Braille Fail: On the Blink Investigates the Dotty Placement of Elevator Embossment

Now that I am traveling independently on campus, I am responsible for opening doors for myself and calling for my own elevators. I do not mind these tasks; I use them as an opportunity to rejoice in my own autonomy. I reach eagerly for the high-contrast chrome door-pulls and jab resolutely at the glossy roundness of the elevator buttons.

If I find that I’m alone while waiting for an elevator, I employ the time in exploration, letting my fingers slide all over the panel in search of the familiar braille  text that labels each button. The elevators on campus seem to be short on dots – I have real trouble finding the braille on the panel of buttons that covers the wall to the right of the elevator doors. Where is the braille? I ask myself over and over. It should be here…

I am feeling for the braille in a sensible place. Like the braille that accompanies the print text on signs outside classrooms and bathrooms and the similar braille on drive-up ATMs – you know, the braille that makes most sighted people ask, “Why would you have BRAILLE on a DRIVE-UP ATM???” – the braille that labels the elevator controls should be located just below the pictures or the buttons themselves. In fact, once I get inside the elevator, I feel for the 2 button, and (what a relief!) the button has braille text below “2.” I feel the number sign (dots 3, 4, 5, and 6) – it resembles a backwards L – followed by a lowercase b. Comforted by the endearing embossments, I ride up to the second floor and wander into my office. The elevator’s interior meticulous labeling dissipates its exterior negligence.

But perhaps you are distracted by my “number-dropping” and talk of l’s and b’s. Perhaps you really do want to know why there’s braille on drive-up ATMs. Maybe you just want to know why I don’t take the stairs. Very well, I will explain.

Braille is a writing code, not a language, and each character occurs within a braille cell. The braille cell is made up of 2 columns, each with 3 dots. The dots are numbered 1-6 and the configuration of a braille cell looks like this:

1  4
2  5
3  6

So why the number sign and the b?: Naturally, with only 6 dots, you can make a very limited number of patterns. In braille, numbers 1-10 are achieved by placing the number sign (the configuration that looks like a backwards L) in front of the characters for a-j. Similarly, you capitalize a letter by placing a dot 6 before it. There just isn’t room in braille for a separate set of patterns for upper and lowercase letters.

And why the braille on drive-up ATMs?: True, we are not yet in a society where blind people can drive independently, but our day will come! In the meantime, we do take taxis and employ many other ways of getting around. A drive-up ATM does not have to be used by the person driving the car. A blind person can easily access the ATM from the backseat, thereby rendering her/him independent – able to draw cash on-the-go!

Just take the stairs!: Well, I do – regularly – but there’s no braille on them.

Returning to our tale…

Because braille heralds the approach of most important locations, I know it must be somewhere on the elevator. The elevator sits a few inches inside the wall, its metal doors edged in several inches of the same dark, glossy material. By chance, I let my hand slide along the edge of the elevator-shaped indentation – the edge is rounded by its metal sheath – and I discover familiar dots. Just inside the alcove, only inches deep, on the wall perpendicular to the elevator entrance, a small embossed “2” and its accompanying braille text comes under my fingertips. And now, I echo the droves of sighted people who ask of ATM braille, “Why is that there?”

Clearly, this elevator label was not Designed with the Blind in Mind – it is not in a sensible location. What blind person would risk damage to her fingers by groping into the elevator’s alcove to search for the braille label? Why is the label in a different location from the panel of controls, which is placed at a safe distance from the rapidly opening and closing elevator doors?

Placing the braille accompaniment to print text in an impractical or perilous location is just as foolish as putting the dots out of reach. What good is braille if we can’t reach it? What help is a braille sign if it’s in a location that doesn’t make sense?

Perhaps these estimable sign-placers don’t realize that braille is primarily used by the visually-impaired. A sighted person can easily scan the elevator area to find a poorly-placed braille sign, but a braille user’s hands cannot travel quite so far.

Here’s an easier way to think about it: If you’re looking for braille, you’re doing it wrong.

On the Blink

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