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the Unified English Braille Code

Quite a few years ago, there was a flurry of activity in the blindness community regarding a project which proposed to combine various braille codes into a single writing system. For those who are unfamiliar with braille, I'll do my best to provide a little background. Since there are a limited number of characters that can be formed with six dots, the braille characters get "re-used" in various contexts to represent different characters. For example, when writing text like this entry, a particular character represents the left parenthesis sign. When doing a math problem, that same character represents the number seven. Many sighted people are concerned that this need to exchange characters becomes confusing for braille readers. I have personally never found it to be confusing; but it is these concerns and difficulties with computerized translation which have prompted research regarding a potential "unified English braille code" which would eliminate the need for different literary, mathematics, and computer codes as well as standardize English braille across the world.

The debate a few years ago resulted in a loud outcry from the organized blind movement in the United States; and it has been a while since I've heard anything about the UEBC. Work has, apparently, continued on the project; and I have learned that the debate is not so quiet in other countries. What I don't know is how blind people in those various countries are responding to the UEBC.

Below are some general links regarding the UEBC. I am from the U.S., and my links are to U.S. resources. I'd be interested if anyone would like to comment with their own country's links and/or thoughts on the UEBC. I'll post my own thoughts later--homework is calling.

International Council on English Braille
This page includes an overview of the history of the UEBC project and links to papers from the early 1990s. There are also links to sample documents in UEBC.

UEBC information page from International Council on English Braille
This page, also linked from the above site, includes a statement about the status of the UEBC project and links to information about UEBC symbols, decisions made since the 2004 ICEB conference, a number of listservs for discussion of various topics.

Focus Group Research on the Implications of Adopting the UEBC (PDF)
This is an article from the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness that appeared in 2006. The UEBC hasn't gone away.

Literary Braille Code vs. UEBC (PDF format)
This article summarizes concerns that have arisen in research done by the Braille Authority of North America.

A Comparison of the Frequency of Number/Punctuation and Number/Letter Combinations in Literary and Technical Materials (PDF format)
An interesting little study. The title is self-explanatory.

Studies of Braille Reading Rates and Implications for the Unified English Braille Code
This article will cost you $5.95 to purchase. If you have access to a library, it may be worth reading via the library instead. I include it here for those who don't.

article from The Braille Forum, March, 2006
This is Winifred Downing's perspective on the UEBC. She is a blind person and raises some intriguing issues, acknowledging the difficulties that have prompted this research but also challenging sighted professionals who are largely responsible for the project.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 14th, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)
It is my understanding that seven countries originally "went in" on the idea of adopting a unified braille code. So far, three of those countries (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) have adopted the code and are in the process of switching over. Canada and Britain and the other country (can't remember which) are considering the code and investigating whether to switch over. These countries, however, especially Canada, are holding off because of the outcry from the U.S. A large portion of Canada's braille resources come from the U.S., and if by switching over it means that we would not longer be able to use such a wide variety of resources, it would have a huge negative impact.

Personally, although I do not myself have problems learning more than one braille code, the truth is that most people do. Perhaps it is more a sighted TVIs' problem than it is a blind persons' problem, but the fact that less than 50% of braille readers in Canada use the nemeth code in school for math is very concerning! I also think that if it would enable computerized braille production with more automation, that's a strong plus.

I have seen samples of the UEBC but have not looked at it recently or in very much depth (I understand it's been revised a bit in the past few years). I understand concerns coming from math and science experts and this is being looked at here in Canada, although I'm not sure they're problems that couldn't be overcome and are caused by reluctance to change. (It has been pointed out that the nemeth code was adopted with absolutely no research to prove its suitability as a braille code, so the UEBC should supposedly be better if tons of research went into its development.)

If you are interested in the work going on in Canada surrounding the UEBC—and there is currently a lot!—the Canadian Braille Authority has information on their Web site. The director of the VCC program just spent a week in Australia with other members representing Canada for a big meting about the UEBC (though I'[m not sure which organization ran it).

Anyway, that's my take on things. I am sort of neutral about the UEBC. If it's adopted I think there are positives and negatives, and to me I'm not sure there's any "right" decision. I, personally, think the computer component is a very strong argument as that, whether via braille translation software or refreshable braille displays, is the future of braille in my opinion. It has become very common here in BC for students to read textbooks with braille displays and have volumes of tactile diagrams only, and I think the UEBC could be good for that as well as perhaps allow post-secondary students to do something similar.

And now, since you have piqued my interest, I may have to go off and do a bit of research on exactly what's been going on recently in Canada with the UEBC.
Apr. 14th, 2008 06:45 pm (UTC)

I posted my comment before reading yours. Thanks for sharing this info. I talked about why I think the UEBC would be a really bad idea for school-age children, particularly those without a mathematical aptitude. I forgot to say that I wouldn't be opposed to a UEBC that used either dropped numbers (as in Nemeth) or numbers that I've seen in some European codes (adding dot six to letters). But any code that uses litterary braille numbers is going to make it hard for technophobes who have to pass algebra to graduate, IMO. The people who currently work in technical fields will actually suffer least, because they will continue to use what they know works for them.
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:46 pm (UTC)
I wonder why they don't just drop all numbers, including literary. It wouldn't really make numbers any more difficult to learn, and it would solve a lot of the issues it's causing with math and correct spacing and such.
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)
I think they opposed dropped numbers because of concern for the effect this change would have on older braille readers. For a time, fewer younger people were being exposed to braille. Thankfully, this seems to be changing. I think that if changes are to be made, we need to focus more on future readers. Current codes would take a while to filter out, so people would still be able to read their favorite magazines or whatever for quite some time. JMO, of course.
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC)
To clarify, I'm not suggesting that the needs of current braille users are not important. I just think that if the code is too cumbersome, braille literacy will suffer over time. There are already too many people who believe there is no place for braille in a modern classroom.
Apr. 14th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen recent versions of UEBC, but what I saw a few years back was very disturbing. Blindness organizations went out of their way to assure us that the average reader would not have to deal with many changes; most of the people who would have a larger learning curve were the people in "technical" fields. What they didn't say was that in UEBC, certain mathematical symbols simply cannot be rendered. I'm not talking about things I saw in grad school: I'm talking about things kids see in junior high. For example, consider the fraction with numerator one fourth and denominator two thirds. This can be rendered in Nemeth braille very easily. There is a fractional indicator that will allow the braille reader to immediately look at the fraction and know how many levels of "fraction-ness" there are. When I last saw UEBC documents, there was no different indicator for higher-order fractions. I really think this would cause a lot of confusion to non-math types, and I think we'd see even more blind kids who are discouraged from studying STEM fields. Also, the fact that the code uses the same symbols for letters as for numbers means that algebra becomes unnecessarily cumbersome. UEBC proponents argued that a child who began learning braille with UEBC would find it perfectly natural to do algebra this way. I don't agree. The number of symbols that constitute "braille noise" (letter signs and number signs) to produce a simple quadratic equation is staggering.

I think the UEBC supporters are incorrect when they say that those who will be inconvenienced will be those of us in technical fields. I know that if I were still in math and UEBC became teh norm, I would continue to use Nemeth for my note-taking needs. Braille translation software wouldn't be able to drop support of Nemeth for a long time, so people who were currently in STEM fields would be fine. The people who would suffer most would be younger people who have to take algebra to get a college prep diploma.

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah Blake LaRose
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