What is Braille?

Braille is a system of raised dots which people read by feeling with their fingertips. The Braille dots are used to represent words and numbers, punctuation characters and even mathematics, science and music notation.

Braille has many uses with a wide selection of magazines, fiction and non-fiction books available and labelling for items such as food cans and packets, medicines, documents, CDs and games including cards like Uno and bingo. Bank statements, utility bills and other business letters can be provided in Braille and some restaurants and pub chains offer Braille menus.

A Braille character or "cell" consists of 6 or 8 dots. There are different Braille codes in use:

  • uncontracted Braille represents each print character as one Braille cell
  • contracted Braille is a form of shorthand in which groups of letters may be combined into a single Braille cell.

Many experienced Braille users read and write contracted Braille.

Braille requires a fine sense of touch - some individuals with conditions such as diabetes, who have reduced finger sensitivity, may find using Braille difficult. Moon could be an easier alternative.

Creating Braille manually

Braille can be produced manually, using a stylus on a portable hand-frame or on a manual desktop machine similar to traditional manual typewriter.

Traditional frames create a dot on the reverse side of the paper so the Braille has to be written back to front.

Upward writing frames are now available which create the dots on the front of the piece of paper enabling you to produce Braille from left to right as you would read the code.

Some manual machines for creating Braille are portable, others are designed as desktop machines, similar to traditional manual typewriters.

They have six keys to produce the Braille (one key for each dot in a Braille cell). Some Braille machines can use standard A5 and other standard paper sizes.

Good practice indicates that Braille should always be written on Braille paper which ensures that the Braille produced will be far more durable.

Some simple manual Braille machines can produce Braille on Dymo tape to create labels. Alternatively, many people use an audio labeller whereby they can affix a small label or dot to an item, use the device to record the information, then use the device to play back the information.

Braille and computers

Braille can also be produced on a computer using translation software and a Braille embosser instead of a printer.

A keyboard with Braille keys instead of the standard QWERTY keys can be used, although some users may prefer to continue using a standard keyboard. A Braille display can be linked to a computer to enable a user to read by touch what is on the screen.

If portable computing is required, Braille notetakers are machines with word processing features similar to an electric word processor or laptop, but with a Braille keyboard and /or Braille display.

Braille embossers
Braille embossers print Braille onto special Braille paper, from a computer. They are connected to the computer like a text printer or can be connected to notetakers. The paper is thicker and more expensive than standard printer paper.

Software is required to convert text to Braille before it is printed/embossed (known as Braille translation software). For more information on this software, refer to the RNIB's information page, Braille fonts.

Embossers can be noisy; if an embosser is going to be used regularly and cannot be kept in a room away from people, an acoustic hood or soundproof case is recommended. Before purchasing a Braille embosser consider issues such as the noise, the speed the embosser is capable of printing at, and whether you need the printer to be portable.

Braille keyboards
These computer keyboards with Braille keys and are different in design to the traditional QWERTY keyboard keys.

Braille displays
Image of a Braille displayBrailler displays are tactile devices that are usually placed in front of your computer keyboard providing you with the means to read the contents of your computer screen by touch in Braille.

Braille displays have a number of cells and each cell has six or eight pins. These pins are electronically moved up and down, to create a Braille version of the characters that appear on the computer screen. Each Braille cell represents one character from the screen. An 80 cell Braille display represents approximately one line of text on a screen (Hersh and Johnson, 2008).

Before you purchase a Braille display, try several to ensure that the one you choose is comfortable to use and provides the functions you need. Many screen readers offer two outputs: speech and Braille. Depending on your requirements, using the speech output facility of a screen reader will be a cheaper option than harnessing a Braille display to it. We recommend you speak to the RNIB for advice as these devices can be expensive. A range of devices and information about them is provided here:

Image of a NotetakerThis portable device can be used as a word processor to take notes, record and organise information.

Some may also have features to provide a calendar, phone book, internet, email and run Windows based operating systems. They feedback information by speech output or via a Braille display.

Further information

Braille requires a fine sense of touch, some individuals with conditions such as diabetes, who have reduced finger sensitivity may find using Braille difficult and may find using Moon easier. Read our advice on Moon. For information on learning Braille including details of courses visit the RNIB Learning Braille webpage.

For more information on Braille visit the RNIB Braille information webpage

Advice last checked: 29 January 2018 Next check due: 29 January 2021

All advice is either supported by references (cited in the text) or is based upon peer reviewed professional opinion. Our advice is impartial and not influenced by sponsors or product suppliers listed on the site.
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