They Read with Their Fingers
DO YOU like to read? If so, perhaps one of your favorite pastimes is to relax in a comfortable chair with a good book or magazine in your hand. Just think of the many things you have learned, places you have visited, people you have talked to—all by means of the printed page! But what if you were blind? Would this door of learning be closed to you? No, not if you knew how to read with your fingers.
By means of the touch reading system known as Braille, tens of thousands of blind persons around the world have been able to enjoy reading. Today nearly everything that has appeared in print can be transcribed into Braille to be read with trained fingers. Hundreds of persons have even been aided in obtaining a knowledge of God’s Word and purposes because the Holy Scriptures and Bible study aids have been produced in Braille. But such has not always been possible, since the standardization and development of Braille has taken place only within the last century and a half.
History of Braille
For many centuries methods had been sought to make it possible for the sightless to “read” for themselves. Early efforts involved carving letters out of blocks of wood and then arranging them in proper order for the blind to feel with their fingers. Later, such letters were cast in lead or other suitable metals. Sometimes letters that were cut out of cardboard were employed. Needless to say, this arrangement was very cumbersome and time consuming. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that most of the letters used in those days were hard to distinguish by feel unless they were large.
A breakthrough in developing a reading system for the blind came through the efforts of Valentin Haüy, founder of a school for blind children in Paris, during the late eighteenth century. By chance he discovered that printed material that had been firmly impressed into paper could be felt by his blind students, and that they could, with some difficulty, identify certain letters. Haüy immediately began devising a system whereby the movable type commonly used in printing would be employed to impress the letters into the paper. Thus, embossed literature was invented.
The old problems remained, however, particularly that of finding a script that could easily be identified by touch. Primitive though Haüy’s system might have been, pupils of his school acquired their education by this method for more than forty years. Then one of the students, Louis Braille, devised a better system.
Louis Braille was ten years old when he was enrolled in Haüy’s school, having been blinded at a very early age by an accident in his father’s saddle-making shop. In time young Braille became interested in a touch reading system called “night writing.” It had been introduced to some students by its inventor, Captain Charles Barbier. The French military used it to communicate at night, with no danger of giving away their position by telltale lights or vocal calls. An awl was used to emboss dots into heavy paper, which could then be felt in the dark by the soldiers. Night writing was based on a table of thirty-six squares, each square representing one basic sound of human speech. Two rows of up to six dots each were embossed into the paper. The number of dots in the first row indicated which horizontal line of the table of speech sounds the desired sound was in, and the number of dots in the second row designated the correct sound in that line. Night writing proved to be the springboard enabling young Braille to devise a system of touch reading that is in use to this day.
Initially, Braille designed his system to be used with the French language. But it has now been adapted to make it usable with many languages. Even languages with non-Roman alphabets, such as Chinese and Arabic, can be written in Braille. Successful efforts have been made by many organizations to standardize the Braille system used world wide. Hence, it now has become the universal communication medium of the blind.
How Braille Works
The Braille system utilizes a series of “cells” embossed in a horizontal row. Each cell represents either a letter, a number, a combination of letters or a word. A Braille cell consists of two vertical rows of three dots each, just large enough to permit the tip of the finger to detect the positions of all six dots. By varying the positions of the dots within the cell, a total of sixty-three different combinations is possible. In English Braille, twenty-six of these combinations, or “signs,” are used to represent the alphabet, and the rest are used for punctuation, special contractions and short-forms.
A look at the accompanying illustration will reveal that the first ten letters of the English alphabet, a through j, are represented by combinations of the top four dots in the Braille cell. The numbers 1 through 9, and zero, are represented by these same ten signs preceded by a special number sign. The next ten letters, k through t, are formed by adding the lower-left-hand dot to the first ten letter signs. The last six letters of the alphabet repeat the first signs, but with both lower dots added. The letter w is an exception, since there is no w in the French alphabet for which the Braille system originally was designed. The remaining combinations are used for punctuation, special contractions and short-forms.
These contractions and short-forms often make Braille difficult to learn. Especially is this so if one has become blind late in life, since the only way to learn Braille is to memorize all the signs. For this reason, there are various “grades” of Braille.
Grade-one Braille makes use only of the signs representing the alphabet and punctuation, numbers and a few special composition signs that are unique to Braille. It corresponds letter for letter with the visual print of the material. This grade is the easiest to learn, there being fewer signs to memorize than in other grades. On the other hand, grade-one Braille is the slowest to transcribe and read, and the end product is the bulkiest. Since most of the Braille produced today is transcribed and produced by volunteer workers in nonprofit organizations, grade-one Braille rarely is used.
Grade-two is a somewhat abbreviated form of Braille. For example, each of the twenty-six signs representing the English alphabet has a double meaning. If it is used in combination with other Braille cells within a word, it represents only a letter; but if it stands alone, it represents a common word. Thus the sign for b standing by itself represents the word but, the c sign standing alone means can, the d sign alone means do, and so on through the alphabet. Exceptions, of course, are the letters a, i and o, since they already are words when they stand by themselves. Other signs are employed to represent common prefixes such as dis and com, common suffixes such as ed, er and ing, common letter combinations such as ow, ou, in and en and some common words such as the, and, for and of.
The use of contractions and short-forms greatly reduces the time involved in transcribing and reading the material, as well as the bulkiness of the finished volume. Today, therefore, this is the most commonly used grade of Braille. However, it is more difficult to learn grade-two Braille. Not only must one memorize all sixty-three different signs (most of which have more than one meaning, depending on how they are used), but also it is necessary to learn an involved set of rules governing when each sign can or cannot be used.
Grade-three is a highly abbreviated form of Braille, approaching true shorthand. There are a great number of contractions and short-forms to memorize and the rules governing their use are correspondingly difficult. Grade-three Braille often is employed in scientific notation or other highly technical material. Since very few blind persons are able to read this grade of Braille, it is not commonly used.
Braille has proved to be very adaptable as a medium of communication. When Louis Braille initially developed his touch reading system, he applied it to the notation of music. The method works so well that the reading and writing of music is easier for the blind than it is for persons having sight. Various mathematical, scientific and chemical terms have been successfully transcribed into Braille, opening vast storehouses of knowledge for blind readers. Watches with stout hands and embossed Braille figures have been designed so that deft fingers can feel what time it is.
Kingdom Message in Braille
One of the most important applications of Braille has been the conveying of the “good news” of God’s kingdom. (Matt. 24:14) Back in 1960, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, a corporation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, began reproducing selected articles from their Biblical journal The Watchtower in grade-two English Braille. These were produced monthly, but in very limited quantities, since each copy had to be made by hand with a stylus. Over the years expanded and improved facilities have made possible an ever-increasing supply of Bible study aids in Braille. Today the Watch Tower Society still produces in Braille selected articles from The Watchtower. Currently there are over 1,000 subscribers around the world. A partner arrangement is in effect so that, for each copy produced, two subscribers share the magazine. Each subscriber is able to keep every other issue for personal use.
Additionally, the Watch Tower Society produces many books and booklets in Braille. These are provided on a loan basis. Available in grade-two English Braille are the following books: The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life; True Peace and Security—From What Source?; Is This Life All There Is?; Listening to the Great Teacher; Is the Bible Really the Word of God?; Holy Spirit—The Force Behind the Coming New Order!; and the songbook “Singing and Accompanying Yourselves with Music in Your Hearts” (words only). Also available in grade-two English Braille are the booklets There Is Much More to Life!; Is There a God Who Cares?; and A Secure Future—How You Can Find It. Additionally, the Watch Tower Society has produced the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom” and the tract Life in God’s New Order in grade-one Spanish Braille.
Sightless persons who desire to obtain on a loan basis any of the literature mentioned, or who wish to have their names added to the mailing list for selected Watchtower articles may do so by writing to the Watch Tower Society, Braille Desk, 117 Adams Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201. All Braille literature is free of charge.
This Braille literature has aided many blind persons to come to an accurate knowledge of their Creator, Jehovah God. As a result, they have seen the need of dedicating their lives to God and sharing with others what they have learned. This they have done despite their handicap. A witness of Jehovah in Puerto Rico regularly conducts Bible studies with others by means of Braille literature. She writes: “You should see how happy I look packing my book bag with the big bulky book and with my guide dog dragging me along the way. Jehovah is a loving and glorious God—so merciful, too, when he uses us to serve him no matter what handicaps we may have.”
By means of Christian literature in Braille, men unable to see have been appointed to positions of responsibility within the Christian congregation. Though blind, they conduct congregational meetings, or read the paragraphs at the weekly study of The Watchtower. Some even give public Bible talks, using Braille notes.
Remarkable indeed—from the unyielding desire of a teen-age boy to communicate with the sighted world around him has come the versatile system we know today as Braille. New worlds of learning have been opened to the blind who have learned to read by touch. What a grand and happy day it will be when the prophetic words of Isaiah 35:5 are fulfilled in a literal way! Then “the eyes of the blind ones will be opened.” But until that occurs they are blessed to be able to read about these precious promises with their fingers.
[Picture on page 17]
THE BRAILLE ALPHABET
a b c d e f g h i j
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
k l m n o p q r s t
u v x y z w Number Sign