My Braille Toolbox: Epilogue

The word

Building Braille: The History of Braille, and Where Design is Taking it Next

My friend and accessibility maestro Jennifer Sutton brought this article from Print Magazine to my attention yesterday, and it seemed like a fitting epilogue to my Braille Toolbox series (which starts here). People are doing more innovative and creative things with Braille than I knew or imagined!

My Braille Toolbox Part 4: What’s Next?

Well, we’ve reached the end of my small Braille toolbox (see Parts One, Two, and Three of this series, if you haven’t already), but the fun isn’t over! I still anticipate needing a few other Braille gadgets, and the inventions and innovations that are popping up everywhere in the Braille world make the future look very exciting.

What’s Next for Me?

 The next item down my Braille wishlist is an embosser—basically the Braille version of a regular printer.

A product photo of the Juliet 120 embosser, from the front.

This connects to a computer and embosses any text file in hard-copy Braille. It cuts down the time involved in making Braille, since you can type and edit on the computer with a QWERTY keyboard, make multiple copies, etc. Since my work involves a lot of comparing texts side-by-side, being able to print them out instead of switching back and forth on a Braille display will be a huge time-saver.

There are a couple of variables to consider when choosing a Braille embosser. Some only emboss on one side of the paper; others emboss both sides, staggering the lines of dots so they don’t interfere with one another. Some only do Braille text, while others specialize in tactile graphics, and some do both.

These machines tend to be expensive—from $2000 to about $7000 for personal embossers (industrial embossers can run $50,000 or more), so knowing what you want is critical.I’m very interested in trying to use tactile graphics to represent cuneiform texts, so that I can still read them in the original sign system, rather than relying on transliteration. I also anticipate a high volume of embossing, so double-sided would be very nice.

My current dream machine is the Juliet 120, from Humanware. It quickly embosses double-sided Braille and comes with tactile graphics software. Do you have a Braille embosser you love and think I should consider? Tell me about it in the comments!

What is the Future of Braille Tech?

A product photo of the new BLITAB Braille tablet.

Like everything in tech right now, there’s a lot of innovation happening in accessibility. For Braille displays, it looks like devices are going to get better, more diverse, and much cheaper in coming years. 

Humanware has created a Braille display/tablet hybrid, the BrailleNote Touch, which has a Braille display and traditional keyboard, as well as a touch screen interface that runs on Android.

A number of companies now produce multiline Braille displays, including Canute from Bristol Braille Technologies and the TACTIS100 from Tactisplay Corp.

These two are primarily for desktop use, but the race is on to produce the first Braille tablet/ebook—a standalone, full-page Braille display that is light and durable enough to be truly portable.

The first one to market will probably be BLITAB. This tablet is being developed by an international team in Austria, and it’s being intentionally designed for a worldwide user base, so it should handle multiple languages easily. The pins are raised and lowered by smart materials instead of mechanical actuators, which increases its durability and decreases its complexity and weight. It looks like BLITAB is now available for preorder, and will ship later this year!

Another company working on Braille tablets is Dot, which is already getting quite a bit of good press for their Braille smartwatch, the Dot Watch, which displays not only the time, but text messages and alerts from your phone. Once the Dot Watch ships (starting April 1), they will shift their R&D energy to developing two Braille tablets, the Dot Mini and the Dot Tab. 

There are rumors of other technologies in development, too, like rotary Braille displays that have the cells set on the edge of a rotating disc. This way, you could read continuously without even having to move your finger. 

I’m glad I chose to invest in a mature technology this time, because most of the next-generation Braille tech will need a few years to iron the kinks out, but I’m very excited about the amount of innovation and improvement that is happening.

My Braille Toolbox Part 3: The Refreshable Braille Display

(This is Part Three of a Series. Here’s Part One and Part Two)

Ok, we’re skipping a few historical developments here, but this is my beautiful new Braille display, the VarioUltra 20, by BAUM.

A photo showing the entirety of my new VarioUltra, out of its leather case and at a slanty angle. 

The current generation of Braille displays like the VarioUltra combine the functionality of two earlier pieces of technology, the Braille notetaker and the refreshable braille display. They can function as either independent PDAs or as displays for a phone or computer.

The Hardware

The display portion is a single line containing, in this case, 20 Braille cells. There is also a VarioUltra 40, with 40 cells, and other displays range from 14 to 80 cells in length.

These things are truly mechanical marvels. The tiny nylon pins that make the Braille dots are only spaced 2.2 mm apart, and they must all be able to raise and lower independently. Each of the 160 dots on this display is connected to its own lever, which is raised up and down by a crystal that expands under electrical current and contracts when it is removed. They refresh in a fraction of a second—much less than the time that it takes to move your finger from the end of the line back to the beginning. And though they be small, they must be reliable and durable enough to be read hundreds of thousands of times.

The interface is entirely tactile, and the device is simply rife with buttons to navigate menus and files, enter and edit text, and manage physical and wireless connections.

At the top of the unit, there is an eight-key keyboard that is analogous to the six-key keyboard on the Perkins Brailler. Each key corresponds to one dot. Below that is the row of  Braille cells, each of which has a small button above it which are used for cursor routing and text manipulations. On either side of the braille display are three buttons used to navigate whatever text, file, or website you are reading. The bottommost row contains a little joystick they call a NaviStick, used to navigate the operating system, four system keys, and two space bars.

Functionality

In independent notetaker mode, the VarioUltra has its own OS with a suite of productivity apps: a text reader and word processor, PDF viewer, spreadsheet viewer, calculator, etc.  

I can store files on there, from notes and handouts to whole books. It’s finally going to make Braille portable for me in a real and useful way. I mean, if you wanted to take a book to the park or coffeeshop to read, what would you rather carry?

Photo of a stack of large Braille volumes, my library loan of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, next to my sleek little VarioUltra.

When it’s hooked up to an iPhone, I can use it to read my email, articles, websites, facebook, twitter, and any other accessible material that’s available. 

Since this is my first Braille display, I anticipate a steep learning curve. To be honest, i haven’t even turned it on yet. This isn’t the intuitive, easy to pick up and start using technology we’ve gotten so used to. It’s the kind of technology where you read all the documentation before you even get started, and it still takes a while to get up to speed. With the crazy week i had, I just haven’t had that kind of time. That’s what the next few days are for.

I’m excited to get to know this device. I’m excited to carry Braille with me, to be able to read and work quietly again, and to get better and faster at reading Braille because I’m using it more and using it more seriously. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

My Braille Toolbox: A Guided Trip through Braille-Writing History

A close up image of the VarioUltra 20 from the front.

My new Bluetooth Braille display finally arrived in the mail!

It has been on back order since December, and I’ve had these long weeks of waiting to think about Braille writing and how the technology has evolved over time. I have a few other Braille gadgets, and I realized my acquisitions had unintentionally imitated the course of Braille-writing technology.

So this week I am going to share a bit about the tools I have and how useful they are. I don’t have something from every stage in the development of Braille tech, but it will be enough to give you a general idea.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

The Slate and Stylus

Welcome to the nineteenth century! This simple tool was invented even before Braille. Napoleon wanted a way for his armies to communicate at night, without light or sound, so he commissioned a guy named Charles Barbier to create a writing system that could be read without any light. Barbier had the idea of using fingers to read raised dots and lines. He invented a system and the slate and stylus to write it. His system was too complicated and never caught on, but Louis Braille learned about it a few decades later, and simplified it to create the six-dot Braille system we use today.

I got my slate and stylus last August from the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. I picked it up on a whim, because I wanted practice using my newly acquired Braille and this was the cheapest and simplest way to get started.

An image of my hand holding a Braille stylus and pressing it into the back of a slate with a piece of paper inside.

It works kind of like a stencil. The slate is a hinged piece of metal that clamps onto a sheet of paper. It provides a template that ensures the exact spacing necessary to create readable Braille. To write, you have to press the stylus, a blunt awl, into the appropriate guide holes.

One dot at a time.

Backwards.

That’s right, backwards. Because you’re poking the dots in from the back to raise them on the front side, you have to write every line and every cell in the wrong direction, like writing in a mirror.

It takes forever.

And then you flip it over to see how many mistakes you made.

An image of my hand lifting up the front of the slate to reveal the sentence

The problem is, since Braille cells have two columns of dots, almost every character is the mirror image of another one. If you aren’t paying attention and forget to flip them, you end up with ‘i’ instead of ‘e’ or ‘z’ instead of ‘and.’ One time I was making a sheet of notes. It took me more than two hours. and when I was done it was filled with typos (Braille-os? stylos? I don’t know).

You can get a better sense of the process by using this neat Slate and Stylus Simulator I found.

The Upshot: it’s better than nothing, but barely.

Braille and Cognition

A couple of weeks ago, I went into the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco to hear a presentation by my friend Robert Englebretson. Robert is a professor of linguistics at Rice University. He is blind, and I met him through an email group of blind academics. In addition to his primary linguistic research on Indonesian languages, Robert has begun to research Braille reading using the tools of cognitive linguistics. It’s exciting research that points the way toward better Braille for everyone.

This particular presentation was about a study he had done on Braille contractions with his Rice colleague Simon Fischer-Baum. I haven’t said much about contracted Braille since my very first post, so I’ll recap: in order to save space and increase reading speed, there are a bunch of contractions that reduce the length of common letter combinations and words. Some of these contractions have to appear by themselves, but others can be used as parts of larger words. These include small groups of letters like [er], [ch], [ing], and [the], as well as words like [time], [ever}, and [less]. 

In English Braille, these contractions were determined largely by statistical frequency. The most common letter combinations and words got contracted, meaning the most possible space got saved on the page. In the days when huge tomes had to be hand-Brailled, this made a lot of sense, but it’s a practice that benefits the producers of Braille, and its effect on readers had never been studied. 

For decades, the prevailing assumption in Braille education has held that blind Braille readers expand all of the contracted words into their full print form before interpreting them. If this is true, then all contractions should be equally readable. But are they?

Granted, there are some contracted spellings that everybody agrees are a bad idea. My favorite is this gem:

⠡⠑⠐⠍⠁⠏⠽

In English characters, that’s 

[ch] [e] [mother] [a] [p] [y]

Chemotherapy. Sure, it’s space-efficient—it shortens a twelve-letter word to seven cells. But the two-cell (dot 5, m) contraction for [mother] is so ingrained to mean “mother” that everyone inevitably reads it something like “Key-mother-a-pee.” Is saving the space of five cells on the page worth losing a few seconds every time you have to make sense of this word? Not to me.

Robert set out to show that the same process happens in less egregious situations as well. You don’t often run into contractions as bad as “chemotherapy,” but there are many, many examples of contractions that cause momentary confusion and delays in comprehension. Take ”redo” for example, which can be written in Braille as [r] [ed] [o]. Most people can’t help but read it as “red-o.”

Basically, Robert theorized that reading problems occur when contractions conflict with our understanding of a word’s sublexical structure. We all intuitively understand that some words are made up of smaller units that have been smooshed together. “Redo” is the verb “do,” plus the prefix “re-.” We understand it as a two-part word, and when the [ed] contraction effectively erases the boundary between the two parts, we stumble over the reading.

And this is exactly what he found in a large number of similar cases. I won’t go into the methodology or technical details here, but Robert was able to show that fluent Braille readers took longer to comprehend words when contractions crossed sublexical boundaries than they did when the contractions did not cross boundaries. This implies that Braille readers are reading those contractions as single units, covering up any dividing lines that may exist within them. In other words, the theory that Braille readers uncontract words before they process them does not hold up.

To me, sitting in the audience, Robert’s results seemed right on. To be fair, I remember a time when I did have to uncontract every word I read. When I was first learning contracted Braille, I had to picture every word in my head, building each one letter by letter as I read each cell. But this was just a symptom of my inexperience, and I moved past it quickly. After a month or so, I no longer had to picture the words I was reading. Instead, the cells brought sounds into my mind—whether letters, syllables, or entire words. 

Then, maybe a month ago, something different happened. I brushed my finger over some Braille text and all of a sudden the meaning of the words came into my head. Not the sounds, the meanings. It felt surreal, how automatic it was. I took that for granted with print reading—for most print readers it becomes so automatic that it isn’t even a choice. Text is read as soon as it is seen, whether you like it or not. It was very strange to have that sensation in Braille. 

Right now that only happens with very simple language. Less common words take a little longer, and rare words or weird contracted spellings can trip me up pretty bad. As I gain experience, more will become automatic and everything will come faster, but Robert’s research suggests that some contracted spellings will never stop slowing me down.

The study shows that cognitive linguistics can provide valuable insights into Braille reading, and points the way toward further research. In time, we may be able to more precisely distinguish between contractions that help and contractions that hinder, We may also come to see which other features of the current Braille system improve speed and comprehension, and which do not. Eventually, research like this could influence best practices that optimize Braille for the human beings who read it rather than pages it is embossed on.

Hebrew Braille: First Impressions

An image of my twenty-volume Hebrew Bible in Braille, sitting on my bookshelf.

I finally took my first stab at reading a second language in Braille.

My twenty-volume Bible in Hebrew Braille has been sitting around for five months, ever since Jewish Braille International graciously sent it to me, free of charge. This particular copy is used. It once belonged to a certain Nancy Ellen Jaslow, presented to her “on the wonderful occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, October 11, 1963.” So thank you, Ms. Jaslow, for your Bible. I hope I will put it to good use.

I cracked it this weekend and read through the introductory material. The project of creating a Braille system for Hebrew and transcribing the Bible was conducted by a team of blind and sighted Jewish rabbis and scholars from New York, London, and Vienna. They began in the early 1930s and finally published in 1954, hindered by “the stringencies of the time,” as the introduction so euphemistically admits. It’s not a scholarly edition of the text, but I was impressed to see that well-known biblical scholars like H. L. Ginsberg and Theodore Gaster had reviewed the text and notes.

On Monday morning, I perused the key to the text and began to read. At this time, I have read exactly one page of Hebrew in Braille. Since some of you have asked, I thought I would share some of my first impressions here.

First Thing: What is It?

All Braille, everywhere and in every language, is made up of cells, which are made up of six or eight dots in two columns, like so:

⠿   ⣿

It has to be embossed very precisely and uniformly; there are no fonts or scripts or cursive in Braille. Braille already pushes the fingers to their perceptive limits, and there is no room for fanciful embellishments. Eight-dot Braille is mostly reserved for musical and mathematical notation, while every language that I know of uses six-dot cells.

Six dots allow for sixty-three different combinations of dots, not counting the blank cell. Every language has the exact same stock of cells to choose from, and each language gets to choose how it will use those cells. Since English only has 26 letters, it uses the rest of the cells to represent punctuation, common letter combinations, or whole words. Chinese, which has thousands of characters, has to get more creative. It uses two or three cell combinations to represent each character. Hebrew is like English in that it has fewer than 63 letters in its alphabet: 22 consonants (5 of which have a second form that appears at the end of words) and 15 or so vowels. This means one cell can be used to represent each letter or vowel, and there will still be some left over for punctuation.

But regardless of how a language uses Braille, it’s still just combinations of those same 63 cells. So no matter how different two languages are, and no matter how different their written scripts look, in Braille the cells look the exact same, and lines of text look very similar.

⠠⠓ ⠁ ⠝⠊⠉⠑ ⠐⠙

⠚⠪⠍⠂ ⠝⠊⠋⠄⠇⠣⠁

See? One of the lines above is Hebrew, the other English. Can you tell which is which? The first line says “Have a nice day” in English, the second says יום נפלא “have a wonderful day” in Hebrew.

Before I started learning the Hebrew Braille system, I worried that I would sometimes not know what language I was reading in. No one would ever mistake a page of printed Hebrew for English, because the scripts are just too different. But since the Braille script is universal, and reading it with fingers doesn’t allow for that same full-page first impression you get with printed text, I thought sometimes I might get really confused for a while.

It turns out this is not a problem. It could be confusing for one letter, maybe two, but then it becomes completely incomprehensible. If I tried to read the Hebrew sentence above as English, it would be “jowm, nif’lgha”—no confusion there!

I guess it’s like looking at a page of German or French. They use the same letters as English, but you immediately know that it’s not English.

So, one less thing to worry about.

Second Thing: How does it compare to reading printed hebrew?

I knew that reading Hebrew in Braille would be a different experience from reading it printed on a page or written on a manuscript. It’s written from left to right, like English, so some people have asked me if it’s more like reading Hebrew transliterated into English characters. So far, I would say it’s not like reading transliteration or Hebrew script. It’s like reading Hebrew in Braille.

Classical Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Bible, was originally written with only consonants. This is a fine way of writing for people who grew up speaking the language, but once it fell out of everyday use, readers needed help remembering proper pronunciation. Scribes and copyists added in vowels and other pronunciation aids, in the form of small dots and marks surrounding the consonants. Now when you see Hebrew, it looks like this:

וְלֹא־לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט

And transliterated Hebrew looks like this:

wᵉlōʾ lᵉmarʾēh ʿênāyw yišpôṭ

Both Hebrew script and transliteration include marks above and below the letter: vowel points in Hebrew and diacritical marks in transliteration. In Braille, it is impossible to modify a letter by placing something above or below it. Everything has to be linear. Each of those marks needs to be represented by a character that either precedes or (more often) follows the letter it modifies.

This has a couple of effects. It hides somewhat the similarities between related vowels. One example is that of holem and holem waw (the ō and ô in the transliteration above). These two vowels make the same sound and are interchangeable in the spelling of many Hebrew words. The transliteration and their writing in Hebrew script make this similarity apparent. In Braille, holem is ⠕ and holem waw is ⠪—two completely different cells. For those who know Hebrew, the same principle applies to shureq and qibbutz, hireq and hireq yod, and the hatef vowels.

The feel of reading Hebrew (pardon the pun) also changes, because the vowels don’t play second fiddle to the consonants the way they do in print. They are given equal weight on the page. Apart from making words feel longer, though, I’m not sure how this will affect my experience of reading Hebrew. Let me get back to reading and I’ll let you know.

And of course, until next time, “jowm, nifl’gha!”

C[ong]ratul[ation]s!

Eric reading Braille

“Congratulations, you have completed the study of contracted Braille!” said the dots to my fingers earlier this week. Or rather, “C[ong]ratul[ation]s, [you] [have] [com]plet[ed] [the] [st]udy [of] [con]tract[ed] brl!”

I’ve been studying Braille for a year. I learned Grade One quickly and easily enough — it’s what most people think of when they think of Braille, where each cell represents one letter or one punctuation mark. Grade Two, or contracted Braille, is another story. Various contractions are used to shorten common words or series of letters, so one or two cells can represent two, three, four or more letters. In the quote above, everything within brackets is contracted. There are dozens of these contractions, and many of the signs play multiple roles, depending on context. So Grade Two Braille took a little longer, due to its complexity and, well, life getting in the way.

I feel proud of this little milestone (and relieved that there are no more lists of brain-breaking contractions left to learn), but I also know I’ve got a lot of milestones left ahead of me.

I am slowly going blind, and slowly learning to be blind and work as a blind scholar. I am not at the very beginning, but neither am I anywhere near the end. I have a long path ahead of me as I gain the skills I need to conduct my research, finish my dissertation, and teach what I have learned.

I know all the contractions now, but I also know I need to speed up. I timed myself to see my current pace: sixteen minutes and twenty-five seconds for one page—just shy of fourteen words per minute. It’s not bad for a beginner, but I feel like a six-year-old. I want to fly through academic prose; instead, I’m struggling through the simple stories in my Braille primer.

So now I am shifting to work on speed and technique. “Elite” Braille readers usually read around 130–150 words per minute, and I’ve heard rumors that some have reached 400 words per minute. They use three fingers on each hand, reading with both hands. I have a lot of work ahead to master Braille, and that is just English Braille. I will probably end up using it for German, French, and Hebrew as well.

The state of my Braille is much like the state of my journey into blindness as a whole. I’ve made progress, but there is still a lot of work and learning to do. I’m starting this blog in the middle, not the beginning. I hope to make it a space to share the process— not only with Braille but with all the other strange adventures of blind scholarship: exploration, experimentation, collaboration, frustration, and hopefully a few moments of exhilaration. I’ll get into the nitty gritty of multi-lingual Braille reading, my quest for the perfect word processor, adventures with assistive technologies, and much, much more. I’ll also use the space to share more general thoughts on life, blindness, my research, and everything else besides.

Please read along and tell me what you think. Whether a lifelong friend, another blind person on a similar path, or just a curious stranger, I look forward to hearing from you!

(Addendum: As of January 1, 2016, Level One and Level Two Braille are outdated terms. The new Unified English Braille standard is now the most prevalent form of Braille, as it combines and streamlines literary and computer Braille codes. The primer I used to learn Braille used the old system. Those in the know may have noticed the [ation] abbreviation, which no longer exists in UEB.)