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A Look Back

100 Years of Braille and Communication Media

The author gratefully acknowledges the thorough and enthusiastic research assistance of Sheila Amato.

Perhaps the most enduring honor to the memory of Louis Braille is the half-conscious honor we pay him by applying his name to the script he invented. We honor Braille whenever we speak of braille. His memory has in this way a security greater than that of the memories of many men more famous in their day. And his is a name which we are all under obligation to honor, in perpetuity, in the most practical way: by carrying on the work for the blind that he initiated.
-T. S. Eliot (1952)

There are treasures to be found in surveying 100 years of literature on braille and communication media in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB--and its predecessors, Outlook for the Blind and New Outlook for the Blind). This search reveals a history of the field of visual impairment and blindness that is rich in passion, effort, scholarship, practice, enthusiasm, controversy, and energy. The pages of the journal not only reveal the topics its editors thought were important in the last 100 years, but also reflect who the authors were, what they were submitting, and, therefore, the areas of interest of the field. Among the treasures that were discovered in the JVIB archives was a 1952 article by renowned poet and author T. S. Eliot, quotes from which are excerpted, along with other gems, throughout this review.

Practice, questions, inventions, research, predictions

no demand gives me more pleasure than the request for permission to print one of my works in braille. It is a request any author should regard as a signal compliment.
-T. S. Eliot (1952)

From the very first issue of Outlook for the Blind published in April 1907, which featured Robert C. Moon's description of the embossed Moon Alphabet invented by his father, through recent issues in the early 21st century, the pages of JVIB have reflected the commitment of the field of blindness to literacy. For example, beginning in 1907 with the report of the Uniform Type Committee of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, which debated the relative merits of three tactile reading systems--English Braille, American Braille, and New York Point--JVIB covered the War of the Dots extensively, as featured in the March 2006 A Look Back column. One particular highlight was the coverage of the 1909 New York City Board of Education hearings, which not only quoted in full the public testimony, but published simulations of the alphabets of New York Point, American Braille, English Braille, and French Braille (as originally created by Louis Braille). Also included is Helen Keller's dramatic letter in support of braille as the only tactile mode that provided blind readers with a precise tactile reproduction of the printed word. (To read part of a poem on the subject, see Box 1.)

Similarly, MacKenzie's two-part article entitled "Braille Reassessed" (1949) outlines the urgent need for establishing guiding principles in the evolution of braille as a world script. MacKenzie writes, "We stand at a critical point in braille history." This led to the 1950 announcement that "an effort to agree upon a single international system of writing for the 7,000,000 blind of the world, embracing the adaptations of braille to all languages," which was made at an International Braille Conference held at UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] House, Paris. It's fascinating to note in this era of the debates related to the Unified English Braille Code, that many of the same issues now confronting the stakeholders charged with the evaluation of the code have been raised throughout the last 100 years.

In the 1920s, Outlook reported on many issues that are just as likely to be covered in the journal today, including research on spelling and braille (Hayes,1922), best practices in the teaching of reading (Conrad, 1922), the growth of braille transcribing (Hoyt, 1927), and a model program for braille transcribing in the prisons of Norway (Donnelly, 1928).

In addition, new technology was heralded in the pages of the journal. Gradle and Stein (1926), described in their article, "Telescopic Spectacles and Magnifiers as Aids to Poor Vision," how such devices could benefit those with "poor vision," and discussed ways in which these low vision devices could be used for reading print. Adams (1925) predicted the advent of Talking Books by imagining that the motion picture technology that would soon allow movies to be synchronized with speech would someday "replace cumbersome touch reading with an ­electro-­mechanical device which will read aloud."

The 1930s saw the publication of Outlook for the Blind in braille (1931) for 40 cents a year. Articles included "Why We Teach Grade 2" (Wilson, 1932); Talking Books (1933), which were expected to "open a new door to literature for thousands of blind people who cannot read with their fingers"; best practices in reading in sight-saving classes (Peck 1934); and research on the "mechanics of reading raised type" (Maxfield, 1934).

Of particular interest was Irwin's (1934) article on reducing the cost and bulk of braille books and Rosenthal's (1937) moving description of the U.S. Works Progress Administration project efforts to produce the first braille copy of the Thorndike-Century Junior Dictionary for the Wisconsin School for the Blind. The 4,000 copies were created by 10 transcribers and 4 proofreaders, filled 39 volumes each, and were "bound in brown cloth and fabricoid, and lettered in gold." Rosenthal reported that the Wisconsin school's "students use it with an enthusiasm and interest only those long deprived of so vital and necessary a piece of equipment can appreciate or understand."

A highlight of the 1950s was Krebs's (1959) article addressing resource teachers:

Braille is the tool which has made blind people literate. It can be read and written with equal ease and thus has opened the doors of self-expression, entertainment, and knowledge to the blind.
The value of braille to the blind can be accurately measured in terms of the social, economic, and cultural horizons which it has opened. Time expended in gaining skill in this invaluable asset to self-reliance is truly time well spent.

In the 1960s and 1970s the journal witnessed an explosion of research, innovation, discussion of best practices, and technology. For example, Foulke (1963) described the possibilities of "a language of the skin"--electric stimulus coded for a new system of communication. Foulke went on in 1966 and 1967 to publish on "time compressed speech" to increase reading speed among auditory readers. Carter (1964) of Recordings for the Blind described the Pocket Book Machine. In 1965, American Thermoform announced its new Brailon Duplicator and included an embossed sample of Thermoform braille in each issue of the journal. In 1971, the U.S. News and World Report Talking Magazine presented a free sample of a plastic phonograph record with two hours of news within each issue of the journal for each subscriber to try. Dinsmore (1967) described the Tactile Speech Indicator, a communication device for persons who are deaf-blind. In 1968, the journal highlighted the coming digital age in a special issue on blind persons and computers, and Gartner (a market analysis manager from Xerox Corporation) heralded large-print type as a revolutionary new medium.

The 1960s and 1970s also looked at best practices, with Huckins (1965) writing on teaching handwriting to the blind student, and Weiss and Weiss (1978) on "Teaching Handwriting to the Congenitally Blind," using a braille-reading student's knowledge of the structure and spatial relations within the braille cell to guide instruction. Pittam (1965) explored reading readiness, and Stocker and Walton (1967) discussed braille reading methods for teaching adults. Bleiberg (1970) described research on whether there was a need to develop a specially designed reading series for beginning braille readers.

During this time period, there was also a trend toward investigating how to improve braille reading in terms of speed, letter recognition, and comprehension (see, for example, Umsted, 1972; McBride, 1974; Crandell & Wallace, 1974; Craig, 1975; Hampshire, 1975; Olson, Harlow, & Williams, 1975; Mommers, 1976; Olson, 1976, 1977; Mangold, 1978; and Wormsley, 1981). Of particular note is a 1976 article by Hampshire and Whiston describing the braille publishing and production systems. This may have been the first time braille and printing production issues were raised in the journal.

Tactile learning is addressed in two very important articles that appeared in the 1970s: "Behavioral Strategies and Problems in Scanning and Interpreting Tactual Displays," by Berla (1972), informs us greatly regarding the specific skills needed in reading tactile graphics, and Rubin's (1976) "Exploration of a Tactile Aesthetic" is a fascinating study by an art therapist that reveals much about the environmental perceptions of children who are blind.

Special issues on literacy

JVIB's emphasis on literacy for blind persons was in evidence with the publication of two special issues on the subject (1989; 1996). The 1989 special issue (with Evelyn Rex as guest editor) broke new ground in three very specific ways that have influenced practice to this day. First, it featured articles by representatives from the organized blind consumer groups, American Council of the Blind (Stephens) and National Federation of the Blind (Schroeder). Second, it highlighted the beginning of a rich discussion on best practices in selecting the appropriate reading medium for children with visual impairments (Koenig & Holbrook; Mangold & Mangold). Finally, it looked at issues and obstacles to access in production of materials for "print handicapped" readers (Huebner, Kelly, & Davis).

These articles began conversations that remain on the current landscape of blindness education to this day. Schroeder and Stephens brought attention to the attitudinal issues in society and among educators that may hinder literacy among blind persons. The work of Mangold and Mangold and Koenig and Holbrook initiated thinking that has led to formal assessments and data-driven decisions regarding selection of reading media. Huebner, Kelly, and Davis reported on a movement to involve publishers in easing obstacles to accessibility which, ultimately has led to the advances of the American Foundation for the Blind Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum and the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard and the establishment of the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center. All of these major themes have resulted not only in significant changes to practice, but in remarkable changes in federal and state law. It would be difficult to point to another issue of JVIB that has had more impact on the practice of education of students who are blind in terms of literacy and communication media.

In 1996, JVIB published another special issue on literacy, guest edited by Holbrook, Koenig, and Smith. This issue included many more authors and many more topics, including emergent literacy, perspectives on braille, employment, reading rates, braille code, resources, and comments. A particularly enlightening summary of the state of literacy from 1989 through 1996 appears in Spungin's comment, "Braille and Beyond: Braille Literacy in a Larger Context."

Since 1996, JVIB's commitment to literacy has been evident in terms of the research, practice, and policy included in its pages. As always, JVIB has reflected the trends in the field because JVIB's authors, peer reviewers, and editors are the actual innovators, educators, consumers, researchers, and decision makers carrying out the work.


In this very short article, I have tried to describe how the journal has served for the past 100 years as an important witness to the trends, practices, and theories of the blindness field related to braille and other communication media. Such a survey can hardly do justice to the richness that lies within its pages. The toughest part of the task was deciding what to include. No two of us would make the same decisions about it. So, while I was pleased to be able to lead this journey, I recommend that readers should spend some time treasure hunting through back issues of this journal and reacquainting themselves with the rich historical literature of the field.

Our colleagues and friends, mentors and teachers, leaders and legends, are here in these pages. Some of them are no longer among us, but their words, ideas, and wisdom are to be found within this journal's pages. The history of our profession is here for the asking--and treasures await at each turn of the page.

if I were suddenly blinded, or if I found the world slowly dimming before my eyes, I should be thankful for the invention of braille. Whether at my age I could master it, I do not know; but the hope of mastering it would sustain me. For without being able to read, independent of others to read to me, I do not believe that I could write--or, in so far as I could write, I should be chiefly dependent upon my past reading during my years of vision. That is why I want the blind to be able to read for themselves, as well as to be read to.
-T. S. Eliot (1952)


Adams, C. M. (1925). The possibilities of audible machine reading. Outlook for the Blind, 19, 39-51.

Berla, E. P. (1972). Behavioral strategies and problems in scanning and interpreting tactual displays. New Outlook for the Blind, 66, 277-286.

Bleiberg, R. (1970). Is there a need for a specially designed reading series for beginning blind readers? New Outlook for the Blind, 64, 135-138.

Carter, B. (1964). The pocket book machine: An experiment in gaining time. New Outlook for the Blind, 58, 115-116.

Conrad, A. E. (1922). On the teaching of reading. Outlook for the Blind, 16, 82.

Craig, R. H. (1975). A personal approach to teaching braille reading to youths and adults. New Outlook for the Blind, 69, 11-19.

Crandell, J. M., & Wallace, D. H. (1974). Speed reading in braille: An empirical study. New Outlook for the Blind, 68, 13-19.

Denman, A. (1921). English Braille. Outlook for the Blind, 15, 118.

Dinsmore, A. (1967). Field testing the Tactile Speech Indicator. New Outlook for the Blind, 61, 192-193.

Donnelly, R. L. (1928). Writing braille in the prisons of Norway. Outlook for the Blind, 22, 27.

Eliot, T. S. (1952). Some thoughts on braille. New Outlook for the Blind, 46, 287-288.

Foulke, E. (1963). A language of the skin. New Outlook for the Blind, 57.

Foulke, E. (1966). A survey of acceptability of rapid speech. New Outlook for the Blind, 60, 261-265.

Foulke, E. (1967). The influence of a reader's voice and style of reading on comprehension of time-compressed speech. New Outlook for the Blind, 61, 65-68.

Gartner, J. N. (1968). Large type reading materials for the visually handicapped. New Outlook for the Blind, 62, 233-239.

Gradle, H. S., & Stein, J. C. (1926). Telescopic spectacles and magnifiers as aids to poor vision. Outlook for the Blind, 20, 28-33.

Hampshire, B. E. (1975). Tactile and visual reading. New Outlook for the Blind, 69, 145-154.

Hampshire, B. E., & Whiston, T. G. (1976). Factors in the design of braille provision systems. New Outlook for the Blind, 70, 137-142.

Hayes, S. P. (1922). Can blind children spell? Outlook for the Blind, 16, 39, 52-58.

Hoyt, A. M. (1927). The growth of braille transcribing. Outlook for the Blind, 21, 26-29.

Huckins, A. P. (1965). Teaching handwriting to the blind student. New Outlook for the Blind, 59, 63-65.

Huebner, K. M., Kelly, J., & Davis, B. (1989). Coalition for information access for print handicapped readers (CIAPHR). Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 303-305.

Irwin, R. B. (1934). Reducing the cost and bulk of braille books. Outlook for the Blind, 28, 10-17.

Koenig, A. J., & Holbrook, M. C. (1989). Determining the reading medium for students with visual impairments: A diagnostic teaching approach. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 296-302.

Krebs, B. M. (1959). A braillist talks with resource teachers. New Outlook for the Blind, 53, 132-136.

MacKenzie, C. (1949). Braille reassessed (part I). Outlook for the Blind, 43, 159-163.

MacKenzie, C. (1949). Braille reassessed (part II). Outlook for the Blind, 43, 193-196.

Mangold, S. (1978). Tactile perception and braille letter recognition: Effects of developmental teaching. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 72, 259-266 .

Mangold, S., & Mangold, P. (1989). Selecting the most appropriate primary learning medium for students with functional vision. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 294-295.

Maxfield, K. E. (1934). Summary of the information collected by the uniform type committee on the mechanics of reading raised type. Outlook for the Blind, 28, 8-15.

McBride, V. G. (1974). Explorations in rapid reading in braille. New Outlook for the Blind, 68, 8-12.

Mommers, M. J. C. (1976). Braille reading: Factors affecting achievement of Dutch elementary school children. New Outlook for the Blind, 70, 332-340.

Olson, M. R. (1976). Faster braille reading: Preparation at the reading readiness level. New Outlook for the Blind, 70, 341-343.

Olson, M. R. (1977). Teaching faster braille reading in the primary grades. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 71, 122-124.

Olson, M. R., Harlow, S. D., & Williams, J. (1975). Rapid reading in braille and large print: An examination of McBride's procedures. New Outlook for the Blind, 69, 392-395.

Peck, O. (1934). Reading in sight-saving classes. Outlook for the Blind, 28, 29-32.

Pittam, V. G. (1965). Reading readiness. New Outlook for the Blind, 59, 322-324.

Rosenthal, R. (1937). Braille dictionary. Outlook for the Blind, 31, 52-53.

Rubin, J. A. (1976). The exploration of a tactile aesthetic. New Outlook for the Blind, 70, 369-375.

Schroeder, F. (1989). Literacy: The key to opportunity. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 290-293.

Spungin, S. J. (1996). Braille and beyond: Braille literacy in a larger context. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 90, 271-274.

Stephens, O. (1989). Braille--Implications for living. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 83, 288-289.

Stocker, C. S., & Walton, M. J. (1967). Exploring a more efficient method of teaching braille. New Outlook for the Blind, 61, 151-154.

Umsted, R.G. (1972). Improving braille reading. New Outlook for the Blind, 66, 169-177.

Weiss, J, & Weiss, J. (1978). Teaching handwriting to the congenitally blind. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 72, 280-283.

Wilson, E. A. (1932). Why we teach grade 2. Outlook for the Blind, 26, 226-229.

Wormsley, D. P. (1981). Hand movement training in braille reading. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 75, 327-331.

Stuart H. Wittenstein, Ed.D., superintendent, California School for the Blind, 500 Walnut Avenue, Fremont, CA 94536; e-mail: <>.

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