Writing Braille by Hand

By, Judy Dixon

When Louis Braille first began pressing dots into paper for later reading, he did it by hand. His tools were primitive but effective; he used a slate and stylus. The top of his braille slate was a simple piece of sheet metal bent downward at the ends with small rectangular openings. The bottom of his slate was a flat stick of wood with horizontal grooves. The exact size and placement of these elements varied somewhat as Louis’s ideas for the best way to produce braille evolved over time.

Over the next hundred years, the tools for writing braille by hand became more sophisticated. The top and bottom of the slate were joined by a machined hinge, the back was often made with a distinct impression for each dot, and, in the latter part of this period, various plastics were used to reduce cost and weight, and increase resiliency.

Nine-line, wall-mountable slate for writing short memos--includes magnetic stylus, a roll of paper, and a hook for hanging messages
Nine-line, wall-mountable slate for writing short memos–includes magnetic stylus, a roll of paper, and a hook for hanging messages.

My first encounter with a braille slate and stylus was just before Christmas in first grade at the school for the blind in St. Augustine, Florida. Early on the afternoon before Christmas vacation, the teacher gave each of us a slate and stylus. Mine was blue. She showed us how to use it and we had a few minutes to practice.

I took my new treasure home with me when I left for Christmas. I proudly demonstrated my new skill to my two older brothers. They already knew how to read and write and I had been very concerned about how I was going to read and write like they did. To this day, I can remember my exhilaration, “Look, I can read too, and I can write too.” I don’t think it occurred to me that they couldn’t read what I wrote. I could, and that was what mattered.

Throughout my school years, I took notes with a slate. By high school, I had a few different ones but they didn’t vary much because there was nothing very unique available in the U.S. at the time.

Early on, I was aware of the slate’s limitations. When using a slate in school, I often wished for one that had a full page of cells, eliminating the necessity of repositioning the slate down the page after every four lines. I also imagined a slate that would let me write very small braille so I could fit more text on a page. And how about one that could write on both sides of the paper? I did not know that such slates existed.

a four-cell slate to slip over a page edge for marginal notes.
A four-cell slate to slip over a page edge for marginal notes.

Some time in the 1970s, a friend gave me a slate from England. It had braille cells about two-thirds the size of the ones I had been using. On a 4-by-6-inch index card, I could fit 11 lines of 26 cells, far more than ever before. Later, on a visit to Germany, I got a full-page slate, 25 lines of 28 cells. It was made of a heavy metal and weighed about a pound but it was gorgeous. When I had a couple of dozen slates, I realized I was a collector. I was primarily interested in slates that had some function other than the ordinary ones.

Currently, there are 278 unique slates from 38 different countries in my collection. Some are historic, dating back to the 1860’s but most were made in the mid to late 20th century.

The vast majority are slates created to produce six-dot braille, but the collection also contains slates for tactile codes other than braille, such as New York Point, Moon Type, and codes created by individuals that were never widely used. It also contains slates for a German shorthand code, a Spanish music code, and a Japanese code for writing kanji—all extensions of the braille code using eight dots.

Element for IBM Selectric typewriter that produced very small but readable embossed braille.
Element for IBM Selectric typewriter that produced very small but readable embossed braille.

The largest slate that I have was made in Austria and has 30 lines of 36 cells. The smallest, called a margin guide, was made in England and has only one line of four cells. It has no hinge and is designed to simply slip over the edge of a page like a paper clip. It is used to add a page number or make a note in the margin.

Full page metal slate from Austria.
Full page metal slate from Austria

Each slate in my collection is somewhat different from every other. There are many different sizes and as many shapes. They are made of aluminum, zinc, brass, steel and several kinds of plastic–most of which are in fairly subdued shades of gray and black, but one is a startling fluorescent orange. Instead of pins, some have magnets or spring-loaded clips to secure the paper, and in place of a hinge, some have stiff tape or heavy plastic to hold the two parts of the slate together.

In the United States, we encounter only two sizes of braille, standard and jumbo. However, the size of the braille cell in slates from other countries varies considerably. The Japanese slates typically produce braille that is somewhat smaller than the American standard, while many of the German slates produce braille that is slightly larger than ours. There are two slates from Japan that produce braille so small that it is actually difficult to read.

Three cherry wood styluses produced in Japan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the braille standard in the country.
Three cherry wood styluses produced in Japan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the braille standard in the country.

There are several rather creative designs which allow the braille to be read while the paper is still in the slate. E-Z Read slates, which have pins in the top instead of the bottom, were common in the United States. But several models of slates made in Italy use magnets to hold the paper. As with E-Z Read slates, the braille can be read by lifting the back of the slate without disturbing the position of the paper. Magnets have an advantage over pins–they leave no holes in the paper.

Among my favorites are the slates that have been designed for special purposes. The Japanese have produced a telephone message slate which consists of a roll of paper, a small plastic slate, and a magnetic stylus, all mounted on a foam-backed board. Chemical Bank of New York developed an extremely useful checkwriting template. It has braille cells for making notes on the stub and on the check itself, as well as the familiar template openings for completing a check with a pen. This slate was provided to any blind person opening an account with Chemical Bank and was sold to any other bank requesting it for their blind patrons.

aluminum check writing slate distributed by Chemical Bank of New York. Includes slots for filling out check with a pen and braille cells on the check stub and check itself for braille notations.
Aluminum check writing slate distributed by Chemical Bank of New York. Includes slots for filling out check with a pen and braille cells on the check stub and check itself for braille notations.

A few slates have their own associated stylus but there is a collection of several hundred styluses as well. Special ones include three cherry wood styluses made in Japan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the braille code and an ivory stylus used by George Shearing, the blind jazz musician, that he used during his school days in the 1920s.

An ivory-handled stylus used by the blind jazz musician, George Shearing, at the school for the blind in England in the 1920s.
An ivory-handled stylus used by the blind jazz musician, George Shearing, at the school for the blind in England in the 1920s.

The collection is contained in two wooden cabinets that were specially made for it. Each one has 36 drawers, with pocket, board and notebook slates in Cabinet A and non-braille, upward-writing, special, and full-page slates in Cabinet B. It also has its own web site, www.brailleslates.org.

Drawer in Judy's braille slate cabinet

Although slate use has waned considerably in the developed world, writing braille with a slate and stylus is still widespread in developing countries.

The advantages of a braille slate are numerous. Slates are relatively inexpensive, very portable, quiet to use, require no batteries, and need little, if any, repair.

But writing with a braille slate can be very confining. Unlike using a pen or pencil, it is not possible to vary the size of the letters, to write between the lines, or to scribble in the margins as those who write print so often do. Maybe this will happen one day and maybe, ironically, it will be technology that does it!

Judy Dixon is the Consumer Relations Officer for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She has an extensive collection of both slates and braille notetakers. Judy writes many original technology books for NBP and serves as a judge for our Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. All photos were taken by Judy.

NBP’s Quotation Booklets: A Valuable Teaching Tool Any Day of the Week

By Mary Drain

When I stumbled upon the first quotation booklet NBP published several years ago, I knew I had to have it. Pocket-sized and spiral-bound, the booklet was sure to offer some interesting food for thought, and in a convenient size to boot. What I did not know at the time was that this booklet, and those that followed, would prove to be a valuable teaching tool. They offered just the right amount of content for many of my students to transition successfully from my curriculum-driven sentences to the reading of their first official braille publication.

For students of any age, moving from learning braille to comfortably using braille is a process. Appreciating braille for its utility, grace, and for the many jobs it does better than any other tool comes later. As someone who grew up with a tremendous amount of usable vision, I had no difficulty accessing print using a minimal amount of magnification. Never mind that my eyes fatigued easily and my reading speed was quite slow. It was my TVI who had the good sense and foresight to insist that I learn braille. When I asked why, he said, “Because I want you to have options.”

Implicit in his response was a truth that I did not fully understand and embrace until I was much older. It is that achieving a level of proficiency with braille, audio, and, for some, magnification enables those of us who are visually impaired to choose the most efficient tool (or tools) for the task at hand, without ever having to compromise. As a braille teacher at the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany, California, I feel fortunate to work alongside colleagues who share this point of view, and in a residential immersion training program that has our students working with these new tools of independence every day.

Layout 1

Nearly all of my students, most of whom are newly blind, begin my class eager to regain their ability to read and write independently. Whether having the goal of using braille to label, read a recipe, refer to notes when giving a school or workplace presentation, or read a book someday, very few of my students have to be convinced of braille’s value. But, because learning braille more closely resembles the running of a marathon than a sprint, keeping my students motivated is not without its challenges. I am always mindful of proper pacing and the need for periodic pep talks.

For my students who have learned all of their contractions but need to continue to improve their reading, finding material that is both adult in nature and appropriate for their skill level has not always been easy. In the same way I would not throw a kid fresh out of driver’s training onto a busy L.A. street during rush hour, I’m careful not to give my students reading material that is likely to frustrate or overwhelm them. With an average of five single-spaced lines of braille on each page (along with the attribution), each of the quotations in the quotation booklets are presented in a manageable format. They offer a terrific way to introduce my adult students to published braille. I look forward to seeing NBP produce more materials like this in the future. Riddles or fun facts anyone?

It seems only fitting that I conclude with a quote from Andrew Carnegie. He said, “Anything worth having in life is worth working for.” I think we can all agree that this is certainly true when it comes to learning braille.


Mary Drain is one of ten credentialed teachers at the Orientation Center for the Blind. Operated by the California Department of Rehabilitation, the Orientation Center is a residential immersion program that offers classes in Orientation and Mobility, Adaptive Computer Training, Braille, Cooking, and Daily Living Skills to legally blind individuals who are clients of the California Department of Rehabilitation.


Free Online Activities Created Especially for YOU!

Great Expectations: Bringing Picture Books to Life for Blind Kids

For nearly four years, the Great Expectations program has produced original, high-interest, fun, and free activities especially for blind kids and their families. We start with a popular picture book, and add braille to it, so blind and sighted family members can read them together. But that’s just the beginning! From there, we use the book’s story, themes, and ideas to create a set of activities that enable blind kids to explore all aspects of the book in greater detail, through songs, tactile play, picture descriptions, body movement, engaged listening, arts and crafts projects, inspiring real-life stories, and much more. The goal is to promote active reading experiences for children with visual impairments.

Each book in the program explores a completely different topic, including some subjects that might seem difficult to broach with a visually impaired person. It might seem counterintuitive to talk about different colors and shades, for example, with a blind child. But of course colors are a part everyday life and conversation, and blind kids need to know as much about colors and their significance as any other kid in order to fully participate in their lives. With that mindset, we use popular kids’ books as the starting point for discussion, activities, and lots of fun.

Dragons Love Tacos, our first book in the series, gives us the chance to talk about textures, preparing food, and organizing a (taco) party.

The Day the Crayons Quit, perhaps our most popular series selection thus far, offers ideas for talking about colors with blind kids.

Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes is all about orientation and mobility, maps, and mazes.

Iggy Peck, Architect discusses building and buildings, architecture, and team work.

Amazing Grace focuses on theater, presentation, storytelling, and more.

And Measuring Penny delves into measuring, graphing, comparisons – and even what it takes to care for a pet!

Lemonade in Winter cover

With our newest book, Lemonade in Winter, we learn all about money and running a business from Pauline and her younger brother John-John as they open a lemonade stand in the middle of winter. By the end of the story, they’ve made less money than they spent on supplies, but learned some valuable lessons along the way. The free activities we’ve created to go with this print/braille book explore all aspects of money and business, and tease out some of the less obvious themes in the book, like teamwork and following directions. Here’s the full activity list for Lemonade in Winter:

Hands on Money

Don’t want to accidentally pay $20 for a $5 ice cream? Use your sense of touch to tell different coins apart and play fun games to practice making different coin combinations. Also learn folding techniques and technology options to keep track of your different paper bills.

Spend, Save, Share

Whether you get money as a gift or earn it by doing chores, you have several options for what to do with it. Learn reasons and strategies for spending, saving, and sharing, and then make your own spend, save, and share jars.

Spend, Save, and Share jars


Make an Origami Wallet

Looking for a fun and unique way to keep your money safe? Use a Japanese method of paper folding, called origami, to create your own, unique mini wallet.

Team Story Building

Pauline and John-John’s lemonade stand doesn’t yield the results they expected (selling tons of lemonade and making lots of money!), but they have fun anyway and learn that there’s more than one definition of success! Play a team story building game that shows how any new adventure can bring unexpected outcomes.

Giving and Following Instructions

When you teach a friend or sibling something new, it’s important to give good instructions. The opposite is also true! When you want to learn something new, it’s important to follow instructions well. Try the 10 Step Game, the Right Way to Make Slime activity, and the hilarious Exact Instructions Challenge to see how good you are at reading carefully and following directions.

Tips from a Blind Business Person

Meet Jessica Beecham, a blind business woman with a passion for making health and wellness accessible to everyone. Jessica was a founding member of the Sports and Recreation Division of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado; and is currently a co-founder and Program Director at a popular fitness company in Colorado called WE Fit Wellness. See what Jessica has to say about succeeding in the business world, and review Pauline and John-John’s lemonade stand business plan.

Jessica Beecham

Jokes Around the Lemonade Stand

Whether or not you run a lemonade stand, it never hurts to have a handful of jokes to add fun to the day. Here are more money jokes than you can count, and enough jokes about lemons to lift even the sourest mood.

Sing the Lemonade Song

Sing along with a song about making money at your lemonade stand and practice counting by units of 25 as you rake in the dough.

Picture Descriptions

Enjoy detailed descriptions of the illustrations in the book, all created especially for you!

TVIs, parents, and young students will discover fun ways to experience picture books on a deeper level with Great Expectations. Check out the website for dozens and dozens of FREE online activities!

Let us know which activities you tried out and what you enjoyed the most! And let us know what themes and concepts you’d like us to explore in the next book in the program!

Happy 209th Birthday, Louis Braille!

By Brian Mac Donald, President

January is Braille Literacy Month, and this year we celebrate 209 years since the birth of Louis Braille.

If he could only have seen the future of braille. As a young man and an educator, Louis was determined to push forward his tactile code of raised dots. He knew the potential it had for literacy, music and mathematics. Unfortunately, this six dot genius, like many famous artists, died before his work of art (braille) could ever be adopted or appreciated.

If Louis could look down from the heavens, he could see the honors and tributes for his legacy that have occurred worldwide. Statues, postage stamps, plays, musicals, commemorative coins in Belgium, India and the USA… and Asteroid 9969 Braille was named in his honor back in 1992. Encyclopedia Britannica even included him as one of the top 100 inventors of all time.

Louis would have been thrilled to see the millions of pages of braille that National Braille Press produces every year, and as an educator he would have marveled at the simplicity of transparent braille pages we created for our children’s braille print books We believe that as an inventor, Louis would certainly appreciate the chance to get his hands on a refreshable braille display!

Throughout the years, many intellectual luminaries have recognized the vital role that braille literacy plays in equality for blind individuals. In 1952, prominent poet T.S. Eliot wrote an essay called Some Thoughts on Braille. Eliot said that poetry was meant to be heard and read, and he said that one’s appreciation for poetry would be limited if there wasn’t access to the printed word. He mentioned that the ability to read independently allowed a person to be intimate with a poem. Eliot said that he was “thankful for the invention of braille as a tool to enable the blind to be able to read to themselves as well as be read to.”

As NBP rings in 2018, one of the resolutions we have is to advocate harder than ever for the future of braille. We want children and adults to understand the freedom, potential, and independence that braille can provide for the rest of their lives. We will continue to make the most affordable, high quality braille materials possible for children and adults. . Like Louis, we will be as determined as ever to find solutions for low-cost digital tactile graphics and e-braille to keep braille connected to the digital world in every way.

Gala Highlights and Other Adventures: Repost from Honorary Trustee Erik Weihenmayer’s blog

Original post here: http://www.touchthetop.com/blog/east-coast-visit-retracing-steps

Last week I flew to the East Coast for a sensational meeting with Paychex in Rochester, NY.  My friend and America’s Got Talent finalist, Mandy Harvey, joined me and wowed the crowd with her pitch-perfect voice. It was a No Barriers day for sure!


From there I met up with my longtime friend, Mike O’Donnell and headed to Boston to attend the National Braille Press Gala. The NBP has been doing vital work providing braille materials to the blindness community and promoting literacy for 90 years.

My personal experience with Braille made a huge impact on my education. I fought learning it at first, not wanting to give into blindness, but ultimately found it an invaluable tool when trying to interpret graphs, scientific charts, spread sheets, math equations, maps, etc. I also loved reading to my kids from Braille children’s books. The active tactile engagement that Braille provides is crucial for blind kids and I’m so grateful for organizations like NBP.

Comedian and Daily Show correspondent, Roy Wood Jr., performed at the gala, and at the conclusion stated, he didn’t know much about blindness before this event but he was so inspired he was personally donating $1,000 to the cause. Thanks to folks like Roy and committed sponsors like Cabinets to Go. NBP raised more than $350,000 in funds so thousands of blind kids will be able to read their books in Braille.

Despite my still healing finger, I couldn’t leave New England without making a trip to North Conway, NH for some rock climbing. In fact, the first place I ever went climbing was North Conway, when I was 16 years old, part of the Carroll Center for the Blind’s recreational program. Knowing blind kids were left out of ball sports in their schools, they’d take us on weekend adventures – canoeing, ropes courses, tandem bike rides – but the climbing trip to New Hampshire was it for me.

I owe a lot to my first instructors, Marc Chauvin, a renowned rock climber who later worked for the American Guides Association, helping develop their rock guides program, and Nick Yardley, a British rock and ice climber certified as an AMGA rock guide.

Now 32 years later, I was retracing my first steps after going blind and discovering that I could navigate my way up vertical terrain with just the use of my hands and feet as eyes. Mike and I met an old friend, Alden Pellett, and together we revisited many of the classics on Cathedral Ledge, a 500 foot granite face with tons of variety: face climbing, finger and hand cracks, and even lieback flakes. On the way up to the wall, we ascended steep trails covered in crisp piles of fallen leaves. Mike said the peak foliage was brilliant orange, red, and yellow, and the air was a perfect 68 degrees – the kind of autumn weather that makes you love New England.