Guest Post by Laura Eberly: A Capital B in My Bonnet

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 to us.


I was on a mission. Wrong was being done, and duty was calling me, just like in this comic:

Voice from outside the room: Are you coming to bed? Person on computer: I can't. This is important. Voice: What? Person on computer: Someone is WRONG on the Internet.

Photo source: xkcd.com

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.

Better Living Through Severed Shoestrings

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” played on repeat throughout my time in public school. I was better off than many blind students, since my school division rarely hesitated to fund what I needed, and my educational assistant’s skill far exceeded her salary. Despite this relative abundance, I was never permitted to forget how lucky I was to receive basic educational tools. Fellow classmates were forever losing or damaging their books and equipment, while I was reprimanded for so much as bending a binder. I was threatened with a $700 fine for misplacing one volume of a Braille book. If a piece of expensive equipment malfunctioned—usually because I had not received the most rudimentary lessons on how to use it—I was held solely responsible, my attempts to explain myself summarily dismissed. Almost nothing I used belonged to me, so a broken coil or missing stack of Braille paper was grounds for outright hysteria. In fact, my first panic attack was triggered by a problem with my school-issued laptop. It had been drilled into me by a few overzealous adults that I could either be a faultless steward of my assistive technology, or I could surrender the right to have any at all. Panic seemed warranted.

University was a welcome reprieve. Generous grants and scholarships covered all my equipment. There was an expectation that I’d take care of my technology to a reasonable extent, but no one was hanging over my shoulder, evaluating the way I carried my Braille display. Grant money wasn’t unlimited, so I still had to be cautious, and when something broke down, there was no guarantee I could afford to repair it. For those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, specialized technology seems to break down a lot.

Then, as if to cement this shoestring pattern, I started working in the nonprofit sector. Anyone who has worked in nonprofit organizations for any length of time knows that you can’t assume you’ll have reliable access to stamps and functional phone systems, let alone costly assistive devices and software. Funding is available for Albertan employers, but I had already developed the habit of accomplishing all tasks with bare-bones resources. Years of living on the disability shoestring meant I was a convenient employee, but not necessarily an optimal one. In the disability world, you often get what you pay for, and the nonprofit tendency to use no or low-cost alternatives to standard products spurred me to avoid asking for anything at all unless my job depended on it. My employer checked in periodically to make sure I didn’t need anything new, but I insisted I was just fine, thanks. Again and again, I chose the long, winding path to every goal—whether at work or in my personal life–because it meant conserving other people’s money and time. What could be more important than that?

Recently, I switched to a position in which employees are expected to make any reasonable request that will increase their productivity. Nothing is promised, but much is delivered, and my shoestring habits are neither lauded nor useful. Profligacy isn’t encouraged, but neither am I praised for taking hours to perform simple tasks just because I used a cheaper option, or refused to ask for help, or failed to request an accommodation. In my new environment, resources are plentiful, and I’ve had to do major soul-searching to become comfortable with that.

It has taken me years to pinpoint why I find the hard way so easy. The trouble with the shoestring lifestyle is that while it’s not enjoyable, it’s comforting. If no one can accuse you of being a drag on the system because of those dreaded “special needs” of yours, you can indulge in self-righteous piety. Doing everything the difficult but economical way is a bulwark against societal pressure to take as little from a harsh world as you can. I convinced myself I had to earn my right to work, which meant ensuring that no employer or disabled peer could view me as financially burdensome. Amid all my anxiety about costing too much or needing too much help, I forgot that employers are typically more attached to excellence and efficiency than economy. If I proved to be valuable and competent, employers would find ways to accommodate me. On the other hand, if I cost them next to nothing but lagged in terms of productivity, they’d be well within their rights to trade me in.

A lawyer friend said it best: “A good dose of get-sh*t-done is important, but time is money.” Cultivating an independent, innovative spirit is worthwhile, but it’s equally important to identify what you need, and have the guts to ask for it. Shoestrings make great security blankets, but when resources are within reach, it’s best to snip those strings. The severing exposes you to potential criticism, yes, and it means someone might conceivably make the case that you’re too costly to keep, sure …

But it also means you’ll do your best work, in good time, with minimal risk of burnout. What could be better for your work-life balance, your health, and your employer’s bottom line?

I’ll keep my ability to improvise and adapt. I’ll hang onto my talent for working under tight budgets and tighter deadlines. I’ll learn multiple ways of circumventing disability barriers, because the ideal environment will not always be there.

As for the scarcity-based, shoestring mentality? I think it’s time I let that go.

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!

In Praise Of L’Occitane

I tore excitedly into a parcel sent by a friend in the UK, knowing there would be plenty of luxury inside. Sure enough, nestled among the high-end chocolate was a bottle of lavender-scented body milk. I didn’t notice anything special about the bottle, besides its impressively authentic scent, until my friend went over the contents of the box with me.
“The brailled stuff is L’Occitane. It’s very, very high-end. Don’t share it with anyone.” (In fact, I did share it, though I sent some of it to a friend in hospital to make her stay a little more bearable, so it was a good cause.)
Confused, I reexamined the bottle. Sure enough, there was braille inscribed right on the bottle itself: it read, “body milk” … and I fell even more in love with this French cosmetics company.
It’s such a simple gesture, labeling a product in braille, but it carried considerable weight with me. Here was this bath and body company, known for its posh products and sophisticated scents, bothering to braille almost every single product so we could shop with more ease and accessibility. Here was a company with, as far as I’m aware, no specific affiliations with the blind community, making a concerted effort to enhance our ability to shop independently. I had to know the story behind this, so I did some digging.
The story goes that L’Occitane founder Olivier Baussan noticed a blind woman browsing the perfume section of his store, taking in all the different scents with obvious concentration. He realized, then, that he had to make a change. From then on, more and more L’Occitane products with braille labels began to appear on shelves around the world. Even glass perfume bottles, which are difficult to inscribe with braille, came in brailled boxes. Their shower gel bottles look exactly alike, but I no longer have to pop them all open to tell them apart. My L’Occitane collection is well-organized anyway, but each time I take down a bottle of hand cream or some roll-on perfume, I know exactly what I’m holding before it even reaches my nose.
As I said, it sounds like an excessively simple courtesy to be grateful for, but for whatever reason, L’Occitane’s commitment to accessibility makes me incredibly happy each time I think about it.
So, thank you, L’Occitane, both for your excellent products and your efforts to make my life just a little bit easier. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying To Kill It)

Note: As of January 2020, this post has been updated to correct some assumptions I no longer hold, describe new experiences I’ve had, and clarify a few points that have come up in the years since its original publication. I hope it is better and more useful for it.


I’ve heard the case against braille books, and it’s a compelling one. Braille books are bulky, because the braille alphabet is oversized compared to print letters. They aren’t terribly common, as the market for them is so small. They are expensive to produce, so most of us don’t own our own books. We usually end up borrowing them from special libraries and resource centres.
Braille is undeniably inconvenient. Throughout secondary school, my backpack weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 pounds, because it was crammed with volumes and volumes of braille. If I also had to carry my laptop case, braille notetaker, and/or my Perkins Brailler, I’d be carrying something like 40 pounds of equipment and books back and forth every day. That was a third of my body weight, and I am quite sure some of the neck and back issues I suffer from began with all those books.
Then, there’s the multiple volume problem: most braille textbooks and longer leisure reading books are too long to come in one volume. My first braille dictionary, a short one meant for children, was 25 volumes in length. My high school chemistry book, which included enormous tactile diagrams, was 53 volumes long. Each volume only contained the equivalent of 20 or so print pages, so I would sometimes run back and forth during class to fetch the next volume of braille (my books had their own storage room, true story). When I had chemistry or math homework, I’d have to carry several volumes of braille, instead of just two books like every other student. It was a logistical nightmare, especially when I’d miscalculate and bring the wrong volumes home with me. If you ask my parents, they’ll tell you about all the times I came home distraught, because I’d realized, too late, that I didn’t have the correct volumes with me. Oh, the tears I shed over braille books.
So, yes, I understand the case against braille, and I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. Some blind people never master it, and others simply don’t like using it. Auditory learners, in particular, seem to do better with audio books and text-to-speech than braille, and that’s valid, too.
That being said, I’m not shy about my belief that braille needs to stick around, and cannot be replaced by audio technology.
People keep insisting that braille is dead. Irrelevant. Frivolous, even, given our digital landscape. With screen readers and other text-to-speech products, what do we need braille for? Blind bookworms, students, and professionals can just sit back, relax, and let their computers read to them. Who needs to have the actual text in front of them? Isn’t being read aloud to enough?
For me, and for many, many blind people, it’s nowhere near enough. It’s not enough, because we still deserve to read in the ways that best suit us. It’s not enough, because it’s still nice to be able to pick up a book (or, in some cases, to cuddle up with electronic braille). Most importantly of all, it’s not enough, because blind people, especially those who are deaf-blind, still need access to more than one literacy tool. They still need to learn to read just like everyone else.
Imagine how a sighted parent would react if, upon sending their child to school, the teachers decided that reading is optional, frivolous, irrelevant. Imagine the outrage if instead, teachers just read aloud to that child, not letting them see or understand how the alphabet works because it’s too much bother to teach them.
Now, imagine that the teachers then insisted on teaching that child to write, without letting them read. Sure, a child can be taught to type and never have to know how to write by hand, but learning to write when they cannot read would be a wee bit complicated, no? And wouldn’t learning to spell be far, far trickier? Would the average sighted child ever be subjected to this bizarre methodology, just for the sake of convenience or frugality or the idea that they don’t “need” to learn? Not likely.
Nearly everything I know about language I learned from reading. If you want to be a good writer, you have to watch other writers at work, and this necessitates a lot of reading. Yes, I can still learn by having my computer read a book aloud to me, and I’m not one to disparage audio books as “fake” reading. But I find that I don’t retain information quite as well just by listening. Not every blind person is an auditory learner, least of all me, so reading on my own is still a crucial skill, and I literally couldn’t do my editing work without braille. Spotting subtle punctuation errors and common misspellings that automated software won’t catch would be cumbersome if I relied on my ears, and would slow me down considerably.
Speaking of spelling, I’ve noticed that while bad spelling is by no means exclusive to blind people, we have to work harder than most sighted people, simply because without braille, we don’t interact with text the same way. If you hardly ever “see” the words on a page, you have to put in a lot more legwork to ensure you’re not missing things. It’s easier to be a good speller when you have the opportunity to memorize the words, and you can’t do that as easily without reading independently. While I am a decent speller, any word I picked up in a braille book is much easier for me to remember than a word I picked up by listening. These days, I do the majority of my “reading” by listening to audio books or text-to-speech software, so I have more difficulty spelling newer terms. Here are just a few of the pitfalls a lack of braille access has caused for many blind people I know:
• The Beatles becomes The Beetles
• Def Leppard becomes Deaf Leopard (logical, but still wrong!)
• Too, to, and two become hopelessly mixed up, even more than usual
• Names are commonly incorrect (Sarah vs. Sara) and names based on deliberate misspellings and wordplay are especially difficult
Unless we are diligent about checking the spelling of anything new, mistakes like these will keep cropping up in the blind community, and minor as it seems, it can be genuinely embarrassing for a lot of us.
Mindful of this, I find excuses to read braille as often as possible, both because I enjoy it and to keep my spelling skills up to par. Sighted people will almost always have the luxury of knowing how a thing is spelled the moment they read it. The only way for me to replicate that is to read a lot of braille and do a lot of googling.
“But Wait!” you say, “isn’t spelling sort of secondary to all the other aspects of literacy? With the ever-present Spellcheck, isn’t the ability to spell less valuable?” Maybe, though as a professional writer and editor I do know that Spellcheck won’t save you every time. Even if we discard spelling, though, grammar and general syntax still rely on the ability to read, and not everyone can pick that up just by listening. Braille gives you the opportunity to read aloud to yourself, which will help improve grammar and flow in your own writing. (Screen readers aren’t so natural-sounding as to read with a human’s sense of flow, and as I learned while preparing speaking notes for other people, screen readers don’t help you catch unintentional tongue-twisters!) If you’re not an auditory learner, learning a new language, or improving your mother tongue, is much easier if you can read directly to yourself.
So, no, braille is not for everyone, and braille proficiency is not, as I once believed, a non-negotiable ingredient for blind people’s literacy and professional success. But love it or hate it, braille is the only way in which blind people can learn to read in the same way sighted people do, and for people wired the way I am, it’s the optimal method for absorbing and retaining new information. Braille is inconvenient, and expensive, and problematic, yes. But it’s not redundant. It’s not pointless. It’s definitely not dead.
Please, stop trying to kill it.