Why I Love UEB: As a Braille Producer and Reader

By Steve Booth

For several decades, the discussion about changing the braille code to Unified English Braille (UEB) has sparked passionate feelings. This code, named for its inventor Louis Braille, has been around for over 200 years and has served the blindness community well. January 2016 is the date that the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has determined, after much consideration, to be the adoption date of UEB in the United States and feelings continue to be mixed. Anticipation, trepidation, and many, many questions still surround UEB.

Recently, NBP Publisher, Diane Croft, spoke with Steve Booth, a former NBP employee and current Braille Specialist at the National Federation of the Blind. When he proclaimed to “love UEB” we knew we needed him to post his thoughts on our blog.

Here is Steve’s take on UEB:

I admit I had my doubts about changing even one dot of a code that has worked so well since 1824.Steve Booth standing next to copy machine at his office

Today I’m ready to concede that those who took a leadership role back in 1991 toward what is now the Unified English Braille Code (UEB) were true visionaries.

They started with the premise that any system can be improved. It’s hubris to think otherwise. They then dove into the mechanics of what exactly should be improved and what could be left alone. They did this with several audiences in mind: the braille reader, the producer, the transcriber, and the braille teacher.

They were also looking at a code that, although it worked remarkably well with computer technology, still required human intervention to fix those parts that didn’t work. I know first-hand about those fixes! Formerly I worked as an assistant production manager at National Braille Press and now work in the Braille Certification Program of the Library of Congress, administered by the National Federation of the Blind. UEB has made my life far simpler . . . but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

The primary goal, according to the records of 1991, was to “make the acquisition of reading/writing/teaching braille easier and more efficient . . . [to] help reverse the trend of steadily eroding usage of braille itself.” Given the abysmal rate of 9.5% of blind school-age children who list braille as their primary reading mode, this makes good sense.

All told, UEB eliminates nine contractions that were found to be the most ambiguous: by, into, to, ble, com, dd, ation, ally, and the o’clock contraction. Each of these could represent something other than themselves, depending on their placement in a word.

UEB is also closer to its print equivalent, for example, braille will no longer join the contractions “of, and, for, the, with” in sequence without spaces. And the period. There is now only one dot formation for a period, instead of four different ways to represent it. Just as there are opening and closing parentheses in print, the same is true for braille. Word division is no longer recommended: “It is no longer preferable for words to be hyphenated.” When was the last time you used a dictionary to divide words between lines? I never did until I worked in the field. We have spent way too much time teaching word division to potential transcribers.

The list of improvements goes on, too many to elaborate on in a blog post. As a braille reader since the early 1960s, I have quickly adjusted to UEB. Anyone interested in acquiring some UEB skills while reading good material should subscribe to Syndicated Columnists Weekly, Syndicated Columnists Weekly covera short weekly from National Braille Press. I’ve been reading it for decades. NBP started producing it in UEB at the beginning of the year and I was able to adjust to new UEB symbols in the context of the material. NBP also offers a free UEB Briefs Symbols list if you ask for it (orders@nbp.org).

As a braille producer, my life is far easier. I no longer need to search for hyphens and dashes (to eliminate spaces around them) because braille now follows print rules. I can more accurately translate documents from braille to print with better results. Without word division, braille production is faster, plus the code offers more flexibility in handling the large variety of print styles now in use.

All in all, I’m completely in favor of these changes for a host of reasons that I would not have understood had I not been a braille producer, trainer, and reader. And did I mention, America has now joined six other English-speaking nations in its adoption of UEB, which means we all share the same code. I think Louis would have been pleased about that. His code was meant to be useful, above all.

Homophones are Not Mistaken in Braille

“Hi, I went to your web sight and did not find information about your bored. If sum one is on this list, please let me know.”

Cover image for "A Writer's Companion" shows a bare arm holding a sign: "The Right to Bare Arms"

I’ve attended my share of bored meetings, in the truest sense of the word, but the errors in this listserv post point to a separate problem—words that sound alike but mean different things and are spelled differently. We’ve had customers email us to complain about “sellphone charges,” ask if it’s “all rite too send cash,” or question what “cited people” think, adding, “if only they could see it threw my eyes.”

Homophone slips are ubiquitous: I remember how embarrassed I felt when a published review on a book I had edited flagged my misuse of “peak” for “pique.” I was supposed to know better because I was getting paid to know better. But the likelihood of homophone abuse goes up, in my experience, when speech is the primary mode of reading and writing. In fact, ahem, if you’re reading this blog with JAWS, you may wonder what crime has been committed.

There are three possible trip-ups for writers in this arena:

  • Homonyms: Two or more words that are spelled the same and sound the same but mean something different: The ROSE bush ROSE up 12 feet high.
  • Homophones: Two or more words that sound the same, but are spelled differently, and mean different things: The BEAR was BARE.
  • Homographs: Two or more words that are spelled the same but sound different and mean different things: The striped BASS played the BASS guitar.

Lorraine Rovig, who works at the National Federation of the Blind, suggested that NBP publish a list of homophones in braille. What better way to learn about words that sound alike but are spelled differently than by touch? Sound alone compounds the problem. We added some other cool stuff and called it A Writer’s Companion.

Is this a shameless plug for the book? It is. We all knead two no how too rite better oar look foolish. Blind people face many obstacles but writing a professional cover letter or a college essay need not be one of them. This email from Grace Scullin was spotless: “I love A Writer’s Companion! If it had only helped me with there / their / they’re, I would have been satisfied.”

Read a review of A Writer’s Companion from Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind.

Best-sellers from the 2013 Conventions

We’re just back from the 2013 conventions in Orlando and Columbus – the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Council of the Blind, respectively. Because these two conventions usually bump up against each other (they even overlap from time to time!), our Publications team splits up and sends two people to each convention.

Photo of Tim Turnbull chattin with a customer at the ACB Convention in Columbus.

Tim Turnbull chats with a customer at the ACB Convention in Columbus.

We spend most of our time at the conventions in the exhibit hall, showing and selling our books and other tactile products. We love getting to meet our customers and supporters face to face; our customers, in turn, appreciate the rare opportunity to browse a table full of braille books.

Now, we’re back in the office. We’ve entered the orders and tallied the sales – and here are the top-selling books and braille items from the 2013 conventions!

  1. iPhone iOS6 Updates, (all formats combined)
  2. Magnet: “Be the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are,” print/braille magnet
  3. Magnet: “Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there!” print/braille magnet
  4. Magnet: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller, print/braille magnet
  5. iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible, (all formats combined)
  6. Getting started with iPhone and iOS5 for Blind Users, (all formats combined)
  7. Wednesday Morning Quotations, braille spiral-bound booklet
  8. Magnet: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain…” – Vivian Greene, print/braille magnet
  9. Magnet: “Keep Calm and Carry On,” print/braille magnet
  10. Twenty-Two Useful Apps for Blind iPhone Users (2nd Edition), (all formats combined)
  11. Magnet: “”Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice,” print/braille magnet
  12. Twenty-One Apps We Can’t Live Without, (all formats combined)
  13. Magnet: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” – Emerson, print/braille magnet
  14. iPhone Tactile Screenshot Quick References iOS6, large print/braille & tactiles
  15. 100 Hungry Ants (with blocks), print/braille picture book with 100 blocks
  16. Froggy Learns to Swim, print/braille picture book
  17. (tie) Hop on Pop, print/braille board book
  18. (tie) That’s Not My Monkey!, print/braille board book
  19. (tie) Magnet: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world,” print/braille magnet
  20. (tie) Magnet: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly,” print/braille magnet
  21. Braille-marked Measuring Cups and Spoons
  22. Make Way for Ducklings, print/braille picture book

Read more about specific books and products.