Braille Literacy Month


January 29, 2020 | by Ashley Eisenmenger

On Braille and Blindness


Ashley Eisenmenger

PR Coordinator

January is Braille Literacy Month, but did you know that less than 10% of blind and visually impaired people know Braille? 

When I was in school, I learned to read and write print while I had more vision and learned Braille “on the side.” As I progressed through school and my vision and interests changed, I found myself relying more and more on this tactile code. 

I was resistant to learning it. I was growing up with technology. I had access to audio versions of books, a computer, and I preferred to rely on those things than on my own ability to read and write Braille. Looking back on that period of my life now as an adult, I’m so grateful I had teachers that insisted  I learn to read and write in Braille.

Braille might not be the best option for everyone, but for me it’s been an important tool in my toolbox.  I work at Access Living as the PR Coordinator, good grammar and the ability to edit for grammar are essential parts of my role, and I would not have a strong understanding of grammar had I not learned through Braille.  I also often find myself needing talking points, be it for work or other engagements, and I prefer to have them in Braille so I can engage more personally with my audience.  Personally, I use Braille to label things in my home, like the buttons of my washer, dryer, and microwave, to save myself time. I also use Braille while I’m traveling to locate my hotel room or use an elevator independently.

I get a lot of questions about blindness and Braille. In honor of Braille Literacy Month, here are some of the most common questions I get asked about them.

What is Braille?

Braille is a tactile code used by the blind and visually impaired. It’s a nonvisual way of reading and writing text. There are two different versions of the code:

  • Grade 1 is what people learn first. It is Braille that is written out letter per letter and is considered the “long form” of Braille.
  • Grade 2 is a “shorthand” version of Braille, also called contracted Braille. It involves a variety of whole-word contractions, it also includes hundreds of symbols that represent things such as whole words, prefixes, suffixes, and other combinations of letters.

How do you learn it?

Learning Braille typically starts with a person getting more acquainted with their sense of touch. I started learning Braille when I was five and I spent a lot of time practicing things like counting the dots on dominos to get my fingers used to reading Braille. Otherwise, learning Braille is a lot like learning to read print. You start with the alphabet, move on to numbers, and then progress to contractions and more difficult words.

How long does it take to learn Braille?

That depends on the person. I learned Braille as a second language because I had enough sight at the time to learn to read with my eyes. I started learning in kindergarten, and became fluent in Grade 1 very quickly. I was considered fluent in Grade 2 when I was in the 5th grade. I learned Braille math code in middle school, and Braille Spanish symbols in high school.

Who teaches it?

Braille is taught by a variety of people, from teachers of the visually impaired to rehabilitation specialists. These people learn Braille as part of their education and teach it to children and adults of all ages.

Why don’t people learn it?  Why should they?

There are a lot of reasons that people may not learn Braille. Similar to learning a second language as an adult, Braille can be more difficult to learn. Developing the ability to distinguish Braille via touch can take a very long time for a person to learn. Audio and voice activation are so commonplace these days that it’s more integrative and inclusive for most. That being said, there are populations that can’t benefit from high-tech solutions, which is why I think having a variety of tools is the way to go.

Additionally, it is important to look at the literacy benefits of Braille and how important it can be in regards to grammar knowledge, employment prospects, space navigation, and quality of life. Literacy can open doors and enrich lives; it creates opportunity and allows for greater independence.  While reading Braille might not be the best option for every blind or visually impaired person, it is important to keep in mind that technology has not entirely replaced it.

If everything is audio why do you need to learn Braille?

Audio isn’t an option for everyone; Deafblind individuals can’t access audio, and there can be barriers to accessing technology for some. From a functionality standpoint, Braille can be useful when locating bathrooms, finding a room or office in a large building with a numbering system, navigating an elevator, or reading the menu at some restaurants.

What are some things that you wish had Braille on them that don’t?

Personally, I wish exercise equipment like cardio machines and free weights had Braille on them.  Gyms as a whole are an inherently visual place to be, and I struggle to access the majority of the equipment that I use on a regular basis. Braille on these items would enable me to more independently use them as most of the displays are completely flat and there is no way to distinguish where a button such as the “start” button might actually be.  I have to talk to a manager to see if I can get the machines labeled with Braille stickers, and that is not only an unnecessary extra step to access, but a complicated conversation to have.  A few other things that I wish had Braille on them that don’t, are medication boxes and bottles, paper money, business cards, shipping labels, and boxes of food.

How do you read your mail?  Does it have Braille on it?

Mail is not printed in Braille, though I have received a handful of Braille birthday and holiday cards.  For printed mail, like a utility bill, I use an app called Seeing AI. For handwritten cards, I ask a trusted friend.

Why would a sighted person need to know Braille?

Sometimes parents want to learn to support their kids. Professionals in the field of blindness and low vision may learn to teach the code or assist people that they’re working with who may only use it.

Where do people go to learn Braille?

Students in schools can learn from teachers of the visually impaired. They can also attend a school for the blind. Adults can learn from a teacher through the vocational rehabilitation program in their state, or they can go to a residential program that teaches a lot of skills in addition to Braille. Sighted people can learn through online courses.

How does technology incorporate Braille?

Lots of tech has Braille or other tactile markings. ATMs have Braille and audio. Ventra Chicago kiosks have Braille. Braille can also be put into a refreshable display as opposed to paper so that it can be easily changed as the reader finishes a line. That’s the best way to read large amounts of Braille.

Braille is an important part of my identity as a blind person. It is something that I use almost daily. I’m proud of the fact that I use and can understand this code, and I encourage anyone who might benefit from it to learn it.