A Brief Introduction to Braille Currently Used in the United States

Many people know that individuals who are blind/have low vision can use a nonvisual means for reading and writing: Braille. Braille is a code with which we can create expressive written communication and with which we can access written communication created by others. Unlike American Sign Language, braille is NOT a language; it is only a code. Just as print uses lines and curves to represent letters and numbers, braille uses dots to do the same.

While we print readers may not think about it much (or at all), we use different print codes for different purposes. The code we use for most writing is based on Roman letters. For math and science, we use Arabic numbers, Greek letters (at higher levels), and specialized mathematical and scientific notation (subscripts, superscripts, and mathematical operators, just to name a few.). Musical notation has yet a different code—using circles, dots, lines (horizontal and vertical), and curves. Typically-sighted people see these different codes in more environments throughout their lives, so it’s easy to forget how truly diverse and complex the print code is.

Braille has different codes as well. There is a braille code for most writing is typically called “literary braille.” This code is based on the code created by the late Louis Braille, but it has undergone many changes through the years.

Nemeth Code has long been used in the United States to provide blind/low vision students with efficient and robust access to mathematics and science. It was created by the late Dr. Abraham Nemeth, a blind mathematician born in New York City who developed the code to allow him to pursue opportunities in mathematical and science, including a doctorate in mathematics.  

Like literary braille, Music Braille was developed by a young man in France named Louis Braille. He was an accomplished musician and developed this code to enable blind individuals to independently read and write musical notation.

Most recently, in 2016, the United States adopted Unified English Braille (UEB) as the literary braille code in the U.S.: “Braille Authority of North America (BANA) adopts Unified English Braille to replace the current English Braille American Edition in the United States while maintaining the Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision; the Music Braille Code 1997; and the IPA Braille Code, 2008. The official braille codes for the United States will be Unified English Braille, Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision and published updates; Music Braille Code, 1997; and The IPA Braille Code, 2008.” BANA Motion to Adopt UEB, on November 2, 2012.

Current Status of Nemeth Code Use in the United States — Updated for Pi Day 2022

Notes from good friends and colleagues compelled us to update this post. Given that today, Monday, March 14, 2022, is Pi Day, we decided to get right to it!

Updates!

  • Thirty-one (31) states and the District of Columbia have retained Nemeth Code as the default code for math and science (technical) subjects
  • Seven (7) states set UEB for Technical Materials as the default code.
  • Eleven (11) states have stated that they do not have a default code and that they will support both.
  • One (1) state does not have a final decision.

What’s this all about?

As set forth in A Brief Introduction to Braille in the United States, the move to Unified English Braille (UEB) was not intended to include braille notation for either math or science: “Braille Authority of North America (BANA) adopts Unified English Braille to replace the current English Braille American Edition in the United States while maintaining the Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision…” (emphasis added) BANA resolution that adopted Unified English Braille in the U.S.

Nevertheless, in some states, a few individuals began advocating for UEB Technical and the resulting complete abandonment of Nemeth Code in favor of UEB Technical. This position is clearly contrary to the plain language of the BANA resolution that brought UEB to the United States in the first place. Proponents of this UEB Technical stance also fail to provide any data showing that UEB Technical is as good as, much less better than, Nemeth Code, the braille math code used with great success in the U.S. for decades.

Where the states stand

According to our research, as of March 14, 2022:

  • Thirty-one (31) states and the District of Columbia denote Nemeth Code as the default code for math and science (technical) subjects: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington (state), West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming
  • Seven (7) states set UEB for Technical Materials as the default code: Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, and Virginia.
  • Eleven (11) states have stated that they do not have a default code, will support both Nemeth Code and UEB for Technical Materials, and charge the IEP team with making the decision: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont.
  • One (1) state does not have a final decision. While a draft plan for Pennsylvania was published in 2015, that plan has not been finalized, so there has not been a final decision reached. At this time, Pennsylvania produces textbooks in both UEB with Nemeth Code and in all UEB, see AIM Request Form.

What do these numbers tell us?

State numbers and population equivalents

Nemeth as the default: 31 states and the District of Columbia (representing 73.4% of the U.S. population)

UEB Technical as the default: 7 states (these states represent 10.2% of the U.S. population)

Adopted both Nemeth and UEB Technical: 11 states (these states represent 12.5% of the U.S. population)

No final decision: 1 state (this state represents 3.9% of the U.S. population)

A deeper meaning

At first glance, it seems good that the majority of U.S. states (representing 73.4% of the U.S. population) have decided to follow BANA guidance and retain Nemeth Code as the default code for braille reading students. It is even better to note that 85.9% of the U.S. population lives in a state that has adopted the 2012 BANA Motion and that recognizes Nemeth Code as a robust and time-proven tool to open the doors of instruction in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects for blind/low vision students.

However, it is concerning that seven (7) states (representing only 10.2% of the U.S. population) are ignoring BANA guidance and implementing the unproved UEB Technical code (for which there is no transcriber certification like there is and has long been for Nemeth Code transcription).

In the print world, this is akin to seven states halting the default use of Arabic numerals and replacing them with Roman numerals because, “We use Roman letters, and it is too difficult for students to have to switch to another code for math.” Somehow, we don’t think a switch to Roman numerals for print users would fly, even in just seven states.

Problems with using two math codes

Moreover, the use of both Nemeth Code and UEB Technical poses numerous problems:

Access to college entrance and college-credit exams

There are two major college entrance examinations in the United States, the SAT® (and the PSAT® exams from the College Board) and the ACT®. While the ACT® does offer either Nemeth Code or UEB Technical (see High-Incidence Accommodations, Designated Supports, and Accessibility Supports on the ACT® Test for State Testing and District Testing), the College Board continues to offer only Nemeth Code (see Accommodations and Supports Handbook, 2021-2022).

There are also several exams for which college credit may be given with a high enough score. Note that page 4 of the Accommodations and Supports Handbook, 2021-2022 confirms that all of the College Board college-credit granting exams (Advanced Placement® (AP®) Exams, CLEP®, and ACCUPLACER®) only offer Nemeth Code.

For more information, please check out BEAR’s Nemeth Code Used for All College Board Tests Involving Math and Science blog post.

Adverse educational impact on students

Families needing to move to or from different states for economic or security reasons risk putting their children behind in math due to the need to learn a new Braille math code.

Nemeth Code and UEB Technical are fundamentally different, so much so that most children who are fluent in one code will have a learning curve if forced to use a different code—and they will lose valuable instructional time in STEM content course due to the need to learn a new code to read those materials

  • Such a child may well fall months behind in math classes due to a lack of familiarity with the different code.
  • This will be particularly difficult for children of military families, who will almost certainly move several times throughout their school careers.
    • Certainly states should not wish to become “that state” or “one of those states” that military personnel with blind children know they need to avoid.
  • This change could also be particularly difficult for children from families of lower socioeconomic means due to a need to relocate more often for financial and/or personal safety reasons.
    • Many times, these students do not have strong family support in the area of Braille education—because of lack of parental time, energy, education, etc.
  • A move away from the national standard of Nemeth Code could render these children so bereft of STEM educational opportunities that they might never recover from the lost time taken to learn new codes instead of learning math and science content.
  • There is no reason to set up a system that will automatically place Braille readers at an academic disadvantage upon relocation, especially given that the vast majority of the population (85.9%) of the U.S. lives in areas where the Nemeth Code is recognized as a valuable tool.

Availability of educational materials

Abandoning Nemeth Code will create a problem with accessible math textbooks. All current math textbooks have been produced in Nemeth Code, and there is no certification for UEB Technical transcription in the US.

  • The National Library Service (NLS) provides certification for braille transcriptionists in UEB literary, Nemeth Code, and Music Braille
  • UEB literary was adopted throughout the nation on January 1, 2016, but now, more than six years later, there is still no certification program for UEB Technical materials

Students receiving math and science textbooks and tests in UEB Technical are, necessarily, receiving materials that have been transcribed by an individual who is NOT certified in UEB Technical transcription (because none exists)

  • This situation puts students at high risk of receiving poor quality math transcription.

Post-secondary educational consequences

Colleges and universities in UEB Technical states would be forced to choose between following the national BANA Nemeth Code model or taking the UEB Technical detour.

  • If these institutions do the former, students in UEB Technical states will be ill-equipped to pursue STEM opportunities at any post-secondary institution that follows BANA’s Nemeth Code guidance.
  • If these institutions do the latter, few, if any, out-of-state students will choose to attend their post-secondary institutions due to the high learning curve of switching to a new math and science code.

Additionally, scores of current Nemeth Code-using students would find that their in-state schools are now hostile learning environments due to the abrogation of BANA-recommended Nemeth Code.

  • This could require vocational rehabilitation agencies serving the blind to be required to spend hundreds of thousands of extra tuition dollars to send these students to out-of-state schools where they may pursue higher education opportunities without the need for remediation in math code.

Post-secondary employment consequences

UEB Technical state high school and college graduates will be ill-prepared to enter the post-secondary workforce in any STEM field due to what will become their lack of Nemeth Code knowledge.

It is highly doubtful that the employment sector would abandon the ubiquitous, useful, compact, and BANA-approved Nemeth Code for a limited number of rogue institutions providing only UEB Technical.

Increased expense and depletion of limited resources

Switching to UEB Technical is duplicative and expensive.

For decades, all math and science materials have been produced in Nemeth Code.

  • Supporting two codes will mean that all materials will need to be produced in each code.
  • Supporting two codes will mean that all materials will need to be available in each code.
  • This could well lead to shortages in materials.

Teachers of Students with Blindness/Visual Impairment will have LESS time to instruct children

  • TSBVIs [teachers of the blind and visually impaired] are in short supply as it is; we should not be creating additional, unnecessary drains upon their time.

Free and Low-cost Braille Books

Free hard-copy braille books

Temple Beth El Braille Book Bindery

Individuals may choose from many Braille books in either contracted or uncontracted Braille. The volunteers of Temple Beth El Sisterhood provide these books at no cost, but they welcome donations of Braille paper, Braille binding supplies, and money to support this mission.

Seedlings Braille Books for Children’s 2022 Book Angel Program for V-I Children

Through this program, blind/low vision U.S. children ages birth through 21 may order up to three (3) free braille books per year.

Braille Institute

Special Collection

Blind/low vision children in the U.S. and Canada may order up to 2 Dots for Tots® kits two times per year (targeted at ages 2-5, but open to all—might be great books to read to younger family members, neighbors, etc.).

Digital Dots

Books available for download in BRF (Braille Ready Format).

Lending Library

The Braille Institute also offers a lending library and offers books in hard copy braille and in digital format. There is no charge for eligible individuals, and books are shipped via Free Matter postage.

ShareBraille

An online resource provided by the American Action Fund (AAF) to connect with others who have Braille books to give away. Search the site which has thousands of books listed, and request a book. The current owner will then send it to you via “Free Matter” through the U.S. Post Office.

Free Braille Books Program from the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults (AAF)

Hard copy braille books. 2022 series include:

  • The Potts-Abilities Series, Morris Flip Sound Machine, by Liz Cooper
  • I Survived Series, by Lauren Tarshis – 6 titles from her 21 title series
  • History Smashers, by Kate Messner – 5 titles from her 7 title series

NFB Kernel Books

Stories by and about blind individuals, edited and distributed by the National Federation of the Blind. Available for digital access as HTML files.

Xavier Society for the Blind

The Xavier Society for the Blind offers hundreds of texts on religious topics (Catholics) at no charge to patrons. You may become a patron by calling (212) 473-7800 to register for their services. The website notes: “All of our materials are provided at no cost, and there is no fee to sign up. We look forward to hearing from you!”

Low-cost braille books

BRL—Beulah Reimer Legacy

Very reasonably priced, high-quality Braille-print picture books. Great for learning braille as a teen with books you grew up loving and for braille readers taking care of younger children.

Seedlings Braille Books (for purchase)

Seedlings has a wide variety of braille books for purchase (after you get your three free Angel books—see above). Here are the categories of Seedlings books:

  • Print-Braille-and-Picture Books in Uncontracted Braille, in UEB
  • Print-Braille-and-Picture Books in Contracted Braille, in UEB
  • Print-and-Braille Books in Uncontracted Braille, in UEB
  • Print-and-Braille Books in Contracted Braille, in UEB
  • Contracted Braille in UEB
  • Shorter Fiction in Contracted Braille, in EBAE
  • Longer Fiction in Contracted Braille, in EBAE
  • Poetry in Contracted Braille, in EBAE
  • Nonfiction & Biographies in Contracted Braille, in EBAE

National Braille Press (NBP)

NBP has a variety of titles including some not available anywhere else, including technology guides for blind/low vision individuals, cookbooks, recreational reading, books in Spanish and English, and more.

Additionally, NBP’s Children’s Braille Book Club offers a great way to build a Braille book library. For an annual subscription of $100, NBP will send one print/Braille book per month. When my child began elementary school, I convinced the school library to get a subscription. It was a great opportunity to bet new books into the library, and the print readers loved those books too!

Read How You Want

Read How You Want is a commercial publisher of accessible books, and available formats include Braille and DAISY digital books. While this publisher is located in Australia, prices are in U.S. dollars, and the variety of titles includes many that are not common in the U.S.

Other sources for braille books

American Printing House for the Blind (APH)

While APH books are not necessarily low in price, schools have funds that can only be spent at APH. In addition to textbooks and early learning books, APH offers books with tactile graphics that can be helpful in science and other classes.

The Braille Bookstore

The Braille Bookstore offers many titles in hard copy braille for all ages, including adults.

Braille Library & Transcribing Services, Inc.

This group offers braille in three ways:

  1. Lending library with more than 2,000 titles for children and adults. “There is no charge for borrowing our books; just tell us your name and contact information and we’ll get you started.”
  2. Purchasing library books.
  3. Transcribing books upon request (fee for this service).

Categories include:

  • Adult Fiction
  • Adult Non-Fiction
  • Children’s
  • Cookbooks
  • Crafts
  • Print/Braille
  • Textbooks