Writing Systems for the Blind: Who Chooses?

As I studied the online Touching the Book exhibition, I was struck by how many of the books were printed in roman embossed types, even those published many decades after the invention of braille. Although Louis Braille published his writing system in 1829, it was not recognized as the official writing system for people who were blind in France until 1854.[1] British educators only began to endorse braille from 1870.[2]

An embossing plate in Boston Line Type from 1846

An embossing plate in Boston Line Type from 1846. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind.

In the U.S., embossed writing systems in roman script held sway for even longer than in Britain and Europe. Michael Anagnos was director of Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, and one of the sighted educators who advocated for embossed alphabet writing systems. Nonetheless, in 1877 he wrote of braille, “This system has so many advantages that render it popular among the blind, that they would undoubtedly adopt it in preference to all others, if they were left free to make their own choice.”[3] What accounts for the reluctance to use a writing system that offered elegance, compactness, portability, and perhaps most important of all, the freedom to write?



In part, the tenacity of the embossed roman alphabets might be explained by the investment that was poured into them. The American Printing House for the Blind was established in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1858 by private backers who were committed to producing tactile books for readers who were blind. Materials in raised letters had been published by a few U.S. schools for the blind for more than 20 years, and the founders of APH did not seem to question the wisdom of continuing this practice. The agency produced materials exclusively in embossed roman alphabets until 1882, and didn’t cease publishing them until the 1920s.[4]

Sighted teachers sometimes claimed that they resisted arbitrary code systems like braille or New York Point because they “constituted an additional barrier between blind and sighted people.”[5] Writing about embossed roman alphabet systems in his essay, “War of the Dots,” Robert B. Irwin said, “… it was contended that the blind people, by using a type similar to that of their seeing associates, were set less apart from the rest of the world.”[6]

Perhaps sighted educators had a more compelling reason for resisting point systems. Many were simply unwilling to memorize a new set of symbols. Irwin puts this tactfully when he writes of embossed roman alphabets, “Their virtue as compared with arbitrary codes seemed to be that they could be read by sight by the seeing teachers with no special instruction.”

In spite of resistance to point systems, their benefits were undeniable. William Bell Wait, head of the New York Institution for the Blind, developed New York Point in 1871, and promoted it among educators prodigiously. In spite of its many drawbacks compared to the braille system, many schools adopted it. In 1882, the American Printing House for the Blind decided to devote half of their book production to New York Point.[7] Given the opinion of educators and the financial investment in non-braille writing systems, how did braille finally win acceptance as the writing system in the U.S.?

New York Point alphabet. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Bind.

New York Point alphabet. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Bind.

Braille came to the United States in 1860, when the Missouri School for the Blind introduced it into its curriculum. School Superintendent John Sibley wrote, “Children will master the ‘Braille’ in a few days, but many months and sometimes years of hard work result in a failure to learn the ‘Line Letter (embossed alphabet system).’”[8]Perkins was one of the headquarters of resistance to point systems, but only nine years later, the school was selling braille slates alongside its embossed books. How did braille so quickly find a place in an institution that championed Boston Line Type?

Although no other school officially adopted braille for decades, and the American Printing House did not produce braille materials until 1893,[9] the system was embraced by pupils at the schools for the blind. Compelled to read embossed alphabets or New York Point for study, the students were free to use braille for personal correspondence and notetaking (except at the Illinois school, which confiscated braille slates).[10] If their school would not teach them braille, the students apparently taught one another. I like to think that braille spread virally, with the Missouri school as the epicenter.

In the mid-1870s, a team of teachers and graduates at Perkins School for The Blind compared all the embossed and point writing systems, determined to identify the best. Braille was the unqualified winner. Perkins director Michael Anagnos wrote of braille, “The scientific ingenuity upon which its construction is based, renders it remarkably simple and methodical; and it is thereby easily acquired and remembered. The arrangement for musical notation is so systematic, so concise, and so comprehensive, that it can scarcely be equalled by any similar contrivance.”[11] Arising from the unequivocal findings of this comparative study, the school added braille into its curriculum for both reading and writing, without dropping its older methods.

American braille alphabet card. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind

American braille alphabet card. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind

Unable to leave well enough alone, Anagnos charged a brilliant and inventive teacher to improve upon the original code. Joel W. Smith reassigned the braille cells so that the most frequently used English letters were represented by the cells with the fewest dots. This Modified, or American, braille might have been a bit faster to read and write than Standard braille. Unfortunately, it introduced yet another writing system for students to learn, and another camp of bickering proponents in the increasingly contentious argument about the best writing system for readers who were blind.

A flyer in Boston Line Type from c. 1820s. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind.

A flyer in Boston Line Type from c. 1820s. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind.

In spite of the preference of readers for the clearly superior braille point system, Perkins incomprehensibly continued to publish its books in embossed alphabets for over 30 years more. The American Printing House for the Blind only ceased publishing in New York Point in the 1920s, when schools for the blind stopped teaching it. It was not until 1918 that Standard braille was selected as the official writing system for the U.S. After more than a decade of wrangling and disagreement with educators from Great Britain, a committee of educators settled upon Revised Braille Grade 1-1/2.

Nearly 60 years after its introduction into the U.S., braille was finally the official writing system for people who were blind. This success is attributable to its loyal users, who would not give braille up, even when attempts were made to supplant it or even to suppress it. I like to think that this is one of the first milestones in the beginnings of the disability rights movement.

Jan Seymour-Ford, Research Librarian, Perkins School for the Blind


[1] Pamela Lorimer, ‘Origins of Braille’, in Braille Into the Next Millennium (Washington, DC: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and Friends of Libraries for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals in North America, 2000), p. 35.

[2] Lorimer, p. 36.

[3] Michael Anagnos, ‘Report of the Director’, in Forty-sixth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind (Boston: Perkins Institution, 1878), p. 70.

[4] Carol Brenner Tobe, History in the Making: The Story of the American Printing House for the Blind 1858-2008 (Louisville, KY: Butler Books, 2008), p. 70.

[5] Lorimer, p. 36.

[6] Robert Irwin, ‘War of the Dots’ (1955), accessed online <http://www.nyise.org/blind/irwin2.htm>

[7] Tobe, History in the Making, p. 70.

[8] John T. Sibley, The Blind; Their Characteristics and Education: An Address Delivered in the Hall of the House of Representatives, at Jefferson City, Mo., February 26, 1891 (St. Louis, MO: Commercial Printing company, 1891), p. 16.

[9] Carol Tobe, ‘Embossed Printing in the United States’, in Braille Into the Next Millennium (Washington, DC: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and Friends of Libraries for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals in North America, 2000), p.46.

[10] Irwin.

[11] Anagnos, p. 70.

6 thoughts on “Writing Systems for the Blind: Who Chooses?

  1. Mike Hudson

    In terms of the American Printing House for the Blind, I think the company’s long standing policy has been to produce books in whatever code is desired by the “field.” So our slow adoption of braille was simply a reflection of the slow speed with which it was adopted by teachers and schools in the U.S. From the beginning, we’ve had a publications committee composed of heads of schools and school districts, and they made decisions on what codes would be adopted. The key decision on braille was not made until our annual meeting in 1910 when a trustee proposed that 40% of our publications be produced in braille. There was a two day discussion, and in the end, the resulting vote by the superintendents of the schools who served on our ex-officio board was a tie. It was broken by a vote from our board president, Andrew Cowan, a Louisville businessman who had no connection to the blindness field apart from his service on our board. Cowan voted for braille. And we continued to produce materials in line letter and New York Point as long as there were schools who spend their federal quota funds on materials in those codes. My interpretation of the history is that APH was very much the cart rather than the horse.

    1. Jan Seymour-Ford

      A good point, Mike. This suggests that the attachment to nonbraille writing systems was driven mainly by the preferences and convenience of the educators. Since the superintendents of the schools for the blind were all ex-officio members of the American Printing House board of trustees, their opinions were weighty. However, at least some of the attachment may have been perpetuated by the greater availability of nonbraille materials for many previous decades. John Sibley, superintendent of the braille-pioneering Missouri School, complained in 1891 that he was forced to choose between APH materials in New York Point and embossed alphabet type. This was long after many schools had incorporated braille instruction into their curricula because of their students’ preference.

  2. Noëlle Roy

    This information on the complex history of the writing systems in the USA is very valuable.
    And “braille spreading virally” is a striking image!
    I notice the coincidence between the selection of Standart braille as the official writing in 1918 and the entry of the USA into First World War in 1917. All the warring countries had to cope with rehabilitating the disabled veterans, many of whom were blind. I suppose that, since braille had proved its pre-eminence, the American educators stopped hesitating about the best system, because it was urgent. Futhermore, it was better that the same system was adopted by all : globalization of the war, globalization of writing for blind readers. There was a great surge of generosity from American philanthropists towards France. Among all the donors, I would like to quote a couple, George and Cora Kessler who in 1915 organized the British, French and Belgian Permanent Blind Relief War Fund in Paris. The relations between the USA and France were very strong. This very closeness hed perhaps contributed towards overcoming the reluctance to adopt a foreign system. Can we say that, after having shunned braille, the USA became a fervent supporter ?
    Noëlle Roy

  3. Jan Seymour-Ford

    What an interesting observation, Noëlle! I had never considered the globalization and cooperation created by war alliances. After the war, mobility training and guide dogs became more common because the war veterans demanded them. I wonder if they spread from country to country through the same channels?

  4. Noëlle Roy

    The blind did not wait until the XXth century to use a stick or to appreciate the company of a dog. For example, Jacob Birrer, in his book published in 1843 in Zurich, Souvenirs curieux et vie remarquable de l’aveugle Jacob Birrer de Luthern, canton de Lucerne, privé de la vue à l’âge de quatre ans, à la suite de la petite vérole ( Curious memories and remarkable life of the blind man Jacob Birrer de Luthern, canton of Lucerne, deprived of sight at the age of four, from small pox) devotes some pages to the “Manner of training the dogs which must be used as guides by the blind”.
    But, after the two world wars, there were so much blind veterans that their rehabilitation became a social responsibility, assumed by the governments or, if not, by private associations.

    Nevertheless, in France, no guide-dog was trained before 1951. Maybe because the systematic training of guide-dogs for the blind was a concept developed in Germany during World War One. Dr. Gerhard Stalling, a medical officer of the German army, noticed that its sheep dog spontaneously helped a blind man. In 1916, he founded the first guide-dog school in Oldenburg. An American philanthropist, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, living near Vevey in Switzerland (where she used to breed dogs for the Swiss army and police) came back enthusiastic from a visit to Potsdam’s guide-dog training school for blind veterans. In 1928, she founded two associations to train guide-dogs, L’oeil qui voit, in Vevey, and, The Seeing Eye, in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1931, Muriel Crooke and Rosamond Bond contacted Dorothy H. Eustis, who sent over one of her trainers. This became the beginning of guide-dog training in Great Britain.

    More than guide-dogs, mobility training in France lagged behind. However, in 1930, Miss Guilly d’Herbemont promoted the use of a white cane for veterans of World War One. But this short cane was just a signal to distinguish them in the streets. Mobility training programme with a long cane was developed after World War Two by American instructors, under the impulse of Richard Edwin Hoover. It was propagated in Canada, then in the majority of the countries in Europe. Only about 1970, Doctor Claude Chambet introduced it into the center that she had founded for the rehabilitation of the visually impaired people in Marly-le-Roi, near Paris.

    I wish that I answered your question, Jane.
    Merry Christmas !

  5. p.j.howe

    A fascinating subject. Having bought two books by The Moon Society in embossed numerals, both religious, can anybody throw some light on them. published by the Moon Society in association with the National Institute for the Blind, Great Portland Street, W1, London. They are large and look 1960s, was this non braille system still in use then and by whom, anybody know, thanks.


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