BRAILLE 200 : SOME REFLECTIONS by William Rowland
Presentation to conference
“Braille 1809 – 2009”
Writing with 6 dots and its future
Paris – 5 to 7 January 2009
Amongst the things we as blind persons hold dear, braille surely ranks first. It is for us the means of education, employment, and pleasure. It is our key to independence. Because of braille we are literate and interrelated as a global community.
Louis Braille is our greatest benefactor and as we recall the history of the ingenious script he invented, we marvel at the victory of braille over resistance to its use, attempts at substitution, and the perceived threat of modern technologies misunderstood. The course traversed has at times been uncertain, and yet the triumph of braille has been inevitable because of its simplicity, versatility, and germaneness to our senses.
But what about the time ahead? Will remarks such as these still be apt fifty years from now, after another hundred years, or even two hundred? The answer of course lies in the realm of belief and not of fact, but what we can say is that braille has taken on a life of its own in the sense that there exists today an extensive system of standard setting, teaching and instruction, production and distribution, and that if we, as blind persons reliant on braille, continue to champion its cause, its growth and spread is likely to be assured. Let us at this celebration pledge ourselves to make it so.
FOUR MOMENTS IN HISTORY
In history, unpredictable events can lead to predictable outcomes; or so it seems as we piece together a series of coincidences two centuries ago without which we would not have braille.
The first of these coincidences happened in 1771 when the young Valentin Haüy dropped in for lunch at a Parisian café. There a group of blind men wearing dunce caps and cardboard glasses was entertaining the crowd by playing out of tune on old violins. Haüy was so sickened by the spectacle that he was unable to finish his meal. But it was also “at that very instant” that he conceived the idea that blind people, given proper means, could learn to read music and spell. It was a belief he later put into practice by founding the first school for the blind in 1784.
But the most fateful of the incidents I am describing took place in Coupvray in 1812. Simon-René Braille, the village harness maker, was at his workbench with little Louis at his side imitating his father’s movements. With one hand he seized a leather strap and with the other a tiny knife. The knife slipped and stabbed his right eye. The home remedy of lily water probably did more harm than good and the infection spread to the other eye. By the age of five Louis was totally blind.
The next coincidence took the form of a conversation between two citizens of Coupvray. Abbé Jacques Palluy, the local priest, knew the Braille family well and could tell that Louis was intelligent and full of curiosity. He provided personal tuition and later persuaded the local school to allow Louis to attend classes. But in the aftermath of the French Revolution a new education system was imposed on the school bringing this arrangement to an abrupt end.
Abbé Palluy had heard that a school in Paris provided education to blind children and taught them trades, and so it was that he approached the lord of the manor, the Marquis D’Orvilliers, to help secure a place for Louis. Fortuitously, D’Orvilliers had once witnessed a demonstration of skills by Haüy and his pupils at the royal court in Versailles which had impressed him greatly. He agreed to write the letter and at the age of ten Louis was admitted to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth.
The final coincidence was the visit by an ex-artillery officer, Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre, to the school in 1820. Barbier had invented a code of “night writing” to enable soldiers to exchange messages in the dark and he now presented it as a means for blind people to read. Based on a 12-dot cell, the various symbols represented sounds rather than letters. The code was demonstrated to the students but the director, Guillié, was unenthusiastic.
The following year Barbier returned to the school to press his case. The new director, Pignier, was of the opinion that only the blind children could judge the merits of the system. He assembled the students to explain the system to them and to let them experiment with embossed pages. This was the system which young Louis, through imagination and persistent effort, over the next three years transformed into the practical 6-dot code which bears his name.
The episodes I have recounted each formed a link in the chain of events that inevitably led to the invention of braille. Without the concert of the blind, Haüy would not have founded his school; without Louis’ blinding, we would have been denied his genius; without that conversation between priest and nobleman, Louis would have remained uneducated; and without his exposure to “night writing”, Louis would have lacked the example for brilliant transformation. Such are the seemingly random events that shape the course of history.
THE GENIUS OF LOUIS BRAILLE
The genius of Louis Braille lies in the ingenuity of his code. It is not an adaptation of Barbier’s 12-dot code, but a fundamental modification. Reducing the number of dots to six - two vertical columns of three - produced a cell that neatly fits beneath the fingerpad. To Barbier goes the credit of proposing the use of dots, which are far easier to feel than lines and curves, but to Braille goes the honour of giving us a tactile means of rendering written language precisely. The introduction in 1832 of a number sign provided a simple basis for mathematics, while the recasting of the braille code to express musical notation gave blind musicians the ability to read and write vocal and instrumental compositions.
The braille code is also ingenious for its simple logic. The top four dots of the braille cell are used to represent the first ten letters of the alphabet, A to J. By adding a fifth dot, we get the next ten letters, K to T, and by adding a sixth dot the remaining letters U to Z. The six dots together allow us 63 different permutations, sufficient for the alphabets of all languages plus accent signs, punctuation marks, mathematical symbols, and musical notes - and today computer code as well. If we use two cells in combination, as we do in many of our contractions, we have an astonishing 3,969 potential constructs for the moving fingers to interpret. And so braille, which by nature is a closed system, actually offers us more signs and symbols than we could ever possibly need.
But there is yet one more feature bestowing on braille superiority over all its predecessors and initial competitors, namely that it can be written, and written by the individual using inexpensive technology, and in the 21st century computer technology.
LOUIS BRAILLE CLOSE UP
But what of the man himself? What was Louis Braille like as a boy, as teenager, as beloved teacher?
Helen Keller writes: “He was blessed with affectionate parents, and I feel sure he responded to their love as a plant does to sunlight.”
Simon-René, the father, was 44 when Louis was born and Monique, the mother, 39. They thought of him as their little “Benjamin” and Simon-René looked forward to him being his “companion in old age”.
Simon-René was a master harness maker and from him Louis would have acquired the traits of attention to detail and perfectionism. He was raised as a Catholic and Father Palluy is likely to have encouraged in him the Christian virtues of love, kindliness, and humility. We know that Louis was a clever student and that he excelled at music, learning to play both the cello and the organ. Later on, his students and friends tell of his politeness and of the great care he took not to give offence in conversation. Within his own family he was admired for feats of memory and he actually taught lessons in mnemonics.
He had a concern for the well-being of others. In his letters, for example, he rather enquires after the health of friends than referring to his own health, even when it was in serious decline. When a talented young student was to leave the institute without prospect of employment, he selflessly offered him his own position as organist at the church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. His will provided for a number of charitable bequests and he took great pains to ensure that all money owing to him at his death was written off.
As a blind person reflecting on the life and work of Louis Braille, one has the peculiar sense of knowing him personally. Perhaps it is because of the vivid descriptions we have of his character and conduct; or perhaps because he lives up to our highest expectations of him as the father of braille; or perhaps because of our reverence for the system of reading and writing we use hour by hour every day.
BRAILLE TODAY AND TOMORROW
In the time of Louis Braille, most blind people lived in destitution. The few who escaped this fate did so because of family connections or because of public benevolence, which in itself was a sorry lot. One thinks of the inmates of the Quinze-Vingts hospice, a ramshackle institution with a harsh regimen and few reliefs.
In contrast, today in many parts of the world, blind people have opportunities of education, employment, and full participation in society, as gradually we approach a time when blind people will be able to be whatever they choose to be.
But in far more places in the world, this is not the state of affairs, even remotely. In Africa - I speak of Africa because that’s where I belong - less than 10% of blind children are at school, and of those who receive education less than 5% find employment. The braille literacy rate is 1 to 2 percent, at best, and most countries lack libraries. Blind people in these societies are isolated and have low expectations of themselves, if any at all.
In countries where progress has been notable, we can point to two contributing factors - blind people organizing themselves for change, and the availability of braille as tool of independence. Nowhere, though, does the braille literacy rate exceed 10%. But what we do know is that 85% of blind persons employed today are braille users.
And so we have an intolerable inequality. It has to be a matter of conscience to equalize opportunities for blind persons not only with those of sighted persons, but with each other. In Africa, as elsewhere, we need inclusive education, literacy programmes, employment initiatives, braille production, libraries, access technology, and fierce and relentless activism. And the leading agent of change has to be the World Blind Union with its constituent organizations and worldwide individual membership, and the WBU acting in unison with its partners ICEVI, IFLA, the Daisy Consortium, and others. It is in essence a question of human rights and governments too have to be actors in this changing world, impelled by the CRPD.
And so, from small beginnings come mighty things! Is it too much to say that the impetus for change that began at the Paris school with Louis Braille and his ingenious invention in time influenced the founding of the great organizations for the blind and in our time the establishment of organizations of the blind, and the World Blind Union? The irresistible course of history, so to speak? I think not.
Merci beaucoup Louis Braille!
The biographical information on Louis Braille given in this presentation is drawn from the following sources:
Henri, Pierre: The Life and Work of Louis Braille;
Kimbrough, Paula: How Braille Began; and
Mellor, C. Michael: Louis Braille - A Touch of Genius.