The Power of Braille

I have been an avid reader all of my life–mysteries, biographies, software manuals–there aren’t many topics I have not explored over the 43 years of my life that I have known how to read.  Like so many others in the blind community, I have listened to audio books since I was able to operate the record player that used to store talking books back in my early childhood.  Today I enjoy reading books on my iPhone, using my Victor Reader Stream, or sitting at the computer.  As important as the digital age is to me, nothing has even come close to empowering me as a blind person the way Braille has.


As I allow myself to reflect on my experiences with Braille, certain memories come to the forefront of my thoughts–writing lines of Braille cells across a page as a first-grader; the bewilderment I felt the first time I came across a page of Braille with lines of text that were not separated by blank lines; the smell of Braille books, both new and old.  When I was in middle school, I received a four-volume atlas of the United States as a companion to the social studies textbook our class was using.  I studied every map in that atlas over and over again for hours on end, tracing rivers and pretending they were roads.  I was ecstatic to find my home town, small as it was, listed on the map of Missouri.  Most of what I know about the geography of the United States today came from that set of maps.  I think back on the excitement of running to the mailbox and carting back box after box of Braille books and then hunting through the boxes for the first volume of the latest book I was about to devour.


These days, what with the portability and low cost of ebooks, it seems that Braille is struggling to keep its place in the lives of the blind.  The high cost of Braille displays compounds the problem, making it easier to simply abandon Braille, or perhaps relegate it to infrequent use.  Does it really matter if Braille becomes a medium that exists only in museums and the memories of older blind people? Is it time to move on to more modern and cost-effective ways of communicating the written word, or should we fight to bring Braille back to the forefront of our collective consciousness? Why is Braille still relevant today?


I believe Braille is essential for good writing.  I would not be the proficient speller I am today if I had not read hundreds of thousands of Braille words over the course of my life.  While any decent screen reader provides the ability to spell words and review lines of text character by character, it is virtually impossible to catch all formatting and spelling errors in a document with speech alone.  Anyone who uses text-to-speech software at all knows all too well the frustration of deciphering b’s from d’s, and sorting out all of the words that sound alike but are spelled differently such as there and their.


As I type these words, I wonder how many readers are listening to my thoughts at 600 words per minute? Is it really possible to absorb and digest a piece of writing such as this one when listening to speech at supersonic speeds? Don’t get me wrong—I skim through familiar and reoccurring text on a daily basis and would not consider using a speech synthesizer that I couldn’t speed up at will.  That being said, when I really need to digest something I am reading, I will slow my speech rate down or transfer the content to an sd card for later reading on my Braille display.  I am constantly amazed at the number of errors I find in documents I am reading in Braille that I did not catch with speech alone.


Finally, reading a book, poem, or blog post in Braille permits me to become part of the experience in a way that speech never allows.  I create voices for characters, hear a friend’s voice in my head as I read their written thoughts, and most importantly, slow down and really pay attention to what I am reading.


Would I want to go back to the days before I had my iPhone and portable book reader? No way.  Am I as likely to use a slate and stylus today as I was 20 years ago? Probably not.  Can I imagine what my life would be like if I never again read another line of text in Braille? I don’t even want to dwell on the thought.


And now that I am finished writing this blog post, I plan to do something I haven’t done in quite a while.  I intend to order a novel in Braille from my local lending library and–gasp–wait for it to arrive in the mail.  I will once again rush to the mailbox, collect those bulky boxes that have been sitting in the hot sun all day, retire to my room, open the first box, and enjoy the smell of a Braille book.  More importantly, I will once again rediscover the joy of reading Braille!

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28 Responses to The Power of Braille

  1. Kim says:

    Great article Jamie!

  2. George says:

    An excellent post and extremely valid points. Hopefully with the price of Braille displays coming down this form of literacy for the blind will become more accessible.

  3. Lisa says:

    I think it’s a travesty that braille seems to be going by the wayside.
    I actually strongly dislike listening to audio books. As amusing as this is for a totally blind person like me, I was labeled as a “visual” learner when I was in school. The word visual meant more than just seeing. I learn best by reading for myself, as opposed to hearing something read to me. When I’m listening, my mind wanders, and soon enough, I realize I have no idea what has been said for awhile.
    I play several on-line games with other blind people, and most of them are younger than me and weren’t as forced to use braille as I was. The one thing that they all seem to have in common is that they are attrocious spellers. I know that some people simply have difficulty spelling. But when a person does everything in audio, it’s no wonder that they are unable to spell.
    As far as I’m concerned, a blind community that can’t read braille is an illiterate community. That seems to be moving backwards, as opposed to forwards.
    I still use a braille note taker, because I am an avid reader. I download my books from BookShare, and can’t imagine not having them in braille. So while I appreciate the fact that so much technology exists, such as the IPhone, I still need that braille display.
    Perhaps we should work on reducing the cost of the braille display. There’s no reason why any of the book technology available can’t be used in conjunction with a braille display.

  4. Suzanne Erb says:

    I heartily concur with everything that has already been said. While technology can enhance the Braille reading experience, it can never replace it. On Saturday evenings, I both play the piano and sing for aVigil Mass. While I play a continuo with my left hand, I read the text with my right, and sing the verses to the Psalm. Since the Psalm changes weekly, the ability to use my Braille display as I play and sing saves time. Long live the product of our Gutenberg!

  5. jan brown says:

    I am so glad to hear a pro braille post coming from anybody who doesn’t work for Humanware.
    I got through college on a slate and stylus, and am glad I was good enough with it back then.
    When I went to Grad school for the second time in the nineties, I used a Braille’n Speak 640. I now have on old Braillenote Empower 7.5 and am one of the people who loves note takers.
    I am a terrible speller just like the rest of my family, so I believe genetics rather than blindness is responsible. The smell and hand of braille books and the ability to read them are important to our literacy as a community. When I want to write, I do it on my old Braillenote. I can think better in Braille.
    I’m glad you took the time to write about it.
    Thank you.

  6. Linda says:

    I find it so much easier to put my phone contacts in Braille. Hey, what if the power goes off. I still want to read.

  7. Beth says:

    Yay for Braille, great article and I also love note takers, am researching what I will get. Long live Braille! Beth

  8. judy barrett says:

    I also went to college and grad school using a slate and stylus. I am an auditory learner, and I love audio books. Braille is a tool that I would not want to be without. I carry my slate, stylus and a bunch of index cards when I travel so that I can make a note or a label when I need one. No batteries needed. My mother was blind, and she used to read to me after we went to bed with the Braille book across her body. I also find it useful when reading poetry around a campfire. Thanks for all the good thoughts.

  9. Ann P. says:

    Great post, Jamey. I shan’t go over all the reasons why Braille is so important. I will only say that I concur with the person who said that a blind community without Braille is an illiterate community.

    I want instead to tell you what I’ve been doing this spring. I have been teaching Braille to adult learners who have lost their sight in adulthood! Friends, the joy of watching these people discovering that they can read again is profound, profound! To watch a student go from reading individual letters and sounding them out to reading entire words is a miracle. It is akin to that magic moment at the water pump, truly. Now my students already understand the relationship between a code and the sounds it represents, but to see them rediscovering a skill they thought they had lost is so very special! I feel privileged that I have been His instrument in this miraculous thing. I hope that somebody somewhere will develop a cheap braille display. When they do, it will throw open the doors which are fast closing upon Braille learning.

    And yes, if I want to really understand something, I want it in braille. I spend many hours reading audio books, but if I want to sing in a chorus, understand computer code, implement a set of instructions, keep track of my students’ performance, or write checks, I do it in Braille.

  10. Dan says:

    Thanks for the braille reminder. Although I am not a great user of braille, it is importnat for me to keep my skills up.


  11. Jessica says:

    I agree with you 100%. Although I for a while too thought braille was going out the window. It wasn’t till I got a braille display that I realized how useful braille really is. I can’t see myself having tons of braille volumes in my house. But I read on my braille display. I understand things so much better when I read them rather than listening to them.

  12. Harry Brown says:

    Hi all, I completely agree with the above 7 comments. As far as a cheaper braille display, we’re getting close and closer. In the next 2 years or so, we’re gonna see a full page braille display, you read that right, a full page display! The reason braille has been nearly eliminated from the schools is, the bulk of braille, carrying around all those braille books, and all that braille paper, and a braille writer, is well, just crazy! I know, folks, I know, I had to do it myself, just like all of you did! Also, speech is faster! It’s faster with speech to read, than with braille. However, with braille displays getting cheaper and cheaper, braille will be back in vogue! For those of you who are using a braille display, can you tell me which display you’re using? Also, do you manually have to go down to the next line, by pressing a key or wheel? Or, does it go down to the next line automatically? Great post, Jamie, and I felt everything that you did, in your post, all the things you mentioned! Harry

  13. Linda says:

    Absolutely agree 100%. I don’t know what I’d do without braille.

  14. Christine Diller says:

    Fabulous article! As a former braille transcriber, along with thermoforming books eons ago, I learned the importance of braille. Unfortunately I’m not able to read for hours as was the case, but I still enjoy doing so. It aids me in staying a great speller.

  15. DickSeifert says:

    I certainly concur with the previous comments and certainly concur that a blind person who does not use Braille or another tactile method such as the optacon is illiterate. I once told a lady after she lost all her remaining sight that she was illiterate. She said that that statement motivated her to learn Braille. Although she isn’t a fast reader, she uses Braille every day. Dick Seifert

  16. Roger says:

    A great article, with which, as with the other comments, I concurr a hundred percent. The pity is that within the screen reader providers, because of their political monetary arguments, they cannot even agree on braille drivers that work for all braille displays with all screen readers. It’s scandalous. Imagine if each screen reader had to use a different language code for reading, which was unintelligible to all the others. And so is the price of braille displays, simply because there is no real competition. Firms agree the price amongst themselves, which is why they all sell the same display for exactly the same price. It’s called a cartel, and it’s at the expense of the braille user.

  17. Amy says:

    Hello Jamie, As with several of the other comments in this list I use Braille daily whether it be for reading, writing or correcting something, being that I am a writer I wouldn’t be without it. Not only do I have a Braille notetaker but I also have several slates and styli and Perkins Braillers readily accessible for anything that might need to be put into writing.
    I am also an avid Braille user.

  18. Julie Broman says:

    For the past 5 years, I haven’t been able to read print except through a CCTV. At 59, I decided to learn braille before I got to old to learn. My motivation was to be able to read books to my grandchildren. After a year and a half of learning, it is my joy to now be able to accomplish that goal. I figure I have only a few more months to finish learning all the contractions. One big benefit of reading braille is being able to familiarize myself whith how words are spelled. As I am aging and not seeing the printed word, I’m forgetting how certain words are spelled or if they are compound words. Braille is letting me see the words again. So I can see where people might say you are illiterate if you don’t read braille. So i’ll say “yes” to braille.

  19. Abbie Taylor says:

    As a child, I learned Braille when I was in the first grade and read quite a bit. As an adult, I only use Braille when I participate in writing workshops. I prefer to use a slate and stylus because I don’t have to worry about the battery going dead, and other participants not accustomed to hearing a synthetic speech voice don’t have to listen to one read something I’ve written. I also occasionally transcribe by hand poems I’ve written into Braille so I can more easily read them at public events.

    Although I feel blind and visually impaired children should learn Braille, adults should have choices. Some still prefer to hold a Braille book in their hands. Others like to use Braille displays. I prefer having a book read to me, either by a synthetic or human voice. I may get a Braille display, but I’ll probably only use it to proofread my writing before submitting it to a publisher.

  20. I really enjoyed the article about Braille. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this controversial subject. A few years ago, I wrote an article about my experience learning Braille with my grandma. My story was printed in a compilation of stories in a book titled, “Let Freedom Ring, Letters to President Obama.” I, too, went through college armed with my slate and stylus. Toward the end of college, I got a Braille and Speak. The big advantage to the Braille and Speak was that I could write papers on it and then, hook it up to an ink printer. Printing my papers was much easier than laboring over a typewriter. However, when it came to taking class notes, I much preferred the slate. I could write faster on the slate with fewer errors and I didn’t have to worry about my slate crashing.

    Your description of the smell of Braille books took me back to my younger days. I remember the smells of those new Braille books. There is nothing that compares with the new smell of Braille books or the feel of fresh Braille upon the fingertips. And,how about the cracking sound when you open a new Braille book?
    Then, at the end of a school year, we were always elated when we could take discarded Braille books home.

    If the literacy rate for sighted children were only ten percent, we would be in the midst of a national crisis. Unfortunately, there are few who seem concerned about the pathetically low Braille literacy rate among our blind children today.

    Braille books are my business. I am the founder and CEO of Beulah Reimer Legacy, (BRL.) We add Braille to children’s picture books by placing the brailled text on clear plastic strips which go on top of the printed text. We have added Braille to hundreds and perhaps thousands of books over the past few years and will continue brailling books.

    If you would like more information about BRL, check us out on the Beulah Reimer Legacy page on Facebook or visit our website:

    Happy reading.



  21. Beth says:

    I found this article in today’s “Matilda Ziegler Magazine”, enjoy! Beth,,20596891,00.html

  22. Katie says:

    Hi Jamie,

    Thank you for writing this article. As I read the article and comments, I am pleased to discover my passion for Braille is felt by others. The passage about your bewilderment of trying to read text in books not separated by blank lines made me smile, as I too felt that way when reading the first single-spaced text I encountered.

    Also, as others have commented, the smell and crack of a Braille book are unforgetable. I also recall, when in 2001, a BrailleNote was put in my hands. I was amazed to discover a device that could hold hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of books! This summer, I intend to buy a Braille display to use with both my iPhone and Computer. I personally do not see a need for a blindness specific notetaker, however, I honestly miss being able to read books from bookshare, and now iBooks in Braille. Finally, in my current job, working with numbers and various systems all day as I do, I can say with 100% certainty I would be unable to do my job without the use of my Braille display and feedback from my screen reader.

    to sum up all my rambling, long!!! live!!! Braille!!!!!

  23. Eric says:

    As someone who directs nationally-recognized youth programs for the Louisiana Center for the Blind and conducts outreach in ours and surrounding states, I am saddened by the prevailing thought that Braille is, or should be obsolete. Wonderful post, Jamie! Thank you.

  24. Randi says:

    This was an excellent post!

    I agree with everything that’s been said here, and of course, nothing could be better than those books arriving in the mail and the crack and the smell as you opened them! I’m one of those people who prefers braille over speech and auio any day… Someone else mentioned being considered a “visual learner” even though they are totally blind, and that was me too. When I got my first computer about 17 hears ago, I used a braille display only. It wasn’t until i made the leap from DOS to Windows, that I began using speech. I learned to use the slate and stylus growing up, but I went through school when a lot of older technology like the versabraille was just coming on the market. Even though some of the later device such as the Braille Lite had speech, I preferred to turn it off and use braille. I still do that now with the BrailleNote. I find that I’m very slow and not eficient at all using speech alone. I need my braille display to be able to function well on the computer.

    So yes, braille is synonomous with success. Not only that, it also opens up the world to those who are deaf-blind. It would be a sad lonely day if braille ever went away.

  25. Gary Olson says:

    That was an awesome post, Jamie! I’ve read lots of articles about the importance of braille, but your post said it all and better than everything I’ve read on the subject to date.

    I could sure identify with your experiences of learning to read braille, the smell of the braille books etc. I remember how it was when I was a small boy at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind when we would be told by our house parents to stop reading at night and go to sleep. Some of us would continue reading and the only way our house parents knew was by listeng to the sound of little fingers going across the pages.

    My braille skills were of the utmost importance when I came to public school in the sixth grade in the fall of 1965. In those days in Wyoming there were no classroom aids or teachers of the visually impaired. We either made it in public school or we didn’t.

  26. slj says:

    Great great article, and lots of great comments!
    I can only agree 100% on what have been said here. especially when it comes to spelling and proof-reading written texts in braille. I’m one of those people who only used Braille in school, and found myself to be a pretty poor and slow reader. Later on I got speech, and didn’t used Braille much. I’ve now got a Braille display, and I begin to read Braille again, which I really enjoy.
    when it comes to spelling, I find myself to be a pretty poor writer when it comes to english. English is not my first language which of course is the main reason, but I often find myself wandering how to spell words which sounds familior, and then the english voice in the screenreader helps me a lot to write words which sounds like what I wanna read. braille is very important when it comes to read texts other people have wrote, mainly to catch words which sounds familior.
    I can only agree 100% on what have been said here. Keep the awesome comments comming!

  27. Aidan says:

    O yes braille is very important. I would love to have a BrailleDisplay. I found that when using a NoteTaker, I am not that much motivated to hook it up to the pc for use with my screen reader, as the battery goes down quicker, and the cels are to little. But how can one not want to use a display in our day of life with a few lovely models available today. The price is a problem and I wish that also governments can fund this projects more to lower the cost til they can get cheaper in time. I am also not a good speller and I always wanted a mountbattin brailler but now it wil be more practical to use a display. I am really excited about the new focus blootooth displays. But freedomscientific is very guilty of this driver mess.

  28. Beth says:

    Atrocious spelling and reading skills are also seen in the sighted, including seniors. Society must make reading and spelling of utmost importance. We used to be such a literate people, we’re not any more.

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