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DOTS for Braille Literacy (Development of Teacher Support),Volume 15, Number 3, Summer 2010

DOTS (Development of Teacher Support) for Braille Literacy is published three times a year and is available online at or in braille, by request.

In this issue...

Keep in Touch with News

Since DOTS is published only a few times each year, the announcement of some workshops and events of interest to teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired may slip through the cracks. AFB eNews, and AFB's Professional Development department's newsletter Connections, and the AFB Calendar of Events usually have the latest information on activities. (Register to receive eNews and Connections for free at Also, AFB and the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI) host a web site where local and national events of interest to families are posted:

Please make a habit of checking the AFB web site and other web sites and links identified in this newsletter. Perhaps subscribe to an electronic discussion list such as AERnet to keep up with news related to teaching and promoting braille literacy. Connect to and follow the Join AER Listservs link to subscribe to the AER electronic discussion list; you can choose to receive it either as individual e-mail messages or as a digest that includes several messages at one time.

From the Editor

"It's a small world, after all," at least according to the song. If I ever travel abroad, I hope it's like my friend Sandy's experience. She said that on her recent trip to Greece it was quite common to hear English spoken, even when fellow tourists from China, Korea or Spain interacted with locals. Of course, some might suggest those of us from the South and the North, East or West don't always speak the same language in North America. Sometimes, we seem to have trouble communicating with each other when we talk about braille literacy.

Educators who work with students who can access print have their own debates on the issue of literacy, debates that affect students with visual impairments as well. Evolving technology means an evolving definition of literacy, and it will be interesting to see how changes in our digital world affect the way we continue to strive for literacy equality for our students.

Braille has evolved through the years, and so has the technology that gives braille readers access to information. A contributor who helped Dear Dot answer a question about how braille is written differently in foreign languages is interested in studying the history of braille in other countries. She notes that all languages change over time and spoken language changes more quickly than written language. Perhaps she'll find that braille forms of written language evolve at an even slower pace.

Social networking. Technology. Education. Somehow these all blend to help individuals develop their literacy. And, literacy puts individuals in touch with their fellow humans in this small world of ours.

—Marie Amerson, Editor

Literacy, Empowerment and "Transliteracy"

Each year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. The theme for the 2009 International Literacy Day (ILD) was "The Power of Literacy," and it put the spotlight on the empowering role of literacy. The UN Secretary-General said in his 2009 ILD remarks, "In a world of enormous wealth, in a world in which education and knowledge are the necessary passports to a better life, the scale of illiteracy is staggering." Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested there was more to literacy than simply reading and writing, that literacy "gives people tools with which to improve their livelihoods, participate in community decision-making, gain access to information about health care, and much else besides."

Educators who work with students who cannot access standard print information, adults who are braille readers, and parents of children who are blind or visually impaired all recognize the importance of literacy and the challenges faced by this group of students. At the same time, society is also looking at the evolution of what literacy means and how a generation of "digital natives"—children who were born into and raised in the digital world—demonstrate they are literate and how they shape the future.

The term "transliterate" indicates an ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media. "Web literacy" focuses on the ability to utilize the Web, a skill that has become essential for individuals to be considered educated and functional in the world of work. Personal expression through texting, blogging, friending and tweeting has an impact on how an individual is perceived by peers.

Because technology has changed the way today's digital native generation identifies, locates, evaluates, organizes, uses, and communicates information, educators—including those whose students are visually impaired—will continue to find ways to incorporate pop-tech into the classroom experience. They will help students become fluent in knowing how to lead and manage with all the available tools in order to consume and produce media forms of the day, whatever they are.

NOTE: Blind Cool Tech offers podcasts with interviews, "sound seeing tours," and discussion of life and cool technology, especially technology that blind people can use. Visit for information and podcasts such as: iPad Overview, iPod Stereo Mic, Quick NLS, Book Port Plus.

New Fact Sheet from Braille Authority of North America (BANA)

BANA recently posted on its web site a new fact sheet, Size and Spacing of Braille, making it available as a web page and in electronic files suitable for downloading into print and braille. Size and Spacing of Braille includes standards for braille embossed on paper as well as standards for braille signage. It was provided to assist those seeking information about the technical aspects of the production of braille in either capacity.

BANA also offers other position papers, fact sheets, and guidelines on their website, including:

  • A Braillist's Pledge of Professional Ethics
  • The Use of the Braille Slate and Stylus
  • Capitalization Style for the Word "braille"
  • Braille is NOT a Language
  • Terminology: Contracted and Uncontracted Braille
  • Eight-dot Braille
  • Guidelines for Brailling Business Cards
  • Promising Practices for the Transcription of Textbooks for Grades K-3

Visit the BANA website at for this and other resource information.

The Size of Braille Books

In the United States and Canada, the standard for size and spacing of braille embossed on paper is put forth in "Braille Books and Pamphlets" from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress. The primary goal for producing braille is to create it so the dots of each cell are easily discernible by touch and high enough to be easily distinguished from the background.

Braille Plus, Inc. is a company in Salem, Oregon that converts print documents into alternate formats. Their web site ( has a few articles about braille, accessible formats, and tactile graphics. The article, "Why is Braille So Big?" offers a response to the question many people ask when they realize a 10-page print document may be as many as 25-30 braille pages.

Even with the contractions allowed in English braille, the standard braille cell takes more space on the page than print characters. Braille paper is generally 3 inches wider than standard paper, and still, there is only enough room for forty cells and 25 lines of braille. Braille transcribers learn formatting that dictates the use of every available space and line, and to dispense with bold, italics, underlining, and other "eye candy" that appears in print if it serves no purpose for the braille reader.

A recent topic posted on a listserv of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind or Visually Impaired provided discussion of how to help students manage their voluminous collection textbooks. (Contact for details on subscribing to the listserv.) Among the ideas posted were: use super-sized backpacks or roller bags; request a closet, extra locker, or multiple locations to store materials between classes; leave materials in the location in which they are used most often; ask a friend to carry extra books; teach the student to hire, train, schedule, use, and (if necessary) fire a reader/study partner, someone in the same class who might earn extra credit for such duties; use a library-type cart to shelve books that stay in the classroom; and brainstorm with the student to identify solutions that will work best for him or her.

Handy Resource

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has a new feature on their web site that takes you to a handy guide to braille code instruction materials and official braille codebooks they offer. The list includes official Braille Authority of North America (BANA) and National Library Service (NLS) codebooks. The list is on the left side of the home page, just below the navigation box.

Car Rally

Mumbai, India: A unique car rally took place in Mumbai on Sunday, February 10, 2010. The rally invited drivers to have blind navigators read a braille script to guide the team through the city to a final destination. The Blind Man's Car Rally was a fund raiser for Round Table India. In addition to raising proceeds to purchase kits for individuals who are blind, the rally sought to highlight the abilities of individuals who are blind.

The race was approximately 60 kilometers in distance, starting and ending at the National Association of the Blind. Eighty cars participated in the race, during which marshals placed at different locations provided the team with a set of braille instructions that directed them to their next destination along the course. The navigator was responsible for reading instructions in the braille packet, including the speed.

Dear DOT:

My friend, Mr. Fig, used to teach French to students in a resource room where many of the students read braille. I work in a similar situation, only I teach Spanish. We used to talk about how often people ask how foreign language materials in braille are different from English braille. Any thoughts on this?

—Leon Mater

Dear Mr. Mater:

First, I knew Mr. Fig, too! He was a wonderful teacher, and he really knew his braille. I forgot he also knew French. He could probably tell a few tales from all kinds of questions people ask about braille, couldn't he?

Well, now, my thoughts on teaching a foreign language to students who read braille have to come from a layman's perspective. Unlike you and Mr. Fig, I am not proficient in a foreign language. If any of my braille students studied Spanish, French, or anything other than English, the first step for me would be to work closely with the teacher providing the foreign language instruction. He or she is the expert in language.

I would, however, need to understand the differences in the instructional materials to help the student interpret the braille, something Mr. Fig certainly knew. The Braille Authority of North America (BANA), the National Braille Association (NBA), and other experts have addressed how foreign language materials should be prepared in the United States, so if I were in the position of explaining that to a language teacher, I would have some references to use. The NBA publishes the Interim Manual for Foreign Language Braille Transcribing, 2002 that is designed to provide guidelines for transcribing foreign language materials. It is based on the BANA publication, Braille Formats: Principles of Print to Braille Transcription. There is also basic information on the AFB Braille Bug website about foreign language braille. You could direct students to for a simple introduction to symbols in Spanish braille.

Avi Gold, self-professed "student of braille," has noted there are three basic patterns of writing among the world's languages, and he is keenly aware of challenges that exist in expressing languages in written form. Avi explains that some languages have alphabets in which each consonant or vowel has a separate symbol; some have syllabaries in which each syllable has a unique symbol; and some languages use ideographs in which each concept has a symbol.

Since braille is a set of symbols, it can, like the Latin alphabet, be used for any number of languages. In addition to European countries, some languages of Africa and the Pacific also use the Latin alphabet, and most of the languages incorporate accented letters in addition to the conventional alphabet. The visual embellishment of an é acute symbol looks the same in Italian as it does in French and Spanish. Languages with the longest history of braille notation (dating to the 19th century) are European languages and a few Middle Eastern, Indian, and Far Eastern ones.

In North America, foreign languages are transcribed in uncontracted braille, letter by letter. This differs from how those languages would be encoded in their home countries. Rules for using contractions that apply to English braille designate characters that are used in other languages to designate accented letters. Many European languages use contractions as well, but they are different from the English contractions. Accented letters are brailled as unique characters and identified as letters followed by the type of accent they carry: é is "e acute," à is "a gravé," ñ is "n tilde," and so on.

The 63 combinations of dots in a braille cell may be sufficient for languages that use a Latin alphabet, but languages based on syllabaries or ideographs require a considerable degree of modification and phonetic notations so they can be translated into written or braille form. For instance, when braille is used to write Chinese, it represents the sounds of the language, not the characters. One advantage a braille reader has over sighted students learning these non-Latin alphabets is that the visual appearance is not an issue. It is simply a matter of understanding the designation of characters in the familiar dots of a braille cell.

It is important to remember that foreign language instructional materials may also contain English to introduce vocabulary, explain a lesson, provide directions for exercises, and such. Because the text may place English adjacent to the foreign language, it is important to understand what the NBA Interim Manual directs transcribers to do so the braille reader is alerted to the switch. For instance, the English part of foreign language instruction is fully contracted where appropriate.

One resource I would certainly reference if I began working with a student learning a foreign language is the NBA Ask An Expert site. The NBA Foreign Language Braille Committee Chair monitors that link for questions at and I learn a lot just by reading through the posts.

I had such fun thinking about language differences and how braille readers must have access to quality braille, no matter where they are in our small world. It also reminded me of how much of our work as Teachers of the Visually Impaired involves teaching beyond the classroom, explaining to others about different braille formats or the importance of quality transcriptions to the success of our students. Mr. Fig was great at that. He was also good at the life-long learning we all have to do to ensure we provide the best services to our students.

And, by the way Mr. Mater, how many times did you or Mr. Fig have to explain that braille is not a foreign language?


(Written in loving memory of Warren Figueiredo, 1952-2010)

NOTE: Avi Gold helped compose information for the Dear Dot reply. He is interested in the history of braille notation in foreign languages and wants to research questions such as: When was braille first used for a specific language? Who were the people who developed braille notation for the language? How has braille notation changed through the years in a particular language? What are the earliest braille texts in the language, and where might some of them be archived? Please feel free to contact Mr. Gold at if you are interested in his research ideas.

Calendar Dates of Interest

  • July 21, 2010. Little Rock, Arkansas. AER International Conference 2010. Visit for details on the conference of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

  • September 8, 2010. International Literacy Day. Check the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website at
    for information on the global status of literacy and adult learning.

  • October 7-9, 2010. Raleigh, North Carolina. National Braille Association Fall Professional Development Conference. Visit for details.

  • October 14-16, 2010. Louisville, Kentucky. Annual Meeting of the American Printing House for the Blind. See details at

  • October 30-November 1, 2010. Toronto, Ontario. Braille Authority of North America (BANA) Meeting.

  • March 10-13, 2011. Oakland, California. California Transcribers and Educators for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CTEBVI) Conference. Visit for information.

DOTS (Development of Teacher Support) for Braille Literacy is published three times a year (October, February, and June), and is available online at: or in braille, by request. For further information please contact:

DOTS Editor
American Foundation for the Blind
100 Peachtree Street, Suite 620
Atlanta, GA 30303
Telephone: 404-525-2303
Fax: 404-659-6957

If you would like routinely to receive an e-mail alerting you to the posting of future issues of the DOTS newsletter, please visit and follow the instructions there to sign up. You can then log in and update your profile at any time to alert us to changes in your contact information. If you choose not to receive an e-mail notice, you will still be able to access current and archived issues of DOTS online at; and if you are a braille format subscriber, you will continue to receive your DOTS newsletter in braille.

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