Learning Braille as a Sighted Parent of a Blind Child

Getting Started with Braille

I knew I needed to learn some braille if I was going to help my daughter learn. The prospect of learning braille can be a bit daunting or intimidating but I found that a nice place to start was with the National Braille Press (NBP) Free Braille Bag. Read all about the Braille Bag here, and then fill out the online form to get yours in the mail. It has lots of good stuff in it, but what I want to highlight is that it will include an order form for a free copy of “Just Enough to Know Better, A UEB Braille Primer” by Eileen P. Curran. The title alone is calming – after all you really do only need to learn just enough to know a bit better than your child. You can do it! The book eases you into braille nice and slowly, and is sufficient to get you going in uncontracted braille – which is where your child will start too. A nice complement is a cheat sheet for the alphabet and numbers in braille.

Getting Started with Contractions

Eventually, your child will start learning contracted braille, and you’ll want to keep up, or just ahead. At this point, you’ve outgrown the braille primer and you need more. An excellent start is a cheat sheet with UEB contractions. I’ve found a few to be helpful.

Initially I sometimes found the UEB Braille Chart from Duxbury Systems useful due to its alphabetical organization. Now I am more fluent I always use the UEB Chart from Canadian Assistive Technology (formerly the Aroga Technologies UEB Chart). Actually, that’s not quite true. I use my hacked version of an old Aroga chart. Its meant for 11×17 paper which doesn’t fit my printer. So I’ve split it out into a two-page PDF document that you can print out on a single 8.5×11 sheet double sided. Try my hacked version here, or if you are brave you could try my hacked AND annotated version here that has a few added notes on usage of contractions (I cannot promise my annotations are error free). 

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Getting Expert with Contractions

I found the contraction cheat sheet was sufficient for me to be able to decipher the braille my daughter’s TVI was giving my daughter to read with some struggle, but not enough to produce my own. The reason is you have to know when to use which contraction and there is some subtlety. I found myself unsure which way to contract a word when it seemed like there were multiple choices. 

To explain, I’ll put parenthesis around a group of letters when I want to denote that these letters are represented by a single contraction. Now, note that there are UEB contractions for “the”, “th”, and “en”. So should one braille “then” as “(the)n” or as “(th)(en)”? It matters and there is only one right answer! The correct spelling is “(the)n” because the contraction for “the” is a “strong contraction” and takes precedence over other contractions.

To master this I needed way more help than a cheat sheet. A TVI in my district put me on to the wonderful and free UEB Online Braille training for sighted learners. The course has 31 lessons. Each lesson has a PDF explanation of some braille and then two exercises, one to transcribe a braille passage into print, and one to transcribe a print passage into braille. Once you complete both exercises you can move onto the next lesson. The exercises are what really make you learn the braille.

For each lesson, I downloaded the lesson PDF so I now have a set of 31 reference guides to the subtelties of UEB braille (alternatively I can always log back into the course website and choose the lesson I want to refer to again from the table of contents.) The course page also has a great set of reference documents and cheat sheets.

Sometimes I still get stuck on how to contract something. When my question relates to how contractions interact with punctuation, for example, my go to is returning to the relevant course lesson. If its just about a particular word, I sometimes try  the BRL: Contraction Lookup Dictionary–but this is not UEB so it can give the wrong answer. However, it would quickly and correctly answer that the right way to contract “then” is “(the)n” so it can still be useful if used with care.

Final Words

It took me five years to go from starting to learn the braille alphabet to finishing the UEB online course because that was about how fast I needed to go to keep pace with my daughter who started learning braille in pre-school. Overall what I found most useful for learning braille was typing out braille on a Perkins brailler (on loan from our regional library for the blind) to make braille reading material for my daughter. Learning by doing is what works for me! Of course don’t just listen to me, there are many other resources out there than the ones I used and described, and many other websites with lists of resources. For example, I found this braille resource list helpful.