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!