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Happy Birthday, Louis Braille! An Account of My Week in France

Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D.

The bicentenary of Louis Braille's birth, and the conference held in honor of the code he created, provided me an opportunity to retrace the footsteps of this exceptional man and answer some questions that had lingered in my mind: What life did he lead? How did he come to invent the braille system? I was fortunate enough to retrace the steps of this brilliant inventor back from his resting place in the Panthéon to his birthplace in Coupvray.

Honoring the Dead

On January 4, 2009, Louis' actual birthday, I was invited to start the day by attending a commemorative mass held in the chapel of the National Institute for the Young Blind. The cold crisp air of Paris in wintertime quickened our steps from the hotel to the school. As small as the chapel was, it was beautiful, and the sun shone through the windows lighting up the church choir as well as all those in attendance, many of whom were staying on for the conference on braille opening the following day. The chapel was especially significant for me since it housed the organ on which Louis practiced, as have the many other students who followed him. Some students were taught not only how to play the organ but also to read braille music by Louis Braille himself!

Following the mass, a special reception was held in the school, where we were all offered a slice of Gateau des Rois or King's Cake, a traditional French cake in which a bean or small ceramic figure is hidden. The person who finds the hidden item is crowned king for a day. Brian Charleson, director of the computer program at the Carroll Center in Massachusetts and William Rowland from South Africa, past president of the World Blind Union, both left the reception wearing golden paper crowns. The traditional Gateau des Rois is a light and buttery puff pastry filled with frangipane (almond paste). Please visit the following web site to find a recipe for this delicious French dessert.

As most of us know, Louis Braille was the brilliant inventor of the system of writing that bears his name. His final resting place is in the Panthéon, alongside the most symbolic figures of France's greatness. The Panthéon was previously a church, Sainte Geneviève, built in the 18th century on the instructions of Louis XV by the architect Germain Soufflot. Since 1791, it has been the burial place of France's great men and women. Its neo-classical architecture houses, for example, the tombs of Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Jean Moulin, Pierre and Marie Curie.

I had the opportunity to go underground to Louis Braille's tomb, where a wreath was laid in his honor. It was overwhelming and a privilege to follow many people who were blind to Louis Braille's tomb, where they were all seeking to touch the actual place where he is laid.

The wreath-laying ceremony was followed by a reception with champagne and French macaroons, almond-based egg white cookies that are lightly infused with a variety of essences and "sandwiched" together with a flavored cream or jam. A selection of flavors including pistachio, vanilla, raspberry, coffee, chocolate, and lemon, were passed on silver platters by white-gloved waiters. Macaroons melt in your mouth and destroy any thoughts of watching one's weight. Visit the following web site so you can taste this delicacy for yourself.

On the evening of January 4th was an organ recital at the famous Notre-Dame-de-Paris Cathedral in homage to the great blind man himself, Louis Braille, who also was a gifted organist. The recital featured Jean-Pierre Leguay, the official organist of the cathedral, a graduate of the very school at which Louis Braille attended and taught.

I could go on and describe the onion soup, steak tartar, and chocolate mousse I enjoyed afterward, but I believe the two recipes I have provided in this essay should give you just enough of the taste of Paris to make you appropriately jealous of my final assignment for the American Foundation for the Blind as a recently retired employee!

In 1785, Valentin Haüy established the Institution for Blind Children that was to become the Royal, then the National, Institute for the Young Blind (INJA). In 1819, Louis Braille entered the institute at the age of 10 and subsequently taught French, history, geography, and mathematics while perfecting his system of writing. In 1829, his writing system that was to change the lives of millions of blind people across all four continents was revealed. Thanks to braille, it became possible for the blind to gain access to all forms of writing. This access paved the way for their social and professional integration and a cultural life. In 1889, Maurice de la Sizeranne founded the Valentin Haüy Association (AVH), whose first aim was to spread the knowledge of braille among all people who were visually impaired, not only in France, but throughout the world, thus opening the doors to knowledge for blind people through its libraries and press.

Because of the heritage of the development of braille, AVH, INJA, and other entities made the 200th anniversary of Braille's birth a unique event by also hosting a conference about braille and its future, the Braille 1809-2009 International Conference: "Writing with Six Dots and Its Future." The conference was held under the patronage of the President of the French Republic, with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Blind Union, the National Committee for the Social Promotion of Blind and Partially Sighted People, and the International Committee for the Commemoration of the Bicentenary of Louis Braille's Birth (CINAL). It was held at UNESCO January 5-8, 2009, and was facilitated by Françoise Madray-Lesigne, secretary general of AVH, president of the French-speaking World Blind Union, and vice president of CINAL.

The aim of the conference was to review the latest developments in braille in relation to information technologies; music; math; cartography; art and access to art; braille games; foreign languages in developing countries; the role of braille in education, independent living, and employment; unified braille; and the consumer's perspective on braille. Working groups and workshops were held in order to undertake a thorough examination of the braille system.

The conference closed on Wednesday, January 7th, with a banquet at the Mayor's Palace, in a hall that was filled with golden frames on the walls and ceilings, and beautiful paintings, both religious and secular.

Visiting Louis Braille's Birthplace

A visit to the house where Louis Braille was born took place on Thursday, January 8th. The house, in Coupvray-bas, is a solid rural cottage dating back to the 18th century. Since 1956, the house has been a museum, open to the public year round. Visitors quickly learn how the family lived at that time. The Brailles, saddle makers from father to son for over a century, lived in this typical French house. Some of the furniture and tools of the saddle making craft—the workbench, the mold for the horse's collar, the saddle tree, and the branding iron—can be seen in the workshop, the very place where Louis Braille lost his sight.

Louis Braille always felt deeply attached to his birthplace. When he was ill, he went home to rest. In the room he arranged for himself at that time, moving family souvenirs are on display, together with documents and items relating to the invention of writing for the blind.

The culmination of the glorious week in Paris was best expressed by the inauguration of a new song by award-winning singer-songwriter Terry Kelly. A recording of his new song, "Merci Louis," was played at the conference by members of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The song summed up everyone's gratitude to Louis Braille and his work which still affects people throughout the world now and in the future, and its title says it all: Merci, Louis.

The organizers of this wonderful week deserve international commendation for a time filled with both celebration as well as new information on the status of braille. They are: Christian Volle, Christiane Delattre, and Christian Coudert, Comité d'Organisation Bicentenaire, Association Valentin Haüy, 5 rue Duroc, 75343 Paris, Cedex 07, France; e-mail: bicentenaire@avh.asso.fr or ch.coudert@avh.asso.fr.

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