World Braille Day 2017: 5 Highlights from the history of braille

Wednesday, 4 January 2017 by Callan Smith-Sheerin

World Braille Day celebrates the birth of Louis Braille, developer of the most popular reading and writing system for partially-sighted or blind people. On this day, charities, educators and other organisations take the opportunity to raise awareness of braille and appreciate the positive impact that it has had on many lives.

Why braille literacy is important for equality

Braille literacy has long-term implications for a blind person’s standard of life. It can often be the difference between a successful career and unemployment, as braille-literate individuals are more likely to find a job.

Providing access to braille-based resources and education helps to give blind/partially sighted individuals an equal opportunity to thrive. World Braille Day is a fantastic opportunity to bring this important point to attention and reflect on how braille came to be.

Early 1800s: The night writer

Charles Barbier de la Serre, a French soldier, developed a system for combatants to communicate when manoeuvring in the night. Using light or speaking out loud was too risky as it could give away a squadron's position, so an alternative was needed.

Barbier’s system made use of touch so as to avoid detection and relied on both the sender and receiver memorising an alphabetical grid. To write, they would punch holes in a piece of paper to make a pattern that would correspond to a letter on the grid. To read, the receiver would need to run their fingers over these holes and decipher the message.

Sounds complicated? That’s because it was. It never really took off in the army, but Barbier decided it could have a useful civilian application. He was invited to lecture on his system at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris where a young man by the name of Louis Braille was an attendee.

1809: Birth of Louis Braille

Matt Camfield

Born on the 4th January, Braille lost his sight following a childhood accident. By 5 years old he was completely blind, but his conventional upbringing (unusual for a disabled child at the time), intelligence and inquisitive nature ensured that he still thrived at school and socially. He was able to attend the Royal Institute for the Blind Youth, which was one of the only schools for the blind in the world.

1821-1824: School and development of braille

At school, blind students were taught the Haüy system to read, but this was an inconvenient and awkward way to learn. It required huge, heavy books and was extremely difficult to reproduce as writing. Barbier's system was difficult to use, but the 12-year old Braille saw its potential. He resolved to modify it for a better alternative to Haüy's method.

David Blabey

Braille simplified the form of Barbier’s system, making it more straightforward by representing each letter of the alphabet by a unique pattern of raised dots spread over a cell. Each cell consisted of two columns of 3. This more compact arrangement (Barbier’s system used cells of 12) is easier to detect with the finger-tip and makes reading much faster. It also allows for 64 variations, covering all letters and punctuation. What's most remarkable is that Braille had done this by the age of 15!

1854: Braille begins to take off

It was not until after Louis Braille’s death in 1852 that his system was formally adopted by the National Institute for Blind Youth. This was due to the popular demand of the students, who found it a far easier and more practical system than the Haüy. The Royal Institute for the Blind Youth also wanted to keep up with other European schools, who begun to adopt it.

Present day:

Taking a big leap forward to the modern day, we now have braille in almost every language and there are three grades of braille code:

  • Grade One (uncondensed) spells out the 26 letters of the alphabet.
  • Grade Two (condensed) is the most commonly used form and condenses words into cells. This means that whole words can be represented within 6 dots, and there are other symbols that represent common combinations of words. This system is popular as, once learnt, is quicker to read and takes up less space, making it the choice of most publications.
  • Grade Three (shorthand) uses abbreviations for a number of words to help make braille reading quicker.

Looking to the future:

Given developments in technology, there is a concern that braille may become neglected as people are encouraged to use audiobooks and speech recognition software. In our digital age, it may be thought of as an analogue approach to blind literacy. However, the physical connection between a braille-reader and the page can stimulate the visual cortex in a similar way to traditional reading. This can be difficult when to do when just listening.

In fact, some people are trying to use braille in more ways. It is becoming used in art more frequently, from interesting takes on comics, to poetry and installations. This approach shows how braille is not just useful for helping blind people with their education, but how it can provide experiences that are brilliant for inspiring imagination too.

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