This week we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. Born January 4 1809, we remember his life, his contributions and his international legacy, which is best summarized by the words on a plaque in his hometown of Coupvray, France. “He opened the doors of knowledge to all those who cannot see.” He was accidentally blinded at the age of three by an awl – ironically, the same tool that he would later use to create a tactile system of reading and writing based on raised dots and perforated paper. This invention changed his life as it would the circumstances of generations of blind and partially sighted children and adults.
Despite his visual impairment, Louis was very successful at school and won a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. There he learned several techniques for reading, including the use of embossed books. Embossed books were large and extremely expensive to print and therefore not found readily in the world outside the school. Only two or three sentences could be printed on each page. An innovation that occurred while Louis was at the institution was the adaptation of secret military code writing for use in the dark by readers and writers. Invented by Charles Barbier, nightwriting allowed orders to be transmitted silently in the battlefield, by a system in which “each word was broken down into sounds” and “each sound was represented by a different combination of dots and dashes.” 1. The system of “soundwriting” or sonography also had its drawbacks, primarily its complexity, with many sounds within the French language and no provisions for spelling, punctuation or numbers. At the age of twelve Braille met with Barbier to recommend changes to the system. Braille reduced the number of dots and dashes and made each combination stand for letters of the alphabet and not sounds. Barbier was not happy with the changes, but Braille persisted through his life, urging that his new simple form of reading and writing to be accepted as method at his school. At twenty Braille published his now famous Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, For Use by the Blind and Arranged by Them and at the 1934 Exhibition of Industry in Paris Brailles’s system was unveiled to the world.
Today Braille’s international legacy includes services and books for the blind. The private nonprofit National Braille Press publishes books and magazines and has the only Children’s Braille Book Club which features a monthly book in both print and Braille format for blind children to enjoy with their families. Another non-profit provider of Braille books for children is Seedlings Braille Books with over 600 low- cost titles for children. Indeed, Louis Braille’s simple system of dots and dashes continues to “open the doors of knowledge to all those who cannot see.”
Copyright 2005© Lauren Brosnihan
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