Why We Don't Need UEB for Literary Braille (DRAFT 1.)

This is a critique of the article Print and Braille: Evolving Codes to Meet the Needs of a Changing World by Jennifer Dunnam which was just published in the May 2012 Issue of the Braille Monitor. Dunnam's article is available online at the link.

Dunnam's article recommends that the United States adopt Unified English Braille(UEB) to replace English Braille American Edition (EBAE) and Computer Braille Code (CBC) but not to replace Nemeth for mathematics. My criticism of this recommendation is that when you look more closely at UEB and EBAE, it seems that an easier way to get UEB's advantages without its disadvantages is to make some careful modifications to EBAE.

My understanding is that two of the reasons Dunnam advocates UEB is that she is concerned about the general effect of braille errors on braille literacy and is frustrated by the frequency of errors in on-the-fly braille translation. She writes, "For example, without human intervention, email and web addresses usually do not display in computer code, so it can sometimes be unclear which characters are intended." Her article seems to claim that UEB would reduce the number of translation errors that occur when print is translated to braille automatically, i.e. "without human intervention." Actually, from my study of the UEB Rulebook, I believe this claim is factually correct. However this claim is not correct for the reasons that she and other UEB advocates might be expecting but rather because of the elimination of certain rules. For example, it is not a translation error when email and web addresses in UEB do not display in computer code because UEB, unlike EBAE, eliminates the rule to use "computer code" for these items and intentionally translates embedded email and web addresses to contracted braille.

UEB reduces the opportunities for translation errors by eliminating many other EBAE rules in addition to the one requiring special translation of computer items. UEB eliminates 10 contractions; it eliminates sequencing; it has fewer "problem words" as some contractions are now supposed to bridge syllables; some shortforms are allowed as parts of proper names; the letters a, i, and o no longer need letter signs to distinguish their use as symbols from their use as words; the musical notes "do" and "so" are now supposed to use alphabetic wordsigns; contractions may be used in abbreviations when there is not enough information to distinguish an abbreviation from a word; and grade 1 mode indicators are required for spelled-out words, e.g. s-t-o-p, where letter signs are not used in EBAE on the assumption that a braille reader would likely recognize a sequence of hyphen-separated letters as a spelled-out word. Elimination of certain rules also has the potential to increase the accuracy of backtranslation.

Although UEB makes numerous changes to literary braille, its eliminating of 10 contractions is the one that people seem most concerned about. And while I understand why at least some experienced braille readers are reluctant to change any rules for contractions, I also see the value to at least eliminating the contractions for ally, ation, and dd. Eliminating the first two would avoid ambiguity for certain medial capital letters which is important as medial capitals are becoming increasingly common. Eliminating dd would make it easier to represent embedded periods in items such as Ph.D. and will.i.am. However, since one or more of the 10 contractions eliminated from UEB could be eliminated from EBAE just as easily, there is no need to adopt UEB just for this reason.

Since EBAE could be made more like UEB simply by eliminating some contractions and/or translation rules, it is hard to argue in favor of adopting UEB as a replacement for EBAE merely because UEB has already eliminated these items. A more persuasive argument could be made if UEB provides new features not available in EBAE and that cannot be added to EBAE because, in Dunnam's analogy, EBAE is in "a state much like a Scrabble board at the end of a game in which few if any openings are available to fit in new words." However to continue the analogy, it is considered poor sportsmanship for one player to pick up the board and dump all the tiles on the floor at that point. The real reason that BANA seems to be at an impasse is that it has been making extensions to EBAE one at a time while trying to avoid changing any of its existing rules in order to create openings. The following discussion describes the major new feature of UEB that is important to braille experts and points out that a similar feature could be implemented in our current system.

Before describing the new feature in UEB, it is necessary that everyone understands how the BANA documents for literary braille are organized. The key point is that, for historical reasons, BANA divides the items found in the single UEB Rulebook between two separate documents: the document for EBAE and the one for Braille Formats. (In fact, BANA has just released new formatting specifications, Braille Formats: Principles of Print-to-Braille Transcription, 2011.) Although EBAE alone provides enough information for transcribing simple documents, in practice most braille transcriptions are based on EBAE plus Braille Formats, which despite its name, specifies a large number of braille symbols for special characters, including bullets and some mathematical symbols, in addition to its formatting prescriptions. (In the few cases where EBAE and Braille Formats differ, Braille Formats takes precedence.) So if we want to do a fair apples-to-apples comparison, we need to compare not EBAE alone but EBAE together with the relevant parts of Braille Formats with UEB; this is done in the rest of this critique.

As an aside, it is possible that BANA's use of these two separate documents accounts for some of the problems with on-the-fly braille translation. It may be that the developers of the simpler braille software built into screenreaders and other support tools for braille displays have chosen to implement only what is found in the EBAE document and that, unlike the developers of more sophisticated transcription software, they have ignored the additional symbols and more extensive formatting specifications in Braille Formats.

My understanding is that the one new feature that UEB offers that seems to be most desirable to braille experts is the provision of extensiblity mechanisms for typeform indicators, general print characters, and modified letters. These mechanisms are described below. However, since EBAE together with Braille Formats provides comparable explicit support to UEB for typeform indicators and for general print characters, there is no need to discuss explicit support for these two items any further. Discussion of the differences in the explicit support for modified letters follows the description of the associated extensibility mechanism.

UEB provides five sets of three-cell typeform indicators to which UEB does not assign any specific typeforms as the basis of its extensibility mechanism for typeform indicators. These indicators are called transcriber-defined typeform indicators because the idea is that the transcriber can use a Transcriber's Note or the Symbols Page to document how the transcriber has defined them in a given braille transcription.

UEB uses a similar approach to the one used for typeform indicators to provide extensibility for its representation of general characters. In this case UEB provides seven braille symbols that the transcriber can assign to any print character. The first transcriber-defined print symbol is dots 1-4-5-6 and the second is dots 3-4-5-6, 1-4-5-6. The remaining five are all three-cell symbols constructed by prefacing the second symbol with either dot 4, dots 4-5, dots 4-5-6, dot 5, or dots 4-6. A second option for representing missing characters is for the transcriber to invent an abbreviation such as "sf" for smiling face. (Braille Formats also allows this latter option.) Of course, given that there are more than one hundred thousand different print characters, any braille system needs some mechanism for indicating characters for which it does not provide explicit braille equivalents.

UEB's third extensibility mechanism is for modified letters which are distinct print characters that resemble a Latin letter with some sort of additional mark such as a circumflex above or a cedilla below. UEB provides three three-cell symbols for use as transcriber-defined modifiers. These are in addition to its twelve explicit two-cell modifiers. As for the explicit modifiers I don't know how anyone is expected to remember what all of them mean. The modifier for "circumflex above" is dots 4-5, 1-4-6 and for "cedilla below" is dots 4-5, 1-2-3-4-6.

UEB and EBAE do differ on the handling of modified letters. However, I'd think that at least for general reading, the EBAE practice of using the dot 4 accent indicator to indicate any modified letter is more readable. Words with accented letters could be added automatically to the symbols page with the correct name of the accented letters provided. (By the way, this less informative approach is not, as Dunnam stated, required in NUBS; it is an option. UEB, however, requires the use of its two- or three-cell modifiers for every occurrence.)

Another issue for modified or accented letters is their use in foreign languages. Braille Formats provides unique symbols for accented letters which are to be used in textbooks for teaching a number of different foreign languages. However the UEB Rulebook does not advocate using its modified letters in foreign languages. Its Rule 4.2.7 states, "Where a significant knowledge of a foreign language is presupposed or is being taught, use signs from the indigenous foreign language braille code."

The UEB extensibility mechanisms in all three cases consists of specifying placeholder symbols to which transcribers can assign meanings in the context of a particular transcription. Without getting into a debate about how useful this is, I'm confident something similar could be added to our current EBAE plus Braille Formats system. Of course, it might be necessary to eliminate a contraction or two to create an opening as UEB was forced to do.

In conclusion, I fail to see how adopting UEB for literary braille would provide any benefits that could not be achieved with considerably less disruption by modifying our current literary braille system as specified in EBAE and Braille Formats. Moreover, we in the United States would not have to wait for six or more other countries to agree before we could make changes to our braille systems.