Here Comes Unified English Braille!

Fingers touching braille dots on a page

The current braille code is tough for elementary students, for there is no way for a transcriber to differentiate between bold, underlined, italicized and colored text. Writing words that have numbers and letters is cumbersome. There’s a need to frequently switch between computer and literary braille.

There are workarounds, but “We want a code that you can write and read fast,” said Sharon Monthei, an instructor at the residential training center BLIND, Inc..

South Africa adopted Unified English Braille in 2004. Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand adopted UEB in 2005. Canada adopted UEB in 2010. The United Kingdom adopted UEB in 2011.

Member organizations of the Braille Authority of North America voted to adopt UEB last year, and—after a forum held last month in Louisville—BANA delegates decided upon an implementation date of January, 2016.

As a recent press release from BANA said:

”The delegates to the Forum acknowledged that the transition to UEB will take time and necessitate extensive preparation and collaboration among all the systems and infrastructures involved…Detailed timelines are under development by individual organizations, and transition efforts are now being initiated.”

All delegates to the forum agreed that January 4, 2016—the 207th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth—should be seen as a celebration, not as a deadline.

“Everybody needs to create their own milestones for the transition,” said Maria Morais, who attended the forum in October. “That date is the Monday after Christmas break. During that whole school year, people will be using old and new braille. That date should be the absolute latest that kids see UEB.”

Morais suggests that if teachers, students, and readers look at this transition as an update to the braille code, their anxieties would be greatly reduced. (Read about the differences between literary braille and UEB here.)

“These updates actually reduce the number of rules,” she said. “The contractions that have been added have to do with appearance [such as bold, parentheses, brackets, and underlining, for example].”

Very few expect that the transition will be difficult for adult braille readers.

“We’ve done the last two [National Federation of the Blind] convention agendas in braille, and nobody has talked about having trouble with them,” said Monthei, who authored the popular braille curriculum McDuffy Reader. “Mostly you’ll just notice the signs that aren’t there.”

Referring to the lower-cell contractions—to, into, and by—Emily Gibbs, NCLB said, “Personally, I’m going to miss the snugglers.”

For Gibbs—who teaches braille to elementary, junior high and high school students in Katy, Texas—the ease of transition is all about how much training is provided to teachers. The students, she said, will catch on quickly.

“The elementary kids will handle it the easiest,” she said. “They’ve been learning braille for the least amount of time, and elementary kids are more resilient. The high school kids will get the most annoyed, because they’ve used braille for the longest. They’re more prone to being annoyed in general!”

When it comes to including UEB on standardized tests and exams, Gibbs isn’t concerned.

“We can just put a lot of code characters in transcriber’s notes,” she said. “It will be useful for a while for the transcribers notes to point out the differences. Luckily print is resilient in terms of braille typos.”

For students who forget to put a space between the words “and the,” it will be easy enough to understand what the student meant when the braille is translated into print.

Morais, who coordinates the administration of the National Certification in Literary Braille, is confident that braille readers will take the changes in stride.

“For anybody who knows braille, we’ll look at it and say, ‘Oh, somebody made a mistake,’ and then we’ll remember it’s just UEB,” she said.

Initially, the loudest critics of UEB were transcribers. To them, Monthei said that the updates “are not about teachers or transcribers. It’s for braille readers.”

Right now, Morais believes, the first task should be to develop materials for people to learn UEB.

“It’s one thing to say to somebody who already knows braille to just memorize it,” she said. “It’s the materials to work with kids and newly-blinded people that’s going to take a while to get out there. Right now, you can’t even order UEB from NLS yet. that’s going to be slow and coming, but the pervasiveness of braille embossers means that people will produce their own materials.”

Because the U.S. is one of the last countries to adopt UEB, the good news is that embossers and braille displays already support the updated code.

“When Apple launched iOS 7 and you hook up to a braille display, the default is UEB,” Monthei said. “Yeah, you can change it back, but anybody with an iPhone or iPad and a braille display can see what this will be like. They’ll see it’s not a big deal.”

After the day-long forum last month in Louisville, most delegates’ concerns were addressed, Morais said.

“i think people walked away feeling like there was a much more comprehensive plan established for the transition,” she said. “The updates are really good, but i just wish we’d done this 50 years ago!”

Monthei said that she’d hoped to have an updated McDuffy Reader curriculum published by the end of this year that would also incorporate some changes that she’s wanted to make for some time.

“I wanted to have it done by the end of this year, and I could if i wasn’t working,” she said. “I haven’t made one cent off this book. I did it because I didn’t like the books that were out there, and I thought I knew how to teach it a little better. I don’t know if i’ve succeeded, but I gave it to the Federation.”

What resources do you want to see posted here? Are you excited for UEB? Post your reactions in the comments below.

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Corbb O'Connor
Corbb, a blind entrepreneur, coordinates the outreach and marketing efforts for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University as an independent consultant.

2 thoughts on “Here Comes Unified English Braille!

  1. Pingback: Memorizing New UEB Symbols through Patterns | Blog on Blindness

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