A Comprehensive History of Braille
January is Braille Literacy Month
APH’s copy of Procédé pour écrire les paroles, la musique et le plain-chant au moyen de point, 1829, by Louis Braille (1809-1852).
January marks Braille Literacy Month, an opportunity to take a step back and contemplate the importance of braille in the lives of children and adults who are visually impaired or blind. Literacy has taken on increased importance in our world as we’ve moved through history, and it has never been so critical to success and fulfillment as it is today. The ability to read and write, whether using the senses of vision, hearing, touch, or a combination of senses, is considered a critical skill for employment and leading a well-rounded life.
Literacy through touch has not always been a given for those who are blind, and methods of reading tactually have evolved. Thanks to APH Museum Director Micheal Hudson, we are able to provide you with a detailed chronology of the evolution of braille and the literacy it has brought to the hands of thousands of individuals.
Landmarks in Braille Literacy1786: Valentine Haüy pioneers literacy for people who are blind when he invents the raised letter book at the Institut Royale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, France.
1829-1837: Louis Braille introduces an elegant and easy-to-learn tactile code based on dots, providing a simple way to read and write. Its adoption around the world will take many decades.
1854: The Braille System is formally adopted in France, two years after the death of Louis Braille from tuberculosis.
1860: The system is published for the first time in America by the Missouri School for the Blind.
1871: The American Association of Instructors of the Blind(AAIB) adopts an American adaptation of braille—New York Point—and it is soon widely used in American residential schools.
1875: The American Printing House for the Blind(APH) publishes its first New York Point book.
1878: Joel Smith, a teacher at the Perkins Institution, introduces a second adaptation of braille that he calls Modified American Braille. It is used by only a few U.S. schools initially, but they are influential—Perkins, the Overbrook School, etc. The period of competing systems will become known as the “War of the Dots.”
1892: Frank Hall, Superintendent of the Illinios School for the Blind, invents the Hall Braille Writer, the first successful mechanical braille typewriter. In 1894, Hall invents a stereotyping machines allowing the inexpensive and rapid production of embossing plates. The plates allow a dramatic expansion in braille production over the next thirty years.
1893: APH embosses its first textbooks in Modified American Braille.
1905: The Uniform Type Committee is formed by the AAIB and the American Association of Workers for the Blind(AAWB) to adopt a single uniform code for all English speaking readers. The committee decides that British Braille—basically the original French alphabet code with a complicated set of contractions—was superior to both New York Point and Modified American Braille. Initially, the committee adapts a new code—Standard Dot—that combines the strengths of all three, but there is no enthusiasm for Standard Dot outside the U.S.
1918: After years of unsuccessful negotiations with the British, the Uniform Type Committee adopts Braille Grade One and a Half, basically British braille but with a simplified set of contractions. British readers can easily read the American code, but American readers cannot read the British.
1932: At the London Type Conference, delegates from the English speaking world approve a uniform braille system, Standard English Braille. It is mostly the British braille code from 1905, but with a concession to the Americans, contractions do not break over syllables.
1941-53: Thousands of infants have their sight damaged by the oxygen in their hospital incubators. The educational community is unprepared for the sudden spike in BVI students. Many overflow into the public schools, just as public opinion is shifting against segregated schools for children with visual impairments. In the public schools, Braille education is generally poor, and students with failing but residual vision are encouraged to use audio players and video magnifiers. Braille literacy in this generation drops dramatically.
1950: The Joint Uniform Braille Committee is formed by the AAIB and the AAWB to approve some proposed changes in Standard English Braille. In 1952, the committee recommends the adoption of the Nemeth Braille Code, an advanced code for mathematics.
1959: English Braille, American Edition is adopted by the AAIB and AAWB. The Joint Committee becomes the AAIB-AAWB Braille Authority.
1960s: Working with International Business Machines, APH adapts computers to translate print to Braille, dramatically increasing the speed of translation, and later, overall production.
1976: Oleg and Andie Tretiakoff, working in France, introduce the first commercially available paperless braille machine, the Digicassette. More advanced machines soon follow.
1976: The Braille Authority restructures, inviting other blindness organization to participate, into the Braille Authority of North America(BANA).
1990s: Blindness organizations begin to react to decreasing braille literacy. BANA determines that one cause is the complexity of the code and begins work to revise it. Organizations like APH develop tools to help parents and teachers assess at an early age when braille is the right choice. Consumer groups like the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, unable to unite on other issues, are unified in their promotion of braille literacy. University programs responsible for training the next generation of teachers reemphasize braille.
2004: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act is passed, requiring the creation of the National Instructional Materials Access Center(NIMAC), where parents, students, and teachers can find source files to produce accessible, student-ready specialized formats, such as Braille and audio, for students in K-12 with qualifying disabilities.
2012: BANA passes a motion to formally adopt Unified English Braille, a revised code which seeks to bring braille into the 21st century.
2017: APH introduces the Orbit Reader 20™, the first refreshable braille display available commercially for under $500. The Orbit 20 is the end product of the Transforming Braille Group, an international body formed in 2011 and spearheaded by the Royal National Institute for the Blind in England.