Lacey Owens, Mentor and Intern at LOOK, introduces her Perkins Brailler. 

Lacey began using a Perkins Brailler at the age of nine. She shares from her own experience, gives a potted history to this ‘indestructible, low tech and heavy’ piece of kit. 

If you are familiar with braille in any way, you have probably heard of the Perkins Brailler. It is indestructible, low tech and heavy. But what is it?

Close up image of Lacey's Perkins Brailler. It is a dark green colour with grey keys. It says Perkins Brailler across the front in front of the keys.

Think of the Perkins like a typewriter. It produces braille mechanically via a carriage return which moves across the page as you ‘braille’ (print Braille0. Paper is fed through rollers at the back of the machine. Unlike any other typewriter, a Perkins has only 9 keys: 

  • a braille keyboard, which is 6 keys meaning a braille dot per key
  • a spacebar in the middle
  • a key to move the carriage return back a space on the page
  • a key to move the paper down a line so you are ready to Braille at the start of the next line. 

A Perkins Brailler is made from metal and plastic and is contained in a metal casing to protect the more delicate parts from dust. All this weighs 10.6 pounds or 4.8 kg. I recommend being mindful of your kneecaps or the kneecaps of anyone else when carrying it around by the metal handle on the top of the machine!

Volunteer Keren guides Lacey's hand over the tactile map of LOOKFest as they prepare the Braille labels.

My own experience 

I have Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, a condition which is very different from person 

to person. In my case, I was born completely blind, so in order to learn to read, I needed to use a tactile format such as braille. 

I first learnt braille aged 9 and the first way of brailling that I was introduced to was the Perkins Brailler. My first thoughts at the time were that the Perkins was super heavy but that it was cool to read what I had written as I was writing. At the time my only way to write my own work was through a computer and then having to wait to have this produced into a tactile format called Moon. 

During my time learning braille at primary school, I used a Perkins to learn braille well enough to write a little story about a rabbit who got up to lots of mischief. 

The keys on the Perkins need to be pressed quite hard which can be tiring for the fingers at first. I was encouraged at the time to do some finger strengthening exercises by squeezing different items to increase the strength in my fingers, but the more I became used to the Perkins, the less I felt the finger tiredness, until it went away altogether for me. 

By the time I started secondary school, I wanted to braille everything and therefore I was happy using the Perkins. The one downside of using a Perkins for all of my work however, was that mistakes are not simple to edit. In braille, if an error is made which cannot be Brailled over by adding an extra dot as an example, the mistake and any of the word that it is part of needs to be blocked out by using all of the 6 braille dots (the for sign) to cover over the error, and then to make a space and carry on after the error. 

Making mistakes is how we all learn and is perfectly natural but having potentially lots of blocks of for signs dotted throughout the piece of work can make it seem messy and is tricky if you are a bit of a perfectionist, which was why I changed to a braille note taker [Editor’s note: this is one for a future Meet My… !] for subjects that were more text based such as English so I could edit and spell check my work. 

However, electronic note takers did not always know how to translate all braille signs into the correct print such as with braille music. Or you need to have the braille positioned in a very specific way such as lining up different parts of an equation so that it can be viewed more easily. This is when the Perkins comes into its own. 

Braille produced in hard copy on a Perkins is going to be interpreted in the way that you wish it to be read as well as creating some work for a braille transcriber to write the print over the braille. The Perkins is also great if you have a diagram or other piece of work that you can braille directly onto whilst feeling the diagram under the fingers. I remember doing this for labelling graphs when studying my Maths GCSE. 

The Perkins is also good for making braille labels on items such as on food packaging, something I did before I was confident with recognition apps on the phone in my first year of university, such as on tins which all felt the same despite containing very different food. 

Making labels using a Perkins such as the labels for the tents at LOOKFest are useful to braille using a Perkins Brailler in order to be done quickly and efficiently, without the need of computer software and a braille embosser to produce hard copy braille. 

Some history 

The Perkins Brailler was created at the Perkins School for the Blind in the United States by a teacher called David Abraham, who worked in the Industrial arts department. He designed a product after following the frustrations and halting of production of earlier braille typewriters. He and the director of the school, Gabriel Farrell, both felt that a more reliable machine needed to be created. The Perkins was born and has been around to the public since 1951 with over 375,000 Perkins Braillers being distributed around the world. The classic version of this machine has remained largely unchanged since then, though there was a second attempt at designing a newer Perkins Brailler. 

The second generation of the Perkins was narrower, lighter, had keys which were easier to press and was released in 2008. This machine initially did well, winning a silver medal at the International Design Excellence awards. Unfortunately the updated version did not stand the test of time due to its unreliability and was discontinued in 2016 selling roughly 6150 machines.

There are also different types of Perkins Brailler available. They are:

  • The classic Perkins Brailler, the machine which is the go to for Braille teaching and is what most people will think of when talking about a brailler.
  • The smart Brailler – a brailler that includes a screen and speech for learning to be a multisensory experience, it also provides the opportunity for someone unfamiliar with braille to read what has been brailled.
  • The Unimanual Brailler – a brailler which helps for braillists who need to braille one handed.
  • A Jumbo Braille Cell Perkins – braille made by this machine is 40% larger than standard braille.

Some paper notes

Braille paper is slightly thicker than standard paper. Print paper is too thin, with the possibility of the braille punching through the other side of the page or being uncomfortable to read under the fingers. 

However, Braille paper is not the only paper that can be used in a Perkins. Card can also be used if you have some lying around and it is thin enough to fit into the Perkins, or you can braille directly onto a card which may be useful if cardmaking or if you wanted to send a celebratory card to a friend who reads Braille too. 

There is also a type of paper called sticky back plastic which is useful as it is see through and much more waterproof than paper is. Sticky back plastic inside the Perkins was used a lot for LOOKFest to enable both print and Braille to be on the same labels. 

Should you get one?

A Perkins brailler is useful for a variety of different situations from writing out a shopping list to brailling a piece of music notation. The machine is useful for learning as you can read what has just been brailled as you braille, which can be fascinating for someone who is simply interested in seeing what braille looks and feels like. It is also valuable when Brailling onto a tactile diagram or even making a piece of Braille art. It depends on your situation and whether you feel like it would be worthwhile for your needs and fancies. 

If looked after well, a Perkins can last a very long time. I have had my own for over 15 years and there are undoubtedly older machines out there which are much older than mine. 

The cost?

The cost for a brand new classic Perkins is £749 from the RNIB, although second hand machines can be found on sites such as Ebay for as low as £100. It may be worth checking out your local sight loss association or local authority Sensory department who may have Perkins Braillers available to borrow or can best advise where you may be able to get one.