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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.


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.


Sarah Blake LaRose
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