Braille tokenism?

Have you noticed increasing amounts of braille in public places? I have - particularly in the USA. This might seem to be a positive development in terms of the safety and independence of blind people. However, I believe that in many cases it is at best a poorly thought-out gesture and at worst cynical tokenism. A visual sign and a braille one are not equivalent, for several reasons:

I first started thinking about this in the particular case of braille in lifts (elevators), which led to the following publication:
Edwards, A. D. N. (1998). Making elevators truly accessible to blind people. Elevator World, December, pp. 34-35.

Since then I have decided to collect instances of such mis-use of braille

University of York

University of York Help Point D

This one is from my own university. In case of needing help or in an emergency when there is not a porter around, you can press the appropriate button and speak to a porter. The buttons are clearly labelled, including braille.


These points are almost in the middle of nowhere. How is the blind person supposed to know it is there, before they can even start fondling it to find the braille?

Help point in context - practically in the middle of nowhere D

Emergency Exit

Picture of a sign with a disability symbol. The text under it reads 'EMERGENCY EXIT. NO REENTRY', which is repeated in braille below.The picture below was taken in Seattle. Glare on the picture makes the text a bit difficult to read, but under the disability symbol it reads 'EMERGENCY EXIT. NO REENTRY' and under that is the same in braille I am left with a mental picture of the building being on fire and a blind person wandering around feeling the walls in the hope of finding a sign for the exit.


No smoking

A 'No smoking' sign, mounted above the door of a toilet. Standing on tip-toe, I can just about reach the braille on the sign.D

This one was spotted in St Thomas Airport in the US Virgin Islands. It is a 'No smoking' sign, mounted above the door of a toilet. Standing on tip-toe, I can just about reach the braille on the sign - and hope that no one comes out of the toilet while I am doing so. Once again, I cannot really foresee a blind person wondering if they are allowed to smoke, idly scanning above the toilet door in the hope of finding an appropriate sign.


Picture of a pair of lift buttons for up and down.D

Spotted in a government building in London. You cannot see it in the photograph, but the lift call buttons were all installed upside-down. In other words, the button with the arrow pointing upwards, had a braille label reading
and vice-versa. Surely this is confirmation of the lack of use of such labels; if any blind person had ever tried to read the labels, they would soon have let someone know!

GNER toilet


This one really annoys me; there is so much wrong with it. This panel is used to control the toilet door. It has presumably been designed for wheelchair accessibility, but misses out on just about every other quality criterion.


  1. The panel is on the wall opposite the door. There is no obvious connection to the door or the control thereof. This might confuse any user, but is going to be particularly difficult for the visually disabled user to locate.
  2. The braille instructions (on the left-hand end of the panel) read Push button D to close or open doork when closed push button of key symbol with to lock door There are several problems with this.
    1. Abbreviations for the words of and with are included, completely out of context. The same symbols are used to represent brackets in American mathematical braille (Nemeth) and I presume that was the intention here. They would make no sense to a British braille reader.
    2. The word doork is a simple braille typographical error. Presumably the k was meant to be a fullstop.
    3. Button D is the one on the right. It has a raised large letter D - not braille - on it. The user would have to locate it, and recognize the letter - and without accidentally pressing the button.
    4. The other button has a raised picture of a key. Whether the average blind person would be able to distinguish it as a key is doubtful.
    5. The instructions are about 1 metre off the ground, a good level for wheelchair users, but not a convenient height for braille-reading The reader would probably have to kneel to get their hand at a comfortable angle to read it.
  3. When the buttons have been pressed in the right order, they light up to confirm that the door is closed and locked. Of course this information is not available to the blind user. Also, on the carriage doors, the lighting of a button is an indication that it can now be pressed to open (or close) the door, not that it has been pressed. It is possible to check that the door is locked by physically attempting to open it. Otherwise the user is likely to be in some anxiety using the toilet without a clear confirmation that the door is locked.
  4. To open the (locked) door, one simply presses the D button. This is inconsistent with conventional doors and with the closing sequence. In other words, one might expect to have to unlock the door and then open it.
  5. Westerners tend to expect processes to proceed from left to right (like our writing), so why is the right-hand button the first one to press in this case?
  6. Why is there a separate close and lock operation at all? Consistency with conventional doors, perhaps, but when might one want to be in a toilet with the door closed byt not locked? Would it not be easier to have the door automatically lock when it is closed?

It is manifestly apparent that this system was never tested with a blind person. A bit of (very poor) braille was tacked on and the designers evidently thought they had fulfilled their obligations to blind customers.

What would be better? How about:

Picture of a simple, brass door lockD

A conventional door lock is highly accessible. It is easy to check whether it is operating - including a non-visual check (i.e. tug the door and see if it opens!).

It might be conceded that conventional locks benefit from their very familiarity which affords correct operation. If all (or most) door locks in the future operate like the one on the train then it might then be seen as a good affordance.

Also, which of the above locks is more likely to develop a fault? And if one does, which is going to be easier to repair or replace?

First ScotRail Train


This is another good one, on an internal door on another train. It invites you to touch the sensor on the left to open the door. However, if you move your hand anywhere near the sign to read the braille, guess what - the sensor detects your hand and the door opens. At best, the sign you were about to read is whipped away; at worst your hand gets caught in the door mechanism.

ScotRail again

Braille signs saying 'Push when lit' D

Signs in the toilet on a ScotRail train. There are three buttons with labels (in print and Braille). The first says Push to Lock Door When Lit and the others are similar. Braille signs. For people who cannot see. Cannot see whether a button is lit or not - Right?

Scarborough Campus, University of Hull

'Steps Up' in braille and print 


Which seems more likely, that the blind person will notice the steps when they touch it with their white cane or when their guide dog starts to climb them - or that they will walk down the corridor with their hands on the wall, in hope of encountering this warning sign?

Also, this was the only instance of this sign that I noticed. How were blind people expected to cope with the others?

When is braille not braille?

Lift buttons with tactile dots representing floor numbers. D
This is an interesting one; it looks like braille, it feels like braille - but it is not braille. It is rather closer to gambling. These are the buttons in a lift for floors 1 to 6, but instead of braille numbers, there are dots as would be seen on a dice. Because the dots are not separated as braille cells would be, there is no direct interpretation of then, but to a braille-reader 6 resembles ll (two letter Ls); 5 might be read as ok, 4 is kk. The representation of 3 is too ambiguous to interpret. Two might be read as ch, and 1 could be any one-dot braille cell.

It seems fortuitous that there were apparently only six floors in this building. What if there were more? Would they be represented by a pair of dice?

This picture was taken in a hotel in Amsterdam, by Helen Petrie.

Reading through glass?

A print and braille sign saying, 'Employees must wash hands before returning to work' - BEHIND A GLASS COVER D

This was posted on Twitter by @_youhadonejob, who commented 'Someone doesn't understand how braille works'. Indeed, they don't - on different levels. No one is going to read braille through glass - but what about all those people with dirty hands reading the braille to see what to do next?

Garden waste

Close-up of a green plastic bin with braille lettering D

My local council, York, provides households with green waste bins in which we can put garden waste – to be recycled into compost. Our bin includes this braille label. Quite apart from the (usual) question as to when a blind person is likely to look for – and find – this label, I am not sure what is is meant to say. The first 4 cells represent the number 180, but what is the last one? 'With'?

What is to be done?

Don't get me wrong, I am all in favour of providing facilities which will help all people - including those with visual disabilities - to operate independently in public areas but then I am in favour of providing facilities which will help all people to operate independently in public areas - and these silly notices do not have that effect.

I have ideas as to how this might truly be achieved, and I'd be happy to talk them over with anyone. I had a student project which looked at a particular solution to accessibility in lifts. I wrote this up in:

Edwards, A. D. N. (1998). Making elevators truly accessible to blind people. Elevator World, December: pp. 34-35

By all means mail me (email name: alistair domain: if any of this strikes any chords with you.

...and finally

A Polish artist has created braille graffitti - and why not?!

Large-scale braille dots in the wall of an alleywayD


Alistair Edwards' Home page

10 March 2019