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.


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.

4 thoughts on “My Braille Toolbox: A Guided Trip through Braille-Writing History

  1. Loved you final comment: Better than nothing but barely! When it was developed it was considered a breakthrough but by today’s standards, it is hard to appreciate the welcome that it received. Like so many other tools that we take for granted, it is so easy to forget the effort and cost that allows us to experience so much more today.

    Great post!

    1. Absolutely! For people who had never been able to write for themselves, it was a game changer, but it was only the first of many steps.
      To be fair, I probably could have gotten a lot faster and made fewer errors if I had worked at it, but now that there are better tools, I don’t really see the point!

  2. I love reading your posts. My son is in 8th grade and losing sight due to an aggressive case of RP. He’s just finished grade 3 of Braille and is being introduced to a lot of new technology. Thankfully, it’s come a long way! His current challenge is to take a standardized test utilizing all the approved accommodations. He’s a bright and gifted student and I’m grateful for each person paving the way to his growing independence. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    1. Wow, thank you! It sound like your son is doing great. In some ways, he has an advantage, since he can learn blindness skills so young, and without the disruption to his professional life that happens to many who lose their sight in their thirties. Keep expecting great things from him; that’s the best thing you can do!

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