Libraries Support Braille Literacy for Patrons with Visual Impairment

Check out how libraries modify their spaces to make their resources accessible to those who are blind or visually impaired.

National Braille Literacy Month is the perfect time to explore how libraries strive to increase accessibility to patrons with visual impairment.

In the United States, January is recognized as National Braille Literacy Month, a time to raise awareness about Louis Braille and braille literacy. In honor of National Braille Literacy Month, this article offers a brief history of the braille writing system and a list of tools and resources often available to library patrons who are blind or visually impaired.

Who Is Louis Braille and What Is the Braille Writing System?

Louis Braille was a French educator who began working for the National Institute for Blind Children in 1826. Braille, inspired by the work of Charles Barbier, invented a type system intended to be used by persons who are blind or visually impaired.

His system was based on a six-dot code that could be rearranged into several combinations, each representing letters of the alphabet and numbers; he would later adapt this system to musical notation. These combinations could then be embossed onto paper, making them “visible” through touch for those who are blind or visually impaired. Braille introduced his revolutionary type system in 1829, and it continues to be used today worldwide.


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Supporting Patrons Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired

Libraries work hard to ensure patrons can access library collections, and that concern extends to individuals with disabilities. There are several resources available to patrons who are blind or visually impaired at the library. As always, it is recommended that you consult with your local librarian directly to learn which of these resources and features are available:

  • Braille E-book: These are digital versions of books accessible to patrons using a braille display device. According to Perkins School for the Blind, there are three refreshable braille display varieties to choose from: “the stand-alone braille display, the notetaker, and the smart display.” These devices produce braille while connected to another device (desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or cell phone).
  • Screen Reader: A screen reader is a type of software program that converts text and visual elements into synthesized text or braille screen readers. Axess Lab offers a more in-depth explanation of how screen readers are used. Screen readers can “speak” to the patron, telling them which web page or file is open, if a link has already been visited, and what kind of formatting has been applied to the text.
  • Magnifier: A magnifier is a somewhat simple tool that can be used with a tablet, laptop, computer monitor, or smartphone. The magnifier, when attached to one of these items, will magnify the screen display and make it more visible for persons with visual impairment. Magnifiers can change the screen's colors, enhance cursors to be more visible, and provide screen reading features.
  • Talking Book: The term “talking books” refers to audiobooks, books read by a narrator that can be listened to on a braille display device. Audiobooks can be enjoyed by library patrons with or without visual-based disabilities. Today, the term “talking book(s)” may also be assigned to a library program that provides services to patrons with visual impairment.


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  • Interactive Displays: The Washington Talking Book & Braille Library of Seattle, Washington, installed an interactive display accompanied by braille display/signage and several adaptive devices (i.e., talking book players) available to patrons who are blind or visually impaired. The display consists of two posters: One poster discusses the adaptive devices available for use, and another offers instructions on obtaining a library card. The display includes a collection of talking book players corresponding to the first poster. 
  • Braille Book Section: Displays or braille signage can also be used to identify shelving areas throughout the library. The Newberg Public Library in Oregon has an entire section of books devoted to patrons who are blind or visually impaired.
  • Braille Storytime: Some libraries, like the Kellogg-Hubbard Library of Montpelier, Vermont, host Braille Storytime events throughout the year. For this storytime activity, the story reader is blind or visually impaired and reads braille to young tactile literate learners.
  • Water Features: Fountains provide a natural auditory ambiance that all library patrons can enjoy, but they also function as an auditory anchor for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Auditory anchors make navigating a building easier for those with limited sight. The Huntington Beach Central Library of Southern California boasts an elaborate waterfall fountain in the children’s wing. The fountain, originally constructed in 1974, was enclosed during a renovation project and surrounded by a spiral wheelchair ramp. Interior water features are not a common element in libraries, but it’s one that has the potential to enhance accessibility for a library space.

Remember, it is recommended that you speak to your local librarian to find out what kinds of resources and programs are available to patrons who are blind or visually impaired. Most of the resources provided on this list can be found at your local library, but some items mentioned have only recently been introduced to the library landscape. 


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Further Reading and Resources

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires most buildings to provide ADA-compliant braille signage for any permanent room or space and other accessible spaces for individuals with disabilities (some exceptions apply). It is worthwhile for library professionals to familiarize themselves with the 7 Principles of Universal Design, which encourage institutions to build environments with accessibility features that go beyond the requirements of the ADA. Check out this video to see some of the adaptive technology listed in this article put to use. 



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