What is braille and how does it work?

Braille is an effective mode of communication for those who are visually impaired – today we celebrate and learn more about Braille.

How does braille work?

Braille is a tactile writing system that enables those who are visually impaired to read and write. Typically printed on thick, embossed paper, tiny raised dots allow the person to read text by identifying patterns with their fingertips. The dots are divided in cells three dots tall and two wide (like the 6th face of a die). Each pattern of dots represents a letter of the alphabet. These patterns are the same across every language that uses braille, although there are many different versions including contractions – the English language uses 3 grades. 

A visual representation of braille cells spelling the word "braille" itself. Text underneath says "more than 20,000 people in the UK use braille to communicate"

Who invented braille?

This form of communication was created by French educator Louis Braille when he was only a teenager. He built upon an existing military tactile writing system called “night writing”, which was developed after Napoleon’s demand for a method for soldiers to exchange messages silently and in the dark. Reading and writing systems for visually impaired people at the time involved using fingertips to trace raised alphabet letters – this was very hard due to the complexity of the shapes. Braille’s alphabet was not only easier, but much faster to use. 

A black and white photo of a person reading a document titled "Unesco Braille Review" in braille

How do you write in Braille?

Braille can be handwritten using a stylus and using it to impress a dot on the back of the page, mirroring the letter one wants to write. There are also a number of braille typewriters and printers available. Because braille writing cannot be erased, a mistake is marked by raising all six dots in a cell.

What about digital screens?

Braille has kept up with technology in amazing ways! Refreshable braille displays receive the text on the screen and output the braille equivalent through mechanic pins that raise and lower to create the correct dots pattern. Though many visually impaired people use screen readers, which read aloud text from screens, mechanical braille technology is still an invaluable method of communication for those who are deafblind

A woman's hands typing on a braille keyboard

Accessibility at Sense

We believe no one should ever be left out of communication, no matter how complex their needs may be. That’s why we publish our resources in a number of accessible formats including braille. 

Permission to be yourself at work

In this blog, our chief executive Richard Kramer talks about vulnerability, being yourself at work and what that looks like in the time of Covid-19.

Appreciation. Authenticity. Compassion. Being Vulnerable. Bringing your whole self to work. Sharing your gifts, your talents, your doubts, your insecurities, your heart and soul, the things that matter to you. These attributes are seen as important in the context of leadership, teamwork and success. Colleagues feel like they know who you are and what you are about. 

We are taught that if we want to bring about change, it must come from within and from how we relate to ourselves. As leaders, we then need to role model that change.  However, since Covid-19, change has come about from external forces with the environment completely shifting around us.  The collective trauma of 2020 has provided that catalyst for change.  It has changed our internal processes, assisted us to generate new ways of thinking and try out new behaviours.  

A quote graphic. Text reads: "The collective trauma of 2020 has provided that catalyst for change"

Pre-Covid-the constraints of being yourself at work

Pre-Covid-19, we agonized whether work could ever be an authentic environment. When we are growing up, ‘just be yourself’ is a constant refrain. It sounds like the best advice until we are at the office.  We have work rules, norms and routines, policies and procedures, do’s and dont’s that are part of the fabric of any organisation. It’s the ‘way we do things around here’. Things are stacked against you.  We wear different clothes. We sit in the same seat every day.  We have awkward watercooler chats.  We are painfully aware of work boundaries. We do our best to blend in and fit with others.  We worry what colleagues think of you.  We feel hurt if we don’t get the support from colleagues. We know the importance of holding back and controlling your own emotions. Work seems like an inauthentic place to spend so much of our time.

Two women working, looking at a printed page near a bookshelf

We have all opened up since the pandemic

This year, the boundaries between work and home have become blurred. We have all started to reveal more of our real selves at work, with virtual meetings as the ultimate leveller.  Suddenly, we are all at the top of the Tate Modern’s 360-degree viewing platform peering into people’s homes, staring and waving at them. Our colleagues might opt to switch off their screens, the equivalent of ‘drawing their blinds’ but, in the main, sharing a bit of your home life, is the new 2020 pastime.  We even take screenshots to mark group discussions, bizarrely, the equivalent of taking photographs of each other in meetings. The impact is far-reaching. Virtual meetings are here to stay and agile working between work and home is a permanent change. We will also value how staff will need a more flexible work schedule to care for their family.

Many of our day to day conversations have been bleak. We have grappled with our response to the pandemic, making difficult decisions around furlough, cuts backs, trying to meet increased demand for our services with reduced resources.  We have consciously and deliberately carved out new conversations to distract from the heavy burden that has dominated our lives. We are more open with one another in a way we wouldn’t never had done. We are more willing to learn more about our colleagues. There have been less awkward chats. No watercoolers.  Less formal work clothes. Instead, we have quietly encouraged people to express themselves through the clothes they choose to wear. We have seen new sides to people and are learning new things from each other. We have also found the time to have fun. For example, one of our Directors led a cooking class for other Executive Team colleagues.

Covid-19 has given us permission to be ourselves.

Two women focusing, looking at a laptop screen

We are more open about our vulnerabilities 

This pandemic has created an environment that is more conducive to authentic and humane ways of working. 

We have experienced a shared challenge. It has had a lasting impact.  Our lives have changed. We have all collectively felt anxious and insecure. We are all human and have all experienced good days and bad days. Asking ourselves if we have done the right thing and made the right decisions?  

We have been more open about talking about our vulnerabilities.  We have all felt vulnerable as we have needed to take different risks, speak up, ask for help, and connect with others in a genuine and safe way. We have also told our colleagues, more than ever, that we value, recognise and appreciate them for what they do and who they are.  We have all got a little more used to being vulnerable as individuals, as teams, as organisations. With that comes a collective understanding that the bad days are what makes us stronger.

Covid-19 has taught us that it is safe to be ourselves and not hold back so much.   And of course, when people are encouraged to be their best selves at work, they are more productive in work.

A woman supporting a child at work. She is holding a basket full of toys

Are there any limitations to bringing your whole self to work?

On social media, many leaders have talked openly and honestly and with deep integrity about the challenges they have faced, including their personal struggles and the difficult decisions that they have had to take as they respond to events outside their control.  I have also seen leaders rightly take a brave stand about social justice issues, such as tackling inequalities or addressing poverty.

When we talk to our own organisation, our values tend to align with our colleagues.  But when we comment on social media, we are talking to a wider audience, with a greater diversity of views. It follows that being your whole self on social media carries risks and has a downside. When leaders express their personal views on, for example, Brexit or the government’s overall handling of the pandemic, they risk being seen as partisan in their thinking.  We then shouldn’t act surprised if our views then don’t sit comfortably with others.  And of course, many people on twitter won’t make a distinction between your comments made in a personal capacity and statements made as a leader of your organisation.

Secondly, bringing your whole self to work doesn’t mean that you should reveal everything about your life to colleagues.  It’s okay if what colleagues see on the surface is still a relatively small part of your entire life. 

It doesn’t follow that private people (like me) are: less authentic, have separate work and home personas, or don’t acknowledge our own vulnerabilities.

I feel humbled to lead such a unique charity.  I am surrounded by teams that know more about their areas of expertise than me.  I try and communicate and connect with others as much as possible.  I call on their support and leadership. I acknowledge when I don’t always get it right.  I make mistakes. I hope that makes me a better leader.

We recognise that we aren’t going to go back to the old ways of working or old behaviours any time soon. Let’s instead embrace bringing our whole selves to work.

Face coverings: 3 reasons for exemptions

Don’t be too quick to judge: not all disabilities are visible

Face coverings are becoming a part of everyday life for us all. For several months now, guidance from the government has been to wear one in most indoor places, to slow down the spread of Covid-19 and protecting those in high-risk categories.

While it’s great that most people are on board with protecting public health, a lack of awareness on face covering exemptions for disabled people has led to people being challenged for not wearing a mask.

At Sense, we have been working closely with other charities and government to improve the communications and information on exemptions and ensure the general public understands this. Despite face coverings and exemptions being introduced much earlier this year, this continues to be a challenge for people with disabilities who are exempt, and we’re continuing to hear from people reporting incidents of abuse linked to this.

A group of smartly dressed adults sitting at a table, dressed smartly.

This is especially true for people with invisible disabilities – like Karolina Pakenaite, who was verbally abused while travelling with her sister, who removed her face covering so she could lip read. Karolina has Usher Syndrome, which affects both her hearing and sight, and relies on lip reading for communication.

What is an invisible disability?

Sometimes known as “hidden disabilities”, these are disabilities that are not immediately apparent – for example, there are no visual cues like the use of a wheelchair.

Invisible disabilities can include conditions impacting vision and hearing, as well as cognitive processing and mental ill health.

Some sensory disabilities that may not be noticeable at a glance include deafblindness, Usher Syndrome and CHARGE Syndrome.

3 situations in which people are exempt from wearing a face covering in the UK

  • People who cannot wear a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability.
  • Where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress.
  • If you are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip-reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate.

For more information on face covering exemptions, visit the UK government website.

A woman with long hair shopping for fruit in a supermarket

Should I carry an exemption letter (or card)?

Some people may want to consider carrying something that shows they are exempt from wearing a face covering, such as a letter, card, or badge – this is not required by UK law, but it could help someone feel more comfortable when out and about.
Templates for exemption cards and badges are available on the government website.


Invisible disabilities – Karolina Pakenaite on her experience of the pandemic

Thursday 3 December marks International Day of People with Disabilities, and this year’s theme, ‘Not all Disabilities are Visible’ focuses on spreading awareness and understanding of disabilities that are not immediately apparent, such as mental illness, chronic pain, sight or hearing impairments.

To mark the day, we spoke to Sense supporter and campaigner Karolina, who’s been working with us to raise awareness around face covering exemptions, about her experience of the pandemic.

Karolina and her guide dog standing in front of a piece of street art - a painting of wings.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what it’s like living with an invisible disability:

My name is Karolina and I was born Hard of Hearing. I grew up in both the deaf and hearing world as I went to a deaf nursery and was always part of some deaf community, but spent all of my education in mainstream schools. I started to lose my peripheral sight at around age 19. I became embarrassingly clumsy and, after being referred to a specialist, found out that I have Ushers Type 2A. Three years later I got registered Severely Sight Impaired (blind) as my tunnel vision became very narrow and I could see almost nothing in the dark.

Usher syndrome is an inherited, genetic condition. The main symptoms are hearing loss and sight loss, and, in some cases, balance difficulties. Everybody with Usher syndrome experiences the condition in a different way and it also changes over time.

Turning my sight loss journey into something positive and empowering is very important to me and I feel really happy to say that I recently passed my PhD confirmation exam and research on tactile images for the visually impaired; something that’s both very interesting and personal to me.

A graphic with a picture of Karolina and the quote: "Turning my sight loss journey into something positive and empowering is very important to me"

Even to this day, I often forget that I have sight loss because the changes to my condition happen slowly over time and my guide dog is so good at his job. This can make it extremely hard to ask for help when I feel I need it or explain my condition to those who ask. Part of the condition means that I often get ringing noises, flashes and floaters in my eyes, but these have been always part of me, and something I   find quite stimulating and therapeutic. The changes were normal to me and I knew no other normal. I was always very independent and one of the biggest challenges with having an invisible disability is asking for help.

What has your experience of the Covid-19 pandemic been like as a disabled person? Has anything been particularly challenging? Any positive experiences, of people being particularly supportive for example?

The introduction of face coverings has been a new challenge for everyone to get used to and this is even harder when you have an invisible disability. There is still a lack of awareness that exemptions exist for a range of people including those who have a disability – you can read more about the face covering exemptions here.

Unfortunately, back in July I experienced an incident when I was challenged while travelling on a train when my sister removed her face mask temporarily so I could lip read. One of the challenges of having an invisible disability is it’s not immediately obvious to other people and this is something many people with invisible illnesses experience. I made a video recording the experience and worked with Sense to raise awareness in the media. The purpose of the video was not only to bring awareness of those who are exempt, as I am certain that most of us are doing everything they can to do their part, but also to bring a little reminder to stay kind during this difficult time.

Despite this negative experience, many people have also been very understanding. It’s so nice whenever someone points to their mask to ask if they should lower their mask when they realise I need a bit more help, especially when I am very independent and asking for help can be very hard. This always makes me warm and fuzzy and end up wanting to hug them for their kindness. Little things can mean so much to me.

Another positive experience has been at University of Bath – my department has arranged British Sign Language lessons so I can stay connected with everyone when we return to work wearing masks. It has been so fun and its one of the perfect skills to (re)learn over lockdown!

Has your experience of being challenged about face coverings in July changed anything?

I am used to being challenged or discriminated and as my disability is invisible, I’ve learnt to be a bit more forgiving. One thing I learnt came from the reaction to my video – many made nice, supportive comments, but there were quite a few very confused. It made me feel a little fragile, knowing how I could meet these people in person but I guess it was worth speaking up in the end as awareness was clearly needed.

If you could give others advice on how best to support someone with an invisible disability, what would this be?

Everyone is different so what works for me might not work for others or might not be as helpful as it is to me. So I cannot speak for everyone, but one thing I think everyone appreciates during this difficult time is kindness.


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Festive Special: Sense Sign School

Sense’s mission is, and always has been, to remove barriers to communication so that no one is left out of life.

Everyone can and wants to communicate and connect with other people –  but how do you communicate with someone who is deafblind or has complex disabilities?

And so, the idea of Sense Sign School emerged, with the goal to engage and motivate people to communicate with others in new ways and get involved in Sense’s vital work.

Top of the class

The real star of the show was the teacher, 15-year-old Tyrese. It wasn’t long before his funny jokes and cheeky demeanour inspired thousands to learn and connect. During the summer, Tyrese (Ty for his friends – but it’s Mr Tyrese for students!) taught nearly 50,000 people simple signs on topics like family, food and drink, and entertainment.

Tyrese on set. He's sitting on a leather chair, wearing an orange bow-tie which matches his orange Christmas paper crown. He's smiling and giving us two thumbs up.
Sense Sign School gets two thumbs up from Mr. Tyrese!

When asked about his motivation behind leading Sense Sign School with such enthusiasm, Tyrese said:

“I want more people to learn to sign, so Deaf people like me don’t get excluded. You should be able to chat to someone, whatever their disability might be. After all, no one likes feeling left out.”

Tyrese and his family have been supported by Sense since he was six months old. Ty was born with CHARGE Syndrome, which affects him in many ways. He is Deaf and only has sight in one eye. Tyrese communicates through British Sign Language (BSL), gesture and writing.

Tyrese on the holiday-themed set. On the left, just outside of the video frame, you can see his BSL interpreter, sitting on a green chair looking at him while he signs.
Mr. Tyrese, ready to deliver a holiday-themed BSL lesson!

Four penguins apart

Filming these new classes was no ordinary feat, as we had to ensure production was safe during the age of Covid-19. On set, everyone kept at least two meters apart (or the equivalent of four penguins, to put it in more festive terms).

Yule love these new signs

Sense Sign School is back for a winter term! Mr Tyrese will be teaching us a multitude of merry signs, from simple wishes like “Happy Christmas” and “Happy Hannukkah ”, to delicious dinner favourites such as “pigs in blankets”.

Tyrese on set with his mum Vicky. He's giving us two thumbs up while she smiles to the camera.
Tyrese on set with his mum Vicky

Don’t miss class!

Sense Sign School is completely free! Sign up to receive Tyrese’s classes directly into your inbox.

We’d love to see how you get on with your new signs: share your festive signing videos on social media and tag us at @sensecharity!

Renowned artist helps Sense design an Arts Manifesto

Tanya Raabe-Webber in her studio surrounded by her art and materials. Tanya is wearing a burgundy dress and has short brown hair and glasses.
Tanya Raabe-Webber in her studio surrounded by her art and materials

‘The notion of my own diversity drives my interest in people and the exploration of the human condition’

Tanya Raabe-Webber

As part of the Sense Connect programme which combats isolation and loneliness for people with complex disabilities, Sense Arts commissioned renowned artist Tanya Raabe – Webber to create a manifesto for the work. The manifesto is intended to outline a broad set of statements to support disabled people and artists during the pandemic and beyond. Each statement has been created in collaboration with the people we support and Tanya has created visual pieces to represent her thoughts and ideas.
Artist, Tanya Raabe-Webber shares her story.

Continue reading “Renowned artist helps Sense design an Arts Manifesto”

Disability History Month – Have things changed enough?

We are currently celebrating three anniversaries.  At the time of writing it’s UK Disability History Month, where we reflect upon access and the extent to which disabled people can get access to all aspects of life.  It’s 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their disability.  This year, it’s also 65 years since Sense began: a result of a conversation between two mums who had given birth to deafblind children. Fast forward to 2020 and we have come along way. However, still there is so much to do and Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequality disabled people face.  Have things changed enough?

Catching up

Traditionally, disability rights have always lagged behind other rights. People viewed arguments about disability differently from those about sex and race, two areas in which discrimination was better understood. It was all about unfortunate disabled people who of course couldn’t work, didn’t have to use transport or needed to enjoy the same access to cultural venues in their local communities.  Disability rights legislation has made a real difference to people’s lives and gave many disabled people a greater sense of self-belief and equality.  But we still need to see more progress.

Tackling loneliness

Today, about half of disabled people in the UK are in employment, compared with about 80% of non-disabled people. 4 million disabled people live in poverty.  Too many disabled people remain on the fringes of society. Disabled people are less likely to participate in cultural activities because of negative attitudes and prejudice, inflexible ways of working and lack of transport. We share the National Heritage’s Fund ambition to address this as part of its Strategic Funding Framework.  Sense’s own research shows that 53% of disabled adults and 77% of disabled young people feel lonely every day, and nearly 1 in 3 non-disabled people avoided talking to a disabled person.  In terms of improving access, it appears that changing attitudes is the hardest battle of all. 

Image: a man taking part in an inclusive yoga class. His arms are outstretched as he smiles to the camera.
Image: a man taking part in a yoga class. His arms are outstretched as he smiles.

No one left out of life

Sense is a service provider that offers housing and community services across the country. We are committed to providing high-quality support. We want to go further and help people achieve their basic rights to friendships, accessing their community and to feel included.  Sense’s buddying programmes bring together disabled and non-disabled people based on mutual interests.  Benefits for disabled people and volunteers are reciprocal and equal: for example, a disabled person takes part in new activities and volunteers learn new skills (e.g. British Sign Language). Both parties benefit from new connections and reduced isolation.  Similarly, our inclusive art and cultural programmes draw on disabled people’s unique contributions and creativity, give them the chance to connect with professional artists and bring disabled people and non-disabled people together based on a shared love of culture

Forgotten people and families

Fast forward to the events of this year: we know that disabled people have fallen through the cracks in government during this pandemic. There is a real risk that attitudes towards disabled people and equal access to opportunities will be permanently set back.  We have learned a lot over the last period about how our society neglects disabled people and their families. There is a feeling of disbelief, dismay and growing anger that disabled people are at the bottom of the priority list and when the public hears about the growing number of deaths of disabled people due to Covid-19. 

Two women dancing back to back, holding hands. The woman on the left wears a Sense t-shirt while the one on the right has a long-sleeved green floral top.

Opportunity for change

More than ever, we need a much more comprehensive plan to support disabled people and their families, and the front-line staff supporting them.  In 2020, we have a unique and once in a generation opportunity to address this as the Cabinet Office is charged with delivering a National Strategy for Disabled People.  Tackling inequalities and access to the same opportunities, including heritage, with a true commitment to ‘levelling up’ people’s lives, must become the new reality after Covid-19. That would be something worth celebrating.


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Why I’m calling on Matt Hancock to meet with Sense

Selfie of two men standing next to each other. One of the men, Saeed, is handing in an open letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock.
Saeed, right, and his son Azhar.

My name’s Saeed and since August I’ve been campaigning with Sense and other families caring for disabled adults, calling on government to reintroduce the community services that stopped as a result of the pandemic. 

Continue reading “Why I’m calling on Matt Hancock to meet with Sense”

What does disability equality look like to you? Looking back at the history of the Disability Discrimination Act

A group of people that Sense supports standing in front of a coach in the 1970s.

At Sense this month we’re marking the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), a key law passed in 1995 that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. In 2010 the DDA was replaced by the Equality Act everywhere except Northern Ireland, but many disabled campaigners fought long and hard for this law. To mark the anniversary we’re looking back and celebrating key dates in the history of campaigning by disability activists and Sense as an organisation. Check out our timeline below.

Continue reading “What does disability equality look like to you? Looking back at the history of the Disability Discrimination Act”