## Monday, April 30, 2012

### BRILLIANCE OF BRAILLE FOR THE BLIND

I am learning Braille and am impressed with the brilliance of this invention by Frenchman Louis Braille. I have a contract with the Catholic Guild for the Blind to do some teaching of blind and vision-impaired students and have been learning some of this writing system. By the time I have mastered it, will it be obsolete?

Letters are formed by raising (or not) “dots” in one or more of six positions in a cell that has two columns with three positions each, 1-2-3 and 4-5-6, reading top to bottom and left to right. The letter “a” has a raised dot at position 1, “b” has dots at 1-2, “c” at 1-4, “d” at 1-4-5. There is a certain order to it, but not a simple one. Preceded by a “number” sign, dots at 3-4-5-6, each letter from a to j stands for a digit 1 to 9 and then 0. [I am dropping the quotation marks for simplicity.]

Letters from k through t use the same pattern of dots as those from a to j, but with an additional dot at the 3 position, so that k is 1-3, etc. Letters from u through z follow the same pattern [except w] with added dots at the 3-6 positions. Since the French language does not use w, neither did Braille, but it is formed from the left-right reflection of the letter r, becoming, 2-4-5-6.

Wow! There’s more. My “qwerty” conventional keyboard has about 50 letter/number input keys, with another dozen or so symbols obtainable by using shift, so that an ampersand [&] becomes shift-7, etc. That adds about another 20 symbols, a total near 70.

How does Braille handle the need for extra symbols? Note that there are six positions for dot/no-dot indications. Taking the number of combinations of 6 things taken r at a time, with r=0 to 6, the number of dots, gives 64 unique symbols (including r=0 and r=6 dots). To get more options, Braille uses some special combinations of two symbols. To simplify printing and reading, many common words have been given their own abbreviations or contractions, some of which are obvious (“pd” for “paid”) and others not.

It is a brilliant system.

Will it continue to be needed? My Kindle has a text-to-speech feature that reads to me and does it well, though not perfectly [homonyms are ambiguous]. Will Braille go the way of Semaphore signals and Morse code? The American Foundation for the Blind does not seem to think so, as its site [afb.org] offers 168 books with “Braille” in their titles. I’ll keep on learning it, having mastered [by sight and by feel] about 30 of the 64 single-cell characters. Written Chinese was more difficult.