Skip to Content

AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Helen Keller Celebrates a Sight-Giver, as published in The New York Times Magazine, (November 17, 1929)


"Miss Keller Celebrates a Sight-Giver"

Champion of the Blind Says Louis Braille Unlocked a Prison Door When He Invented His Simple Alphabet

To the sightless the name of Louis Braille brings a feeling of gratitude, for it was he who invented the Braille alphabet for the blind, the centenary of which the world is celebrating this year. The significance of his discovery is set forth in the following article by Helen Keller. Miss Keller, blind and deaf since infancy, pays personal tribute to the man who gave this magic wand to the sightless.

If we should look for the greatest benefactor of the sightless - the individual who has given them a perpetual source of delight and profit - the choice would certainly fall upon Louis Braille.

A century ago this humble blind Frenchman, a pupil of the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, opened a new way to knowledge and mental delight for the sightless. Today, on the anniversary of his discovery, we who are without sight celebrate gratefully the achievement of one who poured the sweetness of tangible printed words into the bitter waters of our affliction.

As a pupil Louis Braille had learned to write and read the embossed Roman type. Later he examined carefully all existing systems of raised characters, and adopted as the basis of his own invention the punctographic method of Captain Barbier, a young French cavalry officer. Barbier's letter consisted of six points, but was to long vertically to be covered by the finger. Finally after long, patient effort, Braille succeeded in simplifying this method so that it would be an entirely satisfactory means of communication between the world of the blind and that of the seeing.

In every day's mail hundreds of letters which the invention of Braille has made possible travel from land to land. If Braille had not lived and spent the greater part of his life laboring zealously to lighten the burden of blindness such a means of communication might never have existed. The greatest books, embossed in Braille, may now be found on the shelves of public libraries and institutions for the sightless. Braille is a key to books in many languages. The Bible has been transcribed into Braille, likewise the Koran in Egypt. A Scottish missionary, Dr. Murray, adapted Braille for Chinese printing.

The centenary of Braille's significant discovery should not pass unnoticed. Without the word, visible or tangible, there can be no education. When one thinks of the sufferings of the sightless in all countries before they could read, one does not wonder that it is written in the Bible, "In the beginning the word was with God... and the word was the light of men."

It had been obvious for many years that if the blind were to be educated, a method must be devised by which they could read and study like the seeing. Louis Braille invented the embossed system which made this possible. The magic wand with which he wrought this miracle was a group of six dots in which the vertical line consists of three dots and the horizontal of two. The combination of these dots in various positions produces characters to each of which we assign a particular meaning, just as the seeing do to characters of print. Sixty-three combinations of these six dots may be used.

For instance, the two dots at the top of the oblong represent C, the upper and lower dots on the left side stand of K, and the addition of the other upper dot to K changes it to M. It is amazing how six dots can be combined to represent so many things - letters, marks of punctuation, signs, numerals, a musical notation and accents in foreign languages!

Braille's invention was as marvelous as any fairy tale. Only six dots! Yet when he touched a blank sheet of paper it became alive with words that sparkled in the darkness of the blind! Only six dots! Yet he made them vibrate with harmonies that charmed away lonely hours! Only six dots! Yet the magic of his genius gave to the blind the power of mighty vehicles of thought. With them he captured words that weave bonds of companionship between those who cannot see and those who can, words that bring to us the rainbow and the splendor of sunset skies, words that, like swift ships, bear us far away from the monotony of blindness, the trivial incidents of time and place and the pain of thwarted effort.

So long as the memory of brave men is cherished in the world, there shall be warm gratitude to Louis Braille, who was a light to stumbling feet along the paths of knowledge and intelligence. Gladly I acknowledge my own indebtedness to Louis Braille. His system has been a most precious aid to me in many ways. It made my going to college possible - it was the only method by which I could take notes of lectures. All my examination papers were copied for me in this system. I use Braille as the spider uses its webb (sic) - to catch thoughts that flit across my mind for speeches, messages and manuscripts.

Without Braille I should not have had courage to write my new book, bringing up to date the story of my life. I wrote out in Braille a synopsis of what I wanted to say; then I copied the manuscript on the typewriter. Without Braille I could not have held the thread of my discourse.

Louis Braille was born in April, 1809, at Coup-Vray, near Paris, the son of a harness- maker. One day, when he was 3, he was playing in his father's workshop, and took it into his head to imitate his father, whom he saw at work. Unfortunately, the skill of the 3-year-old was not sufficient. The sharp awl with which he was working slipped, flew upward and entered one of his eyes, destroying its sight. Sympathetic inflammation in the other eye followed and he soon became totally blind.

When Louis was 10, he entered the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, where he learned to use his hands instead of his eyes. He progressed well in all his studies and his versatility was demonstrated by his proficiency in all branches - literary, musical and mathematical.

In 1826, when he was only 17, Louis was appointed as an instructor in the Institution Nationale, where he had studied as a pupil. Here he taught grammar, geography, arithmetic, history, geometry, algebra and music. Not only was he an excellent teacher, but he was popular among the students and well beloved by them.

Braille did not confine himself to oral teaching but wrote several treatises, among them one on arithmetic which is a masterpiece of clearness and precision. His style was terse. "Our method of writing and printing," he said, "takes up so much space on paper that the fewest possible words must be used to express our thoughts." His musical ability also was of no mean order. When still little more than a boy he became so proficient at the organ that he was appointed organist in one of the churches of Paris, and received other similar appointments later.

In spite of his varied tasks and interests, Louis Braille had always time for his friends. What a wise counselor, courageous mentor, generous friend! Whenever a painful but necessary reproof had to be administered, if others shrank from the task he did not hesitate to undertake so delicate a duty. He wished his friendship to be of practical value to those who enjoyed it. Not sacrifice of time, money or comfort was too great if it were to help a pupil or friend. On a certain occasion one of his pupils was about to leave the institution but had not sufficient means to support himself. Braille promptly resigned in favor of his pupil an organ appointment which he held. Small wonder then that when, after many years of declining health, he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1852, the influence of his spirit lived on in the hearts of his friends.

1829-1929! What a long slow journey for the blind from the first clumsy attempts at reading a type resembling that of ordinary print to the Braille books now within their reach.

In order to understand more fully the importance of Braille's work, it may be well to go back to the beginning and give a brief history of embossed types for the blind. It is a history of incredible obstacles, tireless experimenting and queer misconceptions of blindness and the problems arising from it.

After the education of the blind began in 1789 the first method of printing books for them was with a system of characters resembling the Latin alphabet - the Roman line letter type. Valentine Hauy, the first educator of the blind discovered this method accidentally, while watching the process of the ordinary press. He observed that sheets fresh from the press and printed only on one side showed the letters in rather sharp relief. He at once set about enlarging the characters for the fingers and having them printed in reverse of the usual type, so that they would read from left to right on the sheet. Accordingly he used this method in his first experiment. He did not ask what kind of characters could be most easily read with the fingers, and this was his initial mistake.

Hauy's adaptation of Roman type spread rapidly from Paris to Great Britain, Germany, Austria and America. It was hailed as a path to deliverance for the blind; but the rejoicing gave way to disappointment when it was discovered that from one-third to one-half of the blind in the schools could not decipher Hauy's line letter. The chief defect of his method was that he used curved forms, which the blind reader finds extremely difficult. He did not know that the more elaborate a raised letter is, the less easy is it for the blind to recognize, or that the finger detects sharp angles much more quickly than curves, or that points like the periods are perceived very clearly.

Countless modifications of Hauy's line letter were attempted in France, England and other countries with the object of discovering a more legible type; but none of them was successful, as is shown by the rapidity with which they were tested and thrown aside. Only on linear type has survived to this day - the angular Moon type, invented by an Englishman, William Moon. This is a very large and distinct print adapted to the fingers of the adult blind, who need something to practice their touch on before they learn Braille.

For many years Braille notation remained comparatively obscure even in Paris, the city of its origin, and there was a still harder fight to gain recognition in other countries, especially in Great Britain and America. But slowly and mostly though blind persons who learned it the system came to be known and approved outside of Paris and the schools. It was not recognized as the standard type for the blind in England until 1869, and even then the institutions were slow in discarding the other systems.

As Braille progressed little by little in America, it encountered three rivals - mighty dragons breathing fire and smoke. The first was the Roman line which Dr. Howe, the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, had improved for his young sightless pupils. His faith that "obstacles were things to be overcome" inspired them with a determination to master even the line letter; and he turned out books so rapidly that soon he had the largest and finest embossed library in the world. Every school for the blind in the United States used them, and no others were to be had. The second rival of Braille was New York point, which made its appearance some time before 1868. The third was another modification called American Braille.

Each system had its zealous adherents, and the controversy as to which was supreme was long and fierce. This was a pity because it tremendously increased the cost of embossing books and music, and resulted in duplication, as each book had to be printed in the three different systems. This battle of types which continued to rage in the schools for fifty years began to approach a settlement when in 1917 the American Association of Workers for the Blind, in convention at Portland, Me., adopted European Braille as the standard for the sightless of America. This was a giant stride forward.

In the midst of this chaos of types appeared, in 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind - a national agency equally interested in all methods of educating the sightless. M.C. Migel, president of the foundation and an influential friend of the sightless who puts service before theory or controversy, generously made possible the investigation and tests of various raised prints and insured the final victory for uniformity. This was a tremendous benefaction to the blind of America. The only fitting expression of gratitude to him is to declare publicly the mental relief and happiness of the blind in at last having, like those who can see, a unified, easy method of reading and writing, a method adequate to all the practical uses of life and work. Thus at last the blind of both hemispheres were untied in one method of embossed writing. It is now necessary to print books only in this type to make them available to the blind of the world.

The blind are perhaps the most difficult class of handicapped people to help. Blindness complicates every problem of life, involves dependence on others, limits occupations and necessitates special appliances adapted to the needs of the blind. Not only must books be printed especially for the blind at great expense, but also the work of improving the apparatus used by the blind is not sufficiently profitable commercially to attract the attention of skilled mechanics. Yet there is not a shadow of doubt that if a little more money and time were spent on these problems they would soon be solved.

Until 1923 all books in raised type in this country were printed on one side of the page, although in Europe two-side printing had been in use for many years. The American Foundation made a study of two-side printing abroad and in 1927 established a sort of laboratory to devise cheaper and simpler methods of embossing books and manufacturing Braille typewriters for the blind. The result of these experiments are encouraging. Even with the imperfect apparatus now available, there is already a 40 per cent decrease in the bulk of volumes produced and an appreciable falling off in the cost of Braille books!

Truly, books are lamps in my own life and in the lives of the countless other blind people. They deliver us from the dreary monotony of blindness! With words of light they transport us from our little corner in the dark to the colorful, throbbing creative life of mankind. They roll up the curtain of night, as it were, and reveal to us the glory of dawn and starry skies, the sea and mighty forests.

Yet, reader of printer's ink, pause for a moment and consider the vast disparity between your resources and those of the blind. The New York Public Library has more than 2,000,000 titles for those who can see, and only 1,250 in standard Braille! Many of the Braille volumes of the library are transcribed by individuals and are available only in single copies! I wonder if the time will ever come when there is an ample provision of varied, interesting and instructive reading for the blind of all tastes and capabilities. Here is an opportunity for public-spirited men and women to bestow upon the blind a precious boon.

And it would be wonderful if some one would make it possible for us to have a national weekly newspaper in Braille. What finer monument could there be to Louis Braille? This is one of my long cherished dreams; and surely it is not an unrealizable one when already in England there is a weekly edition of The London Daily Mail in Braille. In Japan one of the largest daily newspapers, the Osaka Mainichi, publishes a Braille daily.

The splendid culmination of benefits arising from Louis Braille's invention is the American Braille Press in France. This is an American organization which for reasons of economy maintains its printing house in Paris, at 74 Rue Lauriston, near the Arc de Triomphe. It is a thoroughly up-to-date plant, in which about two-thirds of the working staff are without sight. A device called the Ediphone is used by means of which one seeing person can dictate the text to seven or eight blind operators. There is also a new rotary press, the first machine of its kind, with paper in rolls and automatic instrument, which turns out 12,000 pages of interpointed Braille an hour. Thus a long step has been taken in enabling the blind to produce a larger number of embossed books than ever before.

The service of the American Braille Press is not limited to the sightless of this country, but includes the blind of all civilized lands. Although it has existed only eight years, in that brief time it has produced thousands of excellent volumes and numerous periodicals containing articles of world-wide interest from leading magazines in English, French, Italian, Polish and Serbian. Some literature is sent even to the blind of Algeria, Palestine, New Zealand, and South Africa. Besides books, the Braille Press has furnished dictionaries, manuals to teach trades, school books, and 700,000 pages of classical and popular music. To intelligent blind people all over the world this agency is a precious symbol of progress.

A most touching story of human kindness is the zeal with which hundreds of people master Braille and give up their hours of leisure to transcribe books for the sightless. I can mention only a few, but I refer with affection to the State chapters of the American Red Cross, the splendid British staff of Braille copyists and the devoted army of volunteer transcribers in France. It should be remembered that a Braille book is much more bulky than a book which the ordinary press turns out in a few minutes. My own copy of "Microbe-Hunters" contains eleven volumes, and "Life and Letters of Joseph Conrad" fourteen volumes. What patience those friends of the blind must have to spend long hours punching out countless pages, with no reward, except the thought that they are lightening the cross of blindness a little! It is a miracle - all the kindly thoughts that are directed toward us daily, all the faithful hands that busy themselves to give the bread of books to our hungry spirits!

The miracle of Braille - the strange dotted characters which gave eyes to the blind - redeemed them from despair and knit their souls with the soul of mankind in sweet unison. They who once sat brooding through sad, interminable days of emptiness now look with rapt gaze upon the universe as they read with their eyes in their fingers. From the tomb of sealed sense they have risen to the morning light and the ecstasy of thought.

Oh, the joy of being able to think! Oh, the precious power of self-expression! Oh, the comfort of forgetting sorrow in love's confidences! Oh, the blessedness of treading the high places of the spirit unfettered! Oh, the delicious taste of independence that comes with an embossed book, and a Braille tablet!

Yes, the blind can now work, they can study, they can sing, they can add their share to the good and happiness in the world. And it was Louis Braille, a captive bearing a yoke as cruel as their own, who found the golden key to unlock their prison door.

services icon Directory of Services

book icon Featured Book

JVIB Special Issue on Critical Issues in Visual Impairment & BlindnessJVIB Special Issue on Critical Issues in Visual Impairment & Blindness

JVIB Special Issue on Critical Issues in Visual Impairment & Blindness

Join Our Mission

Help us expand our resources for people with vision loss.