For The Visually Impaired, Braille Continues To Evolve To Transform Their Lives

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TRENTON—If asked to name a 12-year-old—any 12-year-old, boy or girl – who created something that is such an important part of people’s lives that it is used every day all over the world, many people would probably shrug their shoulders and give a blank look. Those savvy in the world of social networking might say the two teens who created Myyearbook.com. Others would surely say Mozart, possibly Chopin.

But, although a contemporary of Chopin, this blind young lad’s creation had nothing to do with music, but everything to do with learning and reading when he developed a system of making letters, numbers and words using six raised dots in different patterns. By the time Louis Braille was 15, he published the first ever Braille book in 1929, then went on to add symbols for math and music in 1937, which undoubtedly made those blind students wishing to play Chopin happy.

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Braille, who was blinded by accident when three, developed the system because of the way blind students were taught in 1821 Paris: teachers talked and the students listened. He wanted a better way to learn. Although it took until 1868, 16 years after his death, for his system to be accepted, it spread worldwide and is the standard used globally today, with those raised dots recognized by both the blind and sighted.

“New Jersey has approximately 295,000 blind and visually impaired residents,” said Adam Szczepaniak, director of the New Jersey State Library’s Talking Book and Braille Center, which has the state’s largest Braille collection with over 13,500 titles, of which almost 10,000 were circulated last year. “Naturally, Braille books are bigger. The translation of the Three Musketeers takes six large volumes, fortunately they are very light.

“Braille skills are integral for the blind and visually impaired to have full, independent, successful lives,” he continued. “It’s such a necessity and yet it is little recognized for its importance. Seventy percent of blind people without Braille skills are unemployed, while 85 percent of the Braille-literate population holds jobs.

“That’s why we also provide Web-Braille to our customers,” he added. “Our mission at TBBC isn’t just to provide free accessible reading materials, but to provide information, including information on and access to the latest technology. Web-Braille is part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Handicapped’s Web site which allows a member to either read a Braille book online with their software or download the book to their computer or Braille output device.”

Output at TBBC is via either audio software or a refreshable Braille display terminal. The Braille terminal receives content displayed on the computer screen and displays it, line-by-line, in Braille on the terminal. The mechanism uses the piezo effect of some crystals, where they expand when a voltage is applied to them. The crystal is connected to a lever which raises the dot. Each Braille dot (eight per character) is controlled by a crystal.

Another software program in use at TBBC is the Duxbury Braille Translator, which converts text on the computer instantly to Braille in a variety of languages. This translation may then be printed out on the Braille printing machine.

And in case you think that Braille is out of step with today’s communication, consider this: “contracted” Braille predates today’s text message abbreviations by many years.

Services at the NJ State Library Talking Book and Braille Center are available without charge to anyone living in New Jersey who, for any physical reason, cannot read printed material.


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