Happy Birthday, Louis Braille!

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Louis Braille (January 4, 1809 – January 6, 1852) was the inventor of Braille, the language system designed for the use of the blind or visually impaired. Braille himself had been blinded in an accident as a small child, and was raised as normally as possible by his parents, who helped him navigate their village with specially-designed canes. Braille studied at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, and his own thirst for learning pushed him to make the world as accessible as possible for the blind, stating, "Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge... We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about."

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As a young child in Coupvray, France, Louis Braille spent time with his father, a leatherer and maker of horse tack, in his workshop. When the boy was three, Louis was playing with an awl, trying to make holes in a piece of leather. Louis got too close to the instrument, and as he pressed down to pierce the leather, the awl struck him in one of his eyes. Despite meeting with a highly respected surgeon, his vision was irreparably damaged. By the age of five, Braille was completely blind in both eyes.

Braille's parents were determined to make their son's life as rich as possible, and Braille learned to use canes to guide his travel, and his studies were encouraged by local teachers and priests. His reputation for intelligence earned him a place at the National Institute for Blind Youth, one of the first schools for blind children in the world.

At school, Braille learned the Haüy system, developed by a kindhearted philanthropist, Valentin Haüy, who was not blind himself. The young student felt that Haüy's system was severely lacking in depth, and did not allow the children to write by themselves.

Braille himself proved to be such an adept scholar that he was asked to be a teacher's aide and later a professor. For much of his life, Braille taught history, geometry, and algebra at the Institute.

BrailleAlphIn 1821, Braille learne of a system invented by French Army captain Charles Barbier, who met with Braille and shared his system called "night writing". Braille used this as the inspiration for his own system, which allowed letters to be recognized with the touch of a finger. Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, the same kind of implement which had blinded him.

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A talented musician, Braille extended his system to include Braille musical notation, and he later published a book, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them.

 

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Unfortunately for the inventor, his own school was hostile to his invention, who had grown accustomed to Haüy's system. During his lifetime, the Institute refused to teach the Braille system. It was not until 1932 that a universal Braille code for English was formalized. The popularization of Braille is owed to Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage, who championed its usefulness at the first conference of teachers for the blind in Europe, in 1873. By 1882, Dr. Armitage was able to report that "There is now probably no institution in the civilized world where braille is not used except in some of those in North America." Braille was adopted by schools for the blind in America in 1916.

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A US silver dollar commemorating the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth, in 2009.

 

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Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Saturday, 04 January 2014
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