An Overview of Braille around the World

Hand of someone reading braille on the edge of a public bus posted schedule
You may need to learn contracted braille or specialized symbols specific to a foreign language.

Guidelines for Braille

Braille is not a language. Braille is a set of tactile symbols.  Each symbol is generally based on a matrix of three rows and two columns. Given appropriate equipment, it can be written down and read. Like the Latin alphabet, it can be used for any number of languages. Many of the individual braille symbols have several different meanings that are determined only by the context, or relative proximity to surrounding characters and what those surrounding characters are.

  • Research has found that blind people process reading braille in the same area of the brain that sighted people process reading print; thus reading braille may address “visual” learning needs that complement auditory learning.
  • While contracted braille is considered the standard form of literacy for blind individuals in the United States, it can have varying levels of importance  in many countries around the world. It is a shorthand code that includes contractions of common letter combinations and words. Very few contractions have a print equivalent.

Special symbols are used for diacritical markings and they may vary between languages. For example, both Turkish and French use the â (a circumflex), but the braille symbol used for it in French is different from the one used for it in Turkish.  The same braille symbol used for the ä (a umlaut) in German is used for the â (a circumflex) in Turkish, where the ä (a umlaut) does not occur.

  • Latin American and Eurasia countries primarily use uncontracted braille. Read the World Braille Usage Report from Perkins International for more information.
  • Uncontracted braille consists of the alphabet plus punctuation and other symbols while contracted braille uses many more characters and abbreviations.
  • Nemeth braille is used for scientific and mathematic equations in the USA.
  • Learning uncontracted braille typically takes about four months and learning contracted braille can take about two years.
  • Foreign language courses require access to spelling and grammar proficiency so uncontracted braille is useful in this context. Languages that are read in columns and/or right to left are brailled left to right in rows top to bottom.

An unfamiliar alphabet for sighted students may be more of a challenge for them than it is for blind students because the physical appearance of the letters is new. For braille readers, it all looks like braille. The symbols are all familiar. Braille readers are long accustomed to symbols assigned to various usages depending on context and the issue of learning new symbol assignments in foreign language is a familiar task. A list of each braille symbol and the identification of what each represents must be given for foreign language transcription.

  • Self-study course and online resources can assist you to learn braille.
  • Some blind associations and community resources might be available for transcribing and other braille services.
  • Portable adaptive technology tools can make it easier to write and in some cases read braille material with a refreshable braille display. Some may allow recognition of more than one language. Having at least a 32 cell display is important for languages with long words.
  • Using a slate and stylus can be a handy way to take notes on the go as it can be used with standard paper and notebooks.

Alternatives to Braille

  • In most cases, U.S. schools are required to provide access to viable alternatives to standard print. The same is true in countries with similar rights laws.
  • Audiobooks are available on CD, digital files, MP3 and other specialized formats such as DAISY, that are played with specific equipment.
  • Large print is available through many publishers and can also be made through enlarging photocopies or computer font. Large print might be a good option for people who have a higher degree of stable usable vision.
  • Electronic files can be read using adaptive technology or printed into accessible formats using specialized software.

Repositories of Electronic, Audio, or Braille Books

  • The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) along with Learning Ally, and American Printing House for the Blind distribute braille, audiobooks and other accessible formats in the U.S. and to U.S. citizens abroad.
  • NLS also offers the BARD digital database, which allows users to download high-quality digital audiobooks and braille code.
  • Bookshare.org is a repository of digital books that volunteers have scanned. The books can be read in braille or with synthesized speech software.
  • These services are typically free for U.S. students with proof of a qualifying disability, but you should check beforehand whether there are different guidelines for non-U.S. citizens.
  • More copyrighted materials in these U.S. repositiories will be available to non-U.S. citizens overseas depending on the ratification of the 2013 Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities.

Other information about braille libraries in different countries can be found through blind organizations or the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) International Directories of Libraries for the Blind.