Unified Braille Code (UBC)


a picture of Christo De Klerk

by Christo de Klerk

The idea behind Unified English Braille (UEB) was to come up with a braille system that was unified, unambiguous, had representations for print characters for which no symbols existed in pre-unified braille, and should have as little impact as possible on the literary braille code that people knew and read everyday. Let us look at exactly what that means.

What does it mean when we say that the code has been unified?

Firstly, it means that there is now just one braille code for literary braille (novels, magazines, that kind of thing), maths and computer material. In pre-unified braille there were greatly differing codes for these texts. Different braille symbols were used for the same print characters depending on the type of material. Let us look at a few examples. In a novel both opening and closing brackets were represented by a lower g. In maths dots 1-2-6 was used for an opening bracket and dots 3-4-5 for the closing bracket. In computer braille dots 1-2-3-5-6 was used for an opening bracket and dots 2-3-4-5-6 for a closing bracket, while those symbols were used for square brackets in maths. In a novel a fullstop (period) was represented by dots 2-5-6, while in computer braille it was dots 4-6. If you wanted to write an e-mail address in a literary text, such as a magazine article, you first had to switch to computer braille mode with dots 4-5-6, dots 3-4-6 and then, to switch back to literary braille again, dots 4-5-6, dots 1-5-6.

To complicate matters even further, there were two very different maths codes used in the UK and in the USA and there were also two very different computer codes used in those two countries. In South Africa we used a maths code based on the UK maths code and we used the American computer braille code. There were also differences in the way contractions were used in different countries. We would contract the ed in reduce and freedom, but in the USA and New Zealand they did not. Something like “par. 1.1” would be brailed in three different ways in South Africa, the UK and the USA. So, the second meaning of “unified” was to unify the different braille codes into one standard braille code.

What does it mean when we say the code is unambiguous?

It means that in UEB you are never in doubt as to what a symbol means. In pre-UEB a closing square bracket would be the same as a closing round bracket followed by an apostrophe, an ellipsis was the same as three apostrophes, a dash was the same as two hyphens, an asterisk would be equal to inin in print. Thus, if for some reason you needed to write fem*e, it would be the same as feminine.

For which print characters did pre-UEB braille not make provision?

Well, for many, but some of the most common ones are: the at sign, backslash, bullet, copyright, trademark, yen, euro, curly braces, angled brackets and diacritic characters.

What was the impact of the UEB on pre-UEB braille?

The impact on literary braille, that which most people read, leisure reading, novels, magazines, has been minimal. Nine contractions and sequencing (the unspaced writing of words like “for the”) have been discontinued, no new contractions have been created and a few punctuation marks have changed. According to a study done by the United Kingdom Association for Accessible Formats the vast majority of braille readers with no prior knowledge of or exposure to the UEB could read non-technical material with little or no difficulty. But unifying the code, making it unambiguous with little impact on literary braille, greatly impacted the symbols used for technical material such as maths and science.

What has been achieved by implementing the UEB?

Now all these differences and ambiguities are a thing of the past. We have unified all these differences into one unified braille code. A bracket is now always the same, irrespective of whether you are reading a novel, a maths book or a book on computer programming. If you are writing a magazine article and wish to include e-mail or website addresses, it is no longer necessary to switch to computer braille mode and back again; you simply use the same braille symbols as in the rest of your article. A fullstop is always dots 2-5-6, in novels, in an ellipsis, as a decimal point, in maths, in e-mail or website addresses. Because the code is Unified, it is much easier for a new learner to learn it; because the code is unambiguous, automated print to braille and braille to print translations are a lot more accurate. To summarise the features of the UEB:

  • Only one code is used for normal and technical texts.
  • In UEB there are symbols for which provision was not made in pre-UEB.
  • UEB does not allow ambiguity.
  • The way in which UEB symbols are constructed will always let you know where one symbol ends and the next begins.
  • UEB represents the original print text faithfully.

An important note about the faithful representation in braille of the original print document:

People sometimes complain about the extra clutter introduced by the UEB. The reason for this clutter is because the UEB makes it possible to distinguish among typeforms such as underlining, boldface and italics, but braille producers often disregard the UEB guideline which states that the use of these typeform indicators is optional. They should only be used where they are functional, such as in an examination paper where the candidate is required to perform some task with underlined text and another with text in boldface, or in a language book in which different typeforms are used to indicate different parts of speech. Once producers master these guidelines, readers should experience significantly less clutter.

Why do we sometimes talk of the UBC and at other times of UEB in South Africa?

UEB is an acronym for Unified English Braille. That is the official name that the International Council on English Braille assigned to the new, unified code. However, in South Africa we have unified the braille codes of all our official languages in accordance with the principles of the UEB, so we tend to talk about the UBC (Unified Braille Code), because we refer not only to English braille. Applying the same principles this could also be achieved in other countries where languages other than English are spoken. The codes for those languages could be likewise unified according to the principles of the UEB.

The tool box:

The UEB lets me think of a big tool box full of tools for all kinds of purposes. You don’t have to know it all; you don’t have to use it all; you use what you need. Yes, it is vast, but don’t be intimidated. If you don’t need something, don’t use it. If you need something, you are sure to find it in the tool box.