It was invented by Louis Braille (1809–52), who became blind at the age of three. While still a child in France in 1821 he came up with the system of raised-point reading and writing, which was widely adopted. It allowed blind people to read independently for the first time and was widely adopted.
A Braille “cell” consists of up to six dots, almost like a domino. It’s not too difficult to learn all 26 letters, but the difficulty comes in the touch and building up your reading speed. A letter S and a letter T, for instance, feel very similar to someone who hasn’t yet “built up their touch”.
There’s always the threat of batteries running out or a device breaking, and US studies have suggested Braille users are more likely to find work because they have a “greater grasp of literacy”, Osborne says. In the UK today, 66% of blind or partially sighted people of working age are unemployed.
Less than 1% of the two million visually impaired people in the UK are users of Braille. Of the two million with sight loss, the majority are over 65 years old. And of that group, Braille users tend to be those who have not been able to see from an early age.
If you’ve had your eyes, or fingers, open, you may have noticed Braille on toilet doors to denote gents or ladies, on buttons in lifts, on bottles of wine and packaging on breakfast cereals and ready meals.
As Braille use spreads across everyday objects, the number of people using the system has actually been in long-term decline.
At the time, raised dots were the best hope for blind people. Today there are screen readers for computers as well as smart phones that speak. It has spawned a generation of blind people who are tech savvy out of necessity.
Only 2,000 people regularly order books from the Braille library, which suggests the majority use it only for more practical reasons.
There has been a shift in the attitude of supermarkets and other key businesses, says Pete Osborne, chief Braille officer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
The RNIB produces Braille, but it doesn’t teach it directly to individuals. Local authorities have tended to organise the teaching, funded by government. Not enough people are taught to use Braille, particularly when compared with the volume of Braille material produced.
Our view is that people should have the right to learn Braille if they want it.