What Is a Braille Slate and Stylus?

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on October 06, 2022
5 min read

Reading and writing are huge parts of everyday life. It’s easy to read things without even being aware you’re reading them. Those with severe visual impairment or blindness, though, may not be able to read regular text or write with pen and paper. In that case, they may use braille.

Braille is a tactile method of reading and writing. Instead of text, each letter, number, and punctuation mark is represented with a series of dots. 

The dots follow a predictable pattern, making braille more successful than other alternative reading and writing options.  Like Western text, braille is read from left to right. Instead of reading with the eyes, the reader uses their fingers to feel the raised bumps representing each letter. The average braille reader can read braille at 125 words per minute.

Louis Braille was eleven years old and studying at the National Institute of the Blind in Paris when he had the idea for the braille system. He was inspired by a French military code called “night writing”. The night writing system used a twelve-dot grid to send messages that could be read silently and without light. Braille spent several years creating and refining his own six-dot grid system until it became the braille we know today.

Over the years, some changes have been made to the braille system, including the addition of contractions or whole words to make the process less cumbersome.

The slate and stylus for braille are writing tools. Using the slate and stylus is, in a way, the braille equivalent to writing on pen and paper. This system allows users to emboss dots on their paper by hand.

The braille slate can range in size from small enough to fit in your pocket to the size of a desktop. The slate is made up of two pieces of metal or plastic connected by a hinge. When the hinge is closed, one piece rests on top of the other.

The top piece consists of rows of rectangles. Each rectangle overlays a grid with six indented dots. To write using a braille slate, a piece of paper is placed between the two layers. The user then uses the stylus to create indentations within each rectangle. The size of the slate depends on how many lines the slate has and how many cells are in each line. Smaller slates may only contain a few lines, while larger slates may have several.

The braille stylus has a wooden or plastic handle and a sharp metal point. The metal point is what embosses the paper to create the raised dots. Styluses may come in many sizes and handle shapes to accommodate different-sized hands.

The thought of learning how to write blind in braille using a slate and stylus can sound daunting, but these tools are made so that those with visual impairment and blindness can use them easily. 

To use a braille slate and stylus, place a piece of paper between the two layers of the slate, pushing the paper until it lines up with the hinge. Close the top piece of the slate on top of the paper. The small rectangles on the top piece of the slate will line up with the indented six-dot grids on the bottom.

When you read braille, you read the raised dots from left to right. However, when you’re using a slate and stylus, you’re embossing the paper from the back. This means that you have to punch the paper from the right to the left.

Using the stylus, press the tip through the rectangles on the top to create the raised dots. The inside edges of the rectangles on the top piece of the slate are scalloped, and this allows the user to properly line up their stylus inside the rectangle before punching a dot.

Once you’ve filled up the lines in your slate, you’ll need to move the slate down the paper to create more lines. Beginners may have more luck with a desktop-sized slate, as it covers the entire paper.

The slate and stylus system is the oldest of the braille writing systems. It’s portable and allows users to write braille by hand. Over the years, though, there have been many strides made in the advancement of mechanical braille-writing tools.

Braillewriters. Braillewriters, also called braillers, are mechanical tools similar to typewriters. Most braillewriters have a handful of keys, including a space key, a backspace key, a line feed key, along with one key for each dot in the six-dot grid. 

Frank H. Hall, the superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, invented the first widely-used braillewriter in 1892. For several decades, the Perkins School for the Blind developed several more models of braillewriters based on this design. In the 1930s, Perkins set to work designing their own braille writing machine. The prototype for the Perkins Brailler was finished in 1941, though the school would have to wait until the end of World War II to begin mass production.

This new machine was easier to use and much sturdier than the old one. The Perkins Brailler is still in use today, now with the addition of electronic and smart braillewriters. One type of braillewriter, the Mountbatten Brailler, is made for children and those with disabilities who have trouble hitting the keys. Modern braillers may have features like the ability to store files or the ability to read aloud what the user has typed.

Braille Note-Taking Devices. Braille note-taking devices are smaller and more portable. They are typically a type of portable computer with a braille keyboard that allows users to type but not necessarily to print on paper. 

Some types of braille note-taking devices include features like:

  • A display screen
  • A QWERTY keyboard in addition to a braille keyboard
  • Internet access
  • Screen-reading software
  • Media players
  • Recording applications
  • GPS

Still, although mechanical braille-writing technology has many perks, the slate and stylus remain in use all over the world. The convenience and portability of the slate and stylus makes it easy to carry around, so it’s unlikely this method of braille writing will go anywhere anytime soon.