A Uniform Braille Code

by T. V. Cranmer and Abraham Nemeth

We begin by sincerely thanking you for inviting our comments and for giving us the opportunity of making our views known concerning the vital issue of a uniform Braille code. For a long time we have individually thought about, and have jointly discussed, the points we present in this paper. They are not, therefore, the expression of hastily formed opinions and conclusions, but represent our best and most critical thinking on this subject. We are writing this paper jointly because we are in substantial agreement on the issues we present and on the procedure required for addressing them.

The Problem

For a long time now, the blindness community has been experiencing a steady erosion in Braille usage, both among children and adults. This trend shows no sign of abatement, so that there is now a clear and present danger that Braille will become a secondary means of written communication among the blind, or that it will become obsolete altogether. The reasons for this erosion are numerous and complex, but we believe that a significant contributing factor to this unfortunate state of affairs is the complexity and disarray into which the Braille system has now evolved.

We have in mind the proliferation of Braille codes that has occurred in recent times. Without counting the Braille Music Code, which has a valid claim to an independent existence, there are now four basic Braille codes authorized by BANA for use as standards in the production of Braille reading matter. These are: 1) the literary code, 2) the Braille Code for Textbook Formats and Techniques, 3) the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, and 4) the Computer Braille Code.

The literary code is the oldest. It is a general-purpose code, which includes Grade 2 as its main component. There are, in fact, two literary codes--the one sanctioned by BANA for use in North America, and the other sanctioned by BAUK for use in the United Kingdom. After nearly sixty years of discussions, negotiations, papers, and conferences, there has been no substantial progress toward the achievement of a common literary code, nor is such a code likely to be realized in the foreseeable future. Getting our own house in order may improve our contributions to future discussions of this matter. In any case, poor prospects abroad should not delay addressing problems on this continent.

The four basic codes were developed independently of one another, with the result that there are numerous conflicts among them with regard to symbols and rules. The dollar sign, for example, has one representation in the literary code, another in the Nemeth Code, and still another in the Computer Braille Code. The same is true for the percent sign, the square brackets, and others.

From time to time, the basic codes are extended in scope by the inclusion of additional modules. Some of these modules have already been adopted as part of the basic code, and some are still under development. Thus, a module on ancient numeration systems and another on chemistry notation extend the Nemeth Code, and a module on flowcharts extends the Computer Braille Code. Not associated with any basic code is a module on guidelines for mathematical diagrams. There may be other modules, either contemplated or under way, of which we are not aware. In any case, all the BANA technical committees are busily at work, each making its own contribution to the continued fragmentation of the Braille system. The present practice of requiring technical committees to review each other's work has not prevented the growth of ambiguities and contradictions among codes presently authorized.

For each of the basic codes, there is an official code book in which the symbols and rules of that code are set forth. For some of these codes, there are associated lesson books designed to help a student of that code to acquire proficiency and experience in its use. After a year or more of regular study and application, and after an additional period devoted to the preparation of a Braille manuscript, which must meet high standards in demonstrating the skill, the student, if he or she is successful, receives a certificate from the Library of Congress attesting to the student's mastery of that code. If the manuscript is rejected, the student must submit another manuscript.

Large volunteer organizations like the National Braille Association and California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped conduct regularly scheduled workshops in all the basic codes and their extensions at national and regional conferences. "Skills" columns are a regular feature in the official publications of these organizations. In these columns, problem situations are proposed and resolved by experts in each of the basic codes.

How much training is required to be able to transcribe a fifth-grade book in arithmetic for an 11-year-old child? Since modern arithmetic books at this level always include a "computer corner" or a "calculator corner," all four basic codes will be needed. How likely is it that a teacher-in-training, with only limited time available to learn Braille, will know enough of all these codes to teach them to this 11-year-old? And how likely is it that this 11-year-old will be able to read and understand the material before him or her in all these basic codes? In less time than it would take to acquire skill and proficiency in all these codes and their extensions, and to prepare the required manuscripts for certification, a student might instead enroll in a major medical school, earn an M.D. degree, and still have time to complete a residency in neurosurgery.

We have previously cited the complexity and disarray of the Braille system as it has now evolved as a significant factor in the erosion of Braille usage, and we feel that this is a fair description of that situation. If our claim is valid, it is no wonder that professionals in the field of the education of the blind are resisting the teaching of Braille; that they are down- playing its usefulness in favor of such alternatives as tape recorders, computers, and closed-circuit magnifiers (when this is applicable); and that some are already pronouncing the Braille system to be obsolete in the light of the "new technology."

In stark contrast, there are no special codes in print related to subject matter, no authorities for setting standards, no disagreement about the written form of the English language, no intrinsic conflicts, no special-purpose modules, no lesson books, no manuscripts, no certification, no workshops, and no "skills" columns. None of these is needed because print is a coherent, uniform system of writing in which any given symbol has an assigned and unvarying identity regardless of the subject matter or of the surrounding text in which it is found. New symbols, as they arise, are added to the existing ones without causing any conflict, and the reader of print learns as few or as many of these symbols as needed to carry out his or her normal activities without needing to learn all the possible symbols. We need to devise a Braille system possessing these features. Such a system would qualify as the uniform Braille code, the development of which we are proposing.

Historical Perspective

In order to understand how the present problem with the Braille system arose, we must examine the role that Braille has played in the lives of the blind from the time it was first introduced to the present.

From the mid-nineteenth century, when Braille or its equivalent was first introduced, until the mid-twentieth century, the life cycle of a blind person followed pretty much a standard pattern. In childhood and adolescence, he or she attended a residential school for the blind with other blind students and with many teachers who were also blind. Employment, when it was available, was mostly in a sheltered workshop or comparable workplace. A few who were more motivated went on to college. Even they, however, found employment, when it was available, in the sheltered workshops. A few became entrepreneurs in home-based businesses or in newsstand-type operations. Some joined the staff of an agency for the blind, where they were provided with relatively unlimited secretarial and transportation services. When employment was not available, the blind subsisted on Social Security, disability, or other state and federal benefits. Some resorted to begging. Most of the blind lived at home with their parents or spouses. Many were sufficiently independent to live alone and manage their own affairs. The rest took up residence in various types of institutional or custodial facilities. Their social life was centered in their families. It sometimes extended to seeking the companionship of other blind friends. For the most part, then, blind people were isolated from the mainstream of society both economically and socially.

Although the Braille system was invented by a Frenchman named Louis Braille, who naturally modeled it to conform to his native French language, it was subsequently modified in North America to meet the spelling and punctuation requirements of the English language. Any system of writing is a window on the cultural level and orientation of those who use that system, and this is no less true of Braille, which is also a writing system. Braille acquired its characteristic features through the cooperative efforts of key educators at the residential schools for the blind. In mute eloquence, the resulting literary code proclaims what the needs of the blind (as perceived by these educators) are and what level of achievement may be expected of them. Since gainful employment in the mainstream of society was thought to be an unrealistic expectation for the vast majority of the blind, the principal use of Braille, as perceived by these educators, was to cater to their religious and recreational needs. The present literary code, which is but little changed from its original form, testifies convincingly to the success achieved in adapting Braille to that use.

Short-form words like "rejoicing" and "conceiving" attest to the importance that was attached to religious literature for the blind when the literary code was first formulated.

At the recreational level, precise conformity to the printed text is not an overriding requirement, as long as the Braille reader can grasp the underlying thought. Thus, when specified by the rules of Braille, it is required to suppress the indication of italic type, to alter punctuation, to transpose abbreviations of coinage and measure, to replace Roman with Arabic numbers, to replace symbols with words, to replace standard abbreviations with non-standard ones, and (where context is the determining factor) to replace reading with guessing.

All of these deviations from print practice combined to create a kind of subculture within the Braille-reading community to which only the blind were privy. Since they lived in relative social and economic isolation, no great harm resulted from these deviations which were accepted as "normal." Unfortunately, these deviations persist and are sanctioned to the present time. Meanwhile, the blind have, largely through their own efforts, extricated themselves to a large extent from the sorry plight which we have described. Today, an enlightened public policy mandates the mainstreaming of the blind into all areas of society--school, workplace, recreational and leisure facilities, and all the rest. Most blind youth attend their local schools, where they are integrated with their sighted peers.

Large numbers of blind adults are employed in almost every conceivable occupation. They are lawyers and judges; they hold elective public office; they are secretaries and teachers, scientists and engineers; they run farms and train horses; and they engage in entrepreneurial activities of every kind. At every turn they learn, work, and play together with their sighted colleagues. Documents that pass between them are translated from print to Braille and vice versa with the ease and speed that only a modern computer can provide. The infrastructure of our society mandates a universal standard by which the proper use of written English is gauged, and the blind as well as the sighted must be held to that standard. The deviations from print practice which were harmless in the subculture we described earlier are today no longer acceptable. When a blind person uses them, a sighted person is likely to judge that blind person as incompetent or uneducated. This is certainly not the image a blind person wants to project when he or she is trying to compete in the workplace with a claim of equal productivity.

Recreation continues to be an important motivation for reading among the blind, as it also is among the sighted. But, like the sighted, blind people read for a variety of other reasons. Among them are self-improvement and keeping current with news, sports, medical, and scientific advances, and late developments in their fields of work. In so doing, they encounter a wide variety of general-interest books and mass- circulation periodicals. Authors of such books and periodicals do not hesitate to use mathematical or scientific notation as required, and they expect their readers to have no more of a problem dealing with such notation than with the surrounding English text. Knowledge of such notation is as much a part of our cultural infrastructure as the ability to read words and sentences. A person who cannot cope with such notation needs remedial help to overcome this area of illiteracy. The blind are but a cross-section of the general population. They have a right to access the same information as the sighted, and if this information needs to be conveyed through the use of mathematical or scientific notation, they should be expected to deal with it in the same way as the sighted. It is time to modernize the Braille system.

Toward a Uniform Braille Code

In this section, we offer some ideas that we feel should be considered in bringing about a uniform Braille code that will meet the needs of the blind in modern society. This paper is not the proper forum for making technical recommendations regarding the form that such a uniform Braille code should assume. We therefore confine ourselves to the issues that need to be considered in bringing such a code into being.

With regard to jurisdiction, we feel that BANA is the only properly constituted body to oversee such a project. The BANA Board consists of representatives from just about every important organization in the Braille-reading community, and these organizations have, over a long period of time, recognized and respected BANA's authority.

A uniform Braille code will require that changes be made to the existing basic codes, and that these changed codes be merged into a single uniform code. It is important not to be intimidated by the prospect of such changes. Changes are not made for the sake of change but for the sake of improvement. In the twentieth century, BANA and/or its progenitors have made several fundamental changes to the Braille system, all of them more noticeable and far-reaching than any that we envision as a result of switching to a uniform Braille code. Examples of past such changes include a switch from New York Point to American Braille, from American Braille to English Braille, from Grade 1- 1/2 to Grade 2, from the Taylor Code to the Nemeth Code, and from one music code to another. None of these changes caused any serious disruption in the teaching or use of Braille. The benefits of a uniform Braille code would far outweigh any temporary inconvenience that might be caused by the shift. Nor should change be resisted solely on the grounds of preference established by long years of habit.

The range of human knowledge is far too broad for any single code to handle effectively all aspects of such knowledge. We would not, for example, expect a uniform Braille code to be capable of dealing with arcane foreign languages or systems of writing which bear no relationship to the Roman alphabet. Nevertheless, there still remains a broad central body of knowledge which embraces most of what might be called Western culture, and it is to this body of knowledge that we envision the applicability of a uniform Braille code. Such a code must be capable of dealing with a wide range of subject matter and at all levels of complexity.

Before attending to the details of a uniform Braille code, it is necessary to formulate a set of clearly-stated and implementable objectives to be used as guidelines and tests on the basis of which to accept or reject a proposed code construct. Deviation from an established objective then becomes a more serious matter than the mere reassignment of a Braille symbol. The following are some of the objectives we feel should guide the development of a uniform Braille code. These objectives may be expanded and other objectives added, as the technicalities of the code begin to emerge:

1) The code must be capable of accurately representing the printed text so that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the text in one medium and the text in the other. It is important that readers in both media comprehend the text in the same way, so that there may exist a broad, "hi-fi," two-way channel of communication between a blind person and his teachers, his classmates, his family, his friends, and his associates at work.

2) The code must provide a Braille format in which the reader can quickly and easily locate the information he or she needs. Since Braille cannot imitate print format with its rich variety of features, the code must use the limited format mechanisms in Braille in a systematic manner and to maximum effect.

3) The symbols and rules of the code must be used uniformly from one subject matter to another, and at every level of complexity. This will make it possible for the Braille user to learn as much of the code as he or she needs for present activities, and then to learn more of the code without unlearning what he or she already knows as new knowledge is added.

4) The code must be as independent of context as possible. To achieve this, symbols must be constructed without regard to their meaning.

5) The code must provide for a means of distinguishing between information contained in the source text and information supplied by the transcriber.

6) The code must provide a highly mnemonic system of symbols. The code would be difficult to learn, and text would become difficult to read if this objective were not met.

7) The code must be extendible in a systematic manner. As new symbols are introduced into the code, they must not conflict with those already in the code, and they must be used according to the rules which already exist and which apply in comparable situations.

8) The code must be formulated so that text is amenable to computer translation either from Braille to print or from print to Braille.

9) The code should interface well with Grade 2, so that someone who is reading straight literature (words and sentences) will hardly know that he is reading in a changed code.


By far the most important of our recommendations is that BANA be convinced of the seriousness of the situation with regard to the use and availability of Braille, and that it take immediate action to remedy that situation, giving it higher priority than any of its other ongoing activities. Some recent statistics put the use of Braille among those who need to use it at twelve percent. Each year the statistics in this regard become gloomier. If this trend is permitted to continue, BANA will, at some not too distant time in the future, find itself presiding over a largely moot and philosophical domain.

As a practical matter, we recommend that BANA appoint a technical committee to bring into being a uniform Braille code of the kind that we have been describing throughout this paper. The members of this committee should, above all, be knowledgeable in all the current Braille codes. Whether they are teachers, administrators, volunteer Braillists, or representatives of any other group is largely irrelevant. More important is that they be committed to the successful outcome of their task and that they be thoroughly convinced of the need to succeed. For reasons of efficiency, this should be a small working committee wherein each member makes a positive contribution. Can it be done? The surest way of being convinced that something can be done is to do it.

ICEB contact information
ICEB home page
Page content last updated: January 9, 2000