A Matter of Respect. Why I always write “Braille” with an uppercase B

A number of people in blindness advocacy and technology inspire me. While of course there are certain things that advocacy and technology cannot change, there are many areas where we are right to strive constructively for a better tomorrow. Civil rights victories, overcoming paternalism and institutionalisation, the invention of technology that helps us achieve our true potential…all these things didn’t happen by accident or without effort and sacrifice. The advances we’ve made haven’t been due to those who are willing to accept the world as it is – the nay sayers. They’ve been made by dreamers, thinkers, agitators and inventors who challenge the status quo in all its many forms.

Among my heroes, there is one man who has had such an incredible impact on my life that his story often moves me to tears. His invention, his advocacy and his sacrifice made it possible for me to fulfil my dream of becoming a broadcaster and fluently read what needed to be read. I have him to thank for the bedtime stories I read my kids. He’s the reason I can get up in front of thousands of people and read from notes, or present a report with confidence at a meeting.

I am, of course, referring to Louis Braille, whose Braille system was described by one of New Zealand’s greatest blindness advocates, Cyril White, as “Louis Braille’s priceless gift to the blind”.

Let me parenthetically observe here that of course the Braille code was dismissed with disdain and disapproval by sighted people who thought we should use print letters like everyone else, despite it being cumbersome. I guess this was a 19th century way of describing the Braille code as “blind ghetto” technology, and it graphically illustrates the extreme danger of such thinking.

Louis Braille himself put it like this.

Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.

Louis Braille understood the link between literacy and those things we all crave – an education, a job, independence, dignity and respect.

Mirroring what so often happens even to this day, sighted people thought they knew what blind people needed better than blind people themselves did. Blind people were expected to be the docile and grateful recipients of charity, not entitled to direct their own destinies. So it was that Braille’s system was shunned initially, with sighted people insisting that a more cumbersome system that they understood better, but which was far less efficient, be used.

Two years after Louis Braille’s death, students at the school where he was taught, and later became a teacher himself, insisted on the adoption of Braille’s system. Braille’s story, then, is not just one of the genius of a method of literacy that has changed so many lives of generations of blind people worldwide. It is an early lesson in what can be achieved when we, the blind, demand the basic human right of self-determination.

I simply do not have the words to convey the immense sense of gratitude I feel for Braille – the man and the code.

When I was growing up, Braille was always capitalised, whether one was referring to the genius who gave us this gift, or the code he invented. At some point, this practice began to be questioned. It reached the point in the United States where BANA (the Braille Authority of North America) was asked to issue a policy statement on whether Braille should always be written with an uppercase B. BANA’s statement, (PDF), released in November 2006, says that most agencies don’t capitalise Braille when it refers to the code, but only when it refers to Louis Braille or to proper names such as Braille technology products. They state their preference for not capitalising Braille when referring to the code, justifying it by saying that not doing so somehow normalises Braille.

Even though the tactile reading system was named after an individual, it does not necessarily follow that the word be capitalized. This type of word is termed an eponym, a word that comes from someone’s name. Consider the words “watt,” “mach,” “sandwich,” “tattersall,” “foley,” “wellerism,” “bowdlerize,” “spoonerism,” and many others. All were once people’s names, or referred to a specific person. They are now just nouns and verbs spelled without a capital letter. Their lowercase status was acquired because the word has assumed such a commonplace
role in the language.
“Braille,” as the representation of the code created by Louis Braille, has become an important, recognized, and commonplace part of the landscape of life. True acceptance of braille as a viable medium for reading and not a special or unusual item includes not setting it apart by writing it differently. As testament to its
acceptance, it has acquired the right to appear in the language as
a lowercase word.

While BANA’s argument about eponyms is of course correct in the examples they use, there are also comparisons that I think are more analogous to Braille that are ignored. Morse Code, named after its inventor Samuel Morse, can hardly be considered some sort of fringe communications methodology that hasn’t gained wide acceptance, yet in the majority of cases I was able to find, Morse is capitalised, even when referring to the code rather than the individual.

The measurement the majority of the world uses for temperature, Celsius, was named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who invented it. It is not capitalised universally, but it can often be found capitalised when referring to the scale.

Closer to home, the Nemeth Braille Code, invented by Abraham Nemeth who died recently, appears to be capitalised more often than not when referring to the code – a fitting tribute to a man who helps maths and sciences become more accessible and understandable by blind students.

So at best, one can say that there are cases to be made for both points of view.

What clinches it for me, and what influences the way I write the word Braille no matter what anyone else says, is my deep respect and appreciation for Louis Braille. And in the end, I believe how we as blind people feel about the code, and how much homage we want to pay to the memory of the man who gave it to us, should determine how to write the name of the code.

Deaf people, for instance, write the word Deaf with an uppercase D. It’s a decision they have made as a community. It’s a matter of pride. And for me, writing Braille with an uppercase B every time is a matter of respect, and a matter of pride. It’s also a statement every time I write it, that says that this code was designed by a blind guy who faced huge resistance, and ultimately overcame, even though he didn’t live to see it. Writing Braille with an uppercase B in every instance is a personal statement that I believe in the self-determination of blind people.

Of course there are far more important issues to worry about than whether Braille is written with an uppercase B or not. The only reason I am devoting some bytes in this blog to this subject is as a result of a Twitter exchange where the subject of whether Braille should always be capitalised came up. 140 characters are limiting to convey complex arguments, so I decided to write this to encourage those blind people, and indeed those sighted people who appreciate the wider story of Braille’s gift to us, to write Braille with an uppercase B no matter what. No policy statement will ever cause me to disrespect Braille’s legacy by doing otherwise.

7 Comments

  1. Derry Lawlor

    Yes well that is it Braille from my point of view should be always written and thought about with a capital B.

    • Dave

      I use both codes, Braille and Morse, and both have hadand continue to have a significant empact equally on where I’ve been or where I’m going. I once heard a text alert tone using Morse that I liked. I just thought it was slow for my preferred speed so I made my own version at a faster speed and used it for years. I need to dust it off again for the Iphone.

  2. Mike Cole

    I have a perspective, not a criticism of your thoughts about capitalizing the term Braille. First 19th century perspectives are hard to capture, we can infer how blind people were considered though. Braille didn’t become the reading and writing alternative for blind people at first, true enough. I take a slightly less personal view. Nothing is accepted right away; Braille probably made it more quickly than some systems that would be paid for and answered for by the sighted establishment, such as it was, which wasn’t much. Heck yes blind people were thought of as unfortunates who were society’s burden. Blind people were neglected, ignored, oh but they were raped and exploited too. People across the board could be up front nasty a while back.

    The thing about tactile systems of reading and writing for blind people I have thought about a lot is that sighted people who got in to it at all went for simplified print letters that could be felt. That wasn’t really such a bad try, but have we all actually felt Moon Type and the other systems? The letters are crisp, it looks kind of nice really. But I see absolutely no way the stuff could be written by us. The lines that formed the letters were not dots, they were solid and it seemed they could only be produced by a wet paper printing press system. Braille should have been obvious as an improvement, but apparently it wasn’t.

    Was it a concern for separating blind people from sighted people, the protectors, the guardians, the translaters, the interpreters for us? Braille probably struck sighted people as looking nothing like print, so, they seemed to have wondered, what good would it be? Sure it was stupid thinking. Hey, get in line for stupid thinking back when people loved their complacencies.

    Helen Keller is credited with fighting for Braille as the best system for us. And good for Helen; she did a lot that was good. But we all know in our hearts that she wasn’t the only one. Blind people who saw the potential for Braille were no doubt forming something of a ground swell for Braille’s acceptance.

    As for capitalizing or not, Jonathan, I say go for it. When I might quietly argue for not capitalizing the term, I admit in all humility that part of my reasoning might be nothing more than that I’m older and we didn’t grow up capitalizing it, so I don’t want to now. Do you know that I have friends my age and older who insist on writing the word dear with the EA contraction, year, near, and disappear? It’s just a little silent protest; it’s not that they missed the change to the E A R sign. It’s fine with me that we make our little personal statements through the ways we write our Braille. And Louis Braille did do a fine thing for us; Abe Nemeth too. And right along with their fine efforts, let me say that we are fortunate that transcribers developed just the best kind of nerd interest in code writing to develop contracted Braille and many useful revisions. Our community of care and hard work toward our adaptation to a visual-centric world is great. And today we are seeing an acceptance and growing sophistication regarding tactile graphics. Sighted teachers and transcribers got it started and did very creative things, but now the blind folks are weighing in and it’s going to be wonderful as we progress.

    Good food for thought Jonathan. Thank you.

  3. Jamal Mazrui

    A good blog post. With respect, I disagree though. I think it is a greater tribute to Louis Braille to normalize his invention in common language by not capitalizing it. That is what I generally do, hoping that the practice will spread so sighted folks view braille as a normal, not special, media.

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