Braille, the system of raised dots that has enabled blind people to read and write, is as vital as ever, says national sight loss charity RNIB Scotland.
Today (4 January 2021) marks the anniversary of the birth of inventor Louis Braille (1809-1852), the Frenchman who was blind from the age of four.
"Louis Braille enabled people with sight loss to actively engage with the world again," said Sandra Wilson from Kirkcaldy, Convenor of the charity RNIB Scotland, who is blind and a braille user herself.
"People with severe sight loss have two main options for accessing information – audio and braille. Braille, of course, has to be learnt tactilely by the user, but there are major advantages in doing so."
These include the ability to read a book as well as personal items such as bills, bank statements and letters, as opposed to having them read to you. Users can also write in braille.
The braille system is based on variations of six dots, arranged in two columns of three. Beginners mainly start with braille that represents each letter as one ‘cell’. But more experienced users read and write a shorthand form where groups of letters are combined into a single cell.
“The invention of braille is often compared to the invention of the printing press for sighted people,” said Sandra. “For thousands across the world, braille means independence, knowledge and freedom." There are round 20,000 users in Britain today.
RNIB’s library of braille books has over 20,000 titles available for free loan-out; the largest collection in Europe. These include an important collection of historical braille books dating as far back as 1836. Among these are the ‘Book of Common Prayer’, ‘Pilgrim's Progress’, ‘The Queen's Journal’, ‘A Life in the Highlands’ and poems by Tennyson and Browning. The library also has 14,000 braille music scores.
Sandra said: "We want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn braille and that more everyday information is transcribed and made available in braille."
The need for information that is accessible to everyone is now, of course, more vital than ever.
"There was a lack of coronavirus information in accessible formats after the first lockdown in 2020," said Sandra. "We have since provided braille copies, including the First Minister's new letter. People with sight loss can contact RNIB Scotland for these materials."
Sandra insists that modern day IT has not made braille redundant. “Despite audio and touch screens, I use braille in some form every day in life. There are still many commonplace tasks where braille is a far more enabling medium. I can get through a pile of meeting papers faster in audio, but I like braille if I really want to study a document.
“People argue that we don’t need braille today and it’s worrying that it is either not being taught or being taught scrappily in so many schools. Braille gives independence and control of your information. Modern braille-writing equipment can connect seamlessly with personal computers, tablets and smartphones. Whether dots or numbers – it’s all just information to a computer. With the right software, it will interpret them as instructed.
“Braille has always been important to me and I really hope more people will learn it. Not teaching a child with vision impairment braille is equivalent to not teaching a child to read or write.”