[nfbwatlk] Happy Birthday,"Louis Braille"

Becky Frankeberger b.butterfly at comcast.net
Thu Jan 5 15:42:54 UTC 2012

"Louis Braille"
by Joseph E. Sullivan. 

In the French town of Coupvray, near Paris, there stands a little stone
house that, in 1809, was the home of the local harness maker, Simon René
Braille, his wife Monique, and their growing family. On January 4th of that
year, the house grew a little livelier with the birth of their fourth child,
Louis. Louis was a bright and inquisitive child, characteristics that were
to play a role both in the tragic accident that caused his blindness and in
his triumph over the limitations to reading that were the normal
consequences of blindness at that time. 

At the age of 3, while playing in his father's shop, Louis injured his eye
on a sharp tool. Despite the best care available at the time, infection set
in and soon spread to the other eye as well, leaving him completely blind. 

Fortunately, Louis' parents, together with the local priest and school
teacher, were alert to his superior learning abilities and eager to provide
him with the opportunity to develop them to the fullest extent possible. So,
when Louis became of school age, he was allowed to sit in the classroom to
learn what he could by listening. Despite an initial assumption that his
handicap would keep him well back of the other pupils, he was soon leading
the class. 

At the extraordinarily young age of ten, Louis was sent on scholarship to
the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. There too, most instruction
was oral, although there were some books in a raised-print system developed
by the school's founder, Valentin Haüy. Once again, the diligent Louis did
well at his studies, and moreover developed a considerable talent for music,
first at the piano and then at the organ. The general idea of a tactile
alphabet that would allow blind persons to read and write also began to take
shape in his mind at this time. 

It was a French army captain, Charles Barbier de la Serre, who actually
invented the basic technique of using raised dots for tactile writing and
reading. His original objective was to allow soldiers to compose and read
messages at night without illumination. Barbier later adapted the system and
presented it to the Institution for Blind Youth, hoping that it would be
officially adopted there. He called the system Sonography, because it
represented words according to sound rather than spelling. While the
Institution accepted Sonography only tentatively, Louis set about using and
studying it with his customary intensity. Soon he had discovered both the
potential of the basic idea and the shortcomings in some of Barbier's
specific provisions, such as a clumsy 12-dot cell and the phonetic basis.
Within three years, by age 15, Louis had developed the system that we know
today as braille, employing a 6-dot cell and based upon normal spelling. He
also went on to lay the foundations of the braille representation of music,
and in 1829 published the Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Song by
Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged by Them. 

Although Louis Braille went on to become a loved and respected teacher, was
encouraged in his research, and remained secure in his own mind as to the
value of his work, his system of touch reading and writing was nevertheless
not very widely accepted in his own time. Louis Braille died on January 6,
1852. In the years that followed, the practicality as well as simple
elegance of his braille system was increasingly recognized, and today, in
virtually every language throughout the world, it is the standard form of
writing and reading used by blind persons. If a blind child is taught
braille skills with the same sense of importance that is rightly attached to
the teaching of print skills to sighted children, he or she will grow up
able to read at speeds comparable to print readers, a life skill of
inestimable value. Over 150 years after Louis Braille worked out his basic
6-dot system, its specific benefits remain unmatched by any later
technology-though some, computers being a prime example, both complement and
contribute to braille. 

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