Sometimes, the best inventions are made by accident. In the case of braille, the system which allows blind people to read with their fingers, it was a terrible accident that led to one of the greatest developments for blind people across the world. Before Louis Braille was born in a small village in France in 1809, there was no way for the blind to read, and it was difficult for them to write. However, Louis Braille was not born blind. He was born for a purpose though, one that has touched the lives of thousands.
Louis Braille was a bright, inquisitive child from a very common family. Simon René Braille, Louis’ father, was a harness maker, and together with his mother, Monique, already had three other children when Louis came along. He was evidently a precocious child, which is probably what led to the accident which claimed his sight. When he was just three years old, while in his father’s shop Louis began playing with some of his father’s tools. Somehow, when he was handling an awl, which is an extremely sharp tool used to pierce leather, the awl injured one of his eyes. Infection set in to this ruined eye, and since there were no antibiotics at that time, there was nothing anyone could do. Unfortunately, the infection affected the other eye as well. As a result, by the time he was five years old, Louis Braille was completely blind.
While many families would assume that the child’s life was over, at least for practical purposes, Louis’s parents knew that he was still a very intelligent boy and wanted him to do as much as he could. The local priest agreed. Louis was allowed to attend the local school with other boys his age. They figured he could at least learn what he could by listening, as many lessons were done orally at that time anyway. To everyone’s astonishment, Louis not only learned, but was the best student in the class despite his handicap.
A local aristocrat was also impressed with Louis’s abilities and his obviously sharp mind. A school for the blind in Paris had recently been opened, and this local official offered to pay for Louis to attend the Royal Institution for Blind Youth. Even though he was only 10 years old, his parents agreed to allow Louis to leave home and take advantage of this opportunity. While life at the school was not easy – it was a damp, unhealthy place and the discipline was strict – Louis again excelled.
It was at the Royal Institution that Louis developed a talent for music. He learned to play the piano and the organ, and was evidently quite good at both. While most of the lessons were taught to the blind children orally, the Institution did use a few books. The founder of the Royal Institution for Blind Youth, Valentin Ha?y, had created a raised print that allowed his students to read using the touch of the fingers. He created his raised type by using a wire to raise the letters of the French alphabet. He thus spelled out the words in traditional French, using raised French alphabetical letters. While it was cumbersome and ultimately impractical, it did introduce Louis to the idea of a tactile alphabet.
The idea for using raised dots to stand for letters, numbers and sounds actually came from a captain in the French army, Charles Barbier de la Serre. He first came up with this system as a way to allow his soldiers to read and “write” messages at night without having to light a fire or a lamp, which could give away an army’s position. After he realized this system could be helpful to the blind as well, he presented his techniques to the Royal Institution, hoping that it would adopt his system, called Sonography. The name came from the fact that his system of raised dots and dashes represented sounds. In it, the words were spelled by how they sounded, called phonetic spelling, using cells with as many as 12 dots, rather than how they were actually spelled in French.
The Royal Institution did not warm up to the new system, but Louis Braille latched onto it. He spent about three years studying and adapting it. He realized that there were two main problems with de la Serre’s Sonography system: the phonetic spelling and the use of too many of the raised dots for each letter or sound. He had realized the potential behind the basic idea of the system, however. By the time he was fifteen, he had developed what is now known as the braille system for writing and reading for the blind. He used a six dot system and normal spelling. Because of his talent and love for music, he even went on to further develop the braille system for music. He also created a writing slate, which he called a “planchette” that allowed a blind person to write with braille very precisely.
Louis remained at the school, first finishing up his education and then becoming a very popular teacher at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth. He continued to teach the students his methods, and translated many books into braille. While he always believed in his tactile reading system, it was not widely used or accepted outside his school during his short lifetime. He contracted tuberculosis, which had no cure in the 1800s, and died in 1852 when he was just 43 years old.
Had he lived a few years longer, he would have seen how his system changed the lives of blind people across the world. Braille has a simplicity to it that allows it to be used in nearly all languages. Before long, it became the accepted form of reading and writing for blind people. In fact, children who are taught to read braille from an early age can read it as fast as sighted people can read printed text. In the 150 years since his death, the braille system has not changed, even with the explosion of technological advances which have occurred since then, though computers have helped increase the accessibility to braille.
The Braille System
The braille system is based upon a rectangular cell which can have as many as six raised dots in it. The cell is no bigger that the pad of a fingertip. The dots are always arranged in two vertical columns that have three dots. Think of it like a domino, with raised dots rather than concave ones. There are 64 different combinations of dots possible, if one counts an empty cell which is used as a space in braille. Each cell then can represent one letter, one digit, a punctuation mark, or a sound.
When describing the placement of the dots in one cell, it is helpful to number them to make it quicker and easier to describe them. The numbers one through three are assigned to the dots in the left-hand column, starting from top to bottom. The numbers four through six are assigned to the dots in the right-hand column, also starting at the top. As an example, if a cell has a dot in each of the four corners, it would have a 1-3-4-6 dot combination.
Braille assigns each letter of a language’s alphabet a particular dot pattern. Punctuation marks and other symbols also have a particular pattern. No matter what language braille is being used to represent, the assignments are fairly consistent, and follow Braille’s original designs as closely as possible. For example the pattern 1-3-4 is an m both in French, the language Braille spoke, and English. It also represents mu in Greek and mim in Arabic, all having a similar sound. It’s also important to note that the dot patterns never try to mimic the shape of the letter in the typed alphabet, as this would provide no benefit to the blind reader. Instead, the shapes are determined by a logical progression that makes it easy for a blind person to feel and understand rather than trying to resemble printed type.
Even though there are 64 different combinations of dots in braille, this is not enough for there to be a separate symbol for every possible letter, sign, number, or symbol. This means that some dot combinations have to pull double duty. To achieve this, some dot combinations let the reader know that what follows means something particular, acting as a prefix. The cells in braille are always the same height and size, so the capital letters and italics need a prefix to let the reader know that the cell(s) that follow are different. In English, the cell with a single dot 6 lets the reader know that the next cell contains a capital letter. A cell with the 3-4-5-6 dot combination is a special prefix called a “numeric indicator,” which lets the reader know that the next cells, that would normally be the ones for letters a-j, are actually the digits 0-9. The only similarity between typed print and braille is that braille will have a centered title for a chapter or article like typed print.
If books in braille were printed out with every letter from every word printed in a separate cell, the books would be extremely large. While a typical piece of printer paper can hold 1000 characters of braille, a smaller piece of paper can hold three or four times more of standard print characters. Also, braille paper has to be thicker to accommodate the dots. To help reduce the bulk of braille works, some of the 64 characters stand for sound combinations or contractions. For example, the character with dots 2-3-4-6 raised stands for “the.” This is used both as an article, like in “the cat,” but it also stands for the letters t-h-e in words like in the word “rather.”
The beautiful simplicity of the braille system provides a meaningful way for blind people to relate to the world around them. The fact that it can be easily used with so many different languages has helped it endure through more than a century. Braille becomes a part of the existence of a blind reader the same way printed language is to a sighted person. It took a brilliant man to develop this system, one who wasn’t born blind, but was born to change the lives of many. As Helen Keller said, “The blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.”
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