Why Braille? and Braille Screen Input (Episode 14)

This episode features the last of the content that we recorded at the recent Sight Village South East exhibition. Namely, a seminar from the Braillists Foundation entitled “Making the Case for Braille in the 21st Century”, the notes from which are included below. We also present a comprehensive demonstration of the Braille Screen Input feature on iOS.

Chapter markers have been inserted throughout this episode to aid navigation.

Making the Case for Braille in the 21st Century


Braille is difficult to learn. Braille is expensive to teach. Braille is irrelevant now that we have assistive technology.

Statements like these are all too familiar, but are they really true? In this seminar, we provide an alternative perspective by outlining the inherent advantages of braille and exploring practical applications of braille in modern day life.


Attendees will become positive advocates of braille in their day-to-day lives and be equipped with the knowledge to be able to effectively champion braille in both a professional and personal context, recognising it as an integral component in a well-structured package of independence skills.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this seminar, attendees will be able to:

  • Recognise the need for braille as a primary literacy medium
  • Exemplify both traditional and modern uses of braille
  • Understand how braille and technology complement each other
  • Describe several ways of reading and writing braille at varying levels of difficulty and different price points

Points in Favour of braille

  1. Literacy: a blind person who only uses speech output misses out on incidental reinforcement of:
    1. Spelling (n.b. it could be argued that contractions get in the way, but this is often due to the way they are taught – teach T-H-E rather than the)
    2. Grammar (subtle uses of punctuation, such as the semicolon and apostrophe; capitalisation, in particular of proper nouns which have become normalised (e.g. Post Office); paragraphing; quoting; etc)
    3. Typesetting (use of bold, italics, underlining; superscripts and subscripts (particularly in technical subjects); etc)
    4. Formatting (centred lines, right justified addresses, running headers, page numbers, tables, contents pages, etc)
  2. Independent judgement: a blind person who primarily uses speech output does not learn to doubt the pronunciation of his/her speech synthesizer. This is a particular challenge when dealing with text in a foreign language, including Welsh – many blind people would pronounce Cymru as “Sime-roo” instead of “Cum-ree”, for example. If the same word was read in braille, its unfamiliarity would result in an increased likelihood that the braillist would ask for help pronouncing it.
  3. Efficiency of review: speech can read horizontally very easily but it is more difficult for a screen reader to be precise when reviewing vertically. Similarly, extra typographical information such as superscripts/subscripts, italics/bold/underline and change of colour can be extremely verbose when vocalised by a screen reader; the braille equivalent is often less obtrusive. It is often therefore more efficient to deal with subjects such as Mathematics in braille. Consider the following example equation: w=(12(s₁+s₂)÷52)+(b₁÷4)+b₂
  4. Discreetness: there is a myriad of scenarios in which braille draws much less attention than speech, both personally and professionally. Straightforward examples include using a tactile watch to check the time as opposed to a talking watch. More complex examples include delivering a presentation from braille notes, either in hard copy or electronically. This is far preferable to wearing headphones so as to listen to notes spoken by a screen reader, partly because the latter method appears antisocial and partly because the presence of headphones impairs hearing. This, in turn, lessens the presenter’s ability to detect audible queues (e.g. fidgeting, which could signify boredom; or people attempting to ask questions). There are very specific cases along these lines to be made for braille in performance environments, e.g. radio presenting, singing in a choir etc.
  5. Instantaneousness: once produced, no further technology is required to read hard copy braille, thus eliminating the need to, e.g. change batteries at an inopportune time. This makes it particularly suitable for labelling, both individually (e.g. labelling CDs or items of food) and corporately (e.g. braille labels on lifts, hotel room doors, etc).
  6. Social inclusion: braille offers an ideal solution for the modification of card games. Regular playing cards (Red, Blue, Large Print Red and Large Print Blue), as well as specific sets for, e.g. Happy Families, Uno and Bingo, are readily available in braille, and other cards can be easily brailled locally. The skills required to read braille also transfer to reading, e.g. Tactile Dice (Large Tactile Dice available here), which are readily available and which instantaneously offer access to many more games and activities.
  7. Preservation of residual vision: a person who is severely partially sighted may still be encouraged to read large print instead of braille for a multitude of reasons, largely centred around denial (not wanting to look “blind”). However, the resultant eye strain could lead to the person putting him/herself in significant unnecessary danger, e.g. by attempting to cross a road at the end of the day using tired eyes. It is also fair to point out that large print above roughly 24 point may in fact be more bulky than braille.

Points Against Braille

  1. Braille is difficult to learn: cognitively, learning braille is no more difficult than learning, e.g. a foreign language or musical instrument. The argument is particularly common when addressing elderly people, and indeed in some cases it may be true, but it should not be the default position as it is clear that some elderly people are still able to learn.
  2. Braille requires too much tactile discrimination: again, this argument is heard most commonly when referring to elderly people, and again, it may be true in certain situations, e.g. for manual labourers. However, a significant body of older people do not fall into this category, e.g. office workers, musicians, salesmen etc. These people may have perfectly adequate tactile discrimination already, or certainly could be taught to develop it, so once again the argument should not be the default position.
  3. Braille is time-consuming and expensive to teach: whilst this is undoubtedly true, especially if a thorough mastery of the braille code is desirable, it need not be any more expensive or time-consuming than other forms of specialist intervention, e.g. mobility training. Indeed, mastery of IT and assistive technology is also expensive and time-consuming if done well, and rapid training in order to overcome a short-term problem nearly always results in poor performance later on which can only be remedied by additional training, which is often less opportune for the end user.
  4. The support requirements of braille are too onerous: often heard in education, where a Teaching Assistant is often required to learn braille alongside the student in order to transcribe work. Appropriate use of braille technology, e.g. a notetaker or braille display connected to a computer or tablet, minimises the requirement for human intervention particularly in the braille to print transcription process. However, there is no substitute for knowledgeable human intervention in any aspect of blindness education, not least braille. Blind people use computers very differently to their sighted counterparts and it is therefore a false economy to suggest that it is easier to support a computer-first approach to accessibility merely because the technology appears “normal”, either because the technology will inevitably require repair which the TA is ill-equipped to perform, or because the TA will inadvertently teach bad habits which will need to be overcome by remedial intervention at a later stage.
  5. Braille is time-consuming and expensive to produce: the proliferation of high quality electronic resources in the mainstream, e.g. Amazon Kindle or Apple Books, results in a blind person being able to read most straightforward titles on a braille display connected to a tablet or computer with no additional human intervention, thus eliminating the time and expense of transcription altogether. The traditionally high initial cost of such a display can often be covered by grant funding, or modern, cheaper braille technology can be obtained instead, e.g. the Orbit Reader. For those who prefer hard copy braille, advances in automated braille transcription solutions and personal braille embossing technology take advantage of high quality mainstream output to vastly reduce transcription times and costs. Examples include RNIB Bookshare in education. Though human-transcribed braille is still desirable over automated alternatives, it is now most useful for technical subjects such as Mathematics, science, foreign languages and music, which is usually only a small subset of the amount of material that someone may need to access, and the expense in this instance may be offset against a reduction in support costs and higher retention and attainment levels resulting in a decreased potential need to, e.g. defer or retake examinations. For adults, the cost of transcription may be offset against the gains of employment and may usefully be covered either by schemes such as Access to Work or benefits such as Personal Independence Payment, with wages as a last resort.
  6. Braille is bulky and wastes resources: this is unfortunately inevitable for hard copy braille. However, care should be taken when comparing braille with other formats, as large print above 24 point also becomes bulky and may, in some cases, in fact occupy more shelf space than braille. It is also important to investigate all possible means of maximising available space, e.g. by embossing on both sides of the page (to reduce the number of volumes) and using braille paper which is wider than A4 (to increase the amount of braille which will fit on a shelf) – or, indeed, in certain situations, using braille paper which is A4 or smaller (so that it will fit through a letter box). Continuing advances in braille technology, such as the Canute, are increasingly rendering “soft” braille a viable proposition, where the equivalent of hundreds (if not thousands) of traditional hard copy braille volumes can instead be delivered via media such as an SD card.
  7. Modern technology renders braille obsolete: this is true in as far as modern technology also renders print obsolete. It is possible, for example, to receive bank statements and utility bills in hard copy braille, but nonetheless sensible for a blind person to instead access this information online (possibly using a braille display) if that is his/her preference, as is true for sighted people. However, there will still be a need for braille for as long as there is a need for print, and there will still be a need for hard copy braille for as long as there is still a need for a pen and paper. It is not fair to deny a blind person the choice to read braille, even refreshable braille, unless we are also prepared to deny a sighted person the choice to use their computer with a screen. It is also important to point out the reduced access that blind people have to incidental writing, e.g. text on street signs and product packaging. It is therefore imperative that blind people are afforded regular structured opportunities for reading in order to reinforce basic concepts of literacy. This is not achieved by exclusive use of speech access solutions.

Who Should Learn Braille?

  1. Anyone who does not have enough vision to read print, unless physical or cognitive factors prevent this
  2. Anyone for whom serious sight loss is predicted in future, e.g. due to a deteriorating eye condition
  3. People with partial sight who may require a second reading medium, for instance because they can only read print at a reasonable speed above a certain font size (e.g. 36) or indeed below a certain font size (e.g. size 8 due to tunnel vision), or because their ability to read print is severely impacted by lighting conditions (e.g. night blindness or eye sight sensitive to glare)
  4. Sighted supporters of the above, in both a professional and personal context (e.g. QTVIs, rehabilitation officers, sight loss agency staff, friends and family (and colleagues, in some cases) of the braillist)