given at the

International Braille Seminar 20th - 23rd February 1997

at the Holiday and Course Centre Hotel "Solsana" of the Swiss Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted, CH-3792 Saanen nr. Gstaad


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Mats Landfors: An historical overview of braille and its adaptation to various languages

When - inspired by Charles Barbier - Louis Braille created his alphabet of raised dots for the blind he, naturally enough, took the French version of the Latin alphabet as a base.

Similarly, when the International Phonetic Alphabet was created, enabling every existing language to written phonetically (i.e. as a representation of its sounds), the Latin alphabet also served as its base. Thanks to its "internationality", the braille alphabet is equally suited to all languages.

The international letters in braille are, generally speaking, those signs that represent the Latin sounds from "a" to "z". Letters augmented with diacritics and others often representing sounds not encompassed by the Latin alphabet are counted as national letters. For example, in French the national letters are "c cedilla", the accented letters, the sign for the diphthong "oe" and "w" (for loan words from the Germanic languages).

It is very interesting to analyse how braille was adapted for differing languages. As far as the other Romantic languages go, you might well assume that the adaptation was unproblematic. However, the first signs of schism became apparent: in certain Latin American countries a different representation of the accented letters was chosen than in Spain: the signs for letters with circumflex in French were used for letters with acute accents. Fortunately, a uniformity in Spanish braille was successfully established after the second World War. The adaptation to the remaining Romantic languages was posed only minor problems. The production of the English braille code was a simple matter. But in spite of this, a schism gradually developed between the British and North American braille codes. The differences are, however, not very great.

The special signs for the German braille code - "a umlaut" (dots 3,4,5) and "o umlaut" (dots 2,4,6). The Scandinavian countries followed the German example, adding a sign for the letter "a ringel" (dots 1,6). Unfortunately, In Iceland the braille code took on somewhat random features: an "i acute" is represented by the French "e circumflex" (dots 1,2,6) and a "u acute" by the French "i dieresis" (dots 1,2,4,5,6).

An exemplary braille code was created for Esperanto: the circumflex accent was represented by the addition of the "lower sign" (dot 6) within the braille character.

The Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian use the Latin alphabet. The creators of their respective braille codes, however, deviated from the Latin foundation of braille and introduced in the Lithuanian code, for example, new signs for the letters "u", "v" and "z".

The adaptation to languages which do not make use of the Latin alphabet was, of course, more difficult. In this respect, Russian braille is exemplary: it can be ascertained that its creators partly based the Russian code on its German counterpart. For instance, they used the German letter "w" for the sound "v". Russian braille then served as the basis for the codes of many other of the languages of the former Soviet Union.

The creation of a Hebrew code to be written and read in the same manner as the Latin alphabet caused problems. There are two braille codes for Hebrew: a German one and an American one. In Israel the American version is preferred for Modern Hebrew.

To deal with the representation of syllabic writing systems, which often encompass a great many signs, the phonetic solution was chosen in braille: instead of using the special characters for the syllables they are represented phonetically.

In China, when efforts were made to radically simplify the writing system, braille presented itself as an exemplary solution. However, this project could not - for historical and other reasons - be brought to fruition. The present Chinese braille code is still very complicated: apparently, it comprises a sort of code and phonetic alphabet.

Early on in the history of braille shorthand and contracted braille systems were developed. French grade II braille appeared as early as 1880. For some braille alphabets, for instance that for English, the consequence was that some signs were also altered in the so-called grade I braille. an example is the sign for question mark.

Originally, capital letters were indicated universally by prefixing them with dots 4,6. After the introduction of the English grade II system, however, dot six was used for this purpose. This divided the world of braille into those using dot 6 and those using dots 4,6 to indicate capitalisation.

In the 1950's talking books and magazines began being produced, and braille gradually lost its erstwhile importance. Doubts were even cast on the usefulness of such a space-intensive writing medium. The electronic revolution brought our alphabet a new life. However, the development took place at great speed and, for some reason, both the occasion and the desire to co-ordinate the process failed to present themselves. There were differing systems as long ago as the days of the VersaBraille: an American 6-dot computer code as well as a European one.

Thus the appearance of 8-dot computer braille codes caused great problems because the braille codes showed insufficient correlation. It is important that those of us who work non-visually - that is to say the prime users of braille - do their utmost to avoid unnecessary and foolish chaos in this respect. We do not want to lose the "internationality" of our writing system. If a different braille code is imposed upon us for each language then the result is nothing but utmost confusion.

The last decades have seen a disquieting tendency to change punctuation signs. Such changes undermine the very foundations of our writing system, which stand on the principle of universality. What should we do? We want to preserve the uniformity of braille.

My wish is that this seminar may produce good guidelines for the promotion of a uniform braille code.

Mats Landfors
Hovrättsbacken 14
S-852 37 Sundsvall

Translation: Vivian Aldridge


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Norbert Müller: On the braille representation of the ASCII code and its adaptation to various languages

Please do not expect that I can give a exhaustive and authoritative report on the current situation concerning the representation of the ASCII code in braille. I am not a member of the relevant bodies and it is only on account of my work on an international level that I am aware of current activities and their results, at least in as far as there are any results at all. One of the purposes of this seminar is to discuss the direction in which braille is going and the influence that the user can have on this, and so I have used my own experience and thoughts as the basis of my presentation.

In the primary school I learnt that braille is the international writing system for blind people. Whereas our sighted colleagues have to learn different writing systems for certain languages we can always use the same writing. Then, when I began to learn English I came across the first difference. All at once the question mark was dots 2,3,6 instead of just 2,6. That was not so bad. Then I had to learn contracted English braille and it became - and still is - clear to me that contracted braille must be completely different in different countries.

At the time of the reformation of German contracted braille in the early 70's, the full stop was also changed. It was now just dot 3 and the apostrophe was dot 6. From then on I had to be careful to use the right full stop for the right language.

In 1983-4 I was in the USA and began to concern myself with computers. To do so, I learnt a new braille code: computer braille. I learnt that numerals were written without a numeral sign but in the lower position. This was still quite legible and did not bother me much - it was obvious that the numeral sign could not be used for a one to one representation. Of course, the punctuation signs had to be altered: I learnt that the full stop comprised dots 4,6, the comma dot 6, the colon dots 1,5,6 and so on. That took a lot of getting used to but, of course, you only had to use it when you wrote computer braille, and at that time I did not need to do that.

Back in Germany there was a shock waiting for me: firstly, you needed computer braille when you connected a braille display to a PC, too; and secondly, a different computer braille code was used there. The worst of all was that the numerals had been changed in order not to have to alter the punctuation signs: to each of the letters that are customarily used for the numerals a dot 6 was added. Thus you have dots 1,6 for the numeral 1, 1,2,6 for then numeral 2 and so on. There were problems with the numerals 8 and 9 which corresponded to accented forms of u and o respectively. Thus all the German accented letters (with umlaut) were replaced by new signs, as was the sign for sz (German double s), the original form of which had been used for computer punctuation. Zero also had to be altered because a j with dot 6 is, of course, a w. The chosen combination, dots 3,4,6, has a vague similarity with a j. I found this version of computer braille annoying - because of it the texts were more difficult to read on a braille display and I had to watch out for the numerals in this form much more than for lower numerals. I am sure that even before the advent of computer braille - for reasons of space or time - a lot of us left out the numeral sign in our personal texts and wrote the numbers differently. I, like many others, have often written dates and times as a series of upper and lower numerals; I have never used dot 6. Am I the only exception?

To be fair I must admit that there are reasons for writing the numerals as I have just described. It may be easy to tell the difference between upper and lower signs on a braille display, but a lot of readers would have difficulties with this when faced with computer braille embossed on paper.

The greatest frustration for me came when I bought myself a Braille Lite during a visit to the USA in 1994. This device, which is closely related to the computer, has both a speech synthesiser and a braille display. There were still problems with the German version and so I stuck to the English version at first, especially in the light of the facts that I rarely turned the speech synthesiser on and that in the USA I mostly typed texts in English anyway. On the last day of my stay I was given the corrected German software for the Braille Lite. When I loaded it I had an unpleasant surprise: my lovely texts were to a large extent unreadable. I managed, of course, to decipher them and amend them accordingly, but not without a certain amount of bother. I must admit that I, being the "playful child" that I am, even enjoyed doing it, but the cause of my enjoyment was still a source of annoyance. And so I had before my eyes, or rather beneath my fingers, concrete evidence of that which I already knew in theory: the world of the blind had not yet reached agreement on a uniform ASCII code.

ASCII is an acronym which stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange". It is thus a standardisation. Standardisations are there to be universally recognised, and indeed, the ASCII code was used almost everywhere where more or less the same Latin alphabet used. For sighted people there was no problem. I do not know why there was no uniform Braille ASCII code from the beginning. My guess is that no one took the trouble to concern themselves with it. Thus everyone went their own way and now we are suffering the consequences.

At the first glance there may appear to be two systems competing with each other: the European and the American. The most striking difference is that the Americans use lower numerals and changed punctuation signs whereas the Europeans use numerals with dot 6 and have left most of the punctuation signs unchanged. A closer look reveals that there are regional - i.e. national - differences: everyone wants to represent the ASCII code in the way they like best or are most used to.

One of the most welcome developments that I have experienced in the course of my international activities is that the organisations of the blind have finally begun to provide the documentation for meetings and seminars in braille. This is mostly uncontracted English braille so that it can also be read by those who do not know English contracted braille, and here I notice some differences:

I explained earlier how the numerals are represented in computer braille in Germany. When I receive texts from France, for instance from the offices of the European Blind Union, the zero is different. It is then identical to the numeral sign (dots 3,4,5,6). In texts that are printed in Spain the full stop is the same as in Germany but the opening and closing brackets or parentheses are represented by dots 1,2,6 and 3,4,5 respectively.

While on the subject of brackets: in the good old days of DOS the computer - like the typewriter - had just one sign for both the opening and the closing inverted commas or speech marks. On the other hand it had two different signs for opening and closing brackets. This had to be taken into account in computer braille. The problem was solved by exchanging the signs for inverted commas and brackets. This did not take much getting used to and only affected computer users anyway. In some countries, however, they wanted to be particularly clever and also exchanged the signs in the literary braille code, i.e. in the normal braille code. Then along came windows and the other so called "graphical user interfaces", and with them word processing programmes which were clever enough to be able to print different signs for opening and closing inverted commas, just as they are printed in books. Luckily we noticed this early enough in the German-speaking countries and so did not score an own goal by exchanging the signs for inverted commas and brackets.

It is impossible to talk about computers and the what they can do nowadays and not mention the Internet. The number of people frequenting it and the amount of information which can be called up or is speeding around the world are unimaginable. For blind people in particular this brings many advantages. As long as most of the information passing through the network is in a form standardised on a world-wide basis we can transform it in the way we want or the way dictated by our access technology. But what about when our printing houses want to exchange books that they have stored on disk? We can expect problems, especially when the texts are in contracted braille. Before printing the texts, the embosser must be reprogrammed for the other braille ASCII code. The same is true of the braille displays on which the text may be read. Most devices offer the possibility of switching between several braille character tables, and so the problem is soluble. But still I ask the question: why make it complicated when it could be easy? And what do we do if we want to read or emboss multilingual texts?

The problem I have just described is not just a hypothetical one. I have already discovered a book in the latest catalogue of the Nation Braille Press in Boston, USA, that is only available on disk and that in contracted English braille. If I buy the book, I must switch to the appropriate table on my braille display every time I want to read it.

So much for the problems as I see them. At the beginning of this presentation I said that there are strivings to establish a uniform braille ASCII code on an international level. I have tried to get information about this and this is what I have found out:

There is a draft for an international norm, ISO DIS 11548. For the most part it is identical to that which we know as "Eurobraille". This means that the numerals are written with a dot 6 whereas the punctuation signs are mostly unchanged. A complete system has been devised for Latin alphabets, for ISO 8859-1 (Latin alphabet no. 1) and the character sets 437 and 850.

Since 1993 attempts have been made to establish this international norm. Two of the project's protagonists, Erich Schmid from Vienna and Ernst-Dietrich Lorenz from Hannover, explained that this is because of lack of funds. The standardisation tables had to be radically amended because of objections to the original draft norm. The correction of the approximately 40 inkprint pages of data would cost about 4000 to 4500 dollars according to the working group concerned. This is because the data must be altered on a mainframe computer - to which not everyone has access - and then converted to Word for Windows format. What makes it all so expensive is above all the fact that not only must the dots be named but the signs must also be presented in graphical form.

Everything now depends on whether sponsors can be found for the project. If this came about, then the draft would have to be presented to the ISO (International Standardizing Organisation) to be made an official norm. All the ISO members would then have the opportunity to make their comments and to vote on the draft.

If the voting went in favour of the draft, the system would be elevated to the status of an official norm. But what then? Would the North Americans be ready to give up their system - which I personally find more legible when it comes to numerals - in favour or ours? On many devices the private user can also change the braille table as he wishes. I know several computer users in Germany - myself included - who make use of this facility and have changed, for instance, the sz sign, because the official computer braille version looks more like the numerals sign than the equivalent sign in literary braille.

And this throws up another problem that I would not like to leave unmentioned. A sighted person has a uniform writing system, and although this may have special signs for particular uses, these are additions and not alterations to the system. A blind person nowadays does not have it so easy. Firstly he learns the braille code that we find in literary books, that which I have here called "literary braille". If he has to concern himself with mathematics or scientific texts he will have to learn a special braille mathematics code which is in parts very different from literary braille and - and this must be said - that is not internationally uniform. In Germany, for example, there are two forms. Finally there is computer braille as a third variation on a once uniform writing system. In North America attempts are being made to devise a "Unified Braille Code" which would put an end to this dilemma. We will have to wait and see how successful they will be. At any rate it would be desirable and sensible.

Although I never got on with mathematics, even when still at school, I must return to the problem of the mathematics code. Pedro Zurita, the Secretary of the World Blind Union, once told me of attempts to create a world-wide standardised mathematics code. The two fathers of the leading codes were, so to speak, put together in a working group which was to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the result was not a universally recognised braille mathematics code but a third system which competed with the others. This should have been foreseen: each of the experts, of course, thought his system the best and was thus open for improvements but was not prepared to completely throw his system overboard. Perhaps it would have been more promising to bring users rather than the experts together in a committee and give them the task of creating the uniform system.

Let me conclude with a short recapitulation of what I have said. Braille should be an internationally uniform system. We are increasingly aware of the tendency of regional differences not to be limited to letters that are only found in certain languages, but to extend to punctuation signs and - as far as computers are concerned - numerals. A draft for a uniform ASCII code for braille exists, at least for Latin alphabets, and could be implemented as soon as the necessary money is found. But will it then be universally accepted?

Norbert Müller
Deutsches Blindenbildungswerk
Weil am Rhein

Translation: Vivian Aldridge


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Jan Bemelmans: Computer-Assisted Braille Production in the Netherlands: Developments, Standardisation, Future Perspectives

This presentation is mostlybased on my personal experience during nine years as a professional braille printer, from 1986 to 1995. I should tell you now that in parts of the presentation I go into technicalities concerning braille and computers, but that I will attempt to explain all the jargon that I use.

I must start by mentioning that I have been a braille user since the age of five. This was very useful to me during my professional career in braille production. You could say that I always had in my mind the final form of the texts that I had to transcribe - even before I transcribed them: a form reflecting my wishes as a braille user and also conforming to the rules which were valid during my time as a braillist. My early contact with braille also stood me in good stead to follow the developments in the field of the computer-assisted professional transcription of braille.

I did my braille work for "Le Sage ten Broek", a library in Nijmegen which was not only a library but also a centre for the production of braille and talking books. In Amsterdam there is a textbook and specialist library (SVB) which farmed out the production of textbooks to various production centres, including the library in Nijmegen. As I result, I spent most of my working time in the production and proof-reading of textbooks, although popular science and literature also demanded my attention.

The computers used in Nijmegen when I began my job as a braillist in 1986 ran under the operating system CP/M. An operating system is a collection of programs which are necessary for the computer to be able to function at all. CP/M was popular in the early 80's before being overtaken by the now more frequently used MS-DOS. Before this, the library had already used a computer-driven braille system developed specially for it which used small cassettes (so-called mini-cassettes) for storing texts. But this was considered outdated and unreliable even then. The CP/M machines used 5 1/4 inch disks which were much more practical and reliable. The inkprint text was inputted using the word processor WordStar. In addition to this, a specially developed system was used which, firstly, converted the inputted text to a "braille friendlier" format (shorter lines with added braille prefix-signs). Even so, the braillist still had to observe certain rules, among others those concerning the use of the apostrophe and the full stop, which were governed by braille syntax rules. After this process the braillist had to perform various manual checks (for correct word division, correct use of the braille signs, correct page division and, where necessary, the sensible division of a work into braille volumes). The title page and the table of contents with the correct page numbering were not (wholly) automated, either. Once a braille volume met the requirements concerning its contents and appearance, the computer file was processed by a program which converted the text into the so called MIT format. This was the format needed for the text to be correctly printed by the embosser.

The procedure described above already saved a considerable amount of time in comparison with the direct transcription on a braille typewriter. A mistake no longer necessitated the rewriting of a complete page, as it could, of course, be corrected in the data file. It was also at least theoretically possible to print an unlimited number of braille copies. Even so, the management of the library still sought further technical possibilities for speeding up the production. The library in Nijmegen, together with all the other printing houses for the visually impaired, was very much dependent on state subvention and this was constantly reduced. Additionally, there was the desire to "improve the user service by shortening the delivery time for the ordered items". Nijmegen was not the only place to produce braille: there were also printing houses in The Hague and in Ermelo. However, there was never any co-ordination between these three libraries when it came to looking for better methods of production, and there was consequently no standardisation of the systems used, either. For this reason the exchange of data files was hardly, if at all, possible. This lack of standardisation was not just limited to matters of computerisation alone (such use of a common file format, disk size etc.) but also extended to braille technicalities. The braille technicalities even had an influence on the use of the computer to some extent. Let me take the following as an example: Which character must be used to produce a particular braille sign? Should we, for instance, produce the sign with dots 4,5 by writing the print closing square bracket sign (ASCII no. 93) or, alternatively, the print tilde (ASCII no. 126)? ("ASCII" is the abbreviation for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange". All contemporary computers use this standard.) But in the process of standardising braille one could also consider page layout. Furthermore there was disagreement on the use of capitals and punctuation signs as well as on the question of whether or not words should be divided at the end of lines. On the one hand, not making use of word division allows for quicker production and, on the other hand, it wastes space. Thus protagonists of word division often argued that at least two or three pages would be saved in a volume comprising about 50 pages with 29 lines of a maximum length of 33 characters per page and printed on one side. And besides, from the point of view of the reader, it is much more pleasant to read a full line than half - or maybe even a quarter - of one resulting from a lengthy word being two or three letters too long for the line. In Nijmegen we strived for a long time to make the best use of the already limited space on a braille page. Particular attention was paid to this during the development of a new conversion system for IBM compatible computers, which replaced the CP/M machines in 1987. On account of my depth of knowledge of braille, I, too, was involved in this project. It lasted more or less two years, from 1987 to 1989, during which time I learnt how important it was that the programmers who were entrusted with the development of the new system were at least familiar with the rudiments of braille syntax. Their task was to construct an appropriate algorithm for the conversion of the inkprint syntax into braille syntax.

There came a point, however, when the project ground to a halt. The management began to tend towards the viewpoint that the typists who input the original text should need to know as little as possible about braille, thus making it easier to find typists. It became apparent, however, that the differences between inkprint and braille are so great that it is not possible to automate the entire conversion process. There was still much in the production process that had to be checked and corrected by hand. For various reasons the project was never really completed mainly on account of new people joining the management.

The new management "discovered" a totally new system which had been developed an the University of Leuven in Belgium. This was a single unit comprising a large and fast braille embosser designed for mass production combined with a specially developed word processor. The program, called PC-Braille, already converted as much as possible into braille syntax during the input. The program also had very efficient word division capabilities. Besides this, it was possible, for instance, to use the normal, typewriter style computer keyboard as if it were the keyboard of a traditional braille typewriter. On this "braille keyboard" it was eminently possible to write braille music or complicated mathematics. Sighted typists who knew braille could also check what they had written by viewing it as dots "drawn" on the screen.

At this time common standards began to be introduced to make working together easier. From then on the library in Nijmegen could deliver the prepared files to the textbook and specialist library in Amsterdam which then printed them out itself.

In spite of this, the situation became worse and worse for braille users in the Netherlands during the nineties. For various reasons (governmental cutbacks, important functions in the braille world being taken over by people whose interest was commercial and who cared little about handicapped people, their needs or braille) the standard of braille products declined more and more. Those of us braille readers with years of experience may remember former times when the braille striven for was as free of mistakes and as well laid-out as possible. But the more that brailling was computerised the less important these aspects became to those in the production process. According to my information, the modes and the means used in producing braille were increasingly dictated by the Textbook and Specialist Library. The advent of the scanner lead to an significant speeding-up of the production, but the other side of the coin was that the braille followed the inkprint form more and more while the particularities of braille were increasingly neglected. For those in authority the mushrooming use of the computer braille display was justification enough to imitate inkprint layout. Avid braille readers will also observe this trend in magazines. Without asking anyone, without even discussing it with the readers, braille signs are changed from one day to the next (for example, inverted commas and brackets). Capital signs are no longer used at all in periodicals, and this sometimes causes reading mistakes as, for example, in the case of particular abbreviations, written in the original inkprint without periods between the individual letters.

I find the situation I have just outlined to be disadvantageous for us "paper reading" braille users. In the Netherlands a well-standardised uncontracted braille almost completely prevented misinterpretation in reading. A lot of braille expertise has been lost from the printing houses; a fact, incidentally, admitted by the libraries. And for this reason they are no longer, or hardly, capable of transcribing specialist literature (mathematical works, books with - for example - passages in (Ancient) Greek or music). However, the libraries argue that students increasingly read such books on the computer by means of a braille display and scanner.

This was the situation in May 1995 when I had to leave my job as a braille printer. Between 1992 and 1995 I had worked as a braille printer at the Nijmegen social centre and no longer for Le Sage ten Broek, but the library for its part delegated the transcription of textbooks and specialist literature to the social centre. In May 1995, however, the braille department of the social centre was also closed. And later on, at the beginning of 1996, I heard that braille production at Le Sage ten Broek was also being disbanded. Thus braille transcription - or, more accurately, braille scanning - ceased to be carried out at all in Nijmegen. The library's own collection of braille books is probably only cared for by a few volunteers, but I do not have any up-to-date information on this.

As far as the standardisation of braille in particular is concerned, I can add that the braille production houses had, with the years, rulebooks and/or textbooks which were often produced at the instigation of a house itself. However, because of lack of collaboration there was never a handbook that could serve as guidelines for all the braille producers. Not only that, but new faces in the management teams often went hand in hand with the introduction of "revised editions" of the then currently valid rulebooks.

What will the use of braille - and even braille itself - look like in the years to come? It is very difficult to say, depending as it does on present and future technological development. It is, of course, apparent that the number of skilled braille readers is constantly decreasing. The majority of the blind population of the Netherlands can be classed as more or less old-aged. There is a strong tendency to integrate visually impaired children into mainstreams schools in the Netherlands, too. The role of specialised institutions, and with it the need to master braille, is decreasing in importance. Over the years the influence of visually impaired people on the presentation of braille has completely vanished. There is a general view among the management of institutions involved in the production of braille that braille should simply be as close an imitation of the print original as possible. In these circles no one sees much need for national standardisation and one already even hears voices claiming that braille has already had its heyday and that it will probably disappear completely in the next decade or two. As I see it, this may hold good for professional producers but not for the individual user. There are still hundreds of braille users of my age and even younger who will - as far as their handicaps demand it - use braille as long as possible - in many cases this means their entire lives. This is not only true for literary braille but also for the musical and mathematical codes - areas where there is still much to say about standardisation. But that oversteps the bounds of this conference. Indeed, it could well necessitate one or more conferences of its own.

I hope that this presentation has been successful in outlining the situation of braille users and readers in the Netherlands in the past, the present and the future. It has no pretence to completeness - I have just drawn on my nine years of experience as a braillist. I have not talked about international standardisation because my work was only at the national level with the one exception that I worked on the preparation of the international braille magazine, "Esperanta Ligilo". But then again, Esperanto is well standardised on an international basis.

In the Netherlands, at least in professional circles, braille is considered less and less important. This probably holds true not just for the Netherlands but for many other countries as well. Thank you very much for your attention. I would now wlecome your questions and comments.

Translation: Vivian Aldridge


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Birger Viggen: Presentation and Layout of Braille Publications

Thinking about the layout of pages of braille is a topic which is seldom mentioned. Consciously designing braille publications to suit the medium they are printed in is a rare practice. Of course, this is partly due to given limitations. For instance, the size and shape of braille characters cannot be altered. It is worth, however, looking to see if no further developments in this respect are possible.

In the days when there were still real stereoplate printers, one made time for the aesthetics of layout. At least in the printing house of the HTH in which I myself worked at the beginning of the 50's, braille was printed in various formats and the title pages were decorated using the methods which were available in spite of the limitations. (Please see the material that I have brought to show you.)

To avoid almost empty lines we altered the ratchet of the stereoplate machine so that the characters were a little closer together and two or three more would have room on the line.

In those days I had the opportunity to compare braille printed in many countries. Most printing houses always used a large format, whether for printing books or for printing journals. The small journal from Switzerland was a big exception; I think it was called "Le Louis Braille".

The last decades have seen the automation of braille printing. The stereoplate printers who wrote whole zinc plates using a manual machine are no longer. Now code is put on a disk which is then used to drive a braille embosser or a platewriter depending on how much is to be printed. Nowadays many journals are produced in several media, appearing simultaneously in braille, large print and on cassette. It is usual for editing and layout to be undertaken in the print copy; then a few buttons are pressed and whoosh! the whole text is already printed out in braille. It is true that the text then exists in embossed form, but apart from the length of the lines it can hardly be said that the layout is braille-reader friendly. This process is so beautifully automated that it can be carried out by sighted people who may not even have to master braille themselves. So much for technological development!

In the mean time the requirements of us braille readers have become rather modest, the main one being that we receive the text in a form that we can read. We are happy with a prompt delivery of the material. We consider aesthetics if they happen to cross our minds at all as a luxury. We may moan about the large, unwieldy volumes, but are unlikely to say much more than that braille takes up a lot of space. However, this unnecessarily large format is a real threat to our desire to read. Having to heave braille books and periodicals around, the space needed at home and all the rest of it can bring you to the point of doing without braille.

Because "forests of letters" are tiring on the eye, texts are divided up by means of side headings with lots of space around them. In order to awaken the reader's curiosity leader texts are used which reflect the content of an article and are indeed often quotations from within it. At any rate, the greater part of a daily paper reaches the waste paper bin without having been read. And what value do such texts have for braille readers? If I come across a long text which is not broken down into paragraphs it may not be particularly tempting to read, but side headings that waste at least two lines apiece do nothing but cause me to regret the waste of paper.

I have already spoken about almost empty lines. How often we find lines of only two or three characters! In order to avoid this, people began very early on to use a form of "continuous style", as I shall call it: A new paragraph started on the same line after leaving two or three spaces. This new paragraph was then marked by indenting the next line by two spaces. This procedure seems no longer to be found anywhere, and the argument for this is that it is not done in inkprint, either. Nowadays, we often hear that the rules of braille should comply as far as possible with those of inkprint. Of course, this is right as long as it does not mean that we have to disregard the special requirements of braille. Just as print is adapted to suit the requirements of the eye, braille should be adapted to those of the reading finger, while at the same time paying particular attention to the problem of the relatively large amount of space it takes up. I would like to stress that braille is not just a code through which to learn print, but a writing system in its own right.

I like to have small volumes of poetry in a small format so that they can be easily carried as, for example, in a suitcase while travelling. But because a great deal of still white paper is typical of an inkprint poetry book, the equivalent voluminous braille book often contains as much still flat as dotted paper.

Attempts to make braille more compact by the use of contractions were already known in its early days, but I will not talk about this here.

In the last ten years page numbering started to appear on both the left hand and the right hand page. Thus a whole page is wasted in a 60 page volume.

The first and most important criterion for braille publications should be the convenience of the format. A further point is decoration and illustration. I have brought a few examples of braille title page designs with me. Nowadays we have even more possibilities at our disposal, and I can also show a few examples of these. By printing on plastic we can create what is more or less a three dimensional reproduction. However, we then have the problem that in particular those of us who have been blind since early childhood have not developed the ability to interpret pictures. But that, too, is a matter of practice, and I am sure that the present generation of children will be used to illustrations and drawings.

It is almost impossible to tell a work in braille just from its form or cover, that is to say, without reading the title page. At the most you might know which printing house it came from.

We must demand that braille readers regain command of braille production, something that we have lost in this technological age.

To conclude: one says of a beautifully decorated and bound book that it is a pleasure not only for the spirit and soul but also for the eye. Why should a braille book not also be a haptic pleasure for the hand?

Translation: Vivian Aldridge


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Otto Prytz: Braille: an anachronism in a technologically advanced world?

Although this presentation concerns the role of braille in our most modern of worlds, it is not unwarranted to want to look back and remind ourselves of the context in which braille was created and of its role in the past.

The braille system, named after its inventor, Louis Braille, dates from 1825. In the French school for the blind where Braille was a pupil at that time, books with raised "ordinary" letters were in use. It was considered important that the blind pupils learn to read and write ordinary writing. However, in order to read ordinary writing they needed materials which were produced specially for them; and although they learnt to write with a pencil, they could not communicate among themselves in written form without assistance, because they had no technical devices for reading that which they themselves wrote.

When Louis braille disseminated his invention among his fellow pupils the teachers reacted with disapprobation and disgust - with an attitude similar to that which made the teachers of schools for the deaf forbid their pupils to use deaf sign language even among themselves. We know that braille triumphed among the blind, in the same way that sign language triumphed among the deaf, in spite of the resistance of the teachers. And knowing this, it is easy to believe that we have overcome these outdated attitudes. But beware! Could we not imagine such attitudes today, too, only under another guise. The idea that braille is a disintegrating factor which hinders integration is entirely in keeping with a world characterised by the attempt to integrate handicapped people into the society at large. Could we not now - now that we do have technical devices at our disposal to provide blind people with access to written information without the need for a separate writing system - could we not now abolish this separate writing system?

Braille represents a step forward compared with the use of raise letters. With the sense of touch it is impossible to distinguish details as fine as by sight. The ordinary letters have multifarious details that are not easily distinguished by touch. Thus, by touch, a small h with ornamental strokes and a small opening at the bottom is very difficult to tell apart from a small b without an opening at the bottom. In order for the letter to be decipherable by blind people it must be enlarged many times, and thus the books of raised letters used at the time of Braille were huge. In braille all the letters occupy the same amount of space, and in order to decipher them it is only necessary to pay attention to one thing: in which positions in the cell are there dots and in which are there no dots. The finger does not have to stop to search for some other detail, and reading is much quicker than with raised letters. Braille occupies much more space than ordinary writing for sighted people but much less space than raised ordinary letters for blind people.

Now let us examine the role played by braille before technological developments caused it to lose its predominant position among those means of communication accessible to blind people. The fact that braille was not invented until 1825 does not mean that blind people had not previously had access to literature. The role that blind people played as producers of literature is well known. It is, however, maybe less well known that blind people were also consumers of literature. But we find proof of this in, for example, a note "to the reader" which precedes one of the most famous Spanish picaresque novels, "The History and Life of Buscón" (Buscón can be roughly translated as "Seeker"), written by Francisco de Quevedo in 1626. Here he addresses himself to the "readers or listeners, because the blind cannot read".

Braille's greatest contribution was not, however, that it opened up fields that had previously been closed to blind, but rather that it, without doubt, significantly extended their access to literature and other written forms of cultural expression. This took place in two senses: on the one hand, braille made many more works of literature available to blind individuals than the members of their families might have been prepared to read to them; on the other hand, braille brought literature to many more blind people than just those privileged enough to have others around them who were willing to read to them.

In identifying these two aspects of the educational role of braille, I am suggesting that blind people were dependant on others before its introduction. I believe that the braille system's greatest contribution lies in its role as a means of independence for blind people. In being able to read without the help of others, we gained independence as consumers of culture. In other words, braille raised us out of illiteracy.

The active and independent mastery of the written language brings with it advantages that we are not accustomed to pay much attention to. Let us assume that an idea comes to me that it is important for me not to forget. However, I don't trust my memory that much and I do not want to share my idea with someone else who has a better memory, either. So I write it down and I know that I can put it back into my memory at any time without having to rely on anybody else.

The independence which braille affords blind people is extremely important in that it puts culture - literally - at their fingertips and enables them to manipulate their own writing. Even so, I propose that the role that braille played as a means of independence for the blind population collectively is even more important. Braille allowed blind people to communicate with each other, both on the spot and at a distance, in written form for the first time. It can indeed be said that the independence granted to blind people by this fact was an essential factor in the development of the blind community. It is not to exaggerate to suggest that were it not for braille, no organisations of the blind would have come into being; and without organisations through which blind people can present their own case we would not enjoy such a high degree of participation in society today. A Norwegian proverb runs: "He who knows best where the shoe rubs is he who wears it."

Even though braille at one time fulfilled the conditions necessary for the advent of independence and self-awareness of blind people, could we not now do without it now that we can record not only written but also spoken information and now that writing does not have to be stored exclusively on paper?

I assume that this question was first raised in connection with the introduction of talking books. At first they were recorded on gramophone records, and the readers could only listen to the pre-recorded material and not record anything themselves. This situation was somewhat similar to that in the school attended by Louis Braille, where the readers read books produced specially for them but could not themselves produce such material.

However, after a while the tape recorder was introduced for talking books and, through this, we blind people came to have another means of information at our disposal that we could use both actively and independently. Audio tape began to be used for correspondence between blind people, which had up till then mostly been in braille. Compared with braille, audio tape has two advantages: firstly, it occupies less space, and secondly, it is also a widespread medium for information among sighted people and so, by using tape, blind people could communicate in the same way with other blind people as with sighted people.

Tape, however, also has a serious disadvantage when compared with paper: its very nature - its "tapiness". In geometrical terms we can say that a tape is a line or a line segment and thus a one-dimensional entity. Paper, on the other hand, has two dimensions: length and breadth; and by binding pieces of paper together to form books, one can, in a sense, also add the dimension of height. It is possible to find one's way around a book without the aid of technical apparatus and, on opening it, the reader has immediate and direct access to a sufficiently large exploration area: two pages. Finding one's way around on tape is much more slow and laborious. Even the fastest tape recorder needs time to spool a tape from one end to the other - much more time than the reader needs to jump from the first to the last page of a book. When one switches a tape recorder to "play" (which is equivalent to opening a book) the exploration area which is immediately accessible is only one point on the line. One also has access to the sequence of adjacent points in the direction of travel of the tape, but that cannot count as complete accessibility. This disadvantage can be reduced - but not eliminated - by various devices such as signals or special index tracks which are audible while spooling as well as other similar techniques. The disadvantage is, however, so great that tape never managed to completely replace braille. Tape is suitable for texts which are read sequentially and in which the most important aspect is the content itself. But braille is more suitable when the form of presentation or layout of the material is also significant, or where reference works are concerned, in which skipping about is essential (e.g. dictionaries).

Whereas tape records intonation, pause, emphasis and other such characteristics typical of spoken language, it does not normally contain the characteristics typical of written language: punctuation, the spelling of proper names etc. In modern societies - in which writing is extremely important - it is necessary for us blind people to be able to write to sighted people, too, even though we cannot check what we ourselves write. However, in order to retain the ability to write, that is, to use written language actively, it is also necessary to maintain passive contact with it by reading written works oneself. If we do not do that, we will regress to illiteracy.

Ideally, blind people, too, should have access to texts written in ordinary writing, and there have been numerous attempts to invent reading machines. The most widely used invention of this type is the Optacon, dating from the 70's. The name is an acronym of "OPtical-to-TActile-CONverter" and is used thus: The reader moves the camera over the text with the right hand. The outlines picked up by the camera are transformed into tactile outlines beneath the index finger of the reader's left hand in the form of small, vibrating pins. The letters are enlarged in the range of 8 to 40 times.

The great advantage of the Optacon is that what is on the paper can be directly read in its original form - without having to translate it into another system. But ... and there are buts. Identifying the letters is equally, if not more, difficult than with raised letters - all one's fingers together can be used to identify raised letters whereas only the index finger of the left hand perceives the letters which are read on the Optacon, even though the right hand is involved in the deciphering process to the extent that it moves the camera. With the Optacon it is, in practice, only possible to read texts where the letters are not joined, that is to say printed or typed but not hand-written. One of the technical limitations of the Optacon is that it registers black text on a white background and vice versa. Red text is not perceived so clearly and red text on a red background is not registered at all.

To sum up and pass on my experience: reading with the Optacon is slow. The device is useful for reading short texts, for identifying mail and for reading texts which you do not wish to entrust to others, such as bank statements. Besides this, it is also useful in another, rather less-well advertised area: to check documents you have typed yourself. Texts that the reader is already familiar with require less deciphering than unknown texts, and so reading known texts is less slow.

The last great source of information for blind people is the computer. The data stored on a computer disk are neither writing nor speech but binary ones and zeros. Basically, the information can be retrieved in the form the user wishes - as ordinary letters on the screen, as ordinary letters on paper, as braille letters on a "braille screen", as braille letters on paper or as synthetic speech. This flexibility enables blind and sighted people to work and even edit a text together.

"Word processing" is a term which gained popularity in the wake of information technology. But sighted people have actually been practising word processing for a long time. The typical text draft has a sufficiently wide left margin for it to be used for noting additions and for arrows indicating changes in word or text order; and if one wants to remove something, one simply uses the eraser - which is always to hand. Such procedures are, however, not easy with a braille draft on paper. A braille sign may be crossed (or dotted) out and braille dots may even be erased - although not entirely, for the holes remain in the paper forever. One could say that the computer has given blind people the use of the eraser for the first time.

It is said that finding your way around a computer text is very easy and quick. This is true as long as the reader knows what he is looking for. For example, it is much more convenient to look something up in a dictionary on CD ROM than it is in a ten volume braille dictionary. But now and then I do not need to search for something particular in a text but simply to gain a general impression of it, similar to that which is given by rapidly leafing through a book. Maybe I want to know how large the divisions in the text are, whether it is a compact text or whether it has examples, diagrams and tables. Here the computer's effectiveness is not much help to me.

When a sighted person finds his way around a computer text, his immediately accessible exploration area is not two pages but one screen. When blind people do the same, their exploration area depends on the way they access the information. If it is retrieved as synthetic speech then the exploration area is as restricted as with audio tape. If it is retrieved as braille printed on paper then it is one braille page. When it is retrieved in the form of paperless braille then the present level of technological development allows a exploration area of one line, because the present braille screens only show one line. It should be mentioned here that there are braille displays which can display the outline of the whole of the ordinary screen, and then by way of keys on the braille display - not by direct exploration - it is possible to move the braille display to any line of the ordinary display. However, the exploration of the whole screen by means of these keys and by touch requires much more time than is needed by a sighted person who can just glance at it. The exploration of a braille text printed on paper is also faster than that of the same text in the computer.

Strangely enough, information technology represents an approximation to the system which braille is based upon. The space required by a braille character is a cell of six positions with a dot or no dot at each one. This corresponds exactly to a 6 bit computer character - a dot is equivalent to a binary 1 and a space to a binary 0. If the cell is extended by two positions we have an exact correspondence to an 8 bit character which is nowadays (or no longer?) standard for computers, and we can define unique braille representations of all 256 characters of the 8 bit character set. Thus we could even say that braille is more suitable for representing computer stored characters than ordinary writing. However, there is a serious complication: whereas a computer character set has no more than 256 combinations, the number of different characters that can be printed out is theoretically infinite because special codes allow the same combination of bits to generate different characters on the paper.

The great difference between braille and ordinary writing is that braille is a system which is not unlimited (to use a mathematical expression: it is finite) whereas in ordinary writing it is theoretically possible to add an unlimited number of new symbols, as exemplified by the Chinese ideograms. But in practice braille shows itself to be very versatile because the same sign has different meanings according to the context in which it appears, and this is not usually a problem for braille users. As an example we could mention the sign that sometimes represents the letter d, at other times the numeral 4 and at still other times a quaver (eighth note) "do" (C) in music.

When the computer came into general use, many people prophesied that "the paperless office" would also become widespread. But what happened? Never has so much paper been used - or rather, wasted - than now. Why? I guess that there are several reasons. One of them is that it still seems more efficient - or at least more convenient - for human beings to print out their drafts and mark the corrections on the paper than to correct them directly on the screen. In turn, the reason for this may be that the screen and the exploration area seem to be too small.

But there are also other factors inherent in the very nature of writing. Writing was designed to be directly perceptible through our senses, principally through sight, but in special cases also through other senses: braille through touch, Morse through hearing or sight according to whether it is sent as sound or light. We have seen the invention of more and more sophisticated techniques for writing and not one of them has made the "primitive" writing tools redundant: neither printing press, typewriter nor computer could render notepad and pencil superfluous.

What the pencil is to sighted people, the braille frame and stylus is - or should be - to blind people. This is an extremely portable device. If I meet someone on the street who wants to give me his address, it is not very practicable to have to get out a typewriter or computer to write it down. This demonstrates the disadvantage of technologically high-flown apparatus: the more sophisticated a machine, the larger it tends to be (although there are exceptions). Another no less serious disadvantage of dependence on high-level technology is that it makes us more vulnerable: what do we do if the technology suddenly ceases to function? I am not trying to say that we should not use technology. On the contrary, the computer seems to me a perfect instrument for editing a text which can be stored in a small space and which should appear in braille and in ordinary print. But I also want to be able to turn to something else when the computer is not to hand, when it breaks down or when there is a power cut.

To conclude: Without braille, or to be more precise, without braille on paper, I would not be able to give this presentation. If I had had rely for my talk on spoken notes - whether using natural or synthetic speech - which I had had to listen to through headphones, it would have lost its flow. If I had had to read it aloud using an Optacon, it would have been much slower and accompanied by the unpleasant buzzing of the Optacon's vibrating pins. If I had had my notes in the computer, I would have had to make sure of the technical facilities here; and besides, with the above-mentioned inconvenience of the synthetic speech whispering in my ear, what other option remains open to me than to read my notes in braille? Thus I give a clear answer to the question posed in the title of this presentation: Braille is no anachronism, and will not become one, either, no matter how technologically advanced the world may become.

Translation: Vivian Aldridge


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Rose Marie Lüthi Schoorens: Promoting braille by setting up a national network of braille teachers

Louis Braille's fellow pupils learnt "their" writing system by themselves or taught it to each other. There are also people in our country who have learnt braille on their own. A lot of people would like to be able to read by touch. However, they cannot learn this writing system without the help of a braille teacher. For this reason we in Switzerland have trained part-time braille teachers and attempt to cover every region in the country.


The Swiss Braille Commission co-ordinates the efforts made with respect to braille and its promotion. It sits twice yearly and comprises as far as possible members from each of the three language regions.

The main work is done within the individual language regions - in the French, Italian and German speaking parts of Switzerland. In the language regions representatives of various groups with various interests work together in a commission, for instance, people from schools, the Centre for Professional Integration in Basel, full-time braille tutors for adults etc. Each language region produces its own yearly programme.

Training of the part-time braille teachers

As a rule our braille teachers are themselves partially sighted or blind. We live with our reading and writing system an this is felt by our pupils and encourages them.

In order to become a part-time braille teacher the candidate must pass a admission examination. The candidate demonstrates that he or she masters the braille code of his mother tongue, including - in the case of French and German - the contracted braille code. This intensive work has to have been done beforehand.

The examination consists of:

The time limits have been determined to allow a adventitiously blind person who has been reading braille for 2 to 3 years to pass.

Members of the Braille Commission act as examiners. The Commission decides on the admission of a candidate.

Training course for part-time braille teachers

There course consists of 10 days or 60 hours of instruction. Before the course the candidates must read an introduction to the teaching of braille and during the course demonstrate that they have understood what they have read.

During the course they are given a theoretical background in teaching forms for braille, teaching materials etc. They prepare braille lessons in braille which they then give as practice, produce texts etc.

A few weeks after they have completed the course they have to take an examination. They give one lesson in uncontracted and one in contracted braille to "real" pupils. They have to demonstrate their knowledge of the organisation of matters concerning the blind in Switzerland by means of a written examination.

After passing the examination they are given a certificate part-time braille teaching. This permits them to give teach braille and charge the official rates.


The Invalidity Insurance Scheme pays for braille instruction for people of working age and also pays for a braille writing machine. For senior citizens the costs of instruction are carried by the self-help organisations. Charges can be made for the actual lessons, the preparation time and for travelling time.

Inservice training

The braille teachers must take part in the yearly inservice training sessions. Anyone who is absent for three years forfeits his or her certification.

Last year our topic in German-speaking Switzerland was learning and old-age. This year the ongoing training German-speaking part of Switzerland will take the braille display as the central theme


In order to reach everyone who may be interested in braille we work in a decentralised fashion and, for the most part, with individual tuition. If possible, the teacher and the pupil each take some of the journey upon themselves and meet in the middle.

In Switzerland we begin braille tuition with Jumbo braille. We are convinced that this allows new pupils to experience success earlier. Some people stay with this form and use it in everyday situations such as labelling spices, cassettes and CD's and writing notes for themselves.

Those who are able to read standard-size braille gain fluency in reading quicker. The Swiss Library for the Blind and Partially-Sighted (SBS) has printed course books in jumbo dot braille for German and Italian. The German course is a copy of an existing course, the Italian course was put together by a working group.

For our teaching we work with the braille bar, a well-know teaching aid with removable rivets for dots, and naturally the course books, too; but also with cards and additional texts in uncontracted and contracted braille. We help our pupils to organise their lives in a way compatible with braille, for example to produce a braille diaries and address books.

Members of the Braille Commission also act as practical advisors.

The braille libraries of the SBS and the CAB have a few short stories in jumbo dot braille in stock as reading exercises.

The libraries try to meet the wishes of their readers and are generous in setting loan periods.

In Switzerland braille is also promoted in the following ways:

And all of us who use braille in public whether in the presence of blind or sighted people, promote the use of our writing system - consciously or subconsciously. It is very good thing to be able to direct a meeting in a sovereign fashion.

Louis braille made us a present of our writing system. Make an effort to promote its use in your land, even if the conditions are somewhat different that in ours.

I wish you the motivation and stamina to do this!

Translation: Vivian Aldridge


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Vivian Aldridge: The unification of English Braille

The American and British versions of English braille are very similar. Most people would consider them identical except with regard to capital letters. This is not quite true because the rules for contractions are a little different, but this causes practically no difficulty for readers.

One hundred years ago the situation was very different. The first braille system in America was a version of the original French alphabet. But in the 1860s a certain William Bell Wait in New York decided to rationalise the raised dot writing system. He invented the so called New York Point system. This had signs which were two dots high and differing widths. Letters that are frequent in English were written with few dots, those that are rarely used had a lot of dots. This was supposed to make it quicker to read and write.

Shortly after this, Joel W. Smith from Boston, who believed that signs three dots high and two wide are easier to read, decided to alter Louis Braille's system to give it some of the advantages of New York Point. He also gave the most frequent letters the fewest dots. This he called Modified Braille, but it later became known as American Braille.

Now readers had three very different systems to learn if they wanted to be able to read a variety of books and periodicals. State money was available almost exclusively for New York Point and this was the cause of political in fighting.

In 1909 the State of New York organised public hearings to decide which system to use for its new day school classes. American Braille won the battle, mainly because New York Point had a very difficult system for showing capital letters and hyphens and so they were often not used. Its opponents claimed that its readers could not write inkprint properly because they had no idea of these two things.

Other people wanted scientific research to see which system could be read most easily. British braille turned out to be better in this respect than either of the American systems. It was decided to try to further improve British braille and to try to have a single system for the USA and Britain. The British, however, showed no interest in changing their system, so the Americans decided to adopt British braille but only use some of the contractions. They called this grade 1 1/2.

But even so there was the problem that the Americans found British braille difficult to read, and so they decided to see if the British would agree to minor changes, if British Braille were adopted for the USA. In particular they felt that the British never used the capital sign which was then still dots 4 and 6 because it altered the shape of the words too much and had the idea that dot 6 alone would be more acceptable.

The British didn't mind what the Americans did with capital letters because they still didn't intend to use them. They agreed that a few religious contractions could be done away with except for British religious books. And so in 1932 Britain and America finally had almost identical braille codes. After all the arguments and changes in America the code finally chosen was the British code of 1905 with only minor modifications. This was not chosen because it was the ideal code, but because the British refused to start making major changes.


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