Home Page | Site Map | FAQ
Writing and Literacy
Mechanical devices for tactile output
Electronic braille writers
Non-tactile forms of braille writing
There are a number of different methods for personal braille writing that can result in tactile output. The focus here is on the process of writing braille which assumes, of course, that one either knows or is copying correct braille in the first place. (Note that while writing braille can be used for transcribing from print to braille, it is not the same as transcribing. You can read about transcribing by clicking here.)
Different writing methods have different advantages and many braillists end up using different ones depending on their purpose. On this page I've made a distinction between mechanical and electronic devices. Another distinction, which is more significant to braille literacy, is between braillers and notetakers. Brailler is the name generally given to a device with the capability for direct output of embossed braille whereas a notetaker is a device that has digital storage capabilities and, possibly, direct output via a speech synthesizer or refreshable braille display (RBD).
Tactile braille can be produced by sending an electronic braille file produced using a notetaker or personal computer to an embosser (or RBD) just as inkprint can be produced by sending an electronic print file to an inkjet printer. (However, even a low-end embosser is considerably more expensive than an ordinary printer.)
Several new methods for writing braille by hand that are appropriate for use by sighted persons are also described.
The writing devices most significant for early braille literacy are those that—like pencil and paper—couple writing and reading by tying the writing process directly to the production of hard copy output. These devices include the slate and stylus as well as mechanical and electronic braillers. Attempting to achieve braille literacy by restricting oneself to the use of a speech-enabled braille notetaker would be rather like attempting print literacy with a computer keyboard and a word processor with synthetic speech output.
Braille writing devices like the slate and stylus and brailler are also uniquely important for blind children because they allow a blind child to develop the two-dimensional or planar concepts that a sighted child picks up automatically from seeing a page. The child develops an understanding of writing on a page, page size, formatting, alignment, information on a page, etc. that is not possible with virtual writing.
I'd like to thank a reader for prompting me to add this section and to make other changes to this page.
Since there are both mechanical and electronic devices for generating braille by means of six-key entry, the basic idea is described here for reference. Six-key entry associates a separate key with each dot position in a braille cell as with the
A braille cell is produced by simultaneously pressing all of the keys corresponding to the desired cell's filled dots. This process is often called chording in analogy with playing a chord on a piano. Some persons find that learning six-key entry is a good way of memorizing the dot patterns. However, there is a trend away from six-key and toward full keyboard typing for entering braille.
TIP! A big hang-up for many sighted persons in learning braille is the incorrect belief that it is necessary to learn six-key entry (or a slate and stylus) in order to write braille. This is no longer true in this computer age where electronic files can be created using full keyboard entry and word processors.
In addition to special brailler keyboards, electronic six-key entry can be simulated with certain brands of QWERTY computer keyboards. This requires that the keyboard have the capability for accepting simultaneous signals from two up to six keys as well as the signal from a single key. Typically the letter keys for ess, dee, eff, jay, kay, and ell (s, d, f, j, k, and l) are used for this purpose. Six-key entry on a standard keyboard requires specialized software like Duxbury's Perky Duck or Pokadot to combine the input from the keys into the correct numerical code corresponding to the braille cell.
Note. I am not taking a position on whether there will come a time when blind persons don't need to learn six-key typing or when transcribers shouldn't be required to learn it for certification. I am simply pointing out that six-key typing is not necessary in order to generate an electronic braille file.
It is important to remember that the availability of low-cost and low-tech devices is a crucial issue in developing countries and even for many persons in countries like the United States. It is interesting in this regard to read the proposal for government funding of Jot-A-Dot production.
The most low-tech method of writing braille, comparable to writing print with pen or pencil, is to emboss each braille dot using a stylus and slate. This method ordinarily requires writing from right-to-left. (One can also write from left-to-right by writing upside down but this is generally more error-prone.)
TIP! Even though you could probably figure out how to use a slate and stylus on your own, it is better to get instruction from a knowledgeable source so as to avoid picking up bad habits. If you do it properly, you can be much more efficient. See, for example, Braillewriting Dot by Dot, available from APH or the new The Slate Book, which is especially for blind slate users.
The picture to the left is of a Direct Manual Braille Slate. This so-called upward-writing type of slate, recently re-implemented by Lawrence Hawk, allows one to write normally from left-to-right because the slate has "bumps or pins instead of holes ... and a hollow instead of a solid stylus." The stylus produces raised dots by pushing paper down around the pins on the slate. Hawk has insisted that anyone who manufactures his slate donate the slate to those who cannot afford it and, also, make it available outside the United States. He is currently in the process of obtaining support.
Past attempts to persuade users of standard slates to switch to the hollow stylus method have not been especially successful. There are several problems. The dots are not as easy to read as embossed dots. Also, "ghost" dots are produced either mechanically when there is a dot at the top and bottom of a column but not in the middle position and also as a result of the stylus user's hunting for the next dot postion. Finally, it is difficult for blind persons to learn to hold the stylus perpendicularly. On the other hand, many braille readers have difficulties writing backwards because of dyslexia and it may be that for them and for little children, the advantages will outweigh the problems.
Mechanical embossers that support six-key entry are usually called braillers; the best known now are probably the Perkins Braillers like the one pictured above. However, the "classic" Perkins Brailler was actually not designed until 1951 whereas the first mechanical braille writer was invented by Frank H. Hall and produced in 1892, almost 60 years earlier. A collection of mechanical braille writers is maintained at the Marie and Eugene Callahan Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind; information about the Museum's collection is available on the Web.
Perkins-type braillers are rugged machines but are reasonably expensive, starting at around $500, and can be difficult for children and tiring for anyone. However, learning to use a brailler is an important literacy skill and there are options such as key extensions and other models of braillers to be considered for the child who has trouble with a Perkins.
A new design for a mechanical six-key brailler has recently been developed by an Australian researcher after many years of effort. This new device is known as a Jot-A-Dot and is currently expected to be commercially available in January 2003.
There several special-purpose mechanical devices that can be used for producing small quantities of embossed braille in various forms such as stick-on labels. These devices are available for purchase from most sources that sell low-vision products.
Electronic braille devices are those—including a personal computer keyboard—where the user's input is converted into electronic signals which are stored as a digital file (hopefully in non-volatile memory) and any tactile output is produced indirectly by displaying the file on a refreshable braille display or printing it with an embosser. Electronic devices are generally faster and easier to use than mechanical ones but, of course, share the same drawbacks as any other piece of high technology equipment.
Electronic braille devices encompass a variety of specialized machines designed for easy use by blind persons. Many are battery-powered and portable and have both a standalone mode and the capability of being cabled to a computer for transmitting files. The majority of current models utilize six-key entry but there is an increasing number which can be purchased with either a six-key or standard keyboard. This change is coming about for at least two reasons:
Some of the best known electronic braille writers are the American-made Braille Lite notetakers and the Australian-made BrailleNote notetakers and the Mountbatten brailler. The more expensive models incorporate refreshable braille displays and numerous other features including built-in transcribing software and speech synthesis. It is outside the scope of this discussion to evaluate the numerous brands, models, and additional features of these specialized electronic braille writing devices. However, since a high-end braille notetaker can cost many thousands of dollars, it is obvious that a number of factors need to be considered prior to purchase.
A history of the Braille Lite notetaker was presented in March 2002 at CSUN's Seventeenth Annual International Conference on "TECHNOLOGY AND PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES."
Both blind and sighted persons also have the option to use ordinary personal computers as braille writers to create electronic braille without the need for either special keyboards or special software. (Drivers and additional hardware are, of course, needed to display the output in tactile form or as back-translated synthesized speech.)
Note that while special-purpose software is not required for typing in electronic braille, software that provides support for proper braille formatting such as adding page numbers and adjusting line lengths can certainly be helpful. Examples include customized macros used with word processors as well as full-featured commercial applications like Braille 2000 and its predecessor, ED-IT PC. (Of course, if one had access to Braille 2000 or another transcribing program like one of the Duxbury products, it would generally be more efficient to let the computer do the transcribing. Using these programs for "Direct Entry" does have a pedagogical value, however.)
This same approach can be used for braille by associating the 63 braille cells to any 63 keystrokes. (See also this information on keyboard mapping.) This is most commonly done by utilizing the Braille ASCII mapping between braille cells and keystrokes. (Click here for a Chart showing the Braille ASCII for all 63 braille cells.)
Braille ASCII was originally developed over thirty years ago for electronic transmission but is also now the most widely-used code for standard keyboard input of braille as it has become the de facto standard electronic format recognized by a variety of embossers and refreshable braille displays. (Of course, any digital code, including NUMBRL and Unicode for Braille Patterns, could be easily converted to Braille ASCII.)
One way to learn Braille ASCII typing would be to visualize the keys being labeled with the dot patterns and simply learn to touch type the dot patterns as one learns touch typing for any other keyboard mapping. However, since many people who are going to learn Braille ASCII also use the same keyboard for typing the Roman alphabet, it may be difficult to avoid relying on an association between the two.
If you want to use full keyboard input for braille but don't like the Braille ASCII keyboard mapping, you can easily define your own mapping and use a program like KickKeys© to convert to Braille ASCII as you type. You could even use different mappings for different braille codes such as literary braille and Nemeth. It is, of course, not possible to develop a one-to-one mnemonic mapping for the braille cells since they have various meanings in different contexts.
Sighted persons generally read braille in non-tactile forms and have other options for writing braille as well.
Most sighted persons find that learning a new alphabet is greatly facilitated by handwriting practice. Braille is often felt to be an exception because writing inkprint dots by hand isn't very practical as one can easily discover by trying it. However, there are several options for writing braille by making use of analog braille. Perhaps the easiest analog method is a connect-the-dots font like the Kobigraphs illustrated in the figure to the left; NUMBRL is another option. (Using Kobigraphs to practice the dot patterns with pencil and paper can be a useful way to amuse oneself while waiting at the dentist or when stuck at a boring meeting.)
Interesting Observation. Sighted persons who are accustomed to reading a braille font like SimBraille are often bewildered by Kobigraphs. (Click here for a clue.) On the other hand, numerous blind persons who've been given an embossed sample of Kobigraphs have read several lines of text before noting that they weren't reading ordinary braille!
There is no fundamental difference to the use of electronic devices for writing braille whether by blind or sighted persons. As for non-tactile displays, sighted persons can either view electronic braille on-screen or print it like any other electronic document.
Braille ASCII can be displayed with either a standard font or as simulated braille by changing to a braille font, such as Duxbury's SimBraille©, that uses Braille ASCII for its keyboard mapping. Surprisingly, many sighted braille transcribers have gotten accustomed to reading Braille ASCII displayed as ASCII text despite the somewhat non-intuitive nature of the default keyboard characters used for the non-literal cells.
This page was first posted January 4, 2002 and last modified on June 9, 2002.Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org