Braille as my first medium to read and write. I did all my schoolwork in Braille and even now, I still use Braille each and every day.
“Growing up, I was acutely aware of how much Braille enabled me to do. I think it’s still so important in order to teach kids with a vision impairment numeracy and literacy. Aspects of grammar like spelling, learning punctuation and capitalising letters, all of which are quite difficult to teach using speech software or audio books.
“There’s no doubt that it’s easier to learn Braille when you’re younger but it’s never too late. There are so many reasons why Braille should be offered as part of the curriculum. The younger a person learns to use it, the better as far as I’m concerned.”
Jackie continued: “I love shared books and often read to my grandchildren. I visit schools across Northern Ireland and work with students with a vision impairment and support them with their learning of Braille and other assistive technology.
“I support them with learning Braille, but also other assistive technology like screen readers and Braille displays that turn text on the computer screen into refreshable Braille dots that they can read just like Braille on a page. I get so much satisfaction in doing that and watching them grow in confidence and their learning. I think it’s vitally important that I and others as adults with sight loss, inspire and encourage young people to embrace the technology that’s out there and use it to their advantage.
“For thousands across the world, Braille means independence, knowledge and freedom. It’s my job to make sure that young people with a vision impairment know about the developments in technology that exist to support them in their education journey so they can grow up strong, confident people who choose their own path in life, go to university, flourish in their chosen careers, or whatever it is they wish to do.”
RNIB has 10,400 Braille library master-files it can produce a book from. It also has electronic Braille master-files for braille music scores and various maths and science books and codes, as well as maps (including one of the nearside of the moon). RNIB also transcribes magazines into Braille and TV guides are the most popular.