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Our October 2020 Event. James Bowden: The basics of Braille

On Thursday 29th October, we had the pleasure to welcome James Bowden from the Royal National Institute of Blind People as our speaker. James introduced us to the magical world of Braille, the ‘language’ of dots.

The event started as usual with a warm welcome, and James took over to explain about the basics of Braille: a tactile writing system used by people who are visually impaired. James kicked off with a brief history of Braille:

French inventor Louis Braille began developing the Braille system in 1821 when he was still a young boy. It allowed blind people to read independently for the first time and was widely adopted. Braille is still one of the primary codes for the blind. It’s been adapted for use in different languages. The code structure is essentially a 6-dot cell system; the dots are disposed in a 2 x 3 format.

During the insightful presentation, some questions were brought up:

James showing the basic Braille typewriter

How do you write in Braille code?

If we use the basic Braille typewriter, we type from right to left. However, there are other kinds of typewriters too with which it is possible to type from left to right. The electronic Braille typewriter is an invention that appears to be the best option.

What can you use Braille for?

Braille code can be used in several contexts: from labeling CDs to actual books.

How do you type with laptop?

There are various possibilities. We can have a standard laptop with standard keyboard and a screen reader, or a laptop with a Braille keyboard. It’s a matter of preference.

Why is Braille a code and not a language?

Braille is a type of script. It is not a language, it’s a code. The 6-dot cells are a system for transcribing the Roman alphabet, but also music, math, and chemistry.

How many people use Braille in the UK?

About two million Brits are visually impaired, nonetheless only 20-25K people use Braille. Braille is most commonly used by those who were born blind or lost their sight at a young age. The majority of blind or partially sighted people in the UK have lost their sight later in life. Many of those people don’t use Braille, probably because there is a bit of a learning curve that one has to embark on.

Is there a future for Braille in times of AI, Siri, Alexa and speech technology?

While some blind people argue that audio and voice recognition technologies are making Braille irrelevant, others argue that blind people are losing out by not being able to read and write independently and privately. Screen readers are very fast speaking, while Braille gives precision. It is still important when it comes to study music or simply to write. Using both is the key.

After James answered our questions, we proceeded to the networking bit.

James’ final message to us was: “Braille is fantastic, give it a go! Spread the word about it and create awareness.”

About the speaker, James Bowden:

James Bowden's profile picture

Having studied mathematics and computer science at university, James’s background is in software development. Projects he worked on included speech synthesis (TTS) and braille transcription software. In his current role as RNIB’s Braille Technical Officer, James is involved in digitising braille books, as well as improving the accuracy of braille transcription, and currently serves as the UK representative to the International Council on English Braille.

James is a braille reader himself and uses braille daily, including for his interests of music and computing.

To learn more about the Royal National Institute of Blind People, visit their website. They are one of the UK’s leading sight loss charities and the largest community of blind and partially sighted people.

Thanks to all the language professionals who attended and actively participated in this insightful event, regardless of the time zones. The money we have raised goes to support Moorfields Eye Charity.

Stay tuned for our next event, which will be on the 27th of November! We’ll share the details soon. Until then, stay safe.

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