by Jamie Pauls
January 4, 2016 marked the 206th birthday of Louis Braille, creator of the code for reading and writing used by blind people the world over. That same day also marked another significant milestone for any braille reader living in the United States. That is the day that the U.S. officially transitioned from the current English Braille code to the Unified English Braille code (UEB).
The United States is the last country to adopt the new code, with South Africa leading the way in May 2004, Nigeria, New Zealand and Australia making the jump in 2005, and Canada making the transition in 2010. The UK made the switch in 2011, and the U.S. adopted the code in November of 2012. The Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has opted to continue using the Nemeth code for math and science in the United States rather than switching to UEB. This decision has created some controversy, which we shall discuss later.
When BANA announced the adoption of UEB in November 2012, with the switch officially taking place in January 2016, I was not taken completely by surprise. I was vaguely aware of the existence of UEB, although I did not realize at the time that work on the code had been under way since 1991. I assumed that the main reason for UEB was to make it easier for braille readers in all English-speaking countries to share documents, but I had never taken the time to consider the matter further. Being eager to try this new code out immediately, I switched the braille table of my existing notetaker to UEB so as to see how imported documents would be affected. The first thing I noticed was that, at first glance, the differences between English Braille and UEB weren’t so great that I couldn’t easily read my documents using the new code. Some contractions had been dropped (nine in all), and a few words, such as “professor,” now contained contractions where they did not exist in the old braille code. One striking example of this was the word “fever.” Upon seeing “f dot 5 e,” I valiantly tried to pronounce the word “ever” with an “f” at the beginning, before I realized what the word was actually supposed to be. Another moment of angst came for me when I discovered that the computer braille code with which I was so familiar no longer existed in UEB. This explained why the “double d” contraction was gone, because the period in a website address was now the same period that was used at the end of a sentence. After playing with UEB for a few months, I switched back to the current English Braille code, and decided to wait until closer to the actual launch date to start using UEB in earnest. In my discussions with other blind people, the same one-word question kept popping up over and over again. Why? What was wrong with the current braille code, and why did we need a new one?
In a recent conversation with Judy Dixon, Consumer Relations Officer with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), I posed that very question to her. Dixon says that the group of blind people who will benefit most from the new code are students. She then reminded me of something that took me back to my grade school days. In many textbooks of that time, rather than providing descriptions of photographs found in the book, there was a short, cryptic note placed where the photo was located. It simply read “Picture: Ask the teacher.” Like Dixon, I don’t recall ever actually asking any of my teachers to describe photos located in my textbooks. I simply ignored the photographs and moved on, never stopping to ask myself how important those photos might be to my understanding of the concepts being taught. Like those old photos, much of the current braille code takes the “Picture: Ask the Teacher” approach. Does the “dots 4-6” indicator in front of a word mean that the word is underlined, italicized, or in boldface type? Perhaps the answer is all of the above. There is really no way to know the answer without consulting a sighted person. If one is reading a self-help book for leisure, perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much, but if a student is reading a psychology textbook where words in bold font are likely to be found in an upcoming exam, it might matter a lot.
Dixon points out that print has changed a lot over the years, but the existing braille code has not. Using UEB, the braille reader will now be able to know if a single character, a word, or an entire passage is italicized, bolded, or underlined. Bullet points are no longer represented by a generic indicator of two “dots 3-6” signs, but have their own unique indicators – two cells consisting of “dots 4-5-6,” and “dots 2-5-6.” Not only is it possible to know when, for example, a boldface passage begins, but there are termination indicators to alert the reader to the fact that the font change has ended. When I pointed out to Dixon that the casual reader would come across a lot of unfamiliar signs when reading UEB, she simply stated that if the new signs don’t matter to the reader, it is possible to ignore them and keep reading. There is no way that anyone will learn the new code all at once, and NLS will provide descriptions at the beginning of each volume to make the reader aware of unfamiliar signs that may be encountered. These pages are currently provided when computer braille code exists in the text of a book or magazine. Since braille music notation has already been standardized, it will not be affected by the change from English braille to UEB.
Anyone who has ever typed in contracted braille on a notetaker and then saved their document in another format such as Microsoft Word will appreciate another advantage to UEB. I have personally experienced the embarrassment of trying to explain to a sighted colleague that the jibberish they were reading was the result of a braille translation error, a concept which is completely lost on anyone who does not read braille. UEB should make it much easier to accurately translate documents from braille to print, minus the annoying braille translation errors. For example, these days you’ll often see two words joined together, with each word being capitalized. The name of this magazine, AccessWorld, is a perfect example. For this reason, the contraction for “ation”– dot 6, n –has been eliminated from UEB. Also, the contraction for “ally” – dot 6, y – is no longer in use. The absence of those contractions should make it easier to translate words such as AccessWorld from braille to print with no errors being introduced. As mentioned earlier, nine contractions have been done away with, including the “ble” contraction. In UEB, dots 3-4-5-6 are now only used as a number sign.
Finally, contracted words including “and,” “for,” and “the” are now separated by spaces rather than being placed together without spaces as they currently are in the English Braille code. Two explanations are offered for this. First, those words are separated by spaces in print, and therefore should be separated in braille. The second explanation is that it is not as important as it once was to save as much space on a page as possible when producing hard-copy braille. Production costs have lowered over the years, and much of today’s braille is read using refreshable braille on notetakers and braille displays rather than on paper.
Controversy over Nemeth Code
In making the decision to keep the old Nemeth code for math and science while adopting UEB for literary braille, a controversy has arisen that has serious implications, especially for those students Judy Dixon believes should benefit most from UEB. As with literary braille – braille read by the average user on a daily basis – UEB provides many more signs for math and science than does the old English Braille code. For this reason, some feel that UEB is superior to the old Nemeth code for working with math and science. Unlike literary braille, however, UEB signs for math and science differ greatly from the Nemeth code. Some states have decided to adopt UEB for math and science, while others have opted to stick with the Nemeth code. This means that a student attending high school in a state where UEB is taught for math and science might attend college in a state where the Nemeth code is used. That student will need to learn an entirely new code in order to successfully complete his/her studies. At the time of this writing, it is not at all clear how this issue will be resolved.
The Best Way to Learn UEB
Even though Jan. 4, 2016 is the day that the United States officially transitioned to the Unified English Braille code, that does not mean that all braille materials will instantly appear in UEB. NLS has made a four-page reference available containing the most frequently used UEB signs. Braille produced in UEB will become available from NLS in the coming months. As stated earlier, a list of UEB signs will be placed at the beginning of each braille volume. Judy Dixon says there are currently about 40 to 50 books now available from NLS that have been produced in UEB, and they can be located by entering the words “Unified English Braille” into the search field under the “subject heading” category of the BARD website.
Along with the many resources available on the BANA website, it is possible to obtain a braille copy of the BANA UEB Reader by sending an e-mail to Kim Charlson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
UEB has been available when using braille on Apple’s products for quite some time, and all of the current Windows screen readers now support UEB. All of the major notetakers in use today allow for the use of UEB as well. HIMS recently announced that a soon-to-be-released firmware upgrade for its BrailleEdge braille display with limited notetaking capabilities will soon allow that device’s notepad application to support UEB.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of one’s opinion as to how and why the Unified English Braille code has been adopted in the United States, it is most likely here to stay. There will certainly be changes made to the code over time, and the transition from English Braille to UEB will almost certainly have a few hiccups. Many decisions need to be made regarding whether to use the existing Nemeth code or UEB for math and science.
That being said, if UEB will provide a richer experience when reading and writing braille, and if the sharing of documents between print and braille can be better facilitated, then the implementation of UEB should be worth the effort.