The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception - Jennifer L. Hellier 2017


For persons who are blind or hard of seeing, it can be difficult or impossible to read written communication that is printed. For centuries, rudimentary forms of raised dots on paper have been developed to help the blind read as well as for military use in night activities. Since 1858, the braille system has been the official standardized reading and writing system for the blind as voted by the World Congress for the Blind.


Louis Braille (1809—1852) was born in France and at the age of three years he accidentally punctured his right eye with a sharp tool used by cobblers. A few months later, his left eye began to be inflamed, most likely by sympathetic ophthalmia. Medical technology at the time could not save either eye and thus, by the age of five years old Braille was completely blind. Nonetheless, Braille’s parents wanted Louis to receive an education, so his father taught him the French alphabet by hammering nails into wooden blocks in the shapes of letters. Louis would run his finger over the nail heads to learn the alphabet. By 10 years old, Braille entered the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris to have a formal education.

Through time, simple forms of raised-letter systems have been developed for written communication with the blind. One of the first recorded raised-letter systems was designed by Valentin Haüy (1745—1822), who was the founder of the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France, which opened in 1784. About 20 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769—1821) army created another raised-dot system (or code) specifically for military use during night activities. Artillery captain Charles Barbier invented this system and brought it to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth as another option for blind readers. This raised-dot system was based on a six-by-six grid with each box representing a sound of the French alphabet.

Braille first learned Haüy’s raised-letter system but eventually converted to Barbier’s coded system as Braille felt it was a superior system. Over time, Braille improved on Barbier’s original raised-dot system so that (1) each combination of dots represented an actual letter of the alphabet and not just the sound, (2) there were fewer dot combinations to memorize, and (3) the organization of the raised dots could be read by a single finger. This allowed the user to learn the system quickly, increase speed in reading, and spell words that sighted people could read. Because of his improved design, this raised-dot system was named after Louise Braille and is still used today.

Components of Braille

Braille consists of a grouping of six raised dots, which is called a cell. Each cell is organized by six dots organized in three rows and two columns, having the same organization as a number six playing card. The dot or dots that are raised determine the letter, number, or punctuation. This combination allows braille to have 64 different characters, including spaces, accent marks (required in the French language), and symbols.

Braille organized the letters of the alphabet by decades, with A—J being the first decade, K—T being the second decade, and U—Z being the third decade. This means that the first decade only has raised dots on the top and middle rows of the cell. The second decade has raised dots in each row but only in the first dot (or left dot) on the bottom row. This bottom left raised-dot denotes the second decade. Finally, the third decade has raised dots in each row but both dots are raised in the bottom row. The English-language W letter is not the same as in French and thus, it is represented by the letter J raised-dots combination along with only the right bottom dot being raised.

There are three additional decades (fourth, fifth, and sixth decades) that are used for numbers, punctuation, symbols, and spaces. These are denoted by raised dots in all rows but only the right bottom dot is raised for the fourth decade. The fifth decade only has the middle and bottom rows with raised dots, called “shift down.” Finally, the sixth decade is shifted to the right with the majority of cells’ first columns not having any raised dots.

Jennifer L. Hellier

See also: Blindness; Keller, Helen; Visual Motor System; Visual System; Visual Threshold

Further Reading

Braille Institute of America. (2016). About: Braille Institute. Retrieved from

Bullock, John D., & Jay M. Galst. (2009). The story of Louis Braille. Archives of Ophthalmology, 127(11), 1532—1533.

Jiménez, Javier, Jesús Olea, Jesús Torres, Inmaculada Alonso, Dirk Harder, & Konstanze Fischer. (2008). Biography of Louis Braille and invention of the braille alphabet. Survey of Ophthalmology, 54(1), 142—149.