The History of Braille Signage: How It Was Developed and Why It’s Important Today
Table of contents
- What Is Braille?
- A Brief History of Braille
- What Benefits Does Braille Offer to Those with Visual Impairments?
- Why Braille Is Used in Signage
- What Role Did the ADA Play in the History of Braille Signage?
- What Are the ADA Guidelines for Braille Signage?
Chances are you already know ADA signage with braille text is a must for any building that’s open to the public. If signs identifying permanent rooms or spaces don’t have braille, business owners run the risk of being fined or sued for noncompliance. But there’s a little more to it. That’s why it’s worth learning about the history of braille signage, starting at the very beginning, so you can appreciate the application.
What Is Braille?
Before diving into the history of braille and its use in signage, it’s important to talk about what braille is.
Braille is a system of reading and writing used by those with visual impairments—specifically, people who are blind. And because it’s a code, it can be transcribed into different languages.
This system consists of a series of raised dots. Braille symbols are created within units of space known as braille cells. Six raised dots, arranged in two parallel rows with three dots each, comprise these cells. The number and position of the dots represent letters, numbers, words, and other elements such as punctuation marks. Like other text, braille is read from left to right, and those who use this system follow along each line using both hands.
For languages such as English, there are different “grades” of braille used by readers. And the grades are as follows:
Grade 1 Braille
This grade is used primarily by beginners. It encompasses all 26 standard letters of the alphabet, along with numbers and punctuation.
Grade 2 Braille
This grade is usually found on public signage, in books, and within other materials. It also covers punctuation, numbers, and letters of the alphabet. Grade 2 differs from grade 1 in that it also includes contractions.
Grade 2 braille was created as a space-saving alternative to grade 1 braille. This is because a braille page requires more space than a traditional text-printed page.
Grade 3 Braille
This grade is used least often, as it’s considered the equivalent of “shorthand.” In addition to shortening many words to just a few letters, grade 3 braille also reduces spaces between words and paragraphs. Further, it replaces some words with combinations of punctuation symbols.
A Brief History of Braille
The history of braille itself goes back to the early 1800s. During this time, Charles Barbier de La Serre—a French soldier who served in Napoléon Bonaparte’s army—created a system he called “night writing.” With this system, soldiers would be able to communicate at night without having to use light. This would eliminate the risk of enemies discovering their position.
Unfortunately, this military code was too complex. Since each letter or phonetic sound was represented by a raised 12-dot cell, it was impossible to touch (and therefore read) each one with a single fingertip.
However, the code did provide a solid foundation on which Louis Braille could build the system we’re more familiar with today.
By modifying the night-writing code, Louis Braille—a French boy who lost sight in one eye due to an accident and the other as a result of sympathetic ophthalmia—invented a universal system of reading and writing for those with visual impairments. He then went on to publish the first braille book, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, in 1829 when he was 20 years old.
It’s because of Charles Barbier de La Serre’s initial efforts and Louis Braille’s ingenuity that individuals who are blind or have reduced vision have opportunity to read and write on paper.
What Benefits Does Braille Offer to Those with Visual Impairments?
As the history of braille demonstrates, this unique system offers several benefits to those with visual impairments.
- It allows users to learn spelling, punctuation, and text formatting.
- It grants students who are blind the same opportunities as their peers.
- It ensures that braille readers can experience enjoyment from books.
- It helps foster a feeling of inclusiveness.
- It gives those with visual impairments the opportunity for future employment.
Why Braille Is Used in Signage
Now that you’re familiar with the history of braille itself, it’s clear the system was introduced into signage to make reading easier for those with visual impairments. More than that, braille is used in signage to protect the rights of such individuals in public places. It ensures they have the same access as anyone else.
Along with maintaining compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), adding braille elements to signs allows those who are blind or have reduced vision to navigate buildings with ease. This is why braille is required on displays that identify permanent spaces, such as restrooms, exits, elevators, numbered rooms, etc. Individuals can then reference the braille to confirm they’re in the right place.
The use of braille in signage is particularly important for businesses.
- It provides individuals with the means to safely evacuate in case of emergency.
- It eliminates barriers and reduces the chances of frustration.
- It shows that consideration was given to all visitors and employees.
What Role Did the ADA Play in the History of Braille Signage?
When the ADA was passed in 1990, it introduced strict guidelines to prevent discrimination against those with disabilities, including people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired. This was an important event in the history of braille signage in the United States. Although braille had often been used in public displays, the passing of the ADA resulted in braille becoming a requirement in certain cases.
In 2010, the Department of Justice submitted revised regulations for Title II (state and local government facilities) and Title III (public accommodations and commercial facilities) of the ADA, referred to as the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. These include further guidelines that organizations must follow when it comes to signage and other features.
What Are the ADA Guidelines for Braille Signage?
According to the ADA, any displays identifying permanent rooms or spaces must have braille text. This includes restroom signs, stair signs, elevator signs, room number signs, exit signs, and so forth. However, temporary signs, directories, and informational signs aren’t required to have braille.
Under section 703 of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the following guidelines must be followed for signage to be considered compliant:
- 703.1 General. Signs shall comply with 703. Where both visual and tactile characters are required, either one sign with both visual and tactile characters, or two separate signs, one with visual, and one with tactile characters, shall be provided.
- 703.2 Raised Characters. Raised characters shall comply with 703.2 and shall be duplicated in braille complying with 703.3. Raised characters shall be installed in accordance with 703.4.
- 703.2.1 Depth. Raised characters shall be 1/32 inch (0.8 mm) minimum above their background.
- 703.2.2 Case. Characters shall be uppercase.
- 703.2.3 Style. Characters shall be sans serif. Characters shall not be italic, oblique, script, highly decorative, or of other unusual forms.
- 703.2.4 Character Proportions. Characters shall be selected from fonts where the width of the uppercase letter “O” is 55 percent minimum and 110 percent maximum of the height of the uppercase letter “I.”
- 703.2.5 Character Height. Character height measured vertically from the baseline of the character shall be 5/8 inch (16 mm) minimum and 2 inches (51 mm) maximum based on the height of the uppercase letter “I.”
- EXCEPTION: Where separate raised and visual characters with the same information are provided, raised character height shall be permitted to be 1/2 inch (13 mm) minimum.
- 703.3 Braille. Braille must be contracted (Grade 2) and comply with 703.3 and 703.4.
- 703.3.1 Dimensions and Capitalization. Braille dots must have a domed or rounded shape and comply with the table highlighted in 703.3.1. An uppercase letter or letters should only be used before the first word of sentences, proper nouns and names, individual letters of the alphabet, initials, and acronyms.
- Dot base diameter: The diameter should be between 0.059 in. (1.5 mm) and 0.063 in. (1.6 mm).
- Dot height: Dots should be between 0.025 in. (0.6 mm) and 0.037 in. (0.9 mm) in height.
- Distance between corresponding dots from one cell directly below: Braille dots in this case should be between 0.395 in. (10 mm) and 0.400 in. (10.2 mm) away from each other.
In California, ADA restroom signs must also have grade 2 braille. However, the state has its own requirements for braille that differ slightly from federal law—specifically in terms of spacing.
- Distance between two dots in the same cell: Whereas the ADA requires 0.090 in. (2.3 mm) to 0.100 in. (2.5 mm), California requires 0.100 in. (2.5 mm).
- Distance between corresponding dots in adjacent cells: Federal guidelines require 0.241 in. (6.1 mm) to 0.300 in. (7.6 mm), while California requires 0.300 in. (7.6 mm).
Braille is much more than a series of dots on paper and signage. It’s a way for those unable to read and write standard text to communicate with the world. And it’s much more complex than most people think.
That’s why following the ADA guidelines mentioned above is crucial for both public businesses and the sign shops that create ADA signage for them. Failure to comply with ADA rules regarding braille can result in fines, lawsuits, and/or generally unhappy visitors, which could lead to negative PR. Therefore, those involved are strongly encouraged to familiarize themselves with ADA rules, learn about the history of braille, and develop an understanding of why braille is so important.