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Communication Tools for the Blind and Deaf

Page history last edited by cameron.sanchez@iwc.edu 13 years ago

Braille/Sign Language:


" There is a wonder in reading Braille that the sighted will never know: to touch words and have them touch you back."         ~ Jim Fiebig


 Sir Louis Braille (January 4, 1809 – January 6, 1852)                                                                                                


 (Visual biography)          


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     Braille's main purpose was to assist the visually impaired with the logistics of reading and writing. Braille also carries strong ties for the hearing impaired.

     Braille was first introduced into this world in 1821, by a Frenchman, named Louis Braille. Braille, himself, became blind at the age of 3 after being punctured by his father's awl [1]. A short time later, Braille became completely blind in both eyes due to sympathetic opthalmia, an inflammatory condition developing as a result of trauma to the eyes [2]. Louis Braille's system, which outdated all previous systems, was composed of a six dot cell system. 

     Cell is the penned name for a braille character. Each cell is arranged in a rectangular shape containg two columns, with each column containing a series of three dots, to together form a six dot cell system. A total of sixty-four characters can be produced from using a standard Braille alphabet [1].

Complete Braille Alphabet and Numbers

 ( Darkened dots are raised)


      Even though Louis Braille was the first penned inventor of the Braille System, numerous other individuals came before him with similiar ideas regarding "silent communications." Charles Barbier created a system similiar to Braille's. His "motive," so to speak, for creating such a system came during Napoleon Bonaparte's rule in France. Bonaparte demanded a "silent code" be developed to be used at nighttime when no light was available for communications amongst one another. His system, which paralleled Braille's in many aspects, consisted of two columns made up of twelve dots to represent one character, compared with Braille's system of two rows containing six dots. [3] This meant that to interpret one Braille character, a series of twelve dots would have to be analyzed. His system was very complex and wasn't adaptable for use by the soldiers during war times. Due to the complexity of the system, it was quickly deemed "useless" during this time.

     The Braille system was in one word, revolutionary, for visually impaired individuals. Before the development of braille writing, blind individuals had no satisfactory means of written communication. Learning through oral teaching was quite difficult and limited, and the majority of blind individuals received little or no education. [2] If there families were wealthy, they would probably be protected and eventually live on a pension; but blind children from poor families might even be turned out into the streets. [3]

     Even though the braille system was revolutionary, it had its drawbacks. The braille cell only offered sixty-four possible combinations of letters. To top this all off, many of the combinations were so similiar that they were easily misinterpreted to mean different things than what was written. The Braille system focused on the use of contractions to ease in the overall writing and reading process. [3]

Interpretation: Braille

     The top four dots of the braille cell represent letters "A" through "J." The third dot is added to characters "A" through "J" to create the letters "K" through "T." The two bottom dots, or in other words, three and six, are added to the characters "A" through "E" to create letters U,V, X, Y, and Z. The letter "W" was never included in the traditional Braille alphabet, as the first Braille alphabet originated in France, where there was no use for the letter "W." No words incorporated this letter in Louis Braille's alphabet. [3]

     Braille is read by moving the hand or hands from left to right along each line. Although most readers read predominantly with one hand, just as individuals write with a dominant hand, both hands are usually employed in the reading process, and there are two-handed readers who can make strong use of the second hand. Reading is most often done using the index finger, but the middle and ring fingers can also be used. The average reading speed is about 125 words per minute with one hand, and over 250 words when using both hands. [4]

     Braille varies throughout the world. The United Kingdom never incorporated capital letters into their Braille system, compared with the English alphabet which employs the use of capitalization and punctuation. Capitalization and punctuation are created by using a prefix character, such as one of the ones illustrated below. [3] Braille has been translated into nearly every language from its original form and is being used all of the world.

       Braille Punctuation Characters


Braille punctuation signs


                                                                                                                                  (darkened dots are raised)


Braille's Signficance Today

     There are two "Grades" of Braille writing employed in the United States today. Grade I is used for beginners to the Braille system. In this system, one Braille character is substituted for it's print equivalent. [1] For example, the word monkey, is written out using characters m-o-n-k-e- and y.This system is only used for beginners to the system, as it takes a great deal of time to write out thus leading too very large books and manuscripts. Grade II Braille is used in the composition of most Braille materials today. This system aids in reducing space on a page and assists in quicker reading of Braille texts. In this system, contractions are employed. Not all words can be put into a contraction, thus there must be rules to govern this process. For example, "D" can be used as an abbreviation or a contraction, in other words, for the verb "do." This is considered legal based on the rules of the Braille system. This being said, if "do" was being used in a noun form, such as in musical print, it would not be legal to contract it down to "D." "Do," expressed often times as "doh" in musical print, is considered an abbreviation in itself, so would have to be printed in full d-o characters. [3] Although this process seems highly complicated, it is quite easy to pick up on once one learns it fully. This being said, Braille is starting to become a lost art. It is estimated, by The National Federation of the Blind, that only fifteen to twenty-thousand individuals worldwide apply Braille in their daily lives. [1] Electronic text on computers has now become the norm for visually impaired individuals. Braille computers are quite similiar to laptop computers. The main difference being the keys are larger and have Braille print running across the tops of them. This method has proven to be more convenient and more in-keeping with todays electronic trends.


A standard Braille computer type pad, contains Braille characters running across the top of the pad.  

Uses of Braille

     Safety is of primary concern for blind individuals. The American Federation of the Blind has come up with some extraordinary products to help in making everyday routine simpler. All sorts of cooking utensils marked in braille enable the blind to measure accurately and cook efficiently. There are also products which safeguard. Braille labeling devices, which stamp out braille characters similarly to how label machines print out words, are a great help for blind individuals; making it quite easy to label records, tapes, files, books, and even food containers. [1] Security, assurance, certainty, and safety-the cornerstones of the blind, combined with the readily available products so necessary and so useful, fully help blind individuals live positive and productive lives.

Congenitally vs, Adventitiously Blind Individuals

     The blind from birth are consciously aware of two worlds-the sighted world and the unsighted world. They know there is a difference, but they are blessed because they do not fully know the difference. The adventitiously blind person, one who has been accidentally blinded, has seen, so, when his sight is lost, he knows the difference. A congenitally blind person knows, for example, about tennis. He knows the rules of the game, the sounds present typically during a match, and some, perhaps, have held a tennis racket or a tennis ball, so they would know the "feel" of the game. But close your eyes- you who are sighted can see the vastness of the court, the players on either side of the net, and the audience in the stands-all with your eyes closed. Therein lies the difference. Having never had sight, the famous entertainer Stevie Wonder and others like him cannot envision this; but, in exchange they have a built-in protection: they cannot miss what they have never known. The adventitiously blind person holds imprinted in his brain all that he saw before he lost his sight. When tennis is mentioned on the radio or on television, he can conjure up in his mind an entire image of the sport. But he, unlike the congenitally blind man, knows the loss.

     Dreaming is another difference between congenitally and adventitiously blind individuals. Those who have had sight can, in their dreams, use visual imprints already on the brain. The born blind, however, dream by sound and touch only, because this is all they have ever known.

"We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak."


Sign Language

     Sign language was designed to aid hearing impaired individuals communicate amongst each other. Instead of focusing on the accoustical aspects of language, sign language focuses on the visual aspects of language.

     Sign language, often times, is associated purely with hand shapes/movements, however sign language is much broader than that. Arm, hand, and body movements, as well as distinct facial expressions and lip patterns, all serve as aides in the transmission of language. [4]

     It has been proven that wherever deaf communities exist, "silent" languages will develop. There are many different varieties of sign language throughout the world, but the sign language most individuals are familiar with, is American Sign Language. [4]

What is Sign Language?

     Sign language is made up of a series of elementary representations of words, represented by the acronym: HOLME. [4]

     The "H" in HOLME stands for handshape. Handshape refers to the various manipulations one makes with their hands while expressing words. Some handshapes are congruent with hand "gestures" we employ today. For example, the word telephone is "gestured" by manipulating one's pinkie and thumb outward and by holding this manipulated position at one's ear. The same is true in sign language. The telephone "gesture," is the same as the telephone "sign."

     "O" stands for orientation. Orientation refers to the direction in which one's palm is facing during signing. Facing one's palm forward, when it should be facing the left, muddles the meaning of the word completely. Orientation is key in expressing signs correctly.

     "L" refers to where the handshape begins or, in other words, it's location. When signing "stars," one must put their hands above their head, where "stars" would most likely be found in the world, whereas when signing "book," one's hands would be found closest to their lap, where a book would most likely be located.

     "M" and "E" pertain to movement and non-manual markers. Non-manual markers are one's facial expressions when signing. When signing the word "silly," one would make a puerile face, whereas when signing "sad," a forlorned face would be sported.

     The acronym, HOLME, serves as the format for producing proper signs.



Sign language alphabet and numbers


Types of Sign Language

     Sign language can be broked down into numerous categories. Fingerspelling is one of the main categories of sign language. Fingerspelling refers to using one's fingers to spell out specific or proper names. It is not in practice for spelling out basic words, such as mother or father. Lexicalized signs are another category of sign language. In contrast with fingerspelling, lexicalized signs use one particular motion or movement to produce a sign. [5] For example, the word "mother," instead of being signed letter by letter,( m-o-t-h-e-r) is created by one single movement, putting the thumb of one's right hand against their chin and fanning their other fingers outward. Lexicalized signs assist one to communicate in a more effective, and quicker manner.

     Many say that sign language is simply a "dumbed down" version of speech. This in fact, is not true. With speech one can only express meaning in a one-way pattern, by alternating the pitch and volume of one's voice. Sign language is a multi-dimensional field. [5] One expresses meaning in various ways, through posture, hand movements, facial expressions, and body movements. For example, in the oral world, to explain about one's adventure on a roller coaster, the individual would only be able to express it truly using words. This could be a long and tedious process, lasting numerous minutes. In sign language, multiple fields are employed at the same time. One would sign the words about the roller coaster ride, as well as employing various facial expressions and body movements all in a matter of seconds to express the adventure. In this sense, some might argue that sign language actually might be considered a more sophisticated form of language over speech, as numerous communications fields are employed.

     Sign language is not just associated with deaf or hard of hearing individuals. A great push has occurred within the last few years to increase sign language efficiency among non-hard of hearing individuals. [6] Babies are being taught sign language long before they even learn how to speak. Many scientists and doctors fear that this will, in a sense, inhibit that child's speaking ability, i.e. that child will not learn to speak fluently until a later age. Research has proven that this concern is purely not valid. Since parents, teachers, and other educators constantly are talking while they are signing to their children, the children should not be inhibited in speaking abilities, as they are learning both forms of language simultaneously. [6] Sign language also is being put into practice with children who have other learning disabilities in school, such as autism or attention deficit disorder, also known as ADD. The rationale behind this push for greater sign language communications, is to facilitate other learning avenues for these children. Sign language assists these children to communicate in a more abstract and broader way and has been proven to aid in concentration abilties for these students in the classroom setting.

     Tactile sign language is used for people who are both deaf and blind. The person with the unfortunate condition puts their hands over the person who is communication a message to feel the shape and movement of the sign. People can use one hand and/or two hands for tactile sign language. Tracking is very similar and is used by those who have lighty better vision. Tracking is where the effected person would grab the communicators forearm or wrist. An alternate usually last resort is spellign out of letters on someones hand which is extremely difficult to learn but when learned they are able to communicate with nearly everyone since it does not take the other party learning a new form of language.

Why Do Individuals Who Are Deaf Not Speak?

     It cannot be generalized that all individuals who are hard of hearing or deaf do not speak. When a deaf individual does not speak, we refer to this individual as being mute. [6] Mute simply means not emitting or producing sound of any kind. It has been hypothesized by many why individuals who are deaf typically do not speak; the main consensus amongst researchers, physicians, and educators is that individuals who are deaf, choose not to speak due to the sometimes negative and unwelcome attention an aberrant voice may attract. [6] The unknown is a scary thing for many. To not ever be able to hear the sound of your voice, evokes great apprehension. Many individuals do to this great sense of fear purely choose not to speak. In our western European society, it is highly encouraged for deaf individuals to communicate via a combination of sign language, hand and body movements, as well as through verbalization. [6]

Benefits of Bilingualism




The Phonograph

     Thomas edison invented the Phonograph in 1877 after working on improvements for the telephone and telegraph. The phonograph allowed for two needles to work together to record sounds into a cylinder. One needle was for recording the vibrations of sound and the other needle was for playback. While braille allowed for a more hands on communicating, the phonograph allowed for a more relaxed style of reading. Instead of moving your hand physically for braille you could just simply sit back and listen to the book being played to you. The phonograph was the first machine to record sound and play it back. The phonograph changed technology not just in its modern time but for all ages that followed thereafter. Now obviously this technology does not help the deaf, but what an incredible discovery for the blind.


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Original Author: Kate M. Fisher


[1]  Michael, C. (2006). Louis Braille, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius.

     Boston, MA: National Braille Press.


[2] Jeffrey, L. (2004). Braille, All About Braille: Reading by Touch.

     Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishing, Inc.


[3] Chaber, D. (2007). Visual-Impaired, The Language of Medicine.

     St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Science.


[4] Sternberg, M. (1996). The Blind, Essential ASL: The Fun, Fast, and Simple Way to Learn American Sign Language.

      New York, NY: Harper Collins, Publ.


[5] Stewart, D., Little, J. (2006). Sign Language, American Sign Language the Easy Way.

Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Ed. Series, Inc.


[6] Smith, C. (1996). Sign Language-Made Simple, Sign Language Companion.

     London, England: Souvenir Press.




Comments (12)

Jeff Martinek said

at 3:40 pm on Sep 28, 2008

Kate: This looks very impressive. Is there any reason why all the main text is in italics? You should make the main text plain and use italics for emphasis. -- JM

Kate M. Fisher said

at 4:20 pm on Sep 28, 2008

Presto Chango... Fixed.

Jeff Martinek said

at 8:53 pm on Sep 28, 2008

Kate: Shouldn't the title of this article be changed to reflect the fact that you are dealing here with communication tools for both the deaf and the blind?

Kate M. Fisher said

at 9:10 pm on Sep 28, 2008

Yeah, I have been trying to come up with a better title. I don't want to just write Communication Tools for the Blind and Death because it just sound montonous to me, so I've been working on formulating a title. It's a work in progress still. I was thinking of chaning it to Silent Communications, as neither form of communication involves speaking. What do you think?

Kate M. Fisher said

at 9:10 pm on Sep 28, 2008

oops that should have said Comm. Tools for the Blind and Deaf

Kate M. Fisher said

at 9:30 pm on Sep 28, 2008

I made a decision and decided on Silent Communications. I might change it again if I come up with something better. We'll see. I still have a ton of more stuff to up on it, so it might very well change again. Titles are usually the last thing I do when writing. I don't like to tie down thoughts with titles.

Jeff Martinek said

at 9:47 pm on Sep 28, 2008

Kate: I agree that "Silent Communications" has a much more pleasing and even poetic ring to it, but I fear it might cast too broad a net, since lots of other communication forms could be regarded as "silent"----semaphore flags, for instance. Also, it seems significant that what you are dealing with are forms of communication created to bring people with certain physical handicaps into the world of full symbolic interaction. These efforts are amongst the most noble and humane I can imagine and they carry with them concerns and motivations bound up in ideas about human rights, justice, equal access, etc. Just thinking out loud here. . .

Kate M. Fisher said

at 10:02 pm on Sep 28, 2008

ooh that's a good point. I agree there efforts are extremely noble, I cannot imagine what children like my four year old niece and elderly go through to just to communicate in our society. So would simply Communication Tools for the Blind and Deaf sound better, do you think?

Jeff Martinek said

at 12:22 pm on Sep 29, 2008

Kate: I think for this type of "reference resource" writing, which is all about clarity, objectivity, directness, your current formulation is best.

Carrie Mehaffy said

at 11:32 pm on Nov 12, 2008

Kate, this is really good. I learned a lot of things that I didn't know...my boys have a unit in school in the 3rd grade where they learn basic sign language. Anyway, I liked it a lot. You might want to check the first sentence under the Sign Language heading, it might be missing a word, and a spelling error under Why Do they not speak, the 8th sentence I think do should be due. Other than that, it looks really good. I am a spelling fanatic, so if you see any spelling errors in mine, please let me know...my family HATES playing scrabble with me because of my spelling fetish(sp?) Anyway, see ya later, and thanks for the books....Carrie

Kate M. Fisher said

at 4:28 pm on Nov 13, 2008

Thanks Carrie:
Let me know if you find anything other errors. ~K

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