How to read braille

What is it about these tiny dots that lets them communicate the world’s languages?

(Image source: Pixabay)

Braille, the tactile reading system blind people can use to read text, is in more places than you may first realise, from cashpoint keypads to restaurant menus and even on some supermarket products. It works by using six tactile dots orientated in two columns and three rows, known as cells. 

Each raised dot relates to a letter, a number or a punctuation mark. For example, the letter “a” is expressed as a single dot to the top left of the cell. Each letter has its own configuration of dots, spelling out words and sentences. There are two ways in which braille can be read, either as individual letters of the alphabet or predetermined phrases or grouped letters, such as ‘him or ‘like’. 

Braille texts are created by a pointed stylus indenting a sheet of thick paper against a slate to create each tactile dot on the reverse. This is done through rolling machinery for publication printing or on braillewriter, which works in the same way as a traditional typewriter but with only six keys to create each dot in the cell.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 36 million people globally are blind, however, fewer and fewer people are using braille to read, due to audio alternatives.

The braille alphabet

(Image credit: Geen Idee)

How blind people read digital text

Though traditional braille is still used by many in the visually impaired community, the digital revolution has taken it from paper to plastic. Known as refreshable braille, several companies have created electronic braille readers to convert digital information into braille. These devices translate digital text and present it as braille through a series of cells comprised of changing plastic pins to replicate tactile dots. As the reader moves to the end of the line, the pins change to reveal the next line, and so on.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 123

For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!