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AFB JOURNAL OVISUAL
IMPAIRMENT& BLINDNESS
  
Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss  
 

December 2009 • Volume 103 Number 11

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Louis Braille Celebration

Lessons from the Development of Computer Braille Code

Chris Grey

Print edition page number(s) 740-741

The guest editor of the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentennial Celebration is Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., consultant and retired vice president for International Programs and Special Projects, American Foundation for the Blind.


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.

In 1978, paperless braille hit the marketplace with the introduction of the Versabraille System from Telesensory and the Digicassette from Elinfa. Both machines, early braille notetakers, used the same conversion code between computer characters and braille symbols employed by embossing devices. Around this time period, the dawn of what we now know as the Internet was on the horizon with the coming of online services such as CompuServe and America Online. Clearly, braille readers desperately needed a solution for employing electronic braille or they would be left out of the digital revolution altogether.

Code creation and adoption

In 1983, the Braille Authority of North America (BANA), under the chairmanship of Richard Evensen, took on the challenge of creating a braille code for computers that could bring together the disparate sets of braille symbols described in this essay. A basic tenet of the committee that was formed to create CBC was that a far greater adherence needed to exist between embosser-produced braille characters and those transcribed in hardcopy books. It was further believed that such correspondence of characters would not extend to the use of 8-dot braille for this new code. Chaired by Tim Cranmer, a coauthor and distributor of public-domain braille translation software, the CBC committee included such other notable members as Priscilla Harris, from the National Braille Association, and Joseph Sullivan, from Duxbury Systems. After several face-to-face meetings, a draft of CBC was designed and released for public comment.

The CBC that was created diverged from the other North American braille codes in two distinct ways. First, and most important, it was implemented as a special mode or subcode to the primary braille code in which text was prepared (either literary braille or Nemeth Code). Second, although two-cell symbols were allowed in CBC, they were defined so that dots 1 to 6 of each symbol in embossed text would correspond to that of the transcribed text. For instances in which dots 7 or 8 would be used by an embosser, the transcribed symbol would be prefixed. These principles virtually eliminated the former complexities of comparing transcribed and terminal-produced braille. Although very controversial at the time, the concept of switching modes has become a core component of significant research into the formation of a unified braille system for the 21st century. Only through the use of mode switching can the various braille codes become unified in ways that maximize readability and comprehension for readers.

After much discussion and some heated debate, CBC was adopted by BANA on May 1, 1987, in Boston, Massachusetts. This authorized its use in all countries whose braille standards were set by BANA; these included the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and other countries. Adoption of the code represents only the beginning of the story. Many years of training workshops and development of material followed. Priscilla Harris and others prepared significant numbers of examples of the new code and formed workshops for braille transcribers. For consumers, National Braille Press published The Computer Braille Code Made Easy, written by Judith Dixon and myself.

The story of CBC's development may well continue with the ongoing work of unifying the English braille codes. Adopting any of the current codes being considered--Unified English Braille (UEB), Nemeth Uniform Braille System (NUBS), or a hybrid of the two--would require significant change or even the dismissal of CBC as a valid code. It remains to be seen how the many factors related to braille code unification will merge together to allow braille to continue in its role of providing true literacy for blind people.


Chris Grey, M.P.A., president, Bay Area Digital, 870 Market Street, Suite 653, San Francisco, CA 94102; e-mail: <chris@bayareadigital.us>.


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