United English Braille: The Good, The Bad, And The Sketchy

In today’s guest post, Gregg Chambers, a long-time braille user, dissects the new (and supposedly improved) United English Braille. He discusses the good (changes he sees as sensible and timely), the bad (changes that are a little less sensible, really) and the ethically sketchy (the whole process of changing a reading system using questionable input). He’s done a little more digging into the whole affair than I have, so without further ado, I present you with his thoughtful analysis. Take it away, Gregg!

If you’re blind or visually impaired, or if you are close to someone who is, you have probably heard of Unified English Braille. UEB, as it is more often called, is quite the controversial topic among those who read braille, mostly owing to the plethora of changes that have occurred in the last few years in order to ostensibly make reading easier and the language itself more uniform. Opinions vary widely, with many singing the praises of the new UEB while many others are outraged by what they see as unnecessary and ill-considered alterations to the code. Below, I will offer my own perspective as a blind person who reads braille, and in doing so, I hope to demonstrate something approaching a middle ground between the two extremes.

Braille is both a code and a language by definition; both codes and languages are bound to change over time as the uses to which they are put also change. UEB is no exception to this trend. Many of the recent additions to the code are concerned with symbols that are often found on the internet, better allowing a braille user to write out such things as hashtags, email addresses and website URLs. This sort of progress, in my opinion, is not only inevitable, but useful. Although it may look strange to read at first for an experienced braille user, the new computer-oriented symbols and syntax offer much more flexibility than previously present in the language. Getting used to these tweaks alone should not take a particularly long time, and in the interest of looking to the future, I would argue that said additions and modifications are perhaps the one very good thing that UEB has done while attempting to keep with the times.

Unfortunately, the changes are not limited to computer braille. Braille, as most of you who are reading this probably know, possesses symbols which can substitute for multi-letter combinations, thus shortening the number of characters a person must read while simultaneously allowing braille to take up less space on a page. Some of these short forms, or contractions, have been removed entirely, while a few others have seen rules added to the language to limit their use. However, nearly all languages and codes have elements which are less than clear, and these unclear elements do not largely inconvenience the people using them. While learning braille between the ages of four and six, I almost certainly got confused a time or three while trying to learn the finer points, but it did not take me long to learn the rules of usage enough to figure out how to read quickly and accurately. Other blind people who share a similar perspective about braille feel much the same, suggesting that these changes are the equivalent of fixing something that did not require improvement. These changes force long-time users of braille to rethink how they read and write, and guarantee that braille will take up a little more space than it used to; neither of these results, in my opinion, justifies the fact that braille is now more uniform and supposedly less bewildering to master.

Worse than the controversial changes, worse by far than the need to learn a few new symbols and adapt one’s understanding of braille, however, is the fact that this written language for the blind was modified largely without the input or guidance of those self-same people. When a programming language evolves, it is because programmers decided to update the language in order to improve functionality. This newest incarnation of braille, however, was dreamed up mostly by people who themselves do not primarily use the language. Unlike a blind person, they do not readily understand what it will mean to essentially relearn bits of a written code that some of us depend heavily upon; no one is suggesting that printed letters be changed, after all, because even if there is some confusion between certain symbols, sighted people seem to make the best of it with few problems. As stated above, much of the rationale for the changes to UEB was based on ease of learning and understanding, combined with clarity of rules. This argument is not an altogether bad one, but if such things are to be considered, the blind have had decades to change things and have not done so. This suggests, to me at least, that even if there were a few confusing fringe cases where braille was not wholly clear, blind people were capable of circumnavigating them, and did not feel the need to update the language. It further suggests that those in charge of changing UEB made two fairly serious mistakes. First, they seemed to imply that their desire for uniformity and assumptions about ease of learning automatically trump the opinions of the blind about their own language. Second, they did not, as far as my research has led me to believe, even bother to seek out the findings and opinions of their target demographic when considering these changes. For me at least, there is something intrinsically high-handed in this pair of bad choices, a suggestion that the opinions of the blind were almost without value, and thus not worth pursuing before implementing changes which would affect them. I am not thin-skinned enough to feel personally insulted by the former judgment error, but there is no doubt that it feels like a pretty big step in the wrong direction.

UEB appears to be here to stay, whether we like it or not. My suggestion to anyone reading is to try and look at the facts, each on its own, before coming to any strong conclusions or making rash or inflammatory statements. If you are a long-time braille user who is upset that you essentially have to relearn bits of the language you rely upon, your feelings are understandable, but your anger may be counterintuitive. I am one of these users myself, and while I have some genuine problems with a few of the decisions made regarding UEB, I also have to recognize two fundamental facts. First, everything changes, and some of these changes are for the better. Second, being unused to something is no reason to call something bad or worthless if you are asked to learn it. I also urge anyone with serious issues about UEB to remember that each of the positive or negative points one can find should be taken separately as often as possible. For instance, the way UEB’s changes were implemented may upset you greatly because it did not incorporate blind people, but that does not mean UEB is automatically bad across the board because of the way it was modified. Likewise, you may be annoyed with the adaptations to certain oft-used contractions, but you should not then grow angry that a few symbols have changed in order to vastly improve braille’s ability to cope with the internet. If one takes each point as separately as possible, one usually comes to a firmer stance in the end, and can more easily discuss their feelings with others.

Do you have any thoughts about UEB? Leave them in the comments; I’d love to hear them!


6 thoughts on “United English Braille: The Good, The Bad, And The Sketchy

  1. Hello,
    I agree with everything you say, except I am more for standardisation than you.
    I am from a different background (Spain), and in here we don’t contract Braille. So you can imagine how complicated it is for us to read something made in a country where they contract it.
    Nevertheless, in here Braille is standardised (though some people use contracted Braille, which is not used or recognised officially since the 80s or 90s), meaning that in the Spanish speaking countries there is no problem in interchanging Braille materials between countries.
    I understand that some people are upset about the changes of UEB. However, Ithink that those changes will be for the better in the long run, because I think that a language should have a standard form in Braille, since this eases readability accross borders (and it’s the same language we are talking about!).
    As a side note, I think that the Braille codes (perhaps except for the contracted / uncontracted debate, because there is no chance of changing every country to one side) should be unified, as is music. The codes for writing Math and IPA are currently different accross languages, and this makes it a nightmare to read these specialised codes if they are produced in another country.
    By the way, why do you call Braille a language? In my opinion, Braille is a writing system, a code if you will. I don’t think that sighted people would consider print as a language, and as Braille is based on the same principles, I don’t consider it a language either.

  2. One of the primary reasons UEB removes and changes several contractions is to make computer translation easier. Anyone who’s used a Braille display or translation software knows that computer translation of English Braille is almost never perfect, particularly with more complex documents. This means that Braille translation almost always requires a transcriber, which dramatically increases both the expense and time needed to produce Braille material. Hopefully, UEB will decrease the need for manual translation or correction by transcribers.
    Also, I think it’s important to point out that UEB doesn’t just limit when contractions can be used. In some cases, it actually allows several contractions to be used when they otherwise couldn’t be, mostly by eliminating the rules restricting contractions by phonetics.

  3. Thank you for this article. I am a sighted person and I am learning braille. I have done first grade braille under the old version. The UEB class was not ready when I was ready to move on so I am almost done with “second grade” braille under the old system and I will need a short UEB course to then learn the changes. Since I am new to all of this still, I didn’t know about these reasons for the conversion to UEB. I had been told it was so that the United States braille system would no longer be different (i.e., punctuation and contracted words) from European braille. Your article doesn’t mention that. Was I led to believe the wrong thing or was that also a small portion of the reason for the change? I am really struggling with punctuation, contractions, and the rules of when I can use a multi-letter or whole word symbol as part of another word. I had been told that UEB eliminated some of those rules. Is that true also?

  4. I am glad that the braille authority took it into their own hands, and made the changes to the code. The blind would have never done it, and it would widen the gap between the sighted and the blind. I had to go from American braille (literary) to UEB, and it took me about 2 weeks to get comfortable with it. I then found out that Australia does not use Nemeth as their maths code and chose to swap over to UEB maths code from the U.K’s mathematics code. I found this harder to learn, but it was certainly doable. For some reason reading the same topics in UEB maths code was easier for me, and resulted in a greater understanding of the maths topic at hand.

  5. Two major factual problems with this post: (1) The author offers no evidence whatsoever for his repeated claims that UEB was developed without the input and guidance of blind people. In fact blind people have been at the core of this endeavor from the outset. Blind representatives of the ICEB member countries have served on all of the key ICEB committees from the beginning, and nothing moved forward without our votes. The ICEB constitution requires that “No fewer than half of the full members’ delegates must be blind”. Aside from the country representatives, large-scale surveys have been conducted over the years targeting braille readers from all walks of life in most of the ICEB countries (including the US and Canada). In the US, both the ACB and NFB passed resolutions supporting UEB, and blind representatives from both of these consumer organizations (as well as blind representatives from NLS and other agencies) were central in its development and advocacy. It strikes me as ironic that the author of this post encourages us to “look at the facts, each on its own, before coming to any strong conclusions or making rash or inflammatory statements”, yet the myth of blind non-involvement in UEB that he himself is propagating in this post is rash, inflammatory, and nonfactual. (2) The second problem here is the author’s repeated reference to braille as a “language”. The fact is, braille is not a language, it is a writing system, just like print is a writing system. English braille is a writing system for English, just like English print is; it does not have phonology, morphology, syntax, or semantics, independent of the language that it is representing–and this is true of all of the 133 languages for which there are braille systems documented in the 2013 edition of World Braille Usage. Also check out the BANA fact sheet on this topic at http://www.brailleauthority.org/notalanguage/braille-is-not-a-language.html It is crucial, as braille readers and advocates, for us to be clear on what braille is: braille is a writing system. And like any writing system, it changes and develops over time; usually those changes are led by committee, and they are always contested and controversial.

  6. I have been battling with my good eye that I read from being completely unusable due to blood leakage into it, on and off since the beginning of the year; and my other eye is barely correctable with glasses for reading. I am 47, and a computer programmer for a living, mostly working with servers and, command-line work.

    I can still read visually, but I have an Orbit 20 Reader arriving tomorrow, to start learning. I’m bewildered by the apparent diversity of dialects. Reading visual documents of braille code looks very daunting at the moment.

    In some ways, this was how programmers were reacting to Unicode taking over. Lots and lots of code that assumed single-byte ASCII starts to break in brittle code-bases; as you now can’t just calculate how many characters something is by subtracting offsets. At some point, the benefits of it started to arrive; as people can seamlessly weave multiple languages together.

    My main goal is just to be able to continue to work at Linux computer terminals; ssh into AWS machines, and editing code; to stay employable. If I end up dependent upon braille at some point, I will most likely be the only one in my group using it.

    I can kind of see how this attitude of disregard towards the users can happen; if it’s all focused on making computer interaction between the blind and the sighted better. Computing tools just can’t deal with language ambiguity. Computers are going to evolve even spoken language itself; so that what you see written is unambiguously how it is spoken. Ligatures will disappear over time.

    In my wife’s language “ng” is a single character, and it causes headaches when trying to do simple things like sort lists. Computers and the internet are going to force the dictionaries to split “ng” up into two characters and sort in ASCII order. ASCII overrides even English itself.

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