What Is Unified English Braille? Some History and Resources

United States officially adopted the Unified English Braille (UEB) code in January 2016. UEB is not a completely new braille code. However, there have been changes.

A Little Unified English Braille (UEB) History

The initial work towards a unified code started in 1991 with a memo to the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) written by Tim Cranmer and Abraham Nemeth. They called for a general purpose code aimed at reducing the “complexity and disarray” of the multi-code braille system fraught with “numerous conflicts among them in regards to symbols and rules” (Cranmer & Nemeth, 1991). While unique codes for literary, technical, foreign language, and computer braille materials offer access to information across fields, leaders advocated for the development of a single code that could be applied for numerous contexts.

Braille reading experts from seven English-speaking countries embarked on a mission to develop a unified code. Not only was the goal to streamline codes across contexts, but also to develop a common code that would be used within all English-speaking countries. Originally, the code was called the Unified Braille Code (UBC). The word “English” was added by the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) General Assembly in 1999. In April 2004, ICEB’s General Assembly announced that Unified English Braille was “substantially complete and could be recognized as an international standard and considered for adoption by individual countries” (ICEB, para 1)

This wasn’t a quick process, nor was it taken lightly. ICEB reviewed years of discussions, research, and analyses before deciding that the UEB was the code they wanted to endorse (BANA, n.d.b).

As soon as countries started transitioning to UEB, researchers wanted to know how people were being impacted by the braille code change. Numerous studies have examined people’s concerns and expectations. Researchers have reported that braille readers, teachers and transcribers have all expressed varying degrees of concern over the changes (Bogart, 2009; Cryer, Horne, 2011, Gentle, Steer, & Howse, 2012; Gerber & Smith, 2006, Jolley, 2005, Wetzel & Knowlton, 2006).

Teachers were somewhat less anxious than their students and adult braille readers were reportedly the most concerned about changes to the braille code. Two studies from Australia illustrate:

  • In 2005 Australia was just starting the transition to UEB, Jolley (2005) published his commentary. He noted that adult braille readers were concerned about the changes that were perceived to add “clutter” to the code and they wanted to see more contractions instead of fewer (p. 518).
  • In comparison, seven years later, Gentle, Steer & Howse (2012) followed up on how Australia fared with the change. The authors reported positive if somewhat unexpected results in that the student readers made the transition much more quickly than expected when Australia developed its transition plan.

Gentle et al. (2012) discussed how Australian students who had been receiving UEB training for only a few months responded to the task of statewide testing. The students who had been provided with instruction in UEB had been given the option of taking the tests in either the old code or UEB. Even though they had only been exposed to UEB for four months, those students felt confident enough to chose UEB for the tests. Gentle et al. (2012) also provided an example of how these students used new UEB contractions (bullets which were previously unavailable in the old code) in their test answer pre-writing.

Gentle et al. (2012) also noted how the switch provided many unexpected benefits in the wider community:

  • A rejuvenation of interest in braille
  • Greater awareness of braille as a literacy medium for students who are blind.
  • An increase in professional development and refreshing of braille skills as teachers and transcribers adjusted to the changes.

Math Codes

Other studies have reported that many braille readers have felt that the changes to the actual literary part of the code were minor. However, there has been a lot of anxiety about possible changes to how people read math and science texts. UEB is a unified code.

Not all English-speaking countries used Nemeth Code for math and science materials and transitioning to UEB has been viewed as most contentious when considering math and science material transcription. All UEB adopters except the United States chose to use UEB as the sole code for all contexts, including technical subjects. It is important to know, however, that BANA decided to retain Nemeth code as an official code and it is still used to produce math and science textbooks and materials in the United States. In fact, BANA has issued updates to Nemeth as recently as November 2015. Braille readers in the United States will continue to have math and science textbooks and materials available in Nemeth Code. UEB implementation plans vary across states. Some (e.g. California, Texas, Washington) are opting to keep Nemeth as its technical materials code, while others (e.g. Massachusetts, North Carolina) are preparing for gradual and complete UEB adoption over time.

Family Resources

How can parents and family members learn about braille and the new UEB code? Here is a list of helpful resources:

  • American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has a great webpage: 16 Braille Resources in Honor of World Braille Day 2016. This webpage includes links to AFB’s family-friendly braille website...
  • Braille Bug® from AFB. This kid-friendly website has great information about braille and teaching games for children.
  • Hadley School for the Blind’s Family Education Program offers free classes for families (parents, siblings, spouses, children, and grandparents) of persons with visual impairments. Hadley’s course offerings including braille classes (check out their new course—Introduction to Braille, UEB Edition).
  • UEB Online is an online course designed for sighted readers available from the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) in Sydney, Australia.
  • UEB Curriculum for Braille Students on the Paths to Literacy’s website is a 10-lesson sequence of lessons, practice exercises, and assessments for teachers to use in help children who are already braille readers learn the changes for UEB.
  • UEB Prep is another online resource that will help people learn UEB. UEP Prep uses online games to introduce and teach the braille-code changes and will be available soon. To learn more about UEB Prep, please contact Dr. Holly Lawson at Portland State University.

References

Bogart, D. (2009). Louis Braille celebration: Unifying the English braille codes. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 103, 581-583.

Braille Authority of North America (BANA; n.d.a). Mathematics and science braille [Webpage]. Retrieved January 2, 2015 from http://brailleauthority.org/mathscience/math-science.html#updates

Braille Authority of North America (BANA; n.d.b). The evolution of braille: Can the past help plan the future. Retrieved January 2, 2016 from http://brailleauthority.org/article/index.html)

Cranmer, T. & Nemeth, A. (1991). A uniform braille code. Braille Authority of North America. Retrieved from http://www.iceb.org/cranem.html

Cryer, H, & Home, S. (2011). User research into Unified English Braille (UEB) in the UK. Birmingham, U.K.: RNIB Centre for Accessible Information (CAI).

Gentle, F., Steer, M., & Howse, J. (2012). New dots Downunder: The implementation of Unified English Braille in Australian schools. British Journal of Visual Impairment, 30, 197-200.

Gerber, E. & Smith, B. C. (2006). Literacy and controversy: Focus-group data from Canada on proposed changes to the braille code. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 100, 459-470.

Jolley, W. (2005). Unified English Braille: Australians blazing the trail. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99, 517-519.

Wetzel, R. & Knowlton, M. (2006). Focus group research on the implications of adopting the Unified English Braille Code. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 100, 203-211

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