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Opening Up The World To The Blind

Chronicles
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Celebrating a life-changing invention that opened up a world of knowledge to the visually impaired

A blind student, Rafah, practices reading Braille. Photo By: UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency/Andrew McConnell.

Every 4th of January, we celebrate an important breakthrough while creating awareness about how the world is for those among us who are visually impaired. The creator of the alphabet for the blind, Louis Braille, was born on this day in 1809, and the celebration of World Braille Day serves as a reminder of how everyone can do their part in helping the visually impaired become more independent when normal everyday activities can be made more convenient for them through tactile indicators.

imgMetal handrail with braille inscriptions in Castel Sant'Elmo, Naples help the blind and visually impaired admire the panorama of Naples. Photo: Getty Images.

Unfortunately, it was a tragedy that befell the Braille family that ultimately led to the creation of the Braille language code that now helps blind people advance in their lives and careers. When Louis was just three, in 1812, Louise Braille would follow his father to his leather shop and play with the craftsman’s tools. However, as fate would have it, while the elder Braille was outside for a short break, Louis accidentally poked his eye with one of the sharp leather marking tools. The local physician was only able to patch the injured eye, and sent the boy to meet with a surgeon in Paris the next day. However, the injury could not be treated, leading to it being infected. The infection then spread to the other eye and by the age of five, Louis had lost his vision and lived in darkness from then on. However, to the credit of his parents, they determinedly raised him in as normal a life as possible. His father crafted a cane for him to feel his surroundings when walking, while Louis himself showed brilliant intellect at school despite his disability. The local priest witnessed his determination and convinced his parents to send him 25 miles away to Paris, where he would be enrolled in the Royal Institute for Blind Youth.

img2 Euro coin featuring a portrait of Louis Braille with his initials L and B inscripted in Braille on either side. Photo: Getty Images.

At the institute, Louis and his classmates learned to read using a system of raised embossed letters developed by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy. However, while the children could read the specially- made books this way, they couldn’t write. To help Louis, his father fashioned leather alphabets for him to trace in order to write. Understandably though, Louis and his friends were not satisfied with this system.

During his time at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, Louis was later introduced to a retired French army captain, Charles Barbier. Captain Barbier had created a language that he called ‘night writing.’ This language was created in a way where the soldiers would simply run their fingers over the punched dots and dashes on paper, all forming words to communicate messages to one another without the use of light or sound. However, the language was thought to be too complex by the soldiers and they were unable to use it. Captain Barbier then came to the school in hopes that perhaps the students would be able to use his night writing.

imgA young student reading a Braille version of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Photo: UNICEF/ UNI78250/Khemka.

The students tried to decipher the messages but they, too, found the system too complex. They found that too many dots were used to represent one single word. Louis, on the other hand, was excited about this new system and he contributed his free time to understanding the system and simplifying it. He asked his classmates to try out his first series of the new alphabet system and much to his surprise (and theirs) they were all able to understand and use the new system. The students were thrilled with this new language, as now they no longer needed to memorise long and lengthy lectures.

imgThe current English Braille alphabet, based on the original French Braille alphabet developed by Louis Braille.

Upon seeing the success of his language system, Louis wanted to expand its use and share it with as many visually impaired people as he could. He asked his school director for assistance in making this dream a reality. The school director wrote to the French government, explaining Louis’ language in hopes that it would soon be adopted in all of France. Meanwhile, Louis started to become an assistant teacher at the institute, making his class one of the most popular and enjoyable classes. He began to expand his language into music notes and symbols for blind musicians to use.

In 1843, Louis was given the life-changing opportunity to present his dot language at an invention exhibition where the King of France himself would be attending. He demonstrated his language to the king, explaining how it should be implemented in France since it would help in aiding many who are visually impaired. However, much to his dismay, the King refused to implement the system and also refused to fund the publication of books using the language. Louis returned home absolutely heartbroken and gutted with the notion that his years of hard work had gone down the drain.

Although his invention was rejected, Louis still tried his best to make improvements and amendments to his creation. He added the letter ‘w’ so the language could be translated into English. It was around this time that his health had started to worsen. He would suffer from fevers and fits of cough which slowly started to affect his mind and body. They soon found that the cause of his deterioration in health was due to tuberculosis and he was forced to retire. He then spent the remainder of his life in his hometown of Coupvray, east of Paris, and on January 6, 1852, at the age of 43, Louis Braille lost his fight against his disease and passed away.

imgInternational artiste Rihanna’s eight studio album, ANTI, incorporates sculpted Braille poetry by Chloe Mitchel, as well as Braille poetry by the artist providing artwork for the cover, Roy Nachum. This allows blind fans to experience the album cover by touch. Photos: (Left) Miguel Pereira/Getty Images; (Right) Courtesy of Roc Nation Records/Westbury Road.

Like many other great inventors, Louis’ invention was only given recognition posthumously two years after his death. In 1854, the French Government released an official statement, declaring that the dot system would be implemented throughout France. The dot system was named Braille, to honour Louis and in 1878, the World Blind Union voted to make Braille the official reading and writing language for all those who are visually impaired or extremely short-sighted. With the help of the United Union, Braille has been adapted into almost every language worldwide. Apart from the language, Louis Braille’s legacy lives on as “the man who opened the doors of knowledge for those who cannot see.”

imgA training officer is reading a tactile ballot guide to ensure blind and partially sighted people know how to vote in Sierra Leone'selection in 2018. Photo: United Nations Development Programme - UNDP Sierra Leone/Lilah Gaafar.

These days, Braille is no longer referred to as a language but as a code in which many languages can be written and read. World Braille Day isn’t just a day to celebrate the alphabet created for those who are visually impaired; it is also a day that inadvertantly highlights the hardships the blind are still going through in their daily lives due to the lack of materials provided for them. Braille is one of the first systems for the blind and partially blind that has helped them live a more fulfilling life, and it is hoped that further progress and equality for the visually impaired will be made, thanks to the awareness created by celebrating this day.

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