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Celebrating National Braille Week: What You Need to Know About Braille


From 7th to 13 October 2013 it's national braille week in the UK. With the large range of braille signs we have available at ESE Direct this is something we take a keen interest in.

Braille is an essential part of life for many blind people. Although many people think that this alphanumeric system is a direct one to one translation of Latin characters, it actually has over 250 characters ranging from different quotation marks through to composite symbols to allow readers to scan and absorb words quickly. The role this system plays in providing essential information on a visual world that many normally sighted people take for granted cannot be underestimated. This is especially true for the wide range of braille signage that is used through-out the UK, which provides blind and visually impaired people with information that can give them a sense of independence and awareness of their environment.

Different Types of Braille Sign

There are four main types of braille sign, all of which mirror those that are used by normally sighted people. These include the following:

  • Architectural – These are signs that can help the blind navigate around buildings. Although you may think that these are just converted directional signs, there are other places where such signs can help. For instance, many staircases use braille signs to indicate the number of steps left, so that a blind person can tell where the staircase ends – stopping them from falling over when they lose their balance by trying to put their foot on a step that simply isn’t there.
  • Health and Safety – Although blind people usually will not want to work in dangerous environments with large machinery or dangerous chemicals, there are still a number of general warning signs that are applicable in all areas of the workplace such as fire door and emergency exit signs. Businesses that employ blind people or have public facing offices are required to install signs that use tactile and braille components.
  • General Public – There are signs that all of us use in our day to day life, like signs that tell us which type of toilet is for men and for women, and those that give us directions to different streets and facilities when out and about in urban areas. There are also signs that are a gentle reminder of good public behaviour, such those that tell people not to litter or to stay off the grass.
  • Custom – These are signs that are just generally used to provide people with information, ranging from names of businesses and organisations or wards within hospitals. Custom signs are usually comprised of information that is bespoke and specific to the business or organisation in which they are featured.

Braille Signs for the Public

There are two main pieces of legislation that deal with how braille signs should be displayed in public places. These are as follows:

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) made it unlawful for businesses and organisations that provide any kind of service to treat people with any kind of disability, including blindness or partial sight, less favourably than other people for a reason related to their disability. This important new document gave three set timescales for service providers to implement changes to the way in which they did business. This included making adequate provisions to allow all kinds of disabled people to use their services and facilities in the same manner as able bodied people. As a result all businesses and organisations had to install braille signs in the same places as they use standard braille signs – for instance, a hot surface warning sign in a cafeteria now has to have a braille component.

The Equality Act 2010 (EA) goes one step further than the DDA. This piece of legislation lays out a frame-work for anti-discrimination laws that make things easier for people will all kinds of disabilities. This act introduced a number of additional rules on top of those originally set out in the DDA in relation to visually impaired people, expanding the remit of the original document to cover new areas. For instance the equality act can be applied in more business areas than the DDA. This new act also sets out guidelines for the way in which blind or visually impaired people are treated within the workplace, where they must not be denied access to all the facilities and opportunities available to normally sighted people. It is unlawful for the employer to fail to instigate reasonable measures, such as braille signs in the workplace to aid blind or visually impaired workers.

In addition to this any workplace where blind or visually impaired people are going to be employed must undergo a through risk assessment to ensure that everything within the business environment is streamlined to permit them to work in as normal a manner as possible. Such assessments need to be performed with the disabled person present and should not assume anything about their needs. Such an assessment will usually notify the business owner of where and how braille signs should be installed throughout their premises.

Audits – Where to place Signs?

In order to check that all the signs within a place of business or a rented property meet the regulations set up by the DDA and EA, an audit must be performed by someone with knowledge of these regulations. They should be able to both look at the existing signs and where new braille signs should be positioned on the walls and throughout the business. For instance it is recommended that signs are placed next to the handle sides of doors, no less than 1400 mm off the floor and no higher than 1700mm – whereas toilet signs need to be affixed to the front of the door and directional signs should be placed at appropriate junctions in corridors. Many companies that supply different types of braille sign can also perform audits, or it is possible to get more information by getting in contact with the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

Specific Requirements for Braille Signs

From 2004 any business or organisation that provides services directly to the public has been required to provide braille and tactile signs to help blind and partially sighted people. These can usually be found as part of larger signs, located underneath the normal writing and symbols that feature on the sign. By law all such signs should have the following features and measurements:

  • Embossed braille – Even though braille is usually made up of dots punched into card, most braille on signs is embossed onto metals. There are rules for how this must be displayed. Grade 1 braille must be used for single words, but grade 2 braille should be employed for multi word signs. Each individual braille character should be 6 mm apart, with the dots in each cluster spaced 2.29 mm apart horizontally and 2.54 mm vertically. Each dot should have a diameter of 1.4mm and should be raised 0.46 mm from the sign’s surface.
  • Braille locater – there must be a special braille locater situated on the left hand side of the sign. This should be level with the embossed braille dots on the sign so the reader can simply slide their hand over the sign to find the relevant information. This locater should be semi-circular in shape with a radius of 3mm – it can either be embossed to protrude around 1.5mm out of the sign or can be cut out to a depth of 1.5mm.
  • Matt substrate – the surface of the sign should be made out of a tactile material so that the blind person can recognise it when scanning a wall with their hand. As this is a standard feature of all braille signs, it will quickly alert a blind person to the sign’s presence.
  • Size – The main pictorial section of a sign, which contains the normal words or symbols for normally sighted people, must be at least 154mm in height. The words or symbols should be backed with the matt substrate as mentioned in the previous point.
  • Embossed text – not all blind people can read braille, so all signs are required to have special embossed text that can be read by the blind. The text should be between 15-50mm large and should be made from a sans serif font that’s embedded to around 1.25mm (+/- 0.25mm). The spacing between the words must be between 1.5 and 2mm and the embossed part of each letter should be no wider than the average fingertip.
  • Directional information – There is a specific way in which directional information should be set out on a braille sign. Information on what lies forwards should be at the top of the sign, surrounded by two forward facing arrows. The next information should be on what lies right, again surrounded by two right facing arrows – this formula is then repeated for information on what lies left and then finally what lies behind the reader. These signs will generally use grade 2 braille due to the length and complexity of the information.


There are no real restrictions on the materials that can be used to make braille signs. Many businesses prefer to use pre-made signs that have visual components that can be used by normally sighted people and braille sections that can be used by those who are visually impaired. One of the biggest advantages of using these types of signs is that they can be supplied ready made to fit the DDA’s standards. However, it may be the case that you want to keep your signage in with a certain look, style or colour-scheme that’s used in your premises. In these instances it is possible to get bespoke braille signs manufactured out of all kind of materials, ranging from different wood finishes to all kinds of metal including copper and brass.

Benefits of Braille Signs

Beyond the practical uses of braille signs there are a number of less obvious benefits. By installing braille signs where-ever possible in your business or organisational head-quarters, you’re making your premises as friendly as possible to visually impaired people, giving them an extra level of confidence and relaxation when dealing with your company. Imagine how daunting it must be for someone to be unable to view an new environment that they’ve entered – in such instances braille signs are quite literally like beacons of light.

Braille Signs in the Future

Braille has already lasted for nearly two hundred years and is not likely to go away in the future. Although some alternatives have been suggested to braille signs, such as audio signs, these are likely to be expensive and not as user friendly as the simple tactile mechanism that is offered by braille. Grade 2 braille can also be read very quickly by the user whereas audio signs are likely to slow the journey of visually impaired people as they wait for full communications to be given. One of the reasons why braille has survived for so long is the fact that it is an alpha numeric representation system in its own right with a much larger scope than the standard Latin character set that’s used by normally sighted people, and this is one of the reasons why it’s not likely to disappear any time in the near future.

Photograph of Lee

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