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Learn about Braille

Louis Braille invented a way for blind people to read and write. Braille is a system of six dots arranged in "cells" of two dots across by three dots down, like a child's muffin tin. The "cell" is just the right size to fit under the finger.

Most people read with their right index finger, although some use both index fingers. Most often the right finger moves across the page while the left finger acts as a placeholder, moving down a line at a time so the right hand doesn't need to look for the new line.

Braille is arranged in rows of about 40 characters per line, 26 lines per page. Most books and magazines measure 11-1/2 by 11-1/2 inches, large by print book standards. Books for little children may be "half-size", only about 5-1/2 inches from top to bottom. Some books are the size of a standard print page, and so have only about 30 characters per line.

Braille is like a shorthand. It includes the 26 letters of the alphabet and many contractions and "signs".

In print, lowercase letters are shaped differently from uppercase letters. Italics and other fonts look differently. In braille, an a is an a, and it always looks the same. A special symbol is placed in front of the letter to show that it is uppercase or italicized.

There are different levels of braille. Uncontracted braille, once called Grade One, is just full spelling. Everything is written using only the 26 letters, the capital sign, and standard punctuation such as periods and question marks. A few books are produced in uncontracted braille for children and adults who are just learning to read.

Around the mid-1930's contractions started to come into use, making braille like a shorthand. There are one-celled symbols for common words such as and, for and with, and they can be combined with other letters to form words. For example, hand and forty need fewer cells to write with signs, and also are faster to read.

There are signs for common letter combinations such as th, sh, tion and ment, and a word such as combination needs only five cells (contracted braille) rather than eleven (full spelling).

Another large group of contractions are called short-form words. They are formed from letters or other symbols, and are memorized in the same way as math facts or spelling. Examples of short-form words are: ab, about; ac, according; rcv, receive; and alw, always. Letters, written by themselves with a space on either side also stand for words: b, but; p, people; r, rather. All of these signs make up contracted braille, once called Grade Two braille.

The earlier a blind child starts learning braille, the better he will read and write. Learning braille can be difficult for an elderly person, but is great for jotting down phone numbers, labelling things around the house, making notes, and for reading a good book or magazine.

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