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Bringing Science to Life with Braille

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Globe and Mail logo
January 04, 2022

Written byMahadeo Sukhai, Vice President of Research & International Affairs and Chief Accessibility Officer for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

When we talk about disability, we’re accustomed to talking about “visible” and “invisible” disabilities. We usually define these terms based on disability type, and blindness and partial sight is associated with “visible” disabilities. It’s kind of ironic, that we believe that we can “see” sight loss! However, in truth, nine people in every 10 of those with seeing disabilities live so that their sight loss is largely “invisible”. In reality, it’s the aids we use as persons with disabilities that make our lived experience “visible”. Using Braille is one such aid and so, for children with sight loss, using Braille may make their experience obvious to – and obviously different from – their classmates and friends.

Braille – Beyond the Alphabet

World Braille Day is celebrated annually on January 4th. Invented by Louise Braille in the 19th century, Braille uses ordered, raised dots in a 2x3 grid (a “cell”) as a touch-based (“tactile”) coding system, or representation, of letters, numbers and symbols (including math, science and music symbols). Braille is not a language; it’s a different way of representing writing. There is a version of Braille for English, and separate versions for French, Spanish, some Indigenous languages, Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin. UEB (Unified English Braille) includes all symbols for literary and math/science in one code; this way, students no longer have to learn multiple braille codes depending on the school subject. UEB has been adopted in all English-speaking countries. Braille is everywhere in our lives; check it out the next time you’re in an elevator. Braille is incredibly versatile – if something can be written, it’s likely that it can be converted into a tactile symbol, or into Braille.

A Valuable Teaching Tool

In school, we often think of science as a very visual subject, with lots of charts, graphs and images. As a result, many teachers (and even some parents) think, “This student can’t see well, how can they do science?” We need to reframe this to ask the opposite question: “What can I do to teach this student science, in ways that don’t rely on eyesight?” Or, the related question, “What tools are out there that I can use to engage my child, or my student, in science?”

One answer to these questions is to use Braille. Over the nearly 200 years of its use, the original Braille codes have been used to create specialized symbols for math equations, for chemical formulae and chemical equations, for physics concepts like circuit diagrams, for genetics concepts, and more. These additions are a bit advanced and do rely on having some knowledge of the basic Braille code, which most of us don’t have. Another challenge with the Braille code is that it takes up more space than the traditional alphabet – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in Braille, takes up 10 volumes, and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary is a whopping 72 volumes in size!

With these challenges: a lack of basic knowledge of Braille; the bulkiness of Braille products; not knowing where and how to get Braille materials, it’s really easy to fall back on the “numbers game”: So few people use Braille! There aren’t many people who are blind or partially sighted in science! Or the “discouragement game”: “I think you should take a different subject!”

We typically associate Braille with people who are blind or partially sighted, and particularly with people who have extremely limited, or no, functional sight. Instead, think about this: reading Braille (with your fingertips) is very different from reading print or listening to audio. Braille can be very beneficial to anyone who learns by way of patterns, or who learns using touch. When we think of Braille in those terms, it becomes clear that many youth would actually benefit from learning and using Braille. For this reason, it can be a wonderful teaching tool for the whole class or for a group of students – not to mention a great game at in-person and virtual birthday parties! The LEGO Foundation recently launched LEGO Braille bricks because of their educational value.

Where to start?

So, what can you do, as a parent, caregiver or a teacher, to encourage a child who is blind or partially sighted in learning science, using Braille? First, do some background research. In addition to LEGO Braille bricks, organizations like the CNIB have lots of Braille resources. Other organizations like the Perkins School for the Blind or the American Printing House for the Blind (both based in the United States) have many science educational resources, including Braille resources. Second, make it a group activity: learn Braille alongside the kids. Have groups of students work and learn together using Braille in the classroom. Be creative! Braille is a wonderful tool for people who are blind or partially sighted, but it is also a tremendous educational tool on its own.

By embracing and widening the use of aids such as Braille, we will foster inclusion, engage even more youth in science and build a more tolerant society.