February 2004 • Volume 98Number 2


This Perspectives column addresses the following question: Should a unified braille code be adopted for use across English-speaking countries?

A Braille-Using Scientist Embraces the Unified English Braille Code

I am convinced. The Unified English Braille Code (UEBC) is ready to be adopted. Because my father was also blind, I have spent many hours in the company of blind mathematicians—my tutor, Estin Buck (born in perhaps 1902), and Dr. Newell Perry (born 1873, I think). In my professional career, I regularly swap stories with Dr. T. A. Benham, who still uses his own mathematical code which he devised years before the Nemeth system. Even I, at age 54, learned arithmetic before books were published in Dr. Nemeth's ingenious code. All of those fine old scouts were crackerjack practitioners. They were at the top of their game before 1950, adapting horribly limited braille mathematics to satisfy their needs. I point this out to refute any claim that a math code, whatever its character, will deter students from pursuing advanced studies in math and science. My studies spanned the period during which a math code was evolving. My tutor was not "fluent" in the code I was using, but we communicated just fine.

Much ado about cell count

Much ado has been made about cell count. As I read expressions in competing systems, I remain unimpressed by the cell-count controversy. On the contrary, since many of the UEBC operation signs and punctuation marks are "low-in-the-cell" in style, I find that UEBC expressions have a roomy feel that makes them easier to read—less ponderous in deciphering. If I choose to ponder something, I'll ponder it; but if I wish to waltz through some math to catch the trend of an argument, I welcome the ease of reading UEBC.

Learning the code

A look at the list of characters and modifiers in the UEBC is daunting. But those who point to this list and proclaim that the UEBC is hard to learn are not honest in their argument. No one "learns" a code entirely. No one memorizes a character set before he learns to read. An 8-year-old child doesn't know what a caret is for and likely won't see one for years. Whether in print or in braille, you learn symbols as they appear in your lessons.

To suggest that a two-cell symbol is harder to learn than a single-cell one is indefensible. What about all the font modifiers? In most cases, marks such as these can be dismissed as "gobbledegook." Most of us can ignore all the accent and vowel marks when we read dictionary entries. UEBC is easier to read than older codes are. Except for the afore-mentioned modifiers, the braille in UEBC is standard—upper numbers and plain letters. How much nicer will it be when braille is braille, when math and science can be read straight through without modifiers?

From its beginnings, braille has been dogged by exceptional cases—plagued by context dependence. Any alterations in the UEBC now will damage its consistency, introduce exceptional cases and invite the gremlins of dependence on context. Detractors of the UEBC worry that adopting the braille code will cause literacy to suffer. My father, born in 1909, was fluent in the Taylor math code; Grades 1, 1 ½, 2, and 3 literary braille; and American braille. An average student in school, he used all of these codes until he died in 1973. But he, and the others mentioned in this paper, used braille with more variety than is necessary, and they were the most literate generation of braille readers that ever was.

Looking to the future

As a scientist who uses braille in my daily work, I am looking forward to reading more scientific literature in this new braille, the UEBC. May prompt acceptance of the UEBC set a precedent that points toward a new day when positive change can be accomplished without prideful bickering.

Bill Gerrey, B.S.EE., rehabilitation engineer, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, 2318 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115.

The Need for a Unified Braille Code

The need for a unification of braille codes in North America is as real and as palpable as is the need to educate blind children to read and use braille as the cornerstone of their literacy. The present situation, wherein a diversity of braille codes drives students' education in a variety of subjects, can only impede the educational process, particularly for any subject related to mathematics or science. In several resolutions adopted between 1995–2002, the American Council of the Blind has supported the idea of braille code unification among academic disciplines.

Problems with the current system

The difficulty in our current systems of reading and writing braille stems from the evolution of the literary braille code. It does not signify an inherent lack in the code itself. As needs have been identified for braille readers, solutions have been devised to meet those specific needs. Today, practitioners and users of braille need to sit down together and synthesize these varied solutions into a code that is more unified and that combines the varied solutions, each very beneficial in its own way, into a more holistic approach to a system of reading and writing. Because math and science are the primary subjects that have led to the current diversity in codes, significant attention must be paid to these disciplines as a part of any long-term, academically viable code unification.

The reasons for diverging from the standard English Braille Code as adopted by the Braille Authority of North America stem from basic inadequacies within that code in reading and writing even the most rudimentary mathematical information. It seems virtually unimaginable that in the 21st century, our basic braille system, the only means of true literacy for blind people, does not contain a symbol to represent the plus sign! Educators, braille transcribers, and readers have had to resort to various alternative codes to the standard literary code to fill the ever-widening gap between that code and the needs of readers, particularly student readers. We find ourselves today teaching and learning to decipher the same symbol in different situations, depending only on context as a guide. For computer material, there is a code. For general mathematics, there is a different and often contradictory code. To learn chemistry, again there is a different code. For general reading, there is yet another code that cannot address many scientific concepts that are generally and widely discussed in commonly available literature and writings, including daily newspapers and periodicals. Such a situation has been and continues to be intolerable when considered as a backdrop to the education of blind children in today's world. If braille as a system of reading and writing is to survive, these inadequacies must be addressed.

Search for the ideal code

For almost 10 years, the Braille Authority of North America and the International Council on English Braille have struggled to find a model that lends itself to the appropriate unification of these various braille codes. It will be a point of personal pride throughout my life to have made, on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, the original motion that led to the creation of the working committees and the original structure within North America that was later extended to an international venue. It is an equal if not greater disappointment to have witnessed the potential of this work bog down and stall due primarily to political considerations and ideals that betray the potential of today's blind children. Too often, decisions have been made based on prevailing personalities, committee turf, and an unspoken set of assumptions about what one or another country might accept, rather than on what is fundamental to any braille code: the needs of its readers. This has not happened due to ill will on the part of those working on the unified code project. Rather, it has occurred through a stubborn adherence to a belief that the oldest aspects of braille codes must drive unification to the exclusion of every piece of progress made in North America in math and science since 1951. Were this point of view reversed, it is my firm belief that we would be on the verge of unifying our braille codes at the upcoming meeting of the International Council on English Braille. Unfortunately, we are further away today than at any time in the past twenty years.

As is so often the case in our endeavors toward change, "the devil is in the details." Be that as it may, I remain confident that, in time, North America and the English-speaking world will find their way to a more unified braille code than exists today.

Chris Gray, M.P.A., president, American Council of the Blind, 1155 15th Street NW, Suite 1004, Washington, DC 20005.

Politics and the Braille Code

Braille has been the subject of political intrigue from the time of its beginning. It was not adopted as an official method of reading and writing for the blind in France until after Louis Braille had died. Even now, politics remains one consideration in dealing with braille.

A modified code

It is widely proclaimed that a unified braille code is desirable, but those who want a unified braille code are not unified about what code should be adopted. A computer-translatable mathematics and scientific braille code would be very useful, but the Unified English Braille Code (UEBC), as currently formulated, has not achieved widespread acceptance. Many of those who deal with math and science doubt the efficacy of the UEBC. Further study is needed, and widespread involvement of consumers is essential if a unified braille code is to become a reality.


Many blind people have said that the experts should leave braille as it is. At the same time, they urge that braille be improved so that automatic computer translation systems are possible and no ambiguity in the braille symbol set exists.

Middle ground

I think it would be best to make some changes in the braille code to eliminate ambiguities, but most of the braille code should be left alone. This is what the National Federation of the Blind has adopted as its policy toward braille. Additional study is needed, but no radical change is desirable. Nevertheless, some change will be essential if the objective to provide more and simpler braille is to be achieved.

Marc Maurer, president, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.

My Take on the Status of Braille

I am very much in favor of a uniform braille code, but opposed to the Unified English Braille Code (UEBC).

For a uniform code

At present, there are four principal braille codes: the literary code, the code of textbook formats and techniques, the Nemeth Code for mathematics, and the Computer Braille Code. The literary code is the oldest and is a general-purpose code. The other codes were worked upon independently by technical committees. As a result, the dollar sign, the percent sign, and the square brackets have one representation in the literary code, a second representation in the Nemeth Code, and a third representation in the Computer Braille Code. There are, in fact, two literary codes—the one sanctioned by the Braille Authority of North America for use in North America and the other sanctioned by the Braille Authority of the United Kingdom for use in the United Kingdom.

From time to time, these codes are extended by the addition of special-purpose modules. Thus, there is a module on ancient numeration systems and another on chemistry which extend the Nemeth Code, and there is a module on flowcharts which extends the Computer Braille Code. All the technical committees are busily at work, each making its own contribution to the continuing fragmentation of the braille system, and adding to the contradictions, ambiguities and conflicts among the various codes. For each of the principal codes there is an official codebook. For some of the codes there is also an associated lesson book to give the user expertise and experience in the use of that code.

Transcribers in some of the codes require certification by the NLS, a subdivision of the Library of Congress. After spending about a year learning a code, and another year in preparing a manuscript that must meet high standards, the transcriber is certified if the manuscript is accepted. The National Braille Association and the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped conduct workshops in all these codes at regularly scheduled national and regional conferences. They publish "skills columns" in each issue of their periodicals written by experts in the various codes.

How much training is required to transcribe a fifth-grade arithmetic book for an 11-year-old child? Modern arithmetic books always include a "computer corner" or a "calculator corner." Therefore, the Computer Braille Code would be required for these sections. The other three codes would also be required in such a book. Could a vision teacher be sufficiently knowledgeable in all these codes to impart them to this 11-year-old? Could this child also learn all these codes and still keep up with the subject matter in his or her class? Can a skilled transcriber or proofreader be expected to know all these codes to create a credible textbook for this child? In less time than it would take to learn all these codes and to be certified in them, one could attend a major medical school, obtain an M.D. degree, and complete a residency in neurosurgery. We need a uniform braille code.

Against the UEBC

However, I am very much opposed to the UEBC. Its principal and fatal drawback is its insistence on the use of upper numbers. If one deals only with narrative text, the occasional advent of a number causes no serious problem. But in technical text, particularly in mathematics, numbers and letters are so closely juxtaposed that there is an endless need for number signs and letter signs, to the point at which these extra characters constitute an infestation of otherwise smoothly flowing text.

In an earlier paper (Nemeth, 1995) I exhibited a ninth-grade algebra multiplication example consisting of five lines of braille. In the UEBC version, there were 27 number signs and 18 letter signs. Each of the 10 plus signs and minus signs in this example is a two-cell construct whose first component is dot 5. Thus there were 10 instances of dot 5 in addition to the number signs and letter signs. These 55 characters provide no notational information to readers; they merely instruct them as to how to interpret the braille. These characters added so much mass to the example that it overflowed a 40-cell braille line. By contrast, the Nemeth Code version of this same example had no number signs and no letter signs. The plus signs and minus signs are one-cell constructs. The example occupied 33 cells of the 40-cell line.

Upper numbers cause alignment problems. The hexadecimal number 2a3b occupies eight cells; the hexadecimal number 23ab occupies six cells. Placing one number below the other in an attempt to add them causes misalignment. The UEBC "solution" is to precede each digit with a number sign and each letter with a letter sign.

In 2000 and 2001, BANA issued two samplers—a one-volume sampler showing how the UEBC would affect text that was primarily narrative, and a two-volume sampler showing the effect of the UEBC on technical text. The samples in each volume were well-chosen and representative. In the area of narrative text, the changes were noticeable but minor. The results were neither significantly better nor significantly worse than if the samples had been written in the standard literary code. But in the technical area, the UEBC rendition was so massive as to preclude the use of that system for any but trivial and routine technical material. The UEBC suffers from other major defects that are too technical for discussion in this forum. I am unalterably opposed to the UEBC as the mechanism for bringing about a much-needed uniform braille system.


I am opposed to retaining the status quo for all the reasons that I have adduced in the opening section of this piece. The same forces that have been at work for the last 70 years and that have brought about the conditions I have already described would continue to work so that matters would become even worse.


Nemeth, A. (1995.) An assessment of the unified braille code. Unpublished manuscript. [Online]. Available: http://www.math. virginia.edu/ ˜arm4r/nemeth/

Abraham Nemeth, Ph.D., retired professor of mathematics, University of Detroit, and creator of the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 24111 Civic Center Drive, Apartment 409, Southfield, MI 48034.

Adopt the Code

The Unified English Braille Code (UEBC) currently under development should be adopted.

Many of the students in my classroom for the visually impaired have multiple disabilities. They often have difficulty distinguishing between dots in the upper and lower parts of the braille cell and would therefore have trouble distinguishing between letters and numbers if I taught them the current code, not to mention their confusion at writing numbers in two ways. Even braille-reading students without additional disabilities find it hard to remember the current code's plethora of symbols and rules.

An excess of rules

University students in my braille math code class also question the multiplicity and complicatedness of these rules. Why, for instance, must there be different rules for enclosed lists and other material within grouping symbols? When a teacher of students who are visually impaired who hasn't worked with braille readers for a while acquires a braille-reading algebra student, he or she must simultaneously review not only literary braille, but also the current math code—an almost overwhelming task! Though we may justifiably proclaim that these teachers should always maintain their skills, many of us work hard just to keep up with what we currently teach.

A carefully deliberated code

As a braille reader, I agree that change is seldom welcome. However, I believe UEBC committee deliberations have been reasonable, careful, and thorough. The overriding concern has been readability. If some change in braille had not already occurred, we'd still be reading uncontracted braille—or perhaps grade 11⁄2! If we wait for a non-UEBC alternative to the current code, the process will take years, and inevitably someone still won't like the result. UEBC training will be required, but a combination of self-teaching materials and conference workshops should largely address this issue. Math and science texts are updated so frequently that the need to read texts in today's code should not be a concern for long. Bottom line: The generations of braille readers who will no longer have to learn literary, math, and computer codes just to pass elementary school will thank us!

Sandy Ruconich, Ed.D., teacher, Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, instructor, Multi-University Consortium, Teacher Training Program, Sensory Impairments, University of Utah; 1904 East Millbrook Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84106.

The Problem with Using English Braille Codes in Developing Countries

I am a totally blind professional who reads braille regularly and works with this medium of communication every day as part of my professional and recreational life. I am not a fanatic of the medium, but one who uses it in ways that I find most helpful. I write notes to myself and I read magazines and novels, even if these are outdated most of the time. I do not pretend to speak as an authority on the braille codes—I speak, in fact, only as one who has had the experience of working and living in developing countries that have experienced English braille from both the United States and the United Kingdom and knows the confusion that this can create. It is from that experience that I write.

Lost voices of educators and youths

A brief review of the discussion on a unified braille code suggests that the arguments pro and con for the unification of English braille have been around for more than ten years (see <www.math.virginia.edu/~arm4r/nemeth>). This discussion has been the major item on the agenda amongst braille leaders around the world, including transcribers and leaders of the blindness community at meetings of the International Council on English Braille since 1997.

Many representatives of the braille leadership, the transcribers and leaders of the adult blind community, put forward their argument for codes. However, the voice of educators and youths in the system are absent from the discussion—a staggering omission.

Teachers and students represent the community that uses braille as a practical tool in day-to-day living. This group embodies the dynamism that will continue to make braille relevant and part of the living experience of blind persons. In addition, the debate remains a dialogue between leaders in the developed world, without input from the majority of braille readers in the developing world.

I do not have accurate figures on the users of braille outside of the developed world, but since blind people in developing countries still have limited access to computers and the World Wide Web, braille remains their favored medium for learning of issues and concerns in different cultures. I stress different cultures because access to braille production in some communities is still limited and, when available, the production of braille at the local level is focused on the availability of information for schools and students. In addition, although many countries, including some in Europe, do not use English as a first language, the blind community in those countries, particularly professionals, are exposed to English braille and use it regularly.

Braille that does not translate

Sadly, it is a little-known fact that blind people—especially children—are stymied by school material that is prepared in one part of the world and then finds its way into another region to be used by a child or teacher with no background in that particular braille code. I have seen teachers who are trained in the United States and who teach children using a U.S. braille system, and then their examination papers show up—written in a U.K. braille system. Many examiners and educators outside our field often do not realize that those who prepare exams are not aware of differences in braille codes. Despite the fact that our students must integrate to be part of a true social experience, students—particularly in the Caribbean and Africa—sit to take exams and find that the information is impossible to read, as the exam is prepared in unfamiliar braille. This is especially noticeable in the subject areas of literature, mathematics, and science.

Broaden the forum and unify the code

Two points must be made regarding the controversy about the braille code. First, the International Council on English Braille forum must be opened to include representation from Asia (India), the Caribbean, and Africa. In addition to this, the representation at the highest level must include educators and student leaders. We cannot simply stand by and have the discussion continue to be driven by the so-called blind leaders and transcribers. The matter must be an issue of learning through praxis, through doing, through content creation, and through achieving an objective (Carey, 2002). Second, a unified code will be immensely helpful to address some of the issues and challenges which I have pointed out. To this end, I am not suggesting that the Unified English Braille Code is the most useful or appropriate code. (I do not know enough about that code to make such an evaluation.) I believe, however, that a unified code is important and will be helpful to braille users around the world.

If we fail to respond to this issue and the matter continues to be dragged out, the speed of modern technology, coupled with the new dispensation of privatization, will soon overtake the discussion in the chambers of the braille leadership. A niche will be found where someone can and will produce accessible braille quickly and easily. That format (which may or may not take the braille leadership's concerns into account) will eventually become the standard, as it will be used to distribute information quickly and provide it in a format and process that is more readily accessible to the end user.


Carey, K. (2002). Learning to read braille: Barriers, challenges and opportunities. Presentation at the Braille Symposium: Braille in the Age of Digitization, Copenhagen, Denmark. [Online]. Available: http://www.ibos.dk/braille/

W. Aubrey Webson, B.S., M.S., doctoral student, Case Western Reserve University, Africa and Caribbean Programs, Perkins School for the Blind, 175 North Beacon Street, Watertown, MA 02472.

JVIB's Perspectives column is intended to offer members of the blindness field the opportunity to express their points of view on important, sometimes controversial, issues affecting the field. Do you agree with the comments you've just read? Readers are encouraged to visit the JVIB online message board, <www.afb.org/jvib_message_board.asp>, and voice their opinions on this important topic.


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