Tactile writing systems

Initially, we talked about how writing systems originated as ways to convey information visually. But there exists writing systems for those with visual impairments too. Of course, the one that jumps to mind immediately is Braille, but there are others. It is probably most productive to examine the whole story.

Braille gets its namesake from Louis Braille who invented the writing system. Louis Braille blinded one eye when he was three, and the other went blind from infection due to the initial injury. In 1821, Braille learned of “night writing,” which was originally intended for military communication.

Night writing was a code of dots and dashes embossed into thick paper, which could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, theoretically letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak. Night writing flopped and never saw any practical use, but the idea stuck with Braille. 

By the time Braille was 15, his orthography was nearly complete, and when he was 20 he published “Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots.” At the time, the system used dots and dashes, the latter of which he later dropped as they were difficult to distinguish. After constant expansion and many modifications, Braille was able to even express music and mathematical symbols.

By this time, Braille was a professor at the French Royal Institute for Blind Youth. Sadly, he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 43. The institute adopted his writing system posthumously after petitions from students. 

The War of the Dots

After Braille came Boston Line Letter, which looked like whole letters embossed into paper. 

Meanwhile, William Bell Wait at the then New York Institution for the Blind was simultaneously developing his own writing system: New York Point.

Initially, he encouraged other schools to make use of Braille’s system, but they refused— so he went and made his own.

Picture belongs to Ricky Irvine.
Boston Line Letter, developed by Samuel Gridley Howe in 1835.

Braille did not account for the frequency of occurrence of a letter. For instance, the letter ‘t’ occurs more often than ‘a’ in many languages, yet ‘t’ used more dots than ‘a,’ which sometimes meant books could get incredibly bulky.

Enter Joel W. Smith, who sought to fix that problem by creating American Braille. Keep in mind that each of these systems are distinct. Now, you can see the development of writing systems for the blind was quite a mess! 

After some advocacy from Hellen Keller, there was finally a consistent writing system for the blind, the one we still use today: Standard English Braille, or Grade 2 Braille

The various tactile writing systems developed for blind readers have all been alphabetic in nature.

Exploring the tactile orthographies gives us insight into the world of the blind and living with disability. In fact, the choice of a writing system has a noticeable impact on the learnability depending on the reader. Research shows that the congenitally deaf— that is, those who are born deaf— struggle with phonographic (specifically alphabetic) orthographies. This could be because their disability prevents them from accessing the phonological systems in the brain that others might have. 

Writing is humanity’s greatest technological achievement. It enabled us to share information across generations and allowed us to watch and learn from our past. It is a priority that we strive towards higher literacy rates— the ability to read is a gift unparalleled and leads directly to education and empowerment. 





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