Being blind in 18th century Europe:
In many societies during the 18th century, blind people were considered to be second-class citizens. However, as Lowenfeld (1975) noted, once individuals began to acknowledge greater importance in the writings of 18th century philosophers, there became a widespread recognition of the rights, values, obligations, and contributions all individuals including blind people. "[Blind people] were no longer unidentified parts of a mass of beggars, but became recognized as individuals whose ambitions, aptitudes, and achievement must be considered and who have their own right to happiness and fulfillment" (Lowenfeld, 1975, p. 65).
One such philosopher of the time, Denis Diderot, wrote Letter on the Blind (1749) in order to convey his thoughts on the dignity and potential of all humans. This letter may have laid the groundwork for the establishment of the first school for blind children by providing the founder, Valentin Haüy, with "the philosophical foundation for educating students who are blind" (Hatlen, 2000, p. 3).
In 1786, Valentin Haüy opened his school for the blind in Paris, France. The students who attended were educated orally and attempted to memorize what they learned as they could not write. Many of the students experimented with their own literacy methods such as pin pricks, a bent-wire alphabet, and tactile maps made from silk embroidered onto cardboard.
In February of 1819, 10-year-old Louis Braille, blind from an accident while playing with his fathers tools, became the youngest student at the school.
The Legacy of Louis Braille:
In 1821, André Pignier, the new director of the school, met Charles Barbier de la Serre. Charles had created a tactile system for sending and receiving messages during combat, however, the system was never actually used by the army (Kimbrough, n.d). Pignier became interested in this system and arranged for Charles to give the students at the school a demonstration. Louis was interested immediately and quickly learned the new system. After some practice, he found some issues with the system and soon set upon improving it.
In 1824, at the age of 15, Louis revealed his new alphabet (see image 2) in which he used a six-dot cell able to produce sixty-three raised characters. His new alphabet was received enthusiastically by Pignier and the other students and by 1829, Louis had further refined his new code and had also created a way to copy music.
The blind students at the school soon became adapt at using Louis' six dot method for their own reading and writing. A public demonstration of students using this system with raised dots was given to members of the community. When a man from the audience commented that it must be a trick, he was asked to find some printed material in his pocket and quietly read it to one of the blind girls. The girl then reproduced the text and another child (who had been well out of ear shot) came forward and read it back flawlessly. The crowd was convinced. (Kimbrough, n.d)
The students were still at this time dependent on a scribe when writing home to their families as their families could not read the braille letters they had learned to produce. Louis began developing a way for the students to write on their own, but in a form that their parents could also read. This lead to his invention of raphigraphy in which large print letters composed of Braille dots were created to make it possible for sighted people to read. Unfortunately, Raphigraphy was very time consuming as a single letter could require the the punching of up to 16 dots. A blind inventor, Pierre Foucault, who had previously been a student at the school, saw what Louis was doing and invented a machine called a "piston board" which punched complete dot-drawn letters and later invented the "keyboard printer", a typewriter that enabled blind people to write to sighted people in black type (Kimbrough, n.d).
The dot system of reading and writing for the blind became known by the people as "Braille". A growing number of inquiries were reaching the school, even after Louis Braille's death on January 6, 1852. In 1854, France adopted Braille as its official communications system for blind people (Kimbrough, n.d). Although Braille began to spread to other countries, there was still some resistance to it from the sighted, mainly in that Braille does not resemble print letters.
In Britain in 1870, after surveying many blind readers, the Braille system won as the best embossed system for the blind. The first American institution to adopt Braille was the Missouri School for the Blind in 1854. Eventually, Braile spread throughout the world and printing presses were modified to emboss braille were created and braille books and documents were produced. Braille has now been adapted to nearly every language and remains the major medium of literacy for blind people.
How to read Braille:
Braille is read by touch, usually using the first finger on one or both hands. A Braille reader must develop new tactile skills such as the ability to create a smooth and even pressure when running the fingers along the raised dots.
Each Braille character, (also known as a cell) is made up of six dot positions arranged in a rectangle containing two columns of three dots each. A dot may be raised at any of the six positions to form sixty-four permutations, including the arrangement in which no dots are raised (Braille, 2009). A particular permutation may be described by naming the positions where dots are raised, the positions being universally numbered 1 to 3, from top to bottom on the left, and 4 to 6, from top to bottom on the right (Braille, 2009).
A sequence of characters, using the top four dots of the Braille cell, represents letters a through j. Dot 3 is added to each of the a through j symbols to give the letters k through t. Both of the bottom dots (dots 3 and 6) are added to each of the a through e symbols to give letters the u, v, x, y, and z (Braille, 2009). The letter w is an exception to the pattern because the French did not use the letter "w" at the time Louis Braille devised his alphabet (Braille, 2009).
The lines of horizontal Braille text are separated by a space so that the dots of one line can be differentiated that above and below it. Punctuation is represented by its own unique set of characters(Braille, 2009).
Braille is the same as print in that it represents written information. The alphabet, numbers, music notation, and any other symbol that appears in print can be replicated in braille by arranging the combinations of the six dots of the braille cell. The dots of braille can also be used for mathematics, scientific equations, computer notations, and foreign languages. Braille, like print, enables a person to take notes, read a spreadsheet, file and label materials, compute mathematical equations, read music and do a variety of other tasks efficiently and independently.
Helen Keller, Words of the Wise:
Helen Keller was a deafblind woman who became a world-famous speaker and author. She was an advocate and role model for people with disabilities and her words still ring true to this day.
"There is no difference between the way the blind and the seeing read except that the blind use one nerve-channel while the seeing use another. One of the fallacies among people who see about those who cannot see is that as soon as the sense of sight is lost, an exquisite touch is developed." (Keller, n.d.)
"We the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg . . . Without a dot system what a chaotic, inadequate affair our education would be!" (American Foundatin for the blind, 2009.)
"O the miracle of Louis Braille's invention — the strange dotted characters which gave eyes to the blind, redeemed them from despair and knit their souls with the soul of mankind in sweet unison. They who once sat brooding through sad, interminable days of emptiness now look with rapt gaze upon the universe as they read with the eyes in their fingers. From the tomb of sealed sense they have risen to the morning light and the ecstasy of thought. They live fully, instead of only the half-life of darkness! Happy, they no longer remember their hours of solitude — they are not alone any more! Like friends their books speak to them with words of enchantment.
O the joy of being able to think! O the precious power of self-expression! O the comfort of forgetting sorrow in love's confidences! O the blessedness of treading the high places of the spirit unfettered! O the delicious taste of independence that comes with an embossed book, and a Braille tablet!
Yes, the blind can now work, they can study, they can sing, they can add their share to the good and happiness in the world." (Keller, n.d.)
Braille Means Equality:
For people who are blind, deaf and blind, or have vision loss, Braille is the key to literacy, independence and equality. Literacy is so important as it is the way we gain access to written information, communicate with others and store information to be referred to again later. For the blind, Braille involves all methods of acquiring, storing, and accessing information as well as a method of communicating one's own ideas, opinions, and needs.
Timothy Vernon, a customer service representative for NSTAR Electric and Gas, feels that Braille literacy has enriched his personal and professional life in many ways. His essay “Braille: A Special Gift” describes in detail the impact Braille has made in his life. "When members of the community see me reading, many people are intrigued and often admire my knowledge of braille. I am thrilled by their questions, and am happy to let them feel the dots which comprise the braille cell. However, deep in my heart, I realize how lucky I am to have received extensive training in this code. Audio information is an excellent medium, but it does not provide the independence offered by braille." (Vernon, T. 2009)
The following video by Nations Blind (2009), is a touching video in which people speak about the importance of Braille in their lives. What Braille Means To Me.
"Braille has liberated a whole class of people from a condition of illiteracy and dependence and has given them the means for self-fulfillment and enrichment.” (Nemeth, 1988, p.316)
The last 100 years: Literacy Crisis
Braille has clearly changed the lives of those blind people who have chosen and/or were given the opportunity to learn it. In 1960, 50 percent of legally blind, school-age children in the United States were able to read Braille, however, according to federal statistics, only about 12 percent are able to read Braille today (Ranalli, 2008). Braille literacy rates have also dropped around the world. The United States Congress of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 moved thousands of children from specialized schools for the blind into mainstream public schools (Ranalli, 2008). As only a small percentage of public schools could afford to train and hire Braille-qualified teachers, which played a large role in this shocking decline in Braille literacy. The use of new technologies such as books on tape and speech recognition have also contributed to a lower percentage of the bling population learning and/or using Braille.
The following is an extremely powerful video that perfectly conveys the seriousness of this literacy crisis and why all young, blind children should have the opportunity to learn Braille. It discusses the myths and misconceptions that surround Braille, the importance of education and Braille-qualified teachers, how new technologies are beneficial but cannot replace Braille, and it voices an important message: that Braille is beautiful. Braille: Unlocking the Code.
American Foundation for the blind. (2009). 200 years: the life and legacy of Louis Braille. Retrieved from: http://www.afb.org/louisbraillemuseum/
Braille. (2009). Wikipedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braille
Hatlen, P. (2000). Historical perspectives. In M. C. Holbrook & A. J. Koenig's, Foundations of Education: Vol. 1. History and theory of teaching children and youths with visual impairments (2nd ed., pp. 1-54). New York: AFB Press.
Image 1. Espinal, Oriol. Retrieved from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oriolespinal/3791600853/
Image 2. Loomis, M. S. (1942). The Braille Reference Book. Retrieved from the American Foundatin for the blind website: http://www.afb.org/louisbraillemuseum/braillemediaviewer.asp?FrameID=183#main
Image 3, 4, 5. Braille. (2009). Wikipedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braille
Image 6. Helen Keller. (c. 1905) Retrieved from Wikimedia commons website (2009): commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Helen_Keller.jpg
Keller, Helen. (n.d.) Braille, the Magic Wand of the Blind. Retrieved from the American Foundation for the Blind website: http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=1&TopicID=193&SubTopicID=11&DocumentID=1187
Kimbrough, P. (n.d)How Braille Began. Retrieved from Enabling Technologies website: http://www.brailler.com/braillehx.htm
Lowenfeld, B. (1975). The changing status of the blind. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Nations Blind. (2009). What Braille Means to me. Retrieved from the Youtube website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti-O-JMGbmA
Nations Blind. (2009). Braille: Unlocking the Code. Retrieved from the Youtube website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmnXyw2pV_s
Nemeth, A. (1988). Braille: The agony and the ecstasy. Braille Monitor, 31, 316–324.
New York Institute for Special Education. (2009). History of Braille. Retrieved from: http://www.nyise.org/blind/barbier2.htm
Ranalli, R. (2008). A boost for Braille. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from: http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/01/05/a_boost_for_braille/
Vernon, T. (2009). Braille: a special gift. Retrieved from Perkins school for the blind website on October 15, 2009: http://www.perkins.org/literacy/timothy-vernon-essay.html