Accessibility enthusiast Laura Eberly, author of this wildly popular post about using screen readers as a sighted person, is back with new research to share. She started with a simple question: Should braille be capitalized? In typical Laura fashion, she found the ultimate rabbit hole. She dug through archives, consulted experts, and read all about the controversial history of blind people reading, so you don’t have to. Now, she’s presenting the best and weirdest of her findings with us.
I was on a mission. Wrong was being done, and duty was calling me, just like in this comic:
You see, I was eager to find the right way to handle the capitalization of braille — the writing system, not the person — and I was pretty much ready to shout to the world that I needed answers. Why did I, as a sighted person, care so much? Well, I’ve been working in accessibility testing for years, and I grew to see things as neatly categorized: pass/fail, bug/feature, process /chaos. But capitalization of the word braille always stuck out to me as being inconclusive, a grey area, defying categorization. Over time, as my auto-correction software kept changing the capitalization of my writing, it grew from a minor point of confusion into a big, glaring disruption whenever I saw it in print.
The Braille Authority of North America (BANA)’s position statement from 2006 said I should use lower case, but some of my friends and colleagues, actual braille users from around the world, often preferred an uppercase B. If I asked them about it, they’d usually say that they were taught to do it that way and didn’t care to change it. But what good was a seemingly official standard if braille users weren’t using it? What logic was behind braille teachers’ decisions? What was going on?
I’d long been touting the BANA statement’s lowercase recommendation, which recommends lowercase b. BANA’s intention was to make braille an eponym like ‘sandwich’, a word that used to be named after a person but became a standard part of the English language. However, I’ve also seen the argument that writing braille with a capital B is a sign of respect for its inventor, and prominent organizations like the National Federation of the Blind use upper case. I felt it was time for me to consult some experts!
I reached out to a Teacher of the Visually Impaired, Dr. Ting Siu, who recommended I talk to Dr. FM D’Andrea, one of the authors of the BANA statement. She generously consulted the extensive collection of journals on her shelf, finding lowercase b usage dating back to 1973.
Dr. D’Andrea also referred me to Mike Hudson, the museum director at the American Printing House for the Blind. He helpfully sent me reports from administrators of schools for children who are blind from around the US dating back to 1834. To my frustration, the older reports only referenced “embossed books,” (which used raised print letters rather than dots), and included horrifying language like “… whose zeal in the cause of the Blind entitles him to the gratitude of this unfortunate class of beings.” I was thoroughly shocked and disgusted by encountering such a view of disability and troubled even more that this was written by the adults trusted to run these schools. I had to move on from these sources.
I soon discovered capitalization was just one of many disagreements surrounding writing systems for the blind community. In the US, around the 1800s, there was a decades-long battle over different forms of tactile writing, including braille and New York Point, a name that is always capitalized, by the way. The stakes of this debate grew higher when the government of the state of New York wanted to standardize the writing system taught in schools and used for printing books. Emotions boiled over during the extremely heated 1909 hearings of the New York board of education, where “protests were so violent that a second hearing was held.” For the hearings, Helen Keller wrote a letter arguing against New York Point, writing braille with a lowercase b while she was at it. The fact that New York Point books were almost never printed with capitalization was part of what led to its demise at that hearing. This intrigued me and guided me further down into a research rabbit hole.
Whenever braille history is discussed, like in this excellent podcast episode called “The Universal Page” it often references “The War of the Dots,” a chapter in a collection called As I Saw It by Robert B. Irwin, a blind educator and supervisor who held a master’s degree from Harvard. I dug deep into the internet archives to find the original book so I could scour it for clues about capitalization. I read about Miss L. Pearl Howard and Mrs. Elwyn H. Fowler, representatives of the Uniform Type Committee from 1911, who travelled to 36 states collecting data to determine which writing system was better. They brought in braille and New York Point readers, timing them for efficiency and accuracy as they read a sample set of dots. They used nonsense dots written in the style of each system to avoid skewing the results with readers’ existing knowledge. I was so pleased to have found some process-loving kindred spirits from over 100 years ago.
However, after a quick trip to Nova Scotia, they discovered that the British braille used there was superior to both American systems for reading speed and comprehension. They immediately ended the study after this discovery. (Fantastic!) But their conclusion? Create yet another American system, called the Standard Dot, to compete with British braille. (Womp womp.)
Thankfully, by the mid-1920s, pushback from braille users stopped the Standard Dot and other schemes. A memorable example was a quote from an unnamed conference attendee who reportedly burst out: “If anyone invents a new system of printing for the blind, shoot him on the spot.” I was struck by the realization that I, too, was a sighted person arguing about braille when I had no real personal stake. Reasoning that other people might benefit from my findings, though, I continued my research.
At last, I turned to the origin of this intriguing saga, Louis Braille himself. He was expected to read using a system of raised letters that were invented with the thought that both blind and sighted people could read the same page. He mastered this despite raised lettering being hard to manufacture and harder still to make out by touch. We all know he went on to invent braille by simplifying night writing, but he didn’t name it after himself. In his 1829 book, Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots, he simply called the system dotted writing (which the pedant in me just couldn’t help but notice was completely lower case). Tragically, his original writing and his school’s library were burned by the head of his school in an attempt to suppress its use. This is why one of Braille’s only surviving writings was written in raised letters, not braille, even though it laid out his thoughts about how braille should be written. For me, this loss was devastating to read about, and more devastating, I’m sure, to blind readers who will never experience most of his work.
I still wanted to see the earliest example, in print, of when Louis Braille’s writing system officially became named after him. In part, it was to see when he received long overdue respect, and in part, it was because I wanted to see how it was capitalized. I still couldn’t let that bit go. Late one night, while reading more of “The War of the Dots,” I came upon one answer to my original question about capitalization. In the 1932 Treaty of London, British and American braille code representatives agreed that “Capitalization was made optional with the publisher.” In this quiet moment, with me totally unsuspecting, history had spoken. There is no right way to capitalize braille. Uncertainty and ambiguity are baked into the process, and indeed, into life. Braille, like many systems, is a living one, that adapts over time and belongs to those who use it.
I never did find the first reference that changed the name from dotted writing to braille, but I did get close with a reference to a French pamphlet from 1880 that does not have its content online. I don’t know if the capital B in the title refers to the person or the writing system.
I now encourage capitalization of the word braille as a personal choice. I still use the BANA style in official writing for consistency’s sake. Really, though, I’m just like everyone else. I was taught to write it this way and I don’t care to change it. Even though this leaves a grey area, in my heart, I’m satisfied.
Special thanks to the folks I’ve mentioned who helped me on this post and of course, my wonderful editor, Meagan.
Here’s one more fact that didn’t make it into this writing: In 1952, Louis Braille was finally recognized by the French Government and his body was exhumed and reburied in the Pantheon in Paris, with other French national heroes. However, the Mayor of his home town insisted on having Braille’s hands removed and buried in the village cemetery. It seems that disagreements about Braille may never end.