4 January marked World Braille Day, a day nominated by the United Nations (UN) in 2019 to commemorate the birthday of French educator and braille founder Louis Braille. World Braille Day also intends to raise awareness on the significance of braille and advocate for the inclusion of blind and partially-sighted people in various fields of work and industries.
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Braille is the world’s most popular tactile representation of alphabetic and numerical symbols, using six raised dots to represent, at the most basic level, letters and numbers. People read braille by moving their fingertips from left to right across the lines of dots. Braille can also be used to represent mathematical and scientific symbols and even musical symbols. This tactical representation has two basic codes. Grade 1 braille is a direct substitution of normal print letters for letters from the braille alphabet. Grade 2 is a shorter form where certain letter combinations and other frequently used short words are given an abbreviated braille pattern.
Created by blind French educator Louis Braille in 1824, braille works by assigning characters to rectangular blocks called “cells” or “cages” that have tiny bumps called raised dots. The number and arrangement of these dots distinguish one character from another. Braille uses a sensory military code called night writing developed by Charles Barbier to generate words that a blind person can decipher by touching. All braille characters are created through the six raised dots in each cage, and each cage is used to denote one particular letter.
In the years since its invention, braille has provided countless equal learning opportunities for the blind and those who are visually impaired. It is included in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is available in 133 languages, as per the third edition of World Braille Usage.
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This week, Brunch looks at braille in Sri Lanka, and Sinhala and Tamil braille, to examine how Sri Lanka’s blind and visually impaired use this tactical language to overcome the challenges of their disability.
Braille was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1912 by the School for the Deaf and Blind in Ratmalana. Later, schools were set up – in Ragama in 1935, and in 1956, the Nuffield School for the Deaf and Blind in Kaithady, Jaffna, to which Tamil speaking students were sent. Braille in Sinhala was introduced in the late 1900s. When it was first introduced, English characters were used to represent Sinhala letters. However, over time, this process proved troublesome, and thereafter a more practical code was introduced by the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind in Ratmalana. While there are “contracted braille systems” for English braille, which employ abbreviated words to save space, a similar system has not yet been formulated for Sinhala, although many attempts were made over the years.
We spoke with Daisy Lanka Foundation President Kasun Nayanajith to find out about how braille is used to help print impaired persons and how it is made available in the native languages Sinhala and Tamil. The Daisy Lanka Foundation is an organisation that works towards the achievement and attainment of the full economic, educational, cultural, vocational, and social inclusion and integration of people with print disabilities by the provision of information in alternative accessible formats. About 0.2% of currently available reading materials are not made in accessible formats such as braille, audio, large-print to be used by the blind/visually impaired, people with learning disabilities, and individuals who are unable to hold or turn pages of a printed book due to limited functionalities of upper limbs, leaving more than 99% of published material inaccessible to them.
Instituted in 2004, Daisy Lanka is dedicated to producing and disseminating print information in digital format in the native languages of Sri Lanka. The Daisy Lanka Foundation engages in promoting inclusive publishing, developing standards/guidelines for accessible content production, and facilitating a fair distribution platform in Sri Lanka.
They work in close association with the focal point of the “Daisy consortium” and participate in the Authorised Entity (AE) of the ABC Global Book Service of the Accessible Books Consortium, a public-private partnership led by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
Speaking of the work they do, Nayanajith said that while Daisy Lanka is for the print impaired, they convert publications into an electronic format and then convert it into braille, and this can then be accessed by any print impaired person using a braille display or printed out using a braille embosser if they want to access the hard copy.
We asked Nayanajith if Daisy Lanka provides publications in Sinhala and Tamil, to which he said: “When braille was introduced to Sri Lanka it was available only in English. However, many years later, Sinhala and then Tamil braille was introduced. When it comes to Sinhala we use the braille that is already converted using the standard English braille system, which is the six dot braille.”
“Sinhala braille may not be as clear as there is no universal standard while it does not use ‘ispili’ and ‘papili’, so the words are available without inclinations. While there were attempts to formulate a standard system for Sinhala braille, it was not made public as there were many discrepancies in the formulation. However, it is not necessary to learn English braille first to be able to use Sinhala braille. I learned Sinhala braille first,” he added.
When asked about Tamil braille, Nayanajith said that Sinhala braille and Tamil braille are similar as the formation of letters are quite similar, although the words would be different. Therefore, anyone who can read braille in Sinhala can easily learn Tamil braille.
Finally, we asked Nayanajith to tell us how anyone in need can get involved with Daisy Lanka, whereupon he said: “Daisy Lanka is available for the print impaired, and they can purchase publications from us and learn from us. Related organisations direct those in need to our foundation. However, anyone may reach out by producing relevant medical certificates.” He further stated that as dyslexia has been named as a visual disability, dyslexic persons may reach out to Daisy Lanka by producing their medical certificates.