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.

Intoxicated by Braille

I get my braille magazines from a deafblind friend who passes them on to me when she’s done reading them. Syndicated Columnists Weekly coverThen I read them while driving to work, eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, right hand deep in Syndicated Columnists Weekly.
I’m sighted (you’re thinking: I hope so, if you drive a car!) and I think I may be the only person on the face of the planet who reads braille while driving 70 mph down the highway. Please don’t misunderstand me–I am not promoting distracted driving. I am simply stating a fact: I like to read braille while driving, which is no more dangerous than driving while listening to books on tape, or eating a pastrami sandwich on rye, or keeping time with my thumb on my knee to an old-fashioned song in my head, eyes on the road, EYES ON THE ROAD.

I’ve been intoxicated by braille ever since first learning to read it (visually) about 30 years ago when I worked as a transcriber at National Braille Press. Hands on brailleAround that same time, I took a sign language class across the street at Northeastern University, where I fell in love with the teacher, who was deaf, and whom I later married. I also thereby became rather fluent in sign language, and eventually left NBP to pursue a career as an interpreter. But I never lost touch with braille. And eventually I learned to read it tactilely. This is how I did it:

I was sitting in the proverbial traffic jam from hell one day, going absolutely nowhere on my way to work, when I reached over to the passenger seat where there happened to be a braille letter from a deafblind friend I’d met the previous summer at an AADB (American Association of the DeafBlind) convention. With nothing better to do, I tried reading it with my finger. I had no problem with “Dear Paul,” but it took me the rest of my commute (about an hour) to make out the first two sentences. Concentrating on that braille letter in my lap, shifting it to my stomach, my chest, trying to read it with my finger, my eyes never leaving the road, made the time go by. And it was something to DO. And so, on the drive home, I continued reading. And the next day and the next. And lo, my habit of reading braille in the car was born!

If you do anything for two hours a day (an hour in, and an hour out) five days a week, for several years, you will get better at it. Which is exactly what happened. I can now read braille quite proficiently with my right index finger. And I enjoy doing it! I like the physicality of reading tactilely. Am I using neurons and synapses that I wouldn’t otherwise be using? I don’t know, and I don’t really care about the science of it; what interests me more is, for lack of a better word, the poetry of braille. For example, a long time ago at NBP, my friend Gil Busch told me the word “ice” in braille always reminded him of a little hill: the upward climbing i, the crest of the c, the downward sloping e. I never forgot that, and I always think of it when I come across that word in my reading. And my friend John Lee Clark has said, Andy is a square; Sandy is a square with a ponytail. Such are the little reading pleasures that are peculiar to braille. All those words within words. And those lower-cell contractions (BY, TO, INTO) that, before UEB, would attach to the subsequent character, kind of like a barnacle, or a burr, or a baby sloth. And the tactile alliteration of a string of dot 5 contractions all in a row: “Lord knows, some young mothers work right here throughout the day.” Or encountering the occasional sentence or phrase made up entirely of whole-word contractions: “You can do as you like but it’s just that people like us will not go.” Call me weird, but I get a kick out of these sorts of things when I encounter them in my reading.

I enjoy reading braille in bed at night when my wife would rather go to sleep. No problem, honey, I’ll read with the lights out. I enjoy reading braille in a dark movie theater during those interminable previews, and even during the movie itself if it turns out the movie stinks. I read braille in line at the bank, in line at the grocery store, while waiting for the train, while riding on the train, and even while walking from the train (walking and reading is easy as walking and talking!). But most of all I enjoy (see above) reading braille while driving–driving while intoxicated by braille! I think I hear some of you object: But it must be illegal! Let me reassure you, our esteemed lawmakers and constabularies can’t even conceive of it. No one can imagine it–no one except you, that is. So it’s our little secret. Okay?

Unified English Braille: Great Beginnings

I still smile when someone asks what I do for a living. I always like to field the questions generated by my response, but it’s a rare delight when the conversation reaches the most fascinating of developments in the Hands on braille pagebraille world: new refreshable braille devices, interactive tactile graphics (“Wow, that exists?”) and, perhaps most anticipated, the implementation of Unified English Braille (UEB).

As the Braille Authority for North America (BANA) Board Representative for NBP, I have had the privilege to be a part of the discussion around UEB since it was adopted last November, and truly, there’s not enough to be said about what has been done behind the scenes. Recently, BANA facilitated the UEB Transition Forum in Louisville, where braille advocates from around the nation gathered to discuss steps along the road to UEB.

The Forum was divided into four groups representing, Transcription and Production, Instructional Materials, Education, and Adult Learning. In separate work sessions, led by Frances Mary D’Andrea, BANA Chair and AFB Representative, and Mary Nelle McLennan, Vice Chair and APH Representative, we considered the following questions:

  • What needs to be done in the area of training in order to ensure an effective transition to UEB?
  • What needs to be done to build UEB transcription capacity?
  • What needs to be done to adjust systems so we can procure and deliver braille materials in UEB?
  • What needs to be done to transition children’s braille reading and writing instruction and educational assessments to UEB?
  • What needs to be done to transition adults’ braille instruction to UEB and to increase knowledge of UEB among adults who already use braille?

We approached UEB with gusto! The room was vibrant and energetic; words like “synergy” and “collaboration” were critical to our discussions. It was a melting pot of all things braille. Efforts and responses were recorded, and action steps were presented and discussed with the forum at large, with each area providing vital information for the bones of an implementation plan. We embraced and became excited about the future of braille.

Of course, the most significant discussion of the day centered on one thing: an expected date for full implementation. After nearly an hour of conversation and input from all represented areas, we settled it.

January 4th, 2016, the birthday of Louis Braille, will be a celebration, a day to review our UEB milestones and honor our achievements as a community. I feel so inspired to be at NBP during this time of enthusiasm and evolution. I think the next time someone asks what I do, I’ll just hand over my braille business card and invite them to the party.

Check back for blogs about UEB. To find out more, visit the BANA website: http://brailleauthority.org/pressreleases/pr-2013-10-31.html

Jackie Sheridan is Vice President of Production at National Braille Press.

UEB: Don’t let “new” scare you

In November, NBP tweeted a link to the press release issued by the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) about adopting Unified English Braille (UEB) in the United States.  There was considerable interest and a fair bit of angst detected in the responses to that tweet.  Even though the transition to UEB will not be immediate, it is already causing consternation for those who use and teach braille in the U.S.

While UEB is based on the current literary braille code, some are thinking that UEB is a new code.  In fact, UEB was created in the early 1990s with the intent to unify English-speaking countries under the same braille system and was designed to retain a significant portion of what is the current literary code.

For those of us who love braille and are determined to keep it vibrant in the digital age, if UEB helps promotes the use of braille, we are all for it.  Here is an overview of what UEB will mean for you:

  • Letters and numbers will be the same as those used now, and only nine of the 189 current contractions will not be used: ally, ation, ble, by, com, dd, into, o’clock, to.
  • Some contraction rules will be modified, and the words “and”, “the”, “of”, “for”, and “with” will no longer be joined together in braille.
  • Most punctuation will stay the same. The period will be used no matter where the character appears in print – at the end of a sentence, in a website address, or as a decimal point. Other punctuation, like the parenthesis, will change to reflect what is seen in print (two different symbols for open and closing parentheses).
  • Rules around emphasis will be more like print. For example, emphasis indicators for underlining will be unique from italics.
  • Current formatting guidelines will be modified slightly to accommodate new braille symbols, but any regarding placement or spacing of a page will not be effected.

We know change can be difficult and it is often met with misinformation and confusion.   Let’s get through this transition together.

An FAQ on the BANA website provides more details about the changes: www.brailleauthority.org