January is World Braille Month, a time to celebrate the six dots that have opened up a world of freedom and independence to blind and visually impaired people, and the man who created them over 200 years ago.
But how much do we really know about Louis Braille, or how the Braille code came into being?
Who was Louis Braille?
Louis Braille was born in the French village of Coupvray on January 4, 1809. His father was a leatherworker and made harnesses, bridals, and other goods for the villagers. As a little boy, Louis loved to accompany his father to his workshop. When Louis was three years old, he took his father’s awl, a very sharp tool, and attempted to punch a hole in a piece of leather as he’d seen his father do. The awl slipped from Louis’ grasp and recoiled, injuring his left eye. Eventually, the infection spread to his right eye and Louis became totally blind.
He was a tenacious child. He attended school in the village, memorizing the teacher’s lessons, and at the age of 10, he was sent to the Institute for the Blind in Paris to study. It was there that he learned a system for reading by touch, invented by Captain Charles Barbier, called Night Writing, in which soldiers could read messages without the use of light or sound. Louis was intrigued by this system and worked to make it smaller and more efficient.
What came about was the system we know today as Braille. At the age of fifteen, Louis had invented a system which would make reading and writing for the blind possible.
He died of tuberculosis two days after his 43rd birthday in 1852. But he left a legacy that is beloved by thousands of braille readers throughout the world today.
What is braille?
Braille is a means of reading and writing for the blind through a system of raised dots. A braille cell is comprised of six dots–two across and three down–and various configurations of these dots represent the letters of the alphabet. Dot 1 occupies the upper most lefthand corner of the cell, dot 2 is beneath in the middle, and dot 3 is in the bottom lefthand corner. It’s identical on the right for dots 4-5-6. When these dots are organized into specific patterns, they represent letters. For example:
- A = Dot 1
- B = Dots 1-2
- C = Dots 1-4
Braille is classified into grades–one and two. Grade one is called uncontracted braille, meaning that everything is spelled out, letter for letter. By comparison, grade two is known as contracted braille, where through a system of contractions, groups of letters are represented by one, single cell. For example, the word “and” is represented by dots 1-2-3-4-6, making it shorter and faster to write than uncontracted. There are several contractions, over 200 in fact!
In 2010, Canada became the fifth nation to adopt UEB, or Unified English braille. It was born out of a desire to standardize Braille so that resources could be shared more easily and without confusion. It is much the same as SEB [Standard English Braille which I described above], but with variations on which contractions are permitted, etc. To be frank, I do not like nor do I use UEB, so please see the list of resources at the end of this post for more info. But like it or not, it is a reality of braille use and I can read it well, though a bit begrudgingly.
Braille is used almost everywhere. Check your hotel or apartment elevator, and you’ll likely find Braille on the buttons. Check a public washroom and you may find Braille on the sign. Many restaurants have Braille menus, certain goods [shampoo bottles, chocolate boxes, etc] are affixed with braille labels, and there is a fabulously unique niche market for Braille jewelry and apparel within one click of a Google search. Many braille users choose to use a braille display or notetaker which connect to mobile phones or computers and allow one to read and write electronically in Braille. And Braille technology is expanding every day!
This system of six dots has infiltrated an entire demographic of people, and has given freedom and independence in a way I’m sure Louis Braille never dreamed about.
Why is Braille important?
But with the incredible technological advances since the invention of Braille in the nineteenth-century, there are those who have claimed that Braille’s time has piqued, or, in blunt terms, that “Braille is dead.” But friends, Braille is very much alive and thriving!
To enlighten us on the importance of Braille for the blind, I’d like to share with you other voices in the blind and visually impaired community. After all, we are a community, and it’s valuable to share our perspectives, ideas and resources. Let’s take a look at the insights from Sight Scotland on the importance of Braille [and check the list below for other resources].
• Braille for Literacy
“Braille allows blind and partially sighted people to learn spelling, grammar and punctuation and gain an understanding of how text is formatted on the page.
Individuals learn in different ways – some people may find it easier to take in information via audio while others prefer to read the written word in braille. But when it comes to really engaging with a text, particularly complicated printed material, the benefits of being able to read in braille outweigh audio formats as reading aids comprehension and retention of information. Braille use can allow someone to develop their skills for self-expression in written form.”
• Braille for independence
As I noted above, there are multiple ways that Braille is used in the community. Having the skills to both read and write Braille allow a greater level of independence and confidence to engage with the world and build meaningful connections with others. And, as Sight Scotland so adeptly puts it: “Public spaces that include braille signage, for example braille on lift key pads or on doors, can really help people who read braille to maintain their independence when out and about. Braille labels on everyday items can also help to quickly identify what something is. Medicines are usually braille labelled and in supermarkets an increasing range of packaged foods have braille notation.”
• Braille for Professional Goals
“Studies have shown people with a visual impairment who have braille skills are more likely to be in employment than those who don’t use it.
Electronic braille notetakers (a BrailleNote) can be used to take down notes – whether in a lecture at college or university or in a meeting in the workplace. Some people also find braille notes useful to refer to when when giving a presentation or speech.
An accessible workplace should provide the means and facilities for blind and partially sighted employees to utilise braille, audio and assistive technologies in the ways that suit them best.”
• Braille for Equality
“The ability to read and write braille provides the vital access to the written word that sighted people have. It can mean greater equality, enabling blind and partially sighted people to have the use, power, fluidity and enjoyment of the written word that sighted people have. Braille literacy promotes accessibility in society for people with a visual impairment.”
But more than a system of reading and writing for the blind, Braille represents a way of learning and understanding the world we live in. It’s a means of communication and connection, and a beautiful part of being a member of the blind and visually impaired community.
Thank you, Louis Braille.
To Learn More, Check Out These Links
You can learn more about Louis Braille and the Braille code at the following links:
Reading and Writing Braille:
- Free Online Resources to Learn Braille — Paths to Literacy
- What Is Unified English Braille? Some History and Resources — FamilyConnect
Braille Displays and Notetakers:
- Braille Displays and Notetakers — Library of Congress
- What to Know … Before You Buy a Braille Display — Canadian Assistive Technology
The Importance of Braille:
- The Benefits of Braille — Sight Scotland
- Why Should I Care About Learning Braille? — Paths to Literacy
Organizations Promoting Braille Literacy: