Louis Braille—Bringing Light to Prisoners of Darkness
HOW much do you value the ability to read and write? Some may take it for granted, but reading and writing make up our very foundation for learning. Remove the capacity to unlock the written word, and the key to a vast storehouse of knowledge is lost.
For hundreds of years, the written word was inaccessible to the blind. During the 19th century, however, concern for their plight moved an earnest young man to develop a method of communication that opened up a new door for himself and millions of others.
Hope Springs From Tragedy
Louis Braille was born in 1809 in the village of Coupvray in France, about 25 miles [40 km] from Paris. His father, Simon-René Braille, made a living as a harness maker. Perhaps young Louis often played in his father’s workshop. On one occasion, however, it was the setting for a terrible accident. Gripping a sharp pointed tool—possibly an awl—Louis inadvertently plunged it into his eye. The damage was irreversible. Worse still, the infection soon spread to his other eye. At the tender age of three, Louis became totally blind.
Trying to make the best of the situation, Louis’ parents and the parish priest, Jacques Palluy, arranged for Louis to sit in on classes held at the local school. Louis absorbed much of what he heard. In fact, some years he was at the head of his class! But there were limits to what a blind person could learn using methods that were designed for the sighted. Hence, in 1819, Louis was enrolled in the Royal Institute for Blind Youth.
The founder of the institute, Valentin Haüy, was one of the first to establish a program to help the blind to read. His desire was to combat the prevailing notion that blindness precluded a person from the benefits of a formal education. Haüy’s early experiments involved embossing large raised letters on thick paper. Although crude, these efforts planted seeds that would later take root.
Braille learned how to read the large embossed letters in the books of Haüy’s small library. He realized, however, that this approach to learning was slow and impractical. After all, letters were designed for the eyes—not the fingers. Fortunately, someone else who recognized these limitations was about to appear on the scene.
An Idea From an Unexpected Source
In 1821, when Louis Braille was just 12 years old, Charles Barbier, a retired French artillery captain, visited the institute. There he presented a means of communication called night writing, later called sonography. Night writing was developed for use on the battlefield. It was a tactile method of communication, using raised dots arranged in rectangular form six dots high by two dots wide. This concept of using a code to represent words phonetically struck a responsive chord at the school. Braille enthusiastically applied himself to this new approach and even made improvements to it. But to make the system truly practical, Braille had to persevere. He wrote in his diary: “If my eyes will not tell me about men and events, ideas and doctrines, I must find another way.”
So for the next two years, Braille worked doggedly to simplify the code. Finally, he developed a refined and elegant method based on a cell only three dots high by two dots wide. In 1824, at the age of 15, Louis Braille completed a six-dot cell system. Soon thereafter, Braille began teaching at the institute, and in 1829 he published his unique method of communication known today by his name. Except for minor refinements, his system remains essentially unchanged to this day.
Making Braille Available Worldwide
The late 1820’s saw the publication of the first book that explained Braille’s raised-dot invention; but the invention was slow to gain wide acceptance. Even at the institute, the new code was not officially adopted until 1854—two years after Braille’s death. Nevertheless, this vastly superior method eventually gained popularity.
Several organizations have produced Braille literature. The Watchtower Society began making such material available in 1912, when the code was still being standardized for the English-speaking world. Today, using advanced Braille printing methods, the Society embosses millions of pages each year in eight languages and distributes these to over 70 countries. Recently, the Society doubled its production capacity to meet the growing demand for Braille Bible literature.
Today the simple, well-crafted Braille code makes the written word available to millions who are visually impaired—thanks to the dedicated efforts of a young boy almost 200 years ago.
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UNLOCKING THE BRAILLE CODE
Braille is read from left to right, using one or both hands. There are 63 possible dot combinations in each Braille cell. Hence, all the letters and punctuation in most alphabets can be assigned a specific combination of dots. Several languages use a contracted form of Braille, in which some cells stand for frequently occurring letter combinations or entire words. Some people have become so proficient at Braille that they can read up to 200 words per minute!
The first ten letters use only the dots in the upper two rows
The next ten letters add the bottom-left dot to each of the first ten letters
The last five letters add both bottom dots to the first five letters; the letter “w” is an exception because it was added to the French alphabet later
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Portrait: © Maison Natale de Louis Braille-Coupvray, France/Photo Jean-Claude Yon