Nemeth versus the proposed Unified English Braille Code

The UEBC is completely different from Nemeth!

The Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has issued a proposal for a Unified English Braille Code (UEBC). UEBC would make only a few changes to literary braille with the exception of many new symbols for various special characters like the dollar sign. The UEBC code has been identified with the use of upper-cell numerals in technical material. While this is accurate, it is VERY misleading. Many braille readers who don't know the Nemeth code assume that UEBC is just the Nemeth code but with upper-cell numerals.

The decision to "retain" upper-cell numbers has unfortunately led to the MAJOR misunderstanding that this is the biggest difference between Nemeth and UEBC and that mathematics would be easier using the familiar upper-cell numbers. This is simply false. UEBC doesn't just use the upper-cell numbers instead of the lower-cell ones used in Nemeth: it necessarily discards ALL of Nemeth. (It isn't actually possible to make a Nemeth-like code with upper-cell numbers.) For example, both the plus sign and minus sign in Nemeth are one cell and the plus sign is the same as the minus sign but with an additional dot, an easy mnemonic. Both of these signs in UEBC require two cells and the symbols for the plus and minus sign are unrelated.

Just to make sure it is absolutely clear. The UEBC for math is NOT miraculously the American Nemeth code but with upper-cell numerals. The UEBC uses an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT code for mathematics. Also, the UEBC would require braille users to use a different system for reading computer-based materials—even including email addresses—than the one that is required for writing the same symbols when communicating with a computer.

This is a copy of the email that I sent to BANA on this subject:

I am a sighted computational scientist with a strong background in mathematics. I've been studying Nemeth for the last year and have looked closely at the BANA UEBC Sampler 2. My opinion is that this proposal is so bad I can't understand why anyone is wasting time considering it.

In the first place, there is no way to include Computer Braille Code in any code meant to treat text or math compactly. The whole point of CBC is for people to be able to communicate with computers which is something BANA cannot control. UEBC would mean that reading about computer terminology and actually writing it would be unrelated. The two-cell symbol for the at-sign used in email addresses is an example.

On to other issues. Arithmetic seems as though it would be harder to teach with UEBC because of the required number signs and the more complicated plus and minus signs. And I can't imagine that in the context of spatial math there is any difference between upper-cell and lower-cell numerals.

The Sampler clearly shows that UEBC on average requires more cells and more indicators. This would seem to be a drawback. I'll defer to tactile braille readers on this issue.

Speaking as a person knowledgeable in math, I find that the simplicity, elegance, and logic of the Nemeth notation reflects the intrinsic simplicity, elegance, and logic of mathematics whereas UEBC is just some sort of way of coding the math symbols. Moreover, Nemeth provides a framework for adding new symbols whereas I've seen nothing on that important issue with respect to UEBC.

Finally, I'd like to propose that the opinions of trained mathematicians and scientists who use Nemeth get given extra weight with respect to UEBC since the major changes only affect technical material. Apparently many braille readers who don't know Nemeth think that UEBC is just Nemeth but somehow with upper-cell numerals which, of course, sounds simpler. I think most braille readers would be shocked to learn that anyone is considering completely discarding the beautiful Nemeth code which, this year, celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its last revision!

More about the UEBC

The proposed Unified English Braille Code (UEBC) is an attempt to come up with a single code "which would be used for all reading..." in the English-speaking world: the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and South Africa. Obviously, any code which attempts to be more comprehensive than current codes is necessarily going to require that some symbols be more complex than in a specialized code. It is quite possible that for this reason alone a unified code may be intrinsically a bad idea.

Problems with including Computer Braille in any Unified Code

In the first place, the very premise of incorporating the Computer Braille Code (CBC), sometimes called Grade 0, doesn't make sense. The purpose of the CBC is not just so braille users can read computer material but so they can communicate with computers when it is necessary to type the exact characters that the computer needs such as in programming. The UEBC does not, of course, solve this problem since Grade 0 is incompatible with the goals of a contracted literary and/or compact mathematical code.

As the late Tim Cranmer—one of the leading advocates and developers of the Computer Braille code—wrote about the situation prior to the adoption of the CBC:

Most of the symbols a student would read in a braille book embossed on paper were entirely changed when presented on a braille computer terminal. Besides having different dot patterns in the paper versions of computer learning texts, many symbols might be made up of two or three characters, although the actual computer terminal symbols would be composed of only one character.
Tim V. Cranmer, "Code for Computer Braille Notation,", Braille Into the Next Millennium, 2000, p. 155. It is especially ironic that Cranmer was one of the people on the original UEBC committee that in 1991 supported the decisions that led to the re-introduction of this and additional problems for users of computer notation into the proposed UEBC.

Here are two examples that would affect most people, not just programmers. First, the UEBC would use the period cell for the "dot" in Web addresses. Unfortunately, the Internet expects the "dot" to be the print period character which you get by typing the period on a standard keyboard. This is the keystroke that corresponds to the decimal point (dots 46), not the period (dots 256), in the keyboard mapping braille users are accustomed to. The UEBC would also use the same symbol as Nemeth for the "at" sign needed in email addresses, that is, two-cell symbol dot 4 followed by dot 1. Again, a different, single keystroke would still be required for typing the at sign of an actual email address. This is better?

Sharing materials among different countries

One of the reasons behind the desire for a unified code is so that braille materials can be shared among different countries. This is important not just for poor countries but even in Australia where there is much less government support for the preparation of materials than in the United States.

The idea that a common code is needed to share materials is to some extent outdated as more and more material becomes available in the form of properly marked-up electronic source which can be translated to any desired braille code just before use.

A related concern is the desire that previously-used paper braille material be recycled for use in poorer countries. Surely there is some better way to help these countries get braille materials other than requiring that everyone in the United States, United Kingdom, etc. learn a new code. (For example, the money saved in the United States alone by NOT converting to Nemeth would probably keep all of the blind students and mathematicians in Nigeria well-supplied for years.) There is also the paradox that if the United States were to convert from Nemeth to UEBC, there would be a huge amount of Nemeth materials available for donation which would be a good incentive for a poor country to use Nemeth as opposed to UEBC.

Mitigating the problems of "switching" codes for different purposes

The most sensible reason for a unified code is to avoid readers' having to learn multiple braille symbols for the same print sign as a result of switching codes such as from literary braille to some mathematics code. For example, the dollar sign in American literary braille is the "dropped dee", (dots 256) while the dollar sign in Nemeth is a two-cell symbol: dot 3 followed by the cell for the letter ess. The per cent sign is a two-cell symbol in both codes: (dots 25) followed by the cell for the letter pee in literary braille and dot 3 followed by the Nemeth zero (dots 356) in Nemeth. (The Nemeth symbol resembles a print per cent sign.) The UEBC would use the Nemeth dollar sign but a new sign for per cent: (dots 46) followed by (dots 356).

Simply retaining the literary braille symbols for many of the special characters is not a viable option for any unified code. The ad hoc literary braille symbols aren't compatible with any comprehensive system that includes numerous additional mathematical symbols. A simple solution for American braille readers who plan to ever attempt to learn mathematics is to start out using the Nemeth symbols rather than the literary braille ones.

In fact, the current Nemeth code comes close to a unified code and illustrates the considerable simplicity that is possible with comprehensive planning. Unfortunately, the UEBC is not a newly-developed code designed, as one would hope, by experts similar to those with the knowledge needed to develop new computer languages: a knowledge which Abraham Nemeth impressively had an intuitive grasp of when he designed the Nemeth code. Moreover, the UEBC started with a set of restrictions that resulted in a number of compromises. The result is code with a mixture of various flavors of English braille grafted on to a mathematics code which takes the current Braille Authority of the United Kingdom (BAUK) maths code as its model. As far as I can determine, the various choices were made primarily for political and not technical reasons.

Even the political reasons don't make sense to me. Since changing to a new code would be extraordinarly time-consuming and costly, then all other things being equal, it would make sense to retain Nemeth since it is the most widely used. (I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to verify this. HINT: Australia doesn't use the same code for mathematics as does either the UK or New Zealand.)

A UEBC sample

One might also for argue switching to a new code based on the merits of the new code such as its being better designed, more extensible, or easier to use. You can decide what you think by comparing the UEBC transcription of our simple algebra example, which is shown together with the corresponding Nemeth transcription in Figs. 1 and 2 below. If you want to see more examples, you can get a print copy of Sampler 2 by sending email to

You can read Professor Nemeth's explanation of some of the technical problems with the UEBC in the September 2001 issue of the Braille Forum.

,,example #6_4 ,factor
^7,example #f4^ ,factor
#abx9#b "6 #gxy "- #ajy9#b4

Figure 1. ASCII braille for Nemeth and UEBC transcriptions of an algebra problem. (See also original print version.)

,,example #6_4 ,factor
^7,example #f4^ ,factor
#abx9#b "6 #gxy "- #ajy9#b4

Figure 2. Simulated braille for Nemeth and UEBC; same problem as Fig. 1.

This page was first posted on February 21, 2002 and last modified on February 24, 2002.

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