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BRAILLE DAY: Celebration of Louis Braille, a man whose innovation brought academic hope to blind persons

By Kalu Eke,

On January 4 every year, the world celebrates Braille Day. Braille is commonly known for being a mode of reading and writing for the blind. It is, indeed a way of reading and writing. It came from the influence of a man called Louis Braille.

I also celebrate the man every year and share a few interesting braille experiences in my life.

Louis Braille was born on January 4 1809 in Coupvray- a small town about twenty miles east of Paris, France. Louis Braille lost sight at the age of 3.

He became a tremendously creative person. His ear for music enabled him to play the cello and organ in classes taught by Jean-Nicholas Marrigues.

Later in life, his musical talents led him to play the organ for churches allover France.

He and his three older siblings lived with their mother, Monique, and father Simon-Rene on 3 hactres of land and vineyards in the countryside. His father made harnesses and other leather goods to sell to other villagers.

Louis’s father would use sharp tools to cut and punch holes in the leather. One of the tools he used to make holes was a sharp awl. An awl is a tool that looks like a short pointed stick with a wooden handle. While playing with one of his father’s awls, Louis’s hand slipped and accidentally poked one of his eyes. At first, the injury did not seem serious, but then the wound became infected. A few days later, young Louis lost sight in both eyes- likely due to sympathetic ophthalmia.

It remains uncertain which eye was actually struck by the awl.

Louis studied in Coupvray until the age of 10. Because of his combination of intelligence and diligence, he received scholarship to attend one of the first schools for blind children in the world, The Royal Institute for Blind Youth. Although at that time the institute was an underfunded ramshackle affair, it provided a relatively stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together.

The children were taught how to read by a system devised by the school’s founder, Valentine Hauy. Not blind himself, Hauy was a committed philanthropist who devoted his life to helping the blind. The books he made had large letters that were raised up off the page. Since the letters were so big, the books were large and bulky. The books were also expensive. The school had exactly 14 of them.

Louis set about reading all the 14 books in the school library. He could feel for each letter and, that would take him a long time to read a sentence. It took a few seconds to reach each word, but by the time he reached the end of a sentence, he almost forgot what the beginning of the sentence was about.

At the age of 12, Louis Braille was inspired by the military cryptography of Charles Barbier, and began developing a system of tactile code that could allow blind persons to read and write quickly and efficiently. The very tool which had caused him to go blind could be used to make a raised dot alphabet that would enable him and all blind learners to read. He worked tirelessly on his ideas and the system the system was largely completed by 1824 when he presented it to his peers for the first time.

Louis became a teacher at the institute in 1824 and continued to work on his code, publishing the first book in braille in 1829 and produced written works about braille and general education for the blind – including braille musical notation.

Passionate about his own music, Braille took meticulous care in its planning to ensure that the musical code would be “flexible enough to meet the unique requirements for any instrument.” He published Method of Writing Words, Music and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, (1829). Ironically, this book was printed by the raised letter method of the Hauy system… The book was revised and republished in 1837.

Louis also published in his code – a mathematics guide, Little Synopsis of Arithmetics for Beginners, entered use in 1838, and his monograph, New Method for Representing by Dots the Form of Letters, Maps, Geometric Figures, Musical Symbols, etc, for Use by the Blind was published in 1839.

Many of Braille’s original printed works remain available at the Braille birthplace museum in Coupvray.

Louis was elevated to a professor at the institute where he taught History, Geometry and Algebra.

Although Braille was admired and respected by his pupils, his writing system was not taught at the institute during his lifetime. The successors of Valentine Hauy who had died in 1822 showed no interest in altering the established methods of the school, and indeed, they were actively hostile to its use. Dr . Alexandre Francois-Rene Pignier, headmaster of the school, was dismissed from his post for transcribing a History book into braille.

Louis Braille died at his family home in Coupvray, 2 days after his 43 birthday on January 6 1852.

Braille’s system was finally adopted by the institute in 1854, two years after his death. The system spread throughout the French speaking world, but was slower to expand in other places.

A universal braille code was formalized in 1932 and it grew to be a powerful and enduring utility to this day. I had my first braille experience on Monday, April 4 2004.

New variations in braille continue to grow, including such innovations as braille computer terminals.

The Encyclopedia Britannica lists Louis Braille among the “Hundred Most Influential Inventors of All Time.”

Braille’s childhood home in Coupvray is a listed historic building and houses the Louis Braille Museum.

A large monument was erected in his honour in the town square which was itself renamed Braille Square.

On the Centenery of Braille’s death, his remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris. In a symbolic gesture, Louis Braille’s hands were left in Coupvray, reverently buried near his home.

Statues and memorials in the honour of Louis Braille can be found around the world. He has been commemorated in postage stamps worldwide, the 200th anniversary of Braille’s birth in 2009 was celebrated throughout the world by exhibitions and symposiums about his life and achievements. Among the commemorations, Belgium and Italy struck 2-euro coins, India struck a 2-rupee coin and USA struck a 1-dollar coin, all in Braille’s honour.

Braille also has appearances in the arts, including the American TV special, Young Heroes: Louis Braille, (2010), the French TV movie, Une Lumiere dance la Nuit, (released in English as The Secret of Braille), and the dramatic play, Braille- the Early Life of Louis Braille, (1989), by Lola and Coleman Jennings.

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