Unified English Braille:

A Literacy Bedrock in the Digital Age


Focus: Achieving Equality in Education: Attitudes and Policies

Topic: Access to literacy through braille or print


William Jolley


Public Relations Officer

International Council on English Braille


International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment

Twelfth ICEVI World Conference

Kuala Lumpur, July 2006





Braille is the bedrock of literacy for blind people, and despite the ubiquity of digitalisation remains paramount in the same way that sighted people with their keyboards and screens have not yet discarded pen and paper. The many ramifications of digitalisation challenge braille’s prominence, and demand greater flexibility and utility of braille if braille is to remain pre-eminent.


Unified English Braille is two-dimensional: the integration of literary and technical codes and the reconciliation of differences between the codes used in the United States and the United Kingdom. Although it is not yet universally adopted, the implementation of Unified English Braille has commenced and gathers momentum.


Unified English Braille responds to increased demands on the braille code: integrated education of blind children; greater diversity of presentation techniques used in printed textbooks; computer-aided translation from print to braille and from braille to print; globalisation underpinning resource sharing; and the widespread use of English as a second or further language.


The changes inherent in Unified English Braille are mostly minor for literary braille and most evident for mathematics and science notations—making braille easier to learn by all stakeholders and easier to read and write for blind people. Unified English Braille is optimised for use by students integrated into regular schools; ideal for students using English as their primary or secondary language; and well-suited to the needs of blind students in developing countries.


1.      Introduction


Unified English Braille recognises that blind people continue to use braille as their bedrock of literacy: to underpin their integrated education and enhance their employment participation, and to respond to the choices and challenges of digitalisation in the Information Age. The target audience for this paper is education professionals (policy makers, opinion leaders and practitioners), both blind and sighted, and, for the most part, a superficial knowledge of braille will suffice.


Unified English Braille was developed during the 1990s, recognising that braille needed greater flexibility and a new dynamism so that it would be cheaper to produce, more robust, easier to learn and more flexible to use. Unified English Braille bridges the trans-Atlantic divide and harmonises literary and technical codes into a systematic representation of print characters by unique and unambiguous braille symbols.


Following its public release in 1829 it took a century for braille to dominate as the tactile system of reading and writing for blind people. Braille enjoyed a period of stability since 1932 when the United States adopted British braille, although technical codes were later developed by both countries which exemplified practical and philosophical differences between braille in the United Kingdom and the United States. Most English-speaking countries, having formerly been colonies of the British Empire, used British braille, although Canada and New Zealand adopted American braille. During the 1980s Australia and South Africa began to deviate from British Braille with: the introduction of capital letters in braille to support the integration of blind students into mainstream education; changes to their maths codes; and adoption of the United States computer code. In 1997 the Braille Authority of the United Kingdom (BAUK) made changes to British braille that underpinned rather than deprecated the use of capitals, as was previously the case; and in 2004 BAUK made further changes to British braille that added to the differences between the literary codes used in Britain and the United States. The situation for developing countries, which imported much of their braille, was even more varied with the ‘fortunate few’ among blind people who used braille exposed to a variety of flavours of the literary code from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and elsewhere—with and without the use of capital letters. The ground swell for change and rationalisation was growing.


The vehicle for unification has been ICEB—the International Council on English Braille—which harnessed the creative minds and willing hearts of experts from around the world to review their current braille codes and reach consensus for change. ICEB is the international forum for countries which have standards-setting bodies for English-language braille. ICEB was formed in 1991 and has seven members: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.


Sections 2 and 3 of this paper, respectively, review the history of braille and identify external factors that impact on braille. Section 4 discusses the development of Unified English Braille, covering the UEB specification and the implementation of UEB. Section 5 discusses the implications of UEB for developing countries.


The message of this paper is that Unified English Braille is a quantum leap forward for braille. Literary and technical codes are integrated into a single specification with the needs of blind students with a continuum of abilities situated in a range of learning environments using a variety of assistive technology being paramount. Unified English Braille recognises that ‘the reader rules’, and gives rise to braille that is cheaper to produce, less reliant on manual intervention and proofreading with high quality maintained, more compatible with indigenous language braille, easier to back translate accurately, faster to learn and easier to teach.


2.      Braille History in Brief


Braille was one of a number of systems for tactual reading which were developed in the nineteenth century.  Lorimer (1996) examines in detail the systems of embossed script used in France, the United States and the United Kingdom from the time when the first embossed book was published in 1786.  She goes on to examine the extensive research which was subsequently undertaken into braille codes to make braille easier to learn and to use.


Braille was the tactual system which eventually prevailed, which is now used worldwide.  By comparison with other systems, braille was: easier to read by touch, easier to write, more economical to produce and less bulky.  The masterpiece of a blind Frenchman, Louis Braille, braille is composed of cells of dots which correspond nicely with the fingertips as information receptors.  Embossed type systems modeled on printed characters had a fatal flaw that many sighted people were slow to recognise. Mellor (1998) recounts that the blind French philosopher Pierre Villey pointed out that embossed type systems were “… talking to the fingers in the language of the eyes.”  Whereas the eyes can scan quickly and absorb groups of words simultaneously, the fingers proceed cell by cell.  Rectangular grids of dots are easier to distinguish tactually than sequences of lines and curves, and lead to increased reading speed through relatively fast and accurate tactile discrimination.  Louis Braille’s genius was evident through his six-dot matrix of three rows and two columns that was optimal for reading by touch.


The braille system was first published by Louis Braille in 1829, but it did not gain immediate acceptance. For more than twenty years Louis Braille was scorned, and his masterful invention was shunned. It was not until after his death in 1852 that the genius of Braille began to be recognised (Kimbrough 2005), starting with the adoption of braille as the official communication method for the blind in France in 1854.


By the end of the nineteenth century Braille was well established in the United Kingdom, France, Australia and many other countries. In the United States, however, Braille was not adopted until 1932. Early in the nineteenth century there were five tactual systems in use throughout the United States, including American as well as British Braille. Mellor (1998) and Irwin (1955) both give colourful and consistent accounts of the so-called ‘War of the Dots’. Mellor quotes Charles Holmes, President of the Alumni Association of the Perkins Institution of the Blind, in 1905: “We have at present five distinct codes of embossed print, and virtual sub-divisions of some of them—since some books are printed with, and some without, contractions. In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which is at best woefully limited) the blind reader must learn, and keep well up in, all these codes. How long would our seeing friends stand for such a state of affairs in type?”  Holmes pleaded for an “… international universal code of embossed type for all English speaking countries …”, which was eventually realised almost thirty years later with the adoption of British braille in 1932. Mellor (2006), after recounting the history of Louis Braille the genius, again returns to the theme of braille unification. We may conclude that braille will always be challenged, but that braille will flourish if we allow the code to adapt to changing demands from a changing environment.


Since 1932 there have been relatively few changes to literary braille, with the main differences between literary braille used in the United Kingdom and the United States being the non-use or use of capital letter signs, respectively, and the treatment of contractions that bridge syllable boundaries. Significant and divergent developments have occurred with the introduction of specialist codes for mathematics, science and computer programming notation. In 1997 changes were made to British braille to enable greater use of capital letters, whereas previously their use was deprecated. In 2004 further changes were made to British braille, some of which have caused it to diverge from rather than converge with literary braille used in the United States.


Other English-speaking countries were usually aligned with the United Kingdom or the United States, although hybridisation sometimes occurred and some local versions of Standard English Braille developed. Australia, for example, with a British heritage for braille: adopted capital signs in the mid 1980s, mainly due to the high rate of integrated education; consequently changed the maths code, and introduced some other divergent changes; revised the chemistry code; and adopted the American computer code (ABA 1999). The evolution of braille codes in South Africa was a close parallel to Australia, but its situation was compounded due to South Africa’s multi-lingual environment where English braille co-existed with Afrikaans braille and braille in a further nine officially recognised indigenous African languages. One result, for both Australia and South Africa, was a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date reference and training materials for use by braille teachers, transcribers and proofreaders.


3.      Implications of a Changing World


There is no single right way for human communication, and there is no single best way for everyone to communicate, so there are a variety of communication media for different situations and purposes. Human communication is multisensorial, dominated by vision and hearing, with the main forms of language communication being oral, script and electronic. Communication choices are limited for people who are blind or vision impaired, and we variously use alternative communication media, struggle with inefficient media or are simply denied access to information and cultural participation.  Our access is denied, for example, if we cannot Access a visual script and graphics.  It may be argued in respect of blind people that: in an oral society we were not greatly handicapped by our disability; in script-based societies we were gravely disadvantaged and largely alienated from learning and intellectual life; and with electronic communication aided by specific technologies such as synthetic speech we have enjoyed a new liberation.


Speaking in December 1999 on Larry King Live Weekend, World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking answered the question “What, Professor Hawking, do you consider the most important discovery of this millennium?” with this statement: “I think the invention of printing was a breakthrough for the human race. It meant that information and discoveries could be disseminated widely and not just on a one to one basis by word of mouth or handwritten manuscript. It led to an ever increasing rate of scientific and technological development. This [development] has now made printing almost obsolete and replaced it by the Internet.” Helen Keller, quoted in The New York Times in 1952, had a similar regard for access to the written word in showing her esteem for Louis Braille: "We, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg."


Spungin (1989, 1996) puts forward eight reasons for the decline in braille usage in the United States (generally applicable to other developed countries) in the second half of the twentieth century. Whilst some of these reasons are due to a lack of resources and specialist teachers to support blind children integrated into regular schools, there are other reasons relating to new technology and greater choices that result. Thinking from the separate perspectives of the educator, transcriber and student, one might surmise:

·         from the perspective of an education system, it was cheaper to educate a low-vision child with large print than to teach the child through braille;

·         from the perspective of the special format producer (traditionally a charity using volunteers), it was traditionally faster and cheaper to record a book on to tape than to put it into braille; and

·         from the perspective of a blind student struggling to keep up at school it was often expedient (though regrettable) to listen to a story on tape or quicker to listen to a book with synthetic speech rather than wait for the braille book or struggle through reading the book in braille.


Over the last twenty years the internet has grown rapidly, and through both eText and synthetic speech blind students and professionals have had access to reading materials as never before—truly, an information revolution. Braille was invented in the absence of other means of accessing printed information—apart from live reading.  In the nineteenth century there were no radios, records or cassettes to relay or replay the spoken word, and there were no computers with synthetic speech to give access to thousands of classical books, daily newspapers and millions of electronic documents.  Braille was undoubtedly the golden key to literacy for blind people. Braille’s long-held place as the unassailable key to literacy for blind students is now open to challenge, in both developed and developing countries, and braille codes must not be allowed to remain static and disengaged from an ever-changing, increasingly visual, multimedia world.


Braille has traditionally been more than a system of reading and writing for blind people.  Elissalde (1996) and Schroeder (1996) both emphasise the importance of braille for self esteem, education, employment, and economic independence for people who are blind.  Organisations of the blind in developing countries in their strategic plans commonly give priority to braille literacy—beside priorities such as poverty alleviation, vocational training and organisational development. Since Helen Keller was Deafblind her words from many years ago have an enduring quality since her disability would have precluded her from listening to synthetic speech. She wrote (Keller 1929): "Braille has been a most precious aid to me in many ways. It made my going to college possible—it was the only method by which I could take notes of lectures. All my examination papers were copied for me in this system. I use Braille as a spider uses its web—to catch thoughts that flit across my mind for speeches, messages, and manuscripts."


Burns (1975), recognised the importance of the new audio and electronic technology providing information access alternatives, but then confirmed the ongoing importance of braille: It is desirable and right that the use of braille continue for another reason that is less tangible than the foregoing but of equal or even greater importance. If a blind person does not read or write Braille, he will remain that much less independent. If he cannot read Braille, he will remain dependent on sighted readers or recordings. If he can neither read nor write Braille, he cannot label cans, boxes, cartons, and the like in his kitchen, bathroom, or shop. He cannot take down simple notes, addresses, or telephone numbers. Stated simply, Braille increases independence—a value that far transcends its worth just as a reading/writing tool. So Braille should and will remain with us. It is an integral tool—as are recorded media and as the new technological innovations can become—in the increasingly successful struggle of the blind to surge forward and take their proper place in the mainstream of society.


By comparing today’s world with the situation of fifty years ago, one can readily identify changing circumstances that impinge on the availability and utility of braille:

·         integrated education for blind and vision impaired students in both developed and developing countries;

·         diversity of visual presentation techniques through printing, desktop publishing and onscreen displays;

·         alternative methods of information access through means such as synthetic speech, electronic braille and spoken-word audio;

·         computer-aided translation from print to braille and from braille to print; and

·         globalisation and the high prevalence of written and spoken English.


There is no question that braille has shown itself to be remarkably resilient and flexible in responding to the changing needs of its users. Codes have been developed to allow the literature and notation of almost every conceivable subject to be rendered in braille: chemistry, chess, computing, electronics, genetics, linguistics, mathematics, music, phonetics, physics and knitting have all been studied using braille. However, this adaptability has come at a price—in fact, two complementary costs:

·         lack of consistency between codes used in different countries; and

·         lack of consistency between the codes used in individual countries.


Let us elaborate on these two complementary issues.

·         Firstly, there has been little co-ordination in the development of specialist braille codes in different countries. Whilst the braille symbols for the letters of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation are almost universal, the codes used for subjects like Computing and Mathematics are different—the internationally agreed music code excepted. A braille reader from North America or New Zealand using the American Nemeth mathematics code cannot read a braille mathematics book produced in South Africa, the United Kingdom or Australia without considerable study of the braille code—and vice versa. This situation is also true of chemistry, computing, electronics and physics.

·         Secondly, the literary and technical codes are not properly integrated in either of the UK or US braille systems.  This is especially true for the American codes, where, for example, there are no braille symbols in the literary code for some well known printed symbols including the elementary binary operators of arithmetic: plus, minus, multiply and divide. In both the US and the UK codes, computer braille notation is used for writing email and web addresses.


4.      Development of Unified English Braille


Unified English Braille is a concerted and consolidated response to a complex set of changing environmental factors and demands on the braille system, by enhancing braille’s utility through increased flexibility.


In 1991 Drs Tim Cranmer and Abraham Nemeth considered the desirability and feasibility of developing a more unified braille system.  Their joint paper (Cranmer & Nemeth 1991) was a passionate and logical call for harmonisation between the literary and technical codes used in the United States.  In response the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) established a research project to develop proposals for extension of the literary code to harmonise with technical codes.


It soon became apparent that BANA’s research project had international ramifications, and in 1993 the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) formally assumed responsibility for the Unified Braille Code (UBC) Research Project.  The term “unified” took on new meaning, referring to the prospect of trans-Atlantic harmonisation of the literary and technical codes in addition to the amalgamation of literary and technical codes into a single code.


Within just two years Unified English Braille (UEB) (as the code is now referred to) was in shapely, embryonic form (ICEB 1995); and its following ten years gestation has been variously treacherous, stressful and exhilarating for many of those concerned. This may seem like slow progress and of dubious value. Not so, considering the environment of international standards-setting and without financial incentives to drive investment paying tangible dividends.


4.1     Towards a UEB specification


Unified English Braille is based on six fundamental principles, each of which has affected some of the decisions which have shaped UEB as a total, flexible and harmonising code.


·         Six dot braille cell: Any change here would have been radical and was not seriously considered since a minimalist approach is preferred and the six dot cell is widely regarded as optimal for tactual perception (Lorimer 1995, Mellor 2006).

·         No major changes to Grade II braille: Some new symbols have been introduced, and others have been changed. There are no new contractions, but a few contractions have been dropped and some rules simplified.  This is not to say that substantial changes to English braille’s contractions system cannot be justified (for example, the deletion of many of the lesser-used short-form word contractions), but once again large-scale changes to the contraction system were considered of secondary importance to the fundamental changes of UEB.  Most braille contractions are almost one hundred years old, and since their introduction the language has changed and the content of material in braille typically read by blind people has also changed. The most controversial contractions-related change has been the abolition of sequencing, as discussed below.

·         Useable both by beginner and by advanced braille readers: UEB is very easy to read for simple texts, whilst containing many features and enhancements for more accurate rendering of complex notation. An example is the rich set of UEB symbols for font enhancements, quotation marks and technical symbols. For new braille readers the abolition of sequencing removes a significant learning barrier, whereas the extension of the literary code for elementary mathematics is very intuitive and therefore easy to learn.

·         Computability: UEB has been designed to be computable to the greatest degree possible, without detriment to readability, from print to braille and from braille to print, whilst employing an unambiguous braille representation for each print symbol. UEB contains unique symbols for many print symbols including all of those that occur frequently.  The one-to-one correspondence between print and braille symbols makes it much easier to automate transcription from print to braille and to get accurate back translation from braille to print when using a braille-based notetaker such as: Humanware’s BrailleNote, Quantum Technology’s Mountbatten Brailler or Freedom Scientific’s PAC Mate. The reliability of back translation is especially important for blind students in mainstream settings writing homework or assignments, and for blind professionals drafting correspondence and reports.

·         Embed technical codes: UEB makes for smooth transition between literary text and mathematics notation since the technical codes are simply extensions of the base literary code.  There is no separate mathematics, computer science or chemistry code—simply UEB renditions of the symbols used in maths and science and rules for the representation of maths and science notation.  The UEB’s unique power to enable accurate back translation of mathematics from braille to print is a very strong feature, likely to greatly benefit students using electronic braillers in integrated learning environments.

·         Consider all existing braille codes: A comprehensive set of technical codes was taken into account, in addition to the commonly used literary braille codes, and UEB’s rendering of technical notation reflects features from various antecedent technical codes.


Three other principles, not explicitly stated from the outset, have shaped UEB and the formulation of its rules:

·         follow the print;

·         reduce ambiguity; and

·         simplify the rules.


There have been two decisions which have had the major impact on attitudes to UEB. Regrettably, but inevitably, they have polarised some community attitudes to UEB. They are: the use of upper numbers in braille, and the abolition of sequencing. Both decisions were made after careful consideration, taking account of the views of all known stakeholders—in particular: braille readers and educators of child and adult braille learners. Although their explanation is somewhat technical, it is included below because of the fundamental importance of the use of upper numbers and the abolition of sequencing for Unified English Braille.

·         Numbers: Three approaches to the representation of numbers in braille were considered:

·         Upper numbers—where the letters a to j are used for the numbers one to nine and zero;

·         Lower numbers—where the letters a to j dropped to the lower part of the cell are used; and

·         French numbers—where the letters a to j with dot six added are used.

The method of upper numbers was chosen. This has the advantages of there being no change for literary braille and providing an intuitive introduction to technical content such as primary school mathematics. It is also consistent with Louis Braille’s original design of the braille code. The choice of upper numbers has been the chief cause of UEB polarisation in the United States where proponents of lower numbers as used in the Nemeth code for braille mathematics believe that the use of upper numbers wastes space and reduces UEB’s suitability for advanced mathematics. Proponents of upper numbers believe that this approach: enables UEB rule simplification; makes UEB easier and faster to learn by teachers and transcribers; makes UEB cheaper to produce due to the reduced need for staff training (learning time is lower); and makes UEB easier to learn and use for blind students.

·         Sequencing: UEB abolishes sequencing. The words ‘and’, ‘for’, ‘of’, ‘the’, ‘with’ and ‘a’ cannot be written with their intervening blank space omitted. Similarly, the words ‘to’, ‘into’ and ‘by’ cannot be written next to their following word, and the contractions for ‘to’, ‘into’ and ‘by’ are abolished. It was decided not to retain the ‘to’ contraction standing alone because of the possibility of confusion between the contractions for ‘to’ and ‘from’ due to their similarity in both braille representation and linguistic meaning. The abolition of sequencing has been another polarising issue. On the one side are the fluent braille readers who have mastered sequencing and enjoy the compactness and fluency that results. On the other side are the educators of both children and adults who observe that sequencing is one of the most difficult challenges in learning to read and write braille. This one came to a clear choice: The costs of mastering sequencing were deemed to outweigh the benefits of its use.


UEB is neutral on the Grade 1 verses Grade 2 debate. UEB can be written in Grade 1 braille, otherwise known as uncontracted or alphabetic braille; or in Grade 2 braille, otherwise known as contracted braille. UEB’s utility for Grade 1 braille, with a harmonised inclusion of numbers, punctuation and mathematics symbols, has benefits:

·         for teaching programs optimised for students with learning or perceptual disabilities that focus on Grade 1 braille followed by Grade 2 braille once Grade 1 braille has been mastered (Troughton 1992); and

·         for use by students or practitioners of English as a second or further language.


The main changes implicit in UEB are listed below.

·         UEB is one code harmonising the treatment of literary, mathematics and computer science text elements. Thus there is one UEB symbol for printed symbols such as dollar, square bracket, star and exclamation mark rather than there being different code-dependent representations.

·         UEB’s contraction rules (such as whether ‘of’ can be contracted in professor or ‘en’ can be contracted in renew) follow the United Kingdom rules rather than the United States rules (with some exceptions), which results in a more liberal approach to bridging contractions.

·         UEB abolishes sequencing, as noted above.

·         UEB does not introduce any new contractions, and the contractions for ‘ally’, ‘ation’, ‘ble’, ‘com’, ‘dd’ and ‘o’clock’ are abolished, so that rules can be simplified:

·         abolishing the ‘ally’ and ‘ation’ contractions simplifies the rules concerning the transcription of words with capital letters in their interior—something that occurs more frequently these days;

·         abolishing the ‘ble’ contraction frees up the numeral sign and allows some rules to be simplified;

·         abolishing the ‘com’ contraction frees up the hyphen symbol and simplifies some rules;

·         abolishing the ‘dd’ contraction frees up the period symbol and simplifies some rules—important, since the period occurs more frequently in the middle of words these days (such as web and email addresses); and

·         abolishing the ‘o’clock’ short-form simplifies rules concerning the apostrophe.

·         UEB adopts the concept of a character, word and passage; and has special symbols to indicate grade 1 braille, capitalisation and font indicators such as bold, italics and underline.  Closing passage indicators are written after the last word of the passage, not prior to the last word as is presently the case with italics and bolding. Of course (and this is really important) we recommend that transcribers do not slavishly follow the print regarding the use of font indicators; so, for example, headings would normally be shown by their placement rather than the use of bold and/or italics indicators.

·         UEB provides a rich and unambiguous set of symbol assignments, so that most print symbols used in mathematics and non-technical texts (such as various brackets, plus, degrees, copyright, at and dashes) have one (and only one) UEB representation. Conversely, the UEB symbols can be back-translated for unambiguous print representation of the braille source text.

·         UEB writes email and web addresses in contracted braille.

·         UEB makes it easier to learn to read and write maths in braille for both primary and secondary school students.

·         UEB retains the familiar single-cell signs for outer quotes, and offers a range of symbols for inner quotes.

·         UEB uses specific two-cell signs for accent marks, rather than the non-specific accent sign.

·         UEB has code switch indicators that may be used where non-UEB text (such as a music or foreign language passage) is embedded in a UEB document. Explicit code switching would normally be kept to a minimum, but the code switch symbols are provided for use if required.


4.2     UEB implementation


The International Council on English Braille (ICEB), at its Third General Assembly meeting in Toronto on 2 April 2004, decided that Unified English Braille was sufficiently complete for consideration by member countries as their national standard for braille. Within eighteen months UEB was adopted in Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria and South Africa. The Canadian Braille Authority had signalled its desire to adopt UEB in due course, the British were planning a detailed consumer consultation and the Americans were biding their time. In Australia and South Africa a graduated UEB implementation has commenced, and in New Zealand and Nigeria the UEB implementation process is undergoing its year-long planning phase. Australia’s transition is due for completion by mid 2010, and South Africa’s national transition for elementary primary school pupils will commence in 2008.


The Australian Braille Authority (ABA), at its annual meeting on 14 May 2005, adopted UEB as the national standard for braille in Australia, encouraging its member organisations to implement UEB within five years as reference and training resources become available. Implementation is a choice for individual organisations, not a dictate of the ABA, so the ABA is encouraging organisations to implement UEB at a time when, and in a manner in which, the benefits of the change will be maximised for their braille readers and any adverse effects will be minimised. The decision was made in the expectation that Canada, Nigeria, New Zealand and South Africa will be early adopters of UEB, and with awareness of the strength of support for UEB in the United States and the United Kingdom—although early adoption in these countries was not anticipated.


To illustrate various implementation issues we shall consider the recent Australian experiences and expectations as an example. First, however, we refer to the concise account by Jolley (2005) of the Australian braille environment and the reasons why UEB was so warmly embraced. He writes that: “UEB received strong support from educators, who recognized that it will be an easier code for students to learn and that it has many features that will promote better understanding between blind students and their sighted peers and teachers. Some braille readers were opposed to the changes inherent in UEB—they mostly wanted more, rather than fewer, contractions and resented the ‘additional clutter’ from font indicators and capital signs. Less ambiguity in UEB, making it easier to produce certain braille documents with reduced manual intervention and improving the reliability of back translation, were perceived as strong arguments for change by transcribers and educators.


The first UEB reference/training document (Unified English Braille Primer: Australian Edition) was published in May 2006 (ABA 2006) as a primer for use by teachers and transcribers. The UEB primer was based on the familiar primer for British braille published by the Royal National Institute of the Blind, smoothing the transition for experienced braille practitioners by introducing UEB through a document with a familiar look and feel. The ABA gratefully acknowledges the RNIB for allowing its primer to be used for this first-to-be-published UEB training tool. Ancillary documents—UEB Explained, UEB with DBT and UEB Symbols List—will also be issued as soon as practicable. The ICEB has specified most of the rules of UEB, but work remains to consolidate them into a single complete document constituting the Unified English Braille Specification.


The UEB with DBT document is important. It gives hints to transcribers for getting the best from the Duxbury Braille Translator when producing UEB documents, and identifies work-arounds for those cases where DBT does not give the required result. Although DBT is an excellent piece of finely tuned software applicable to many languages and with the flexibility for variants within languages (Sullivan 2004), inevitably there are glitches to be ironed out as experience is gained in the production of UEB across a variety of literary and technical texts.


One document, yet to be produced, is geared to new braille learners who want to be able to read library books produced in Standard English Braille. Naturally, we want to maximise the utility of the existing stock of library books in braille, so we need to develop a document that elaborates Standard English Braille for use by the next generation of braille readers brought up on UEB. This is not simply an annex to the primer, since braille readers do not normally read such a primer.


Further to the development of reference/training materials, the production of braille books and other documents in UEB has commenced.

·         Vision Australia, the largest non-government braille producer in Australia, has begun full-scale production of library books, ephemeral material and contract work using UEB, starting from 1 July 2006. Vision Australia is approaching the provision of braille for students and individuals on a case by case basis.

·         Most braille for school students is produced by state-based, government, education agencies. Several of these have already commenced the UEB transition, starting in the 2006 school year and anticipating a transition duration of about two years. Specifically, the New South Wales Department of Education and Training is implementing UEB as follows:

·         Commencing in 2006, all braille for children in pre-school through to the second grade is UEB.

·         Commencing in 2006, all new braille produced for students in years 3 to 11 is UEB.

·         Commencing in 2006, students in years 3 to 11 will mostly be given their exam papers in UEB. For students in year 10 sitting external exams, individuals will have a choice of whether to receive their exam papers in UEB or Standard English Braille.

·         Commencing in 2006, all new mathematics texts up to and including year 6 are in UEB.

·         Commencing in 2007, all new mathematics and science texts for years 7 to 9 are in UEB.


5.      UEB for Developing Countries


The World Health Organisation (WHO 2004) estimates that among the 161.1 million people with vision impairment worldwide there are 36.9 million people who are blind, with the prevalence rate being higher for females than for males. Among the blind population 82 per cent are aged 50 or above, and just under four per cent (1.4 million) are children under fifteen years of age. Blindness is defined as visual acuity below 3/60 (10/200) in the best eye with correction. We may assume that this is the target group for learning braille. The proportion of people who are blind living in developing countries is 90 per cent. The proportion of blind children who receive any education is below ten per cent (ICEVI 2006).


I interpret these figures as that at best there are 100,000 blind children who get some education (not usually past the primary grades), with at least one million who remain ignorant and deprived of their right to quality of life through going to school—and it follows that the EFAVI global initiative (Education for All Children with Visual Impairment) is critically important to raise the standards of access and equity for blind children. Whilst children evoke sympathy for help by virtue of their innocence and tenderness, the permanents of their disability mostly denies blind children the kick-start they need through braille literacy to participate with dignity and fulfilment in their community—below ten per cent as the education participation rate for blind children says it all.


Miles (2001a, 2001b) depicts the situation of children with disabilities in Southern Africa, the Middle East and South Asia through comprehensive bibliographies that show the relative visibility of the situation of blindness in the context of education of children with disabilities. Hampshire (1980) emphasises the fundamental importance of braille for children and adults in developing countries as their leading tool for literacy through the ability to read and write the written word.


Modern-day services for people who are blind originated in many developing countries in the nineteenth century. Generally speaking these services were based on institutional models such as schools for the blind, work enclaves or homes for the adult blind. Traditionally, services were initiated and operated by philanthropic individuals or groups such as Christian missionaries, ex-patriots or the wives of high-class government or community officials. Sir John Wilson (CONI 1948), later to found the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind (now known as Sight Savers) was one of the first to recognise the benefits of integrated education by recommending the establishment of special classes for blind children annexed to schools for sighted children.


Among member countries of the British Comm onwealth, where English is mostly a second or business language (meaning that English is commonly used as the learning language in schools), services for the blind have traditionally been provided in congregate settings under the patronage and guidance of ex-patriot philanthropists. However, over the past thirty years there has been a gradual shift in service delivery auspice and methodology:

·         many ministries of education have taken responsibility for education of blind children aided by donor agencies such as Sight Savers or Christoffel BlindenMission;

·         there has been a growth and strengthening of national associations of the blind, fuelled by national sentiments and aided by donor organisations, mostly Scandinavian; and

·         there has been a move towards integrated education of blind children, starting with special classes annexed to regular schools and extending to individual programs for children in their local schools.


Whatever the auspice or the setting for education of children who are blind in developing countries, braille remains paramount. Braille is the key to literacy—reading and writing—using braille from wherever it can be obtained and embossed on whatever paper is available for reading, and using the slate and stylus or Perkins Brailler for writing. Paradoxically, many blind people in developed countries do not learn to write braille with a slate and stylus, analogous to sighted children abandoning hand-writing for the keyboard, whereas the slate and stylus rightly retains its fundamental importance as a basic literacy tool for blind people in developing countries.


It is ‘braille from wherever’ that needs further exploration in considering Unified English Braille in the context of developing countries. Most developing countries, where English is a second or further language, do not have their own mandated braille code for English-language braille. They might have a dominant ‘flavour’ for braille, largely determined by their primary source of braille. But equally, blind people are exposed to braille from wherever they can get it: the code taught at school, the code used in secular books donated to the school or a skeletal braille library for adults, the code used in Christian books donated for the blind of that country, the code suggested by the donor agency which established a braille press or computerised production facility, the code used by a volunteer ex-patriot braille transcriber, or even the code that was the default setting of a computer program used for braille translation.


Whilst these code differences within any one country may be inconvenient, they are at least bearable for literary codes. However, the situation is more serious even for elementary mathematics codes where the differences between the United Kingdom and the United States codes are profound. In only a few cases do developing countries using English as a second or further language have a policy endorsed by blind people and nationally applicable that governs the English-language braille code that predominates.


I recall my early exposure to various flavours of braille, as a child of the sixties raised in a developed country: interline and interpoint braille with and without capitals from Australia, Britain and the United States. Unlike many children from developing countries, I was not exposed to European English-language braille using different punctuation signs until many years later when I was an adult. Fortunately, I was a fairly bright student and I had good elementary teachers; so I was able to readily adapt to variants in braille codes. However, recalling to mind some mis-reading errors (including exam questions) I am sensitive to the need to minimise the exposure to various flavours of braille for blind students. Accordingly, Unified English Braille provides a platform to do so.


Of course Unified English Braille does not solve the problems of low participation in education for blind children and access to braille for blind people in developing countries, but it does make a valid contribution to removing one barrier (variously perceived and real)—that of complexity of the braille code. South Africa and Nigeria have led the way, both of them having decided to adopt UEB in the context of increasing demand through greater access to elementary education by blind children, scarce human and technological resources and demanding multi-lingual environments.

·         UEB works well for Grade 1 (uncontracted) braille or Grade 2 (contracted) braille.

·         UEB has an extensible base code that makes the representation of numbers and the presentation of elementary mathematics intuitive for braille producers, braille teachers and students using braille.

·         UEB’s comprehensive set of printed symbol representations makes UEB extensible for Grade 1 representation of indigenous languages using a Roman script. This is widely applicable to countries in Africa, and applicable to some countries in Asia. Further than this extensibility, UEB is compatible with indigenous languages insofar as UEB readily co-exists with foreign language text within a predominantly English-language publication.

·         Good quality UEB may be produced by merely the ‘flick of a switch’ using the Duxbury Braille Translator (Sullivan 2004)—the world’s leading software for computerised braille translation—based on the application of Microsoft Word styles.

·         Compared with Standard English Braille UEB is faster to learn for teachers and transcribers, which has flow on effects to make UEB easier to teach and cheaper to produce.

·         UEB is optimised for universal access to education by blind students, including the learning of elementary mathematics. It is widely recognised that blind students may leave high school education prematurely, especially in developing countries, and that the attrition rate is higher for mathematics due to perceived difficulty in teaching mathematics including complexity of the braille code. The harmonisation of literary and technical braille codes inherent in UEB is without doubt one of the strongest attributes of UEB and it has particular benefits for the teaching of children in developing countries where the scarcity of skilled teachers and transcribers of braille is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.


The foregoing discussion leads to the question of what ICEVI might do to promote access to English-language-based education of blind children through braille literacy using Unified English Braille as a prime vehicle. These are my suggested recommendations for consideration by ICEVI:

1.      Endorse Unified English Braille as the recommended code for the transcription of English-language texts into braille in developing countries; and provide advice to government agencies, education authorities, organisations of and for the blind and donor agencies as required to reduce the number of English-language braille codes being promulgated in developing countries through implementation of this recommendation.

2.      Engage in the ICEB discussions finalising the UEB specification to ensure compatibility of UEB with Grade 1 braille codes for indigenous languages using a Roman script.

3.      Promote and facilitate the review of braille codes for indigenus languages using Roman script where appropriate, with a view to their compatibility with UEB through the adoption of common signs for mathematics, punctuation, accents, etc., and by striving for other consistencies between UEB and the indigenous language codes.


The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), a world-renowned major producer of braille and traditionally a major source of English-language braille used in developing countries, is leading the way (RNIB 2006) towards UEB adoption and implementation. RNIB has adopted a policy of firm support for and transition to UEB, reproduced below. Although the language of the policy is guarded, no doubt finely-tuned for a ‘change-averse’ local audience, the attitude of RNIB as a global braille producer is clearly supportive of the development and graduated implementation of Unified English Braille.

·         RNIB supports the progression of braille code development so that braille remains a dynamic medium through which information can be succinctly and efficiently represented.

·         RNIB supports the development of unified, computable codes throughout the world such that information may be more readily exchanged and used internationally.

·         RNIB will actively support the promotion and experimental use of UEB as currently proposed as a means towards realising the goal of international exchange of information in braille between English-speaking countries in an efficient manner.

·         RNIB will support the publication of materials in UEB, and promote awareness of the code in the UK, recognising that an evolutionary approach will be required to enable the benefits to be appreciated over time, and that the current British Braille code will need to be supported.

·         RNIB believes that UEB will be subject to further evolution so that it can become more robust.

·         RNIB will resource the further development of the code in association with other national agencies/authorities, and will endeavour to play a leadership role in its promotion.

·         RNIB supports progress toward a simplification of braille codes and supporting rules to improve the efficiency of braille translation, code and layout, and improved braille literacy amongst blind and partially sighted people in the UK.

·         RNIB believes that simplification of rules will lead to greater efficiency in braille production, and a shorter learning curve for people who can benefit from increased opportunity that learning braille is proven to bring.


6.      Summary and Conclusions


The focus of this paper has been Unified English Braille. Having reviewed the history of braille development and the place of braille in the context of the Information Age, Unified English Braille has been introduced and the major differences from Standard English Braille have been explained. Progress towards UEB implementation in Australia was outlined as a case study.


The centre piece of this paper is the utility of Unified English Braille to support the education of blind children in developing countries. With less than ten per cent of blind children receiving any education, all possible measures should be taken to raise their participation rate in formal education. With braille being the bedrock of literacy, it stands to reason that the braille code itself should be designed to minimise barriers of access and utility for braille.


Unified English Braille meets this challenge and is likely to prove easier to learn for teachers, transcribers and students alike. UEB will be cheaper to produce through less training time for production staff or volunteers and through greater computer-translation reliability. Finally, and most importantly, UEB will be easier to read for people with additional disabilities or students learning elementary mathematics and science. In particular, adoption of UEB by donor agencies, indigenous education authorities and national associations of the blind will gradually reduce the variety of flavours of English-language braille circulating in developing countries.


As leaders of braille authorities, we are the custodians of a special treasure—braille. We are bearers of the special gift of literacy to people who are blind. We have no right to tinker frivolously with braille codes, but we do have a responsibility to guide the development of braille codes—as written language conventions change, as study materials become more diverse and visual, and as scientific notations evolve. English is a living worldwide language, and braille is its tactile representation, so braille’s utility and relevance depend on its dynamism and flexibility. As leaders of the braille community, we cannot be unaware of our changing environment. We must maximise the utility of braille for all blind people who learn it and want to use it worldwide. I am satisfied that, through the adoption and implementation of Unified English Braille, we are helping to ensure that braille’s utility remains high and that braille’s future is thereby assured.




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