Braille signs

Okay, this is not yet another question about the Braille ATM instructions. Also, to fend off possible criticism, I’ll just mention that I was formerly an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance officer for one of the largest museums in the world. I am not against the ADA or unsympathetic to disabled people (although my thoughts about the linguistic political correctness that would require us to always say “people with disabilities” belong in a different forum).

My question is: Do wall signs with Braille characters – e.g. men’s and women’s room signs, room number signs, etc. – serve any practical purpose, other than enriching signmakers? A second question: has anyone here EVER seen a blind person use one? (I’m not asking if such signs are a requirement of the Act. I haven’t read it recently, but I seriously doubt they could be. If someone feels differently, please pipe up.)

It’s my understanding that only a rather small percentage of blind people (around 10% IIRC) can read Braille, and that most of them are almost totally blind. Therefore they probably don’t have enough vision to be able to tell that there is a sign on the wall. So unless they are running their hands along every wall they encounter (something I’ve never seen), they will never come in contact with the sign to be able to read its Braille.

If the argument is that a sighted person could direct them to the sign, then that person could (and almost certainly would) just as easily read the sign for them, or just tell them where the ladies’ room is.

So my gut feeling is that the only purpose these signs serve is as a symbolic gesture that says to all sighted people (but not blind people, obviously) that “We want to help disabled people, even if it’s only with meaningless gestures.” If so, I personally don’t think this is a valid justification to put up a substantially more expensive sign (to say nothing of the hundreds of signs a major office building might require) over a plain, non-Braille sign. I frankly suspect consultants and signmakers of subtly putting the fear of lawsuits into building managers to push the sale of expensive, but unnecessary, signs.

And I really want to know if anyone, anywhere, has ever seen a blind person reading a Braille wall sign. Does anyone here use Braille, or know someone who does?

Anecdotal data #1.

A girl who used to go to my church was 100% blind, and a fluent Braillist. She would spend a lot of time copying out printed materials that she might later use, on her portable Braille typewriter (eg, hymnsheets in church, the menu at a local restaurant).

I never saw her use a Braille wall sign or refer to such, but to be fair, such things are pretty uncommon here in Oz. She seemed to be able to fill her informational needs pretty well (and she got around a fair bit) by asking people.

What sort of signs are usually brailled-up in the US? I can see the use, if you have a situation where there are a lot of similar items to be labelled (eg hotel rooms) - or to prevent confusion (if the mens’ room is right next to the womens’, you’d want to check that it was the right door you were going through)

I’m fairly sure, though, that if you were trying to make life easier for blind people the single MOST useful thing would be to make banknotes in different sizes. Over here you can buy a very nifty little measuring gadget for your money - would be totally useless in the US. I’m sure any blind person would trade Braille wall-signs for the ability to know how much money you were paying people in a heartbeat

I would hazard to guess that it wouldn’t be too difficult to emboss the value of the bill on the bill in braille. That might be even easier to use than different sizes.

That is a cool idea. But wouldn’t the numbers tend to get munged-up after the bill had been in circulation for some time? (I don’t know, I’m just guessing)

The sort of paper that’s generally used for Braille is particularly stiff and thick (the better to hold its shape) - nothing like ordinary paper money

A “totally blind guy” at work does use the braille signs to check room numbers. So yes, they do get used. Since they’re all mounted at about the same height above the floor and the same way in relation to the door he usually finds them without a lot of groping.

I also used to work with a woman who, although not totally blind, was unable to read print. If a braille sign was a contrasting color to the wall it was mounted on she could find it without trouble and then read the sign. Again, without groping.

So, yes, they do get used as intended.

Broomstick: Interesting. Thanks. So do you work in a large and labyrinthine building that would be hard for the blind man to memorize without the signs? Do you happen to know if the signs were in place before the man started working there, or were they installed specifically for his benefit?

Aspidistra: I believe (working from 10-year-old memories here) that most totally blind Americans can tell different US bills by touch. The intaglio printing process used for US currency gives the printing a slightly raised feel that blind people become good at detecting. For low-vision people, the new designs of US bills have a large, high-contrast denomination on the back. (Which annoys me from a graphic design point of view, because it’s a big sans serif number, where all other denomination digits are in a fancy serif font.)

Embossing Braille on bills would almost certainly cause problems for bill counting machines and other equipment, and make stacks of bills thicker.

My company has about 800 employees in our Chicago building. Both our prior location and our current one had braille signs. During my tenure with the company there have always been several vision-impaired employees. I’m not sure which came first.

It’s a big skyscraper in the Chicago Loop. The cubicals are rather maze-like, to the point that we only half-joke that wedges of cheese are found at strategic locations.

This is slightly off topic, but still about Braille, so I won’t start a new thread. My question is, how the heck do people read Braille? The dots are so close together that I certainly can’t figure out what patterns they’re in. I’ve tried closing my eyes and running my fingers over it and seeing if I could tell what the pattern was (I don’t know the Braille alphabet, so I was seeing if I’d be able to, say, copy the pattern down from touch alone). I couldn’t even come close - to me it just felt like a vaguely rough surface.

So, do blind people tend to develop an especially sensitive “feel”, or have I just got very insensitive fingers? Or was my technique wrong?

The old German Mark banknotes (introduced in the early nineties) had Braille on them. They could still be read by counting machines and stacks of bills were not noticeably thicker at the end where the Braille was than at the other end. But the embossing was so thin that while you could see it, it was nearly impossible (at least for me) to feel it. Not only to feel what the pattern was, but to feel that there was a pattern at all. So it was probably not very useful for blind people. The bills had varying sizes, too, so it was easier to tell them apart that way.

The Euro bills those Mark bills were replaced by don’t have Braille, but their sizes vary even more.

Two friends of mine umpire softball games in the summer. Last year they were hired to do a game at a shiny new sports center. Everything was up to spec, including a braille sign on the door of the umpire’s room. :slight_smile: Sure, sure, they understood why, but it still seemed like a slap in the face.

Hmm, I’ve always wondered this same thing. In a vacuous train station I frequent, there is a small sign seemingly in the middle of a big wall, with a braille translation. I’ve always wondered how a blind person would ever find the sign in the first place.

I imagine a little Googling would get you a more authoritative answer, since I’m working from old memories, but a couple of factors are at work. It does take a while, but most people learn Braille, like they learn to read, when they are young and learning anything is easier. I don’t know if smaller fingers plays a role or not, but they obviously practice more than you did in your brief test, and have a larger stake in getting it right. But this may be a factor in why so relatively few low-vision or late-onset blind people learn Braille. It ain’t easy.

A (sighted) friend of mine with a blind child said he was able to read Braille by looking at it, but never by touch. So it’s not easy, but if you work hard enough at it, and it’s your only option, it can be done.

In the old days when most blind people used Braille, it was learned fairly easily, I think because they do develop a more sensitive sense of touch. But Braille is just not a convenient medium, so aside from signs, most blind people prefer books on tape, etc. The weight of a novel written in Braille is overwhelming.

Blind folks who read braille do have to be concerned with activities that build up finger callouses - they need to retain sensitivity in their “reading fingers”. I know second-hand of one blind woman who had a conflict between her guitar playing (which can build callouses) and reading braille. And blind folks whose hands have been severely injured may wind up not being able to read braille (unless maybe they learn to use some other sensitive body part).

It may be they aren’t conciously aware of individual dots, but rather they pick up the overall pattern. Somewhat like when I read I’m not conciously aware of every line and letter. Back when I worked a lot with blind folks I started to see certain braille words more as a pattern that meant “XYZ” than a series of patterned dots.

I dispute the idea that braille isn’t “convenient”. If you can’t see at all, it’s your only “convenient” way to get some information. A novel in braille may weigh more than a convential novel, but a book on tape doesn’t exist unless someone makes a recording - and outside of certain bestsellers, most books are still not on tape. (In fact, I’ve recently been asked to volunteer for a project recording some fiction onto tape or CD for the “print impaired” because these stories are not likely to ever be commercially issued in such format.)

I recall reading (sorry, I cannot give a site) that for Braille readers the area of the brain cortex (the visual cortex actually, that is connected to the Braille reading finger is enormous. It was not claimed that there was additional ennervation, though it was not claimed there wasn’t either, but that the nerves were mapped to a much larger area in the brain than normal. And I guess a callous on the reading finger is just like a cataract for a sighted person.

Canada recently re-designed the $5 and $10 bills and included Braille to indicate the denomination. As with the German mark banknotes mentioned above, this doesn’t make the bills any thicker. The $5 bill I have in my wallet right now is relatively new and I can find the embossing quite easily. However, I also have a $10 bill that isn’t all that beat up - it obviously isn’t brand new anymore, but it’s nowhere near having to be taken out of circulation - and I can barely find the Braille on it. I’m guessing that embossing Braille on banknotes isn’t very useful. Unfortunately, Canadian banknotes are all the same size, and all the pretty colours aren’t going to be much help if you can’t see them.

As far as Braille on signs is concerned, I’ve seen it most often in elevators, which makes sense. The panel of buttons is always next to the door, so it would be easy to find, and I know I’d like to be sure I was going to the right floor.

I was a bit perplexed, commasense, by your question as stated. It seemed as if you were asking why you never see blind people using the signs if they could simply ask people. Isn’t that a tree-falling-in-the-forest question? I mean, if you’re there, they’d just ask you. Only if you weren’t there would they use the sign, in which case, you wouldn’t see them.

I used to make Braille signs into plastic, along with the raised tactile lettering, as part of my job as an engraver. If you think it’s hard to read with your fingers, try proofreading it. :slight_smile:


It’s certainly possible that a blind person seeking or using a Braille sign might not know you were present if, for instance, you were down a long hall, or in a large room.

But my point wasn’t that because I’ve never seen anyone using a Braille sign therefore they serve no purpose. It was that, from theoretical point of view, it seems unlikely that a blind person would know that a Braille sign was present to be able to use it. And that for that reason they were *prima facie *impractical.

I added:

to answer a possible, although somewhat lame, rationalization that might be offered against my skepticism.

Broomstick provided a case in which the signs were practical and actually used: a large, potentially difficult-to-navigate office building in which the signs were placed in a consistent location relative to doorways. This demonstrates that, properly used, such signs are not absolutely useless. I thought this was possible, and was interested to know if anyone had evidence of it. So thank you, Broomstick.

But I would still claim that in most places you see them (smaller, less labyrinthine buildings, not consistently placed) they serve no practical purpose.

(BTW, Fish, very nice sig.)