What did Helen Keller use to read and write?

Fascinating facts about the history of writing systems for people who are blind, and how literacy continues to evolve in the 21st century

A page shows two kinds of tactile writing, the standard alphabet and a raised-dot system

This booklet from 1915 shows Boston Line Type, a tactile version of the standard alphabet, and Standard Dot, a compromise between the various raised-dot systems in use at the time.

January 21, 2016

Helen Keller came to Perkins when many competing systems for reading and writing for people with blindness were being used, invented and reinvented. These systems included raised-dot alphabets like English Braille, American Braille and New York Point; embossed Roman alphabets, namely Samuel Gridley Howe's Boston Line Type; and a system that utilized abstracted Roman letter forms called Moon Type.

Although Louis Braille published his tactile writing system in 1829, it wasn't until 1918 that braille was adopted as the official system in the United States. As a 1904 graduate of Radcliffe College, Keller became the first person who was deafblind to earn a Bachelor's degree, and she had to read fluently in all of these systems for her studies. In a letter to William Wade written in 1901, Keller remarks: "There is nothing more absurd, I think, than to have five or six different prints for the blind."

Even though Howe's Boston Line Type remained the official printing system at Perkins until 1908, braille was so popular for personal use that the school offered braille slates for sale as early as 1869. Slates were metal or wooden grids that fitted over paper and allowed users to form braille dots with a stylus.

By the 1930s, Perkins had designed and manufactured several models of mechanical braille writers. Like other braille writers of the time, the early Perkins models required frequent repair in addition to being noisy and expensive to produce.

When Gabriel Farrell became director of Perkins in 1931, he resolved to develop a superior braille writer that would solve the earlier design problems. Unveiled to the public in 1951, the new Perkins Brailler™ was tough and hard to break, with a touch so light it could be used by young children and those who lacked finger strength. Thanks to the work of director Farrell and designer David Abraham, braille was not only the standard reading and writing system for people with blindness, it was now also easy and fast to produce.

In 2012 Perkins Solutions introduced the Perkins SMART Brailler® – a new learning technology that offered an intuitive way for individuals, both sighted and blind, to communicate, teach and learn braille together. With the SMART Brailler, teachers can see what their students are brailling, sighted parents can help their visually impaired children with homework and students can take the lead in their own braille education.

A year after the launch of the SMART Brailler, Perkins International, in collaboration with the International Council on English Braille and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, released the third edition of World Braille Usage during the first-ever Braille Summit at Perkins School for the Blind.

Often described as "the braille bible," World Braille Usage, which is available in a downloadable format, includes a compilation of braille codes for 133 languages around the globe, including eight of the most commonly used tribal languages in South Africa, ñupiaq from Alaska, Khmer from Cambodia and Ndebele from Zimbabwe.

Another milestone followed a few years later. In 2016 the United States switched from the American version of braille to the Unified English Braille code (UEB). The switch, which coincided with Louis Braille's birthday on January 4, marked the first change in America's braille code in more than 80 years.

While braille remains a vital tool in the portfolio of literacy solutions for people who are visually impaired, Perkins is also taking a fresh look at what literacy really means to people with disabilities today. A “field research project,” launched in 2014 to study literacy in the 21st century, helped build a deeper understanding of literacy in the digital age – and is already inspiring new solutions for tomorrow.

For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter. See writing systems for the blind on Flickr.