Lessons from the Development of Computer Braille Code

By Grey, Chris | Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Lessons from the Development of Computer Braille Code


Grey, Chris, Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness


Since the adoption of English braille in 1932 by the United States, braille has been developed quite often by design, but nearly as often by chance. Nowhere is that more evident than in the development of the Computer Braille Code (CBC) and the aftermath of its development. The very existence of CBC pays tribute to the flexibility with which Louis Braille designed his ingenious system of writing for people who are blind or visually impaired.

The genesis of CBC came from the desire to translate and emboss printed texts into braille, using computers to increase both efficiency and the availability of braille materials. Two components were required to accomplish electronic braille translation. First, an embosser had to be created that could accept a symbol from a computer and convert that symbol into an embossable pattern of dots corresponding to a braille character. To use a simple example, the computer sends a symbol, such as the letter "a," to the embosser, which must convert that symbol into its corresponding braille character; in this case, "dot 1" of a typical six-dot braille cell.

A core concept used in the early development of braille translation technology was that each print symbol sent by a computer to an embosser needed to correspond to one embossed braille character. This requirement worked well with lowercase alphabetic symbols, but uppercase print letters, which required two braille cells (the first braille cell for the capital symbol, dot 6, and the second for the letter itself), introduced a conflict between the capabilities of embossed braille produced by a computer and the proper format of transcribed braille needed by readers. Braille translation software, such as the Duxbury Braille Translator, solved this problem by translating text into contracted braille and supplying any extra needed characters, such as the capital letter or number sign, to the embosser. Embossers, when operated without an intermediary braille translation program, solved the problem by implementing an 8-dot braille symbol set, which included two new dots below dots 3 and 6 of a standard braille cell. Although the creation and implementation of 8-dot braille must remain a story for another time, it is important to understand its place in the context of the divergence between embosser-produced braille and other techniques for braille production.

Over time, computer-based braille embossers evolved and, in addition to the job of embossing braille books, embosser units began to appear that could act as computer terminals, allowing blind people to interact directly with computers. These terminals, which were designed to provide embossed braille to computer users (first on paper tape and later on form-fed sheets of braille paper), spawned the creation of an entirely new vocational field for blind people as computer programmers, operators, and information technology specialists. It is no exaggeration to say that these braille terminals opened thousands of new job opportunities for blind people between 1965 and 1980.

CHARACTER CONFLICTS

As training curricula and manuals were developed to train job applicants, the basic conflict of character representation between the embossed braille in books and the braille code used by computer terminals was unavoidable and became a critical issue. Transcribed training materials had to rely on the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation (hereafter, Nemeth Code) and its symbols, the embossed braille of which often did not correspond with the same symbols on the computer terminal. In many cases, Nemeth Code might employ two 6-dot braille cells for a particular character, while a braille terminal would substitute a single 8-dot braille cell instead. For some students, transferring from 6- to 8-dot braille had its challenges, but was reasonably manageable. But for others, the mental gymnastics proved to be more challenging and led to a decreasing number of successful graduates of computer training programs over time. …

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