How Braille Put Jewish Texts At My Fingertips [Reprint]

“ Two hundred years after braille’s invention, we are blessed with the ability to convert print into a myriad of formats. All of these alternative formats have their advantages, but I cannot overstate the simplicity, flexibility and equivalent access that braille offers. As Jews we value literacy, and by offering our blind congregants access to ritual texts in braille, we are giving them the best opportunity to participate fully in our community.”

This week, I’m reprinting a blog post I published last year on
It’s about the importance of braille access in my Jewish life. Although the post focuses on my Jewish experience, it points more generally to the value of braille literacy to participation in many settings, such as religious services, where communal reading is a part of the culture and where technology use can be problematic. Here is what I wrote:

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France in 1809. When he was 3 years old, he accidentally poked himself in the eye with his dad’s awl, and became blind. When he was 12, he started playing around with an embossed alphabet that had been used by the military to exchange messages in the dark, and by the time he was 15 he had created what we call braille today. In his short 43 years, Louis Braille brought literacy to a group of people who, up until then, could only read and write using raised print letters-which posed practical challenges. The six-dot code Louis Braille created is simple enough for almost anyone to learn (I would contend, simpler than print) yet elegant enough that it can be written in many languages.

I was born almost completely blind, 150 years after Braille’s creation. My parents didn’t know much about blindness, but they quickly committed themselves to two things: ensuring that their older daughter and I would both love to read, and providing both of us with a strong foundation in Jewish traditions and values. During my preschool years I spent four days a week at a local preschool for blind children where I learned the English braille code, and I spent one day a week at a Jewish day school where I learned to recite Jewish blessings by ear.

When I was about seven years old, my parents ordered a braille Siddur for me from the Jewish Braille Institute (JBI) in New York. When I went to the synagogue with them, I would proudly carry my Siddur, and I tried to read along. But I didn’t yet know the Hebrew braille alphabet. At our synagogue, Hebrew wasn’t taught until the fourth grade, but I begged my parents to teach me so I could participate in services. They didn’t know the code themselves, so they reached out to JBI again and got me a Hebrew braille primer. As it turns out, there is much overlap between the English and Hebrew alphabets in braille, with Hebrew braille written from left to right and only a few new symbols to learn. After I studied my Hebrew primer, I was so excited to go to the synagogue and read all the familiar prayers for myself. Most exciting of all, I could read aloud alongside my family during responsive prayer, and participate in silent meditation.

My Jewish education continued, culminating in my bat mitzvah when I was 13. JBI prepared my Torah portion in braille, and I used braille to conduct the service, read from the Torah and present my prepared Dvar Torah. My bat mitzvah experience was identical to that of my sighted classmates.

Braille is the simplest way for a blind person to read independently, but not everyone promotes its use. Some argue that audio-recorded materials should be used instead, but sighted people have not collectively switched from print reading to audio. There are clear advantages of reading, in print or braille, instead of being read to. Audio recordings and text-to-speech technology have a place in my life, but there is no substitute for braille, especially in the tech-free Shabbat service. Listening to a recording would isolate me in prayer, but with braille, I can pray aloud or read along silently, while still immersed in my prayer community and their voices. Braille gives me the flexibility to interact with the liturgy in the same ways as my fellow Jews reading it visually.

The irony is that technology, sometimes thought to “supplant braille”, actually makes braille easier to produce than ever before. Modern braille printers and digital “braille displays” can place braille at a person’s fingertips in seconds. Digital braille displays make braille more portable than ever before. Braille can be used by people with low vision, the totally blind and those who are deaf-blind, the young and the old. I have known people in their 90’s who learned the braille alphabet after becoming blind in old age. Though producing braille in both Hebrew and English can pose some technical challenges, libraries like JBI have the expertise to make this happen.

Two hundred years after braille’s invention, we are blessed with the ability to convert print into a myriad of formats. All of these alternative formats have their advantages, but I cannot overstate the simplicity, flexibility and equivalent access that braille offers. As Jews we value literacy, and by offering our blind congregants access to ritual texts in braille, we are giving them the best opportunity to participate fully in our community.

New Disability Wisdom Publication! Learning Braille Early in Life is Linked to Adult Happiness

Braille is essential for literacy among blind people. Despite its simplicity and utility, however, braille is taught to a woefully small percentage of blind children and adults, and debates surround whether or not blind kids with some usable vision, as well as adults who lose vision later in life, should learn braille. Research on the long-term benefits of learning braille is lacking. Just this week, the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research published results of a study I conducted in graduate school, showing a direct correlation between early braille learning and overall well-being for blind adults. The bottom line? People who learn braille as children are most satisfied with their lives as adults, compared to people who learn braille later or not at all; and people who learn braille later in life are more satisfied with their lives than those who never learn braille.

I distributed an online survey and received usable responses from 443 adults in the United States who self-identified as legally blind. On the survey, the respondents were asked whether or not they had ever learned braille. If they had learned braille, they reported the age at which they were first introduced to braille, and whether or not they used braille as their “primary reading medium” during childhood-meaning that they received a majority of their school assignments and other reading materials in braille. Based on the responses, I divided the respondents into three groups. “Primary braille readers” were those who learned braille as young children and used braille as their primary reading medium in school. “Secondary braille readers” reported that they knew braille, but they used a different reading medium in school, such as print or audio formats. Some of the secondary braille readers grew up with low vision and learned braille later in childhood when they lost vision, while others were people who became blind as teens or adults and learned braille at that time. Finally, the third group consisted of those respondents who said they have never learned braille (nonreaders).

Then, all of the respondents answered a five-question scale of life satisfaction, the Satisfaction with Life Scale as well as a single question measuring their overall self-esteem, and another single question asking how satisfied they were with their work or school life. I also asked the respondents to report on their current employment status, how old they were when they became legally blind, and whether or not they still had significant usable vision (more than light and color perception).

When comparing the three respondent groups, the primary braille readers had higher scores on all three well-being measures (life satisfaction, self-esteem, and job satisfaction) than the secondary braille readers and nonreaders. For example, the average Satisfaction with Life Scale score for the primary braille readers was 10% higher than the average for the secondary braille readers and 28% higher than the average for the nonreaders. In addition, the secondary braille readers had higher scores on all three measures than the nonreaders.

When looking at employment rates, a slightly different pattern emerged: the primary and secondary braille reader groups had similar employment rates (56% of primary readers and 57% of secondary readers held some form of employment) but only 42% of the nonreaders held some form of employment. Among the respondents who were unemployed, however, a greater percentage of the primary than the secondary readers reported being students vs. simply being unemployed.

These results are interesting, but there is an alternative explanation worth considering. People who learn braille early in life tend to have more stable eye conditions where they are often totally blind, or nearly so, by school age. In contrast, people who learn braille later in life often have progressive eye conditions where they may lose vision gradually, or later-onset eye conditions that don’t begin until later in life. Thus, perhaps the primary braille readers may be happier simply because they haven’t experienced as many life changes related to losing vision.

To test this alternative explanation, I used a statistical technique to account for the age at which the respondents became blind, as well as whether or not they still had usable vision. Indeed, the respondents who had been blind since birth had higher well-being than the respondents who experienced vision loss later in life. However, even after statistically accounting for this factor, the link between braille reading history and well-being still held up, and the link between knowing braille and being employed became even stronger than before.

Some past research has established a connection between braille literacy, academic achievement, and employment for people who grow up blind. My new study suggests that the benefits of braille literacy also extend to well-being and happiness. Braille literacy facilitates access to information and makes many professional activities much easier to manage, compared with relying on audio or struggling to read print. In addition, it is quite possible that people who learn braille also develop a positive sense of disability identity. The nonreader group, who reported substantially lower well-being and higher rates of unemployment, may also tend to be disconnected from the supports of the blind community. My sample had a relatively small number of nonreaders, and future research will be useful to examine the experiences of those legally blind adults who either are not exposed to braille or who choose not to learn it.

It is clear that people who learn braille at a young age are most fluent with it, and experience the most benefit. However, one of the biggest take-aways from my study is that learning braille later in life is a worthwhile endeavor. As written in the journal article: “These results underscore the value of including braille as a core skill in adult rehabilitation programs, even for partially blind learners.”
Read the full article here

In Honor of World Braille Day, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about the invention of braille, and early controversies around its use. Today, nearly all countries use braille as the international standard of literacy for blind people. Yet we still live in a braille paradox: Braille is more available than ever before, yet less people are using it.

On one hand, braille is easier to produce and distribute than ever before. Modern technologies make it possible to emboss a braille book (once it is digitally formatted) in a matter of minutes. Some blind individuals also use portable braille displays, which contain a single row of pins that can change shape to represent braille letters. The user can scroll through a document using a joystick or thumb keys to advance from one line to the next. Braille displays can interface with mainstream computers or mobile devices to provide access to the screen in braille. There are also PDA-like devices that integrate a braille display and keyboard along with a basic processor, enabling the user to write and edit documents in braille before transferring them to a computer. Using these modern devices, blind individuals can have instant access to digital books in braille. Current braille technology has some limitations; it is too expensive for many individuals, can only display one line at a time, and cannot yet display tactile diagrams. But the technology is facilitating access to braille like Louis may never have dreamed of.

Despite these advancements, the number of blind schoolchildren learning braille is decreasing, at least in the United States. When most blind children went to segregated schools, about half were reported as braille readers. But in recent years, some researchers estimate that as few as 10% of legally blind children (in preschool through grade 12) are primarily braille readers. While some of these students do not read at all due to cognitive disabilities, a substantial percentage of blind students are either using their limited vision to read in print, or using only audio (through recorded books or text-to-speech technology) to read. A variety of reasons have been cited for this change, many of which are systemic: braille teachers are scarce and have high caseloads; many braille teachers do not know the code well themselves; and school districts may not be able to pay for enough braille teacher hours to give students adequate instruction. However, a number of myths about braille still persist that may also explain at least some of the decline in braille literacy. I will address some of the most common myths below.

Myth: Braille is hard to learn. Only the brightest students will be able to master it.
Fact: Braille is an extremely simple code. There are only 64 possible symbols that can be created in braille, so there is a high level of redundancy (e.g., a lowercase a, capital A, and the number 1 are the same symbol, with a second symbol preceding the capital or number to distinguish them). In braille, an a is an a is an a. There are no differences in font or creative ways of writing. I find print to be a much more complicated system, with different fonts, block vs. cursive letters, and large differences between languages. It is true that the contracted form of braille involves some additional learning, but if that learning happens early, many children master contracted braille at around the same age that their sighted peers master print. Students with all kinds of learning, cognitive and physical disabilities have learned braille, and there are adapted braille codes that can be used for readers with limited feeling in their fingers. In addition, braille is much less mentally taxing than print for students whose vision loss prevents clear, efficient reading in print. Of course, braille can be tough to learn for older children and adults who have already learned print. Spanish was hard for me to learn in high school, but I would never assume that a child growing up in Spain would have a hard time learning to speak.
The family legend is that I learned the alphabet in a day at the age of 3. Learning the contractions took longer, but I know that by the time I started kindergarten I was reading short books in contracted braille. My experience is not unique, either. On the other end of the spectrum, I have met a group of 90-year-olds in Colorado who learned braille and used it for pleasure reading.

Myth: Braille is slow. My child won’t be able to keep up with his classmates
Fact: Over the years I have met dozens of braille readers and observed them reading aloud, or discussed reading speed with them. It is clear that reading speed is correlated with the age of first exposure as well as the number of years spent practicing. I myself can read a hard-copy book at around 300 words per minute, and that speed is typical for those who learn in early childhood. Students who learn later in life tend to be slower readers, although they can build their speed with consistent practice. Instruction also matters, as there are techniques (such as reading with both hands simultaneously) that can greatly increase speed.
A related misconception is the belief that braille readers are slowed down by reading one letter at a time and then stringing those letters together into words. This is true for all beginning readers (in braille or print), but once a certain level of familiarity is reached, braille readers learn and respond to the shape of entire words.

Myth: Braille is no longer necessary, since so many books are available in audio form.
Fact: Sighted people also have access to a growing number of audiobooks and can use text-to-speech software, but no one (to my knowledge) is advocating ditching print. It is troubling when a different standard of literacy is suggested for blind people as for the general population. Written communication is a requirement for all programs of higher education, as well as almost all jobs (including all jobs that require a college degree). Just as it is very challenging for congenitally deaf people to speak orally without hearing speech, it is very challenging for a person who has never consumed the written word to produce it accurately.
When I write, I use my braille knowledge to mentally “picture” the words before I produce them. I have intuitions about how I should use capitalization, grammar, punctuation and correct spelling that are based on my reading experience in braille. Individuals who never learn braille or print don’t have that experience base to draw from.
There are a myriad of other opportunities that braille opens up. Braille can be read in any lighting, even in pitch darkness. I recently led a training workshop where I read my brailled notes while looking up at the participants. In the same week, I read stories in braille to my 2-year-old nephew and used braille labels to distinguish my shampoo from my hair conditioner. My medications and spices are labeled in braille at home. While all of these tasks may be technically doable without braille, they would have been much more challenging. Braille is a critical tool that paves the way for equal participation.

For further reading, check out these excellent blog posts:
Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying to Kill It)
Leveraging Technology to Achieve Greater Braille Literacy

In Honor of World Braille Day, Part 1

The inventor of tactile literacy, Louis Braille, was born in Coupvray, France, on January 4, 1809. Louis was born sighted, but he became blind when, at the age of three, he accidentally poked himself in the eye with a sharp tool from his father’s leather workshop. An infection resulted in both eyes, rendering him totally blind by the age of five.

Louis went to school at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. At that time, the only method blind people could use to access the written word, besides listening, was to read books containing raised print letters made out of wood or wire. Such books were bulky and the reading process was inefficient. Louis longed for a tactile reading system that would give him the same efficient access to books as his sighted peers enjoyed in print.

When Louis was twelve, a man named Charles Barbier visited the school. Barbier was working to develop a tactile code that French soldiers could use to exchange secret messages in the dark. Louis was intrigued by Barbier’s code, known as “night writing.” Over the next three years, Louis simplified and standardized the code, and the first braille alphabet was born.

Simply put, all braille symbols consist of dots arranged in a “cell”, or a grid 2 dots wide and 3 dots high. Each symbol is represented by a different combination of dots. There are 64 possible braille symbols in total, including a space (made by creating an empty cell with no dots present). Louis Braille’s code focused on the 25 symbols corresponding to letters of the Roman alphabet (excluding W, which was absent from the French alphabet at the time). The first ten letters are made by combining dots in the upper two-thirds of the cell; for letters K-T, the lower left dot is added to letters A-J; and for letters U, V, X, Y, and Z, the lower right dot is added to K, L, M, N, and O respectively. Some of the remaining dot combinations are used as punctuation marks or mathematical symbols in Louis Braille’s original code. At a later point, the English braille code was modified to turn additional dot combinations into “contractions” that make braille easier and faster to read; for example, the word “for” is written as a single symbol consisting of all six dots. Numbers can be written either by placing a symbol called a “number sign” just before letters A-J (to represent numbers 1-9 and 0, respectively) or by writing letters A-J one dot lower in the cell to represent numbers 1-9 and 0, respectively. A separate code for braille music was also created.

Louis Braille published his first brailled book in 1829. The oldest, most basic braille writing device was a stylus, ironically similar to the tool that caused Louis’s blindness, that can be used to punch the braille dots through a piece of paper. Many braille users today still use a stylus along with a slate, which holds the paper in suspension so that dots can be punched through with appropriate spacing. Modern braille writing implements, as I will discuss next week, can make braille production smooth and efficient.

Although students at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth liked Louis Braille’s code, it was not taught there officially until after his death in 1852. Teachers and principals at schools for the blind in other parts of the world showed a remarkable resistance to adopting braille. In the United States, various other tactile codes were introduced as alternatives to braille. Most of these codes, such as Boston line type and New York point, were written to resemble conventional print. Sighted educators preferred for their students to use codes that they could read and write themselves. Analogous to “oralist” movements emphasizing speech and lip-reading for deaf students, it was thought that blind students should use print-based literacy in order to avoid isolation from the broader sighted community. However, these print-based alternatives were difficult to read efficiently. They were unstandardized, so students educated in one code may have had limited access to books written in that code. Some students at schools for the blind began secretly using braille to communicate with one another. Eventually, the simplicity and efficiency of braille was recognized, and braille was adopted as the international standard of tactile literacy. Louis’s birthday, January 4, is commemorated as “World Braille Day.”

Louis Braille’s biography was one of the first braille books I ever read, while I was still mastering the contractions and building my reading comprehension skills. The picture shows me reading braille (though probably not that particular book) at the age of six.
picture of me reading at age 6
Louis Braille’s life and work made a real impression on me. He was an example of a disabled person who refused to follow the path that society prescribed for disabled people of his time. Instead, he found a solution that made life better not just for him, but for the entire blind community present and future. He used his own disability experience to develop a simple yet elegant solution that has proven itself superior to other methods. The backlash that Louis received is just one example of a trend of nondisabled authorities guarding their power by explicitly or implicitly rejecting disabled people’s leadership in empowering themselves. Today, even though most blind children are no longer educated at segregated schools for the blind, conflicts surrounding the use of braille still rage. I will write more about modern braille debates next week.