12 things you probably don't know about braille

Surprising facts about the raised-dot reading system, including an asteroid named Braille and why there’s braille on drive-through ATMs

A closeup view of an ATM's keypad, showing braille characters

Why is braille on the keypad buttons of drive-through ATMs? So back-seat passengers who are blind can reach the ATM and independently make a transaction without help from the driver.

January is National Braille Literacy Month, so it’s the perfect time to explore the world’s most popular tactile reading and writing system.

Braille is named after its creator, Louis Braille, and uses combinations of raised dots to spell out letters and punctuation. Around the world, people who are blind read braille with their fingertips and can write it using devices like the Perkins Brailler. But that’s not the whole story about braille. For example…

  1. Braille started out as a military code called “night writing.” It was developed in 1819 by the French army so soldiers could communicate at night without speaking or using candles. Fifteen-year-old French schoolboy Louis Braille learned about the code, and eventually developed the more usable, streamlined version of the braille alphabet we know today.
  2. There’s an asteroid named Braille. In 1999, NASA’s Deep Space 1 probe flew past an asteroid while on its way to photograph the Borrelly comet. NASA named the asteroid “9969 Braille” in honor of Louis Braille.
  3. Braille takes up more space than the traditional alphabet, so braille books are much larger than their print counterparts. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is 10 volumes in braille, the “New American Bible’’ is 45 volumes and “Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary” is a shelf-hogging 72 volumes.
  4. Braille is not a language. It’s a tactile alphabet that can be used to write almost any language. There are braille versions of Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and many other languages.
  5. Ever heard of the Braille Challenge? It's an annual competition for students who are blind, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute. More than 1,400 students from the U.S. and Canada test their braille skills in categories like reading comprehension, proofreading and spelling. Winners in each age group walk away with monetary prizes – and braille bragging rights for a year.
  6. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you don’t have to learn math. There’s a special version of braille just for mathematics called the Nemeth Code. It was invented by Dr. Abraham Nemeth and can be used to transcribe math, algebra and calculus.
  7. There are two versions of braille – contracted and uncontracted. In uncontracted braille, every word is spelled out. Contracted braille is a “shorthand” version where common words are abbreviated, much like “don’t” is a shorter version of “do” and “not.” Most kids start with uncontracted braille and then learn the contracted version.
  8. There’s a good reason why braille is on the keypad buttons of drive-through ATMs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all ATMs must be accessible to people with visual impairments, and drive-through ATMs aren’t exempt. That’s so passengers who are blind, travelling in the back seat of cars or taxis, can reach the ATM and independently make a transaction without assistance from the driver.
  9. Some braille reader's fingers can really fly. While a sighted person can read 300 words per minute, some fast braille readers can whip through a book at a speed 400 words per minute. The secret to reading braille so quickly is a light touch– and using both hands (one hand reads while the other is poised to start on the next line). 
  10. You shouldn't capitalize "braille." When writing about the braille code, the name should be lowercase, according to the Braille Authority of North America. When referring to the proper name of Louis Braille, capitalize it. 
  11. Like tattoos? Get one in braille! Some braille tattoos are simple (like "love") and some are complicated (like the lyrics of an entire song). Most people get flat (ink) braille across tattoos, while others reportedly get small surgical beads inserted under their skin to create raised braille dots. If you're not ready to go that far, temporary braille tattoos are also available. 
  12. In recent years, toy companies have made some great strides in accessibility to ensure every child has the opportunity to play some of the biggest classic family games like braille Uno, braille and low vision Monopoly and braille LEGO.