What to Know About Braille for Blindness and Low Vision

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 01, 2022

Braille is a tactile system that allows people with blindness and low vision to read and write, granting them access to literacy. Learning it is easy, as it’s based on a logical system and doesn’t require learning a new language. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Braille?

Braille is a tactile reading system designed for people who can’t read print due to blindness or low vision. It has become a crucial aspect in the life of children with visual conditions, as it allows them to learn about grammar and punctuation along with granting access to thousands of books. But it’s also possible to learn it as an adult — even if you’re not visually impaired.

The braille method isn’t a language on its own — instead, it allows you to write the alphabet in a tactile manner. This means that you can depict any language in uncontracted braille, which is a form of braille that uses a clear and strict alphabet. There are also special notations for mathematical, scientific, and musical symbols, so you aren’t exclusively limited to languages.

While braille used to be somewhat rare, it has evolved at a great speed due to advances in technology. Nowadays, writing and reading braille is easier than ever due to devices like computers and e-readers that work in braille. In the same vein, access to information is better than ever — so learning it won’t be such a daunting task.

How Does Braille Work?

The main unit of the braille system is a cell that has six dots arranged in a dicelike manner. Some of these dots are raised to create specific patterns used to describe letters. There are 63 possible combinations for this cell, but it’s not necessary to learn all of them right away.

Not every combination refers to a literal letter, as there are two different types of braille. The first one that many people learn is uncontracted braille, which means that every word is expressed. The problem with this method is that it takes a lot of space and can be slower to read.

On the other hand, contracted braille allows for small letter contractions that make braille much shorter and faster to read. For example, a phrase that takes six cells to write in contracted braille would take a whole 12 cells in uncontracted braille.

You can choose to learn only uncontracted braille — but keep in mind that the standard in the U.S. is contracted braille. Still, uncontracted braille can be useful for labeling items in the house or even for learning alongside your children.

How Is Braille Used?

Technology has made braille easy to produce and read for both children and adults. For example, carrying a slate and stylus is common among people with visual impairments. These two items are the equivalent of pen and paper and have become cheaper than ever in recent times.

More advanced devices, like the braille writer, mimic the typewriter and allow blind people to interact with computers and printers. Instead of displaying each individual letter, braille writers have six keys to represent the dots in the cell — along with a few other functions, like the space bar.

Some devices even allow for real-time writing and reading, allowing visually impaired people to use a sort of braille e-reader. Although these devices are usually very expensive, they're proven to have a profound impact on education for children with blindness and low vision.

Who Invented Braille?

The braille system is named after its inventor, Louis Braille, a French educator born in 1809. When he was 3 years old, Louis damaged one of his eyes in his father’s workshop. In the following weeks, the wound got infected — eventually spreading to his other eye and rendering him blind at the age of 5.

Due to his brightness as a student, Louis was able to attend a prestigious blind school in Paris, where he yearned for books. At 12, Louis discovered "night writing," an old tactile communication system used by the military. Fascinated by his discovery, he set out to simplify the complex system so it’d fit all the information needed in a basic unit of six dots.

While the system was first published in 1829, it took more than 20 years before it caught on as the best reading method for people with blindness. At that point, Louis Braille had developed a long-term respiratory disease, which led to his death in 1852.

By now, braille has evolved to the point of being taught worldwide, and new devices related to it are being developed at an amazing rate. Louis Braille is currently buried in the Pantheon of Paris, along with other notable figures. World Braille Day is celebrated on Louis’ birthday, January 4th, each year.

How Can I Learn Braille?

Whether you want to learn braille because you’re losing your vision or to do it alongside your child, there are dozens of resources online. For example, there are smartphone apps that offer voiceovers and other features that are great for people with and without visual impairments.

Books that teach braille also exist, but they may be expensive due to their length. While there are some institutions that will provide them for free, you may have to prove that you’re legally blind to get them. Yet, with the aid of modern devices, you can gain access to hundreds of books translated to braille for practice. 

Another option is to go to an institution that teaches the method — but it’s simple enough to learn on your own. Keep in mind that braille is only a code, so it’s based on a logical system that’s perfect for sequential learning. Think of it as if you were learning to read all over again — it mostly takes practice.

Show Sources


American Foundation for the Blind: “Braille,” “Braille Invents His Code,” “What Is Braille?”

National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled: “NLS Factsheet: About Braille.“

Perkins School for the Blind: “Braille learning at home.”

Sight Scotland: “What is braille?” “Who was Louis Braille?”

© 2022 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info