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     Braille was first developed about 1820 by a young Frenchman named
Louis Braille.  He created Braille by modifying a system of night writing
which was intended for use on board ships.  He did this work as a very
young man and had it complete by the time he was about 18.  He and his
friends at the school for the blind he attended found that reading and
writing dots was much faster than reading raised print letters which could
not be written by hand at all.  The development of this system by young
Louis Braille is now recognized as the most important single development
in making it possible for the blind to get a good education. 
     It took more than a century, however, before people would accept
Braille as an excellent way for the blind to read and write.  Even today
many people underestimate the effectiveness of Braille.  While tapes and
records are enjoyable, Braille is essential for note taking and helpful
for studying such things as math, spelling, and foreign languages. 
     Experienced Braille readers, however, read Braille at speeds
comparable to print readers--200 to 400 words a minute.  Such Braille
readers say that the only limitation of Braille is that there isn't enough
material available. 
     Braille consists of arrangements of dots which make up letters of the
alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks.  The basic Braille symbol is
called the Braille cell and consists of six dots arranged in the formation
of a rectangle, three dots high and two across.  Other symbols consist of
only some of these six dots.  The six dots are commonly referred to by
number according to their position in the cell. 
     There are no different symbols for capital letters in Braille.
Capitalization is accomplished by placing a dot 6 in the cell just before
the letter that is capitalized.  The first ten letters of the alphabet are
used to make numbers.  These are preceded by a number sign which is dots
     Thus, 1 is number sign a; 2 is number sign b; 10 is number sign a-j
and 193 is number sign a-i-c. 
     Some abbreviations are used in standard American Braille in order to
reduce its bulk.  These must be memorized, but most Braille readers and
writers find them convenient, rather than a problem.  Braille is written
on heavy paper, and the raised dots prevent the pages from lying smoothly
together as they would in a print book.  Therefore, Braille books are
quite bulky. 
     A Braille writing machine (comparable to a typewriter) has a keyboard
of only six keys and a space bar, instead of one key for each letter of
the alphabet.  These keys can be pushed separately or altogether.  If they
are all pushed at the same time they will cause six dots to be raised on
the paper in the formation of a Braille cell.  Pushing various
combinations of the keys on the Braille writer produces different letters
of the alphabet and other Braille symbols. 
     Writing Braille with a slate and stylus compares to writing print
with a pen and pencil.  The stylus is used to push dots down through the
paper, while the slate serves as a guide.  The Braille slate can be made
of metal or plastic and is hinged so that there is a guide under the paper
and on top of it.  A person writing Braille with the slate and stylus
begins at the right side of the paper and ends the line on the left, since
the dots are being produced on the underside of the paper.  Of course, the
Braille reader reads from left to right, for the dots are then on the top
side of the paper.  Although this may seem a bit confusing, it need not be
at all troublesome, since both reading and writing progress through words
and sentences from beginning to end in the same manner.  The speed of
writing Braille with the slate and stylus is about the same as the speed
of writing print with pen or pencil. 
     Braille embossing devices can be attached to computers instead of or
in addition to regular inkprint printers.  A special computer program
converts the print text to Braille.  This gives blind people access to the
same information sighted people get from computers. 
     It is a matter of great concern to members of the National Federation
of the Blind that fewer blind people now have the opportunity to become
good Braille users than twenty-five years ago.  A controversy now exists
as to who should learn Braille and under what circumstances, but certain
things are generally agreed upon.  Blind children (and also adults) should
make full use of computers, tape recorders, and any other available
technology.  Visually impaired children should be encouraged to make the
best use of any eyesight they have, including learning to read print. 
     But a legally blind child (one with less than ten percent of normal
eyesight) cannot function efficiently using print alone.  Sighted children
have computers and recorders, but they still learn to read print.  They
use both eyes and ears to get information.  Likewise, if a blind or
severely visually impaired child is to compete, not only ears but also
fingers should be used.  Technology enhances but does not substitute for
the printed word. 
     Then why the controversy?  Many of today's teachers of blind children
take a single college course on how to teach Braille but cannot read or
write it.  Because of their lack of knowledge, they tend to think Braille
is slow and inefficient.  Being uncomfortable with what they don't know,
they say that Braille is not needed and opt for expensive technology. 
     There is also the fact that blindness still carries with it a stigma,
and many (including some parents and teachers) want blind children to
pretend to have sight they don't possess so as not to be considered
blind--the same thing blacks did fifty years ago when some tried to
lighten their skins and straighten their hair to try to cross the color
line.  It didn't work and wasn't healthy for the blacks.  The same is true
for the blind.  The National Federation of the Blind believes it is
respectable to be blind, and we don't try to hide it. 
     Thousands of blind people read Braille at four hundred words per
minute.  There's no substitute for Braille in taking notes, reading a
speech, looking up words in a dictionary, studying a complicated text, or
just having the fun of reading for yourself. 
     Talk of forcing blind children to learn Braille shows the prejudice.
Nobody talks of forcing sighted children to learn print.  It is taken for
granted as a right, a necessary part of education; so it should be with
Braille and blind children. 
     The National Federation of the Blind is asking state licensing
officials to require teachers of the blind and visually handicapped to be
competent in reading and writing Braille and to require that instruction
in Braille be available to every visually handicapped child if parents
want it. 
     The National Federation of the Blind believes that no child is hurt
by learning Braille, print, or any other skill.  The federal act often
cited as the excuse for not making Braille universally available to the
blind is misquoted.  The requirement that each child's individual needs be
met was never meant as a cop-out for teachers and an excuse for
illiteracy.  Just as with the sighted, we the blind need every skill we
can get to compete in today's world. With proper training we can hold our
own with the best. 


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Copyright (C) 1994 by the National Federation of the Blind. All Rights Reserved.