Excerpted from As I Saw It by Robert B. Irwin
Copyright © 1955 American Foundation for the Blind, New York. All rights reserved.
Social workers often complain that blind people are a difficult lot to deal with. When one considers how cheerfully most of them have adjusted themselves within the span of a single lifetime to such changes in their reading, codes as from Boston linetype to New York Point, New York Point to American braille, American braille to Revised braille grade 1 1/2 ,and finally from grade 1 1/2 to grade 2, it must be admitted that sweet reasonableness must characterize a large percentage of finger readers. What an outcry would be heard in this country if the seeing public had been forced to make a similar series of accommodations!
While it is not the purpose of this book to go into history of work for the blind much before 1900, some account of the origin of types for the blind in the United States will not be out of place.
The founders of schools for the blind in this country turned to Europe for special appliances and special methods. In the early 1830's when the three mother schools for the blind were founded in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, the common type in official use on the other side of the Atlantic was embossed Roman letters more or less simplified to make them more tangible. Their virtue as compared with arbitrary codes seemed to be that they could be read by sight by the seeing teachers with no special instruction. Furthermore, it was contended that the blind people, by using a type similar to that of their seeing associates, were set less apart from the rest of the world.
While Louis Braille had already published an exposition of his dot system in 1829, it had no official standing anywhere and it is not clear that our earliest American pioneers knew anything about this code. However, in 1860, Dr. Simon Pollak, a member of the Board of the Missouri School for the Blind, who had observed the system in use in Europe, brought it back to America with him and caused it to be officially adopted by this school.
In the early 1860's William Bell Wait, a teacher and superintendent of the New York Institution for the Blind, as it was then called, realized that a considerable portion of blind children had great difficulty in learning to read embossed Roman letters and a still higher percentage of those blinded in adult life could not learn to read it at all. Accordingly, he turned his attention to the promotion of some dot code that would be more tangible. In Philadelphia, Roman letters printed with dotted lines were being used to some extent, but it was not practical for blind people to write embossed Roman letters whether smooth or dotted.
Mr. Wait writes that he first asked the heads of schools for the blind in Boston and Philadelphia to join him in supplanting the Roman letters with Braille's code which was in use at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. As he received no encouragement from his colleagues he turned his attention to the perfecting of a dot code which he felt would be even superior to braille and published it in 1868.
This system, New York Point, was endorsed and recommended for use in the schools for the blind in the United States at the meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind in 1871.
The braille system consists of arbitrary characters standing for the letters of the alphabet, numerals, punctuation, etc. All of these characters can be made with one or more dots punched in what is known as a braille cell, two dots in width and three dots in height. As on the typewriter, each letter takes the same amount of space.
Mr. Wait, on the other hand, felt that braille was wasteful of space and so he developed a system of arbitrary characters occupying a space two dots high and extending horizontally to one, two, three or four dots in width. This type had what is known as a variable base, that is, a letter one dot wide used only one dot in width; a letter two dots wide used only two dots in width; and a letter three dots wide used three dots in width , etc. This resulted in a definite saving of space. However, lower case letters in New York Point were converted into capitals by a complicated system of adding dots under certain conditions, to make the letter four dots wide. This was so cumbersome that publishers almost never used capitals in their books.
When Louis Braille assigned a significance to a braille character he did not take into account the relative frequency of recurrence of that letter. For instance the character for "t" contains four dots and the character for "a" contains but one dot in spite of the fact that the letter "t" occurs in most languages more frequently than the letter "a."
This deficiency encouraged still another American to work on a dot system that would be superior to Braille's original code. Joel W. Smith, a blind piano tuning teacher at Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, felt that letters made in a cell three dots high and two dots wide could be read more easily and written more rapidly than Mr. Wait's New York Point system. In order to gain for a system written in the braille cell some of the advantages claimed for New York Point he worked out a rearrangement of Louis Braille's characters. To save effort in writing he assigned the characters having the fewest dots to the letters recurring with the highest frequency in the English language. To keep down the bulkiness of embossed books he evolved a set of word contractions, assigning characters to them on the same frequency of recurrence principle. This new type he called Modified braille. Smith expounded his system before the American Association of Instructors of the Blind in 1878. However, New York Point was already the officially adopted type of the association. Mr. Wait and his friends gave the young mild mannered Smith pretty harsh treatment at this meeting.
Modified braille was used more or less by the pupils of Perkins Institution but little more was heard of it outside of Boston for another decade. The official type at Perkins remained the simplified Roman alphabet, commonly called Boston linetype, in spite of the fact that it was difficult to feel and impracticable for the blind to write.
Louis Braille's system made little more progress outside of Missouri than did Modified braille. Blind pupils in some of the schools, notably in Illinois, used it for personal purposes but officially it was frowned upon as being an heretical competitor of the orthodox New York Point and the appliances for writing it were confiscated by the school authorities.
In 1890 there came onto the type scene as superintendent of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind in Philadelphia, a young man who was destined to play a stellar role in the whole type controversy. He was Edward E. Allen who had formerly taught in the Royal Normal College for the Blind in London where an English adaptation of Louis Braille's system was in use. From London he had gone to Boston as a teacher in Perkins Institution. There he became familiar with Smith's modified braille which was in use for manuscript purposes. He liked the scientific basis on which ordinary lower case letters could be converted into capitals by prefixing two dots in the bottom of the preceding cell.
Mr. Allen found New York Point in official use at Philadelphia when he arrived there. Though, as he said, the teachers did not like the system, he retained it for two years because it was the only dot type in which books could be obtained from the government-supported American Printing House for the Blind.
In 1892 a group of seven or more superintendents of schools for the blind met at the time of the Brantford, Ontario, convention of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind under the chairmanship of Michael Anagnos, Director of Perkins Institution. This group was dissatisfied with New York Point and decided to adopt some form of braille. They appointed a subcommittee consisting of Dr. John T. Sibley of the Missouri School for the Blind, Joel W. Smith and Edward E. Allen, to decide which braille alphabet to adopt in America. After some discussion, all but one, Dr. Sibley, decided to use Modified braille in spite of the fact that no books in this type were available. In 1900 this type was renamed American braille on the suggestion of Dr. Sibley.
At this time considerations regarding the mechanics of printing for the blind were interjected into the type question. So far, embossed Roman letters known as linetype, and New York Point had been printed with movable type from which stereotype plates were sometimes cast. In England braille books had been printed from metal sheets punched out on a rugged braille writing frame with a heavy stylus and mallet. The author at one time bad the privilege of shaking hands with Mr. John Ford who had, over a period of thirteen years, punched out the entire Bible by this method.
Modern printing for the blind may be said to have begun in 1892 when Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, demonstrated his recently developed braille typewriter before the American Association of Instructors of the Blind at Brantford. This device tremendously speeded up the writing of braille. A good writer with a slate and stylus can seldom write more than ten to twenty words a minute, whereas a proficient braille typewriter operator may, with a reasonable amount of practice, write two or three scores of words per minute.
From the development of a braille typewriter for writing on paper it was only a step to the development of a more powerful machine for embossing on sheets of brass, zinc or iron. This machine was called the braille stereotypemaker and was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The printing process was simple. The embossed metal sheets were covered with tough, heavy paper about twice the thickness of ordinary book paper, and upon this was laid a rubber blanket. The whole combination was then inserted in a press, and pressure applied. When the paper was removed, it was covered entirely with braille printing.
With the advent of Hall's stereotypemaker Mr. Allen set up a braille printing shop in his school in Philadelphia and several other schools followed, notably the Illinois School for the Blind. Embossed braille plates from these schools were sometimes deposited with the American Printing House for the Blind so that books could be made from them and sold to the various schools who wished to purchase them.
For many years a feud had raged between the sponsors of American braille and of New York Point. This feud, which was of such vital importance to the blind readers, became the basis of a bitter, personal controversy between seeing leaders on either side. One who had not witnessed the heat which was engendered by the debates on the so-called type question cannot realize how bitter these discussions could become. A superintendent of a school for the blind, who had originally favored the use of New York Point in his school, after considerable study switched over to the use of braille. When he came to a national convention of instructors the following year, he found that some of his old New York Point associates refused to sit next to him at the luncheon table. In the light of this feeling on the subject, one can easily imagine the exultation among the braillists at the appearance of Frank Hall's braillewriter since it was impracticable to write New York Point on this machine.
Years later Mr. Wait, in telling the author about the Brantford convention, said that after examining the braillewriter he realized that New York Point was doomed unless an equivalent machine for writing his type could be perfected. He therefore went to work on this problem, and within a few months produced a typewriter for writing New York Point, which was christened the Kleidograph.
Mr. Wait further said that he had no sooner announced this machine than he had another surprise awaiting him, the braille stereotypemaker. Anyone who has had the experience of developing rather complicated mechanical appliances is amazed at the shortness of time that was required for adapting the Kleidograph to embossing on metal sheets. This extended the life of New York Point for another generation. We sometimes mourn the waste of time and money in this prolonged type dispute. However, it was not without its blessing. The competition between the backers of the two systems stimulated the development of improved appliances which might otherwise have been long delayed.
The advocates of the two rival systems worked hard at raising money from private as well as public sources to build up libraries in their favorite types. To Mr. Wait, who had labored for more than thirty years to perfect New York Point and who at one time had seen nearly every school for the blind in the United States using it as its official code, the controversy became very personal. Had New York Point survived, his name would have gone down in history alongside that of Louis Braille. As it turned out, he is today remembered as a very able and relentless leader among educators of the blind who died a disappointed, embittered old man. One of his greatest disappointments was the adoption of braille as the official system to be taught in the New York Public Schools.
In 1909 when plans were being made for the new day school classes for the blind in the New York Public Schools the thorny question of what tactile type to use in these classes came up for decision. There was so much feeling on the subject, especially in the city of New York where New York Point had its birth, that the Board of Education wisely decided to hold a public hearing and let the advocates of the two systems present their cases before a committee of the Board.
There were two hearings held, the first on March 24, the second on May 18th. The time allotted to the first hearing was two and a half hours and was equally divided between the factions, New York Pointists having the first half. This gave the Point people no time for rebuttal and the protests were so violent that a second hearing was held.
William Bell Wait marshalled his witnesses in behalf of New York Point while Miss Winifred Holt, founder of the New York Association for the Blind, rallied the American braille forces. Behind this hearing, as the initiated realized, was a background of a long-standing feud between Miss Holt and Mr. Wait which had little or nothing to do with blind people's reading. Mr. Wait objected to Miss Holt's publicity methods, and Miss Holt was very critical of Mr. Wait's school for not taking more interest in the vocational prospects of its pupils.
Such authorities as Mr. Wait himself, Mr. John F. Bledsoe, Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind, Benjamin Berinstein who was then a young blind college student, and other New York Point stalwarts testified passionately in favor of New York Point.
Miss Holt persuaded such braillists as Frank H. Hall, inventor of the braillewriter, who long since had left work for the blind, to come to New York to testify. With him were such well-known personalities as George W. Jones, then superintendent of the Illinois School braille printing department and braille member of the Uniform Type Committee of the American Association of Workers for the Blind; Olin H. Burritt, then superintendent of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind; John B. Curtis, sightless supervisor of classes for the blind in the Chicago Public Schools, and others. Edward E. Allen, then director of Perkins Institution, was absent in Europe or he would doubtless have been one of the star witnesses.
Helen Keller, who has always avoided needlessly involving herself in controversies which might prove acrimonious, was not present, but she did write a letter to A. Emerson Palmer, Secretary of the New York Board of Education, which was read at the hearing.
The hall in which the hearing was held was packed to overflowing with backers of the two systems. Charles F. F. Campbell, son of the famous Sir Francis Campbell of the Royal Normal College for the Blind in London, England, and editor of the Outlook for the Blind, came down from Massachusetts with several others to witness the spectacle. A whole delegation came from Philadelphia, another from Baltimore, and local braille and New York Point fans listened eagerly. The author well remembers the breathless silence with which the audience hung on the words of the witnesses.
Backers of the respective systems burst into applause as telling points were made for their favorite type. The committee on types of the Board of Education must have been puzzled over the manifest public interest in this highly technical subject.
Both sides stressed for the most part the economy and flexibility of their systems. In New York Point a given number of words occupies substantially less space than in American braille. Mr. Wait made the most of the space saving qualities of this type even to the point of exaggeration. He also directed attention to the fact that the available library of New York Point books was much larger than that in braille.
The advocates of American braille made a rather impressive showing by recounting the schools for the blind which had abandoned use of New York Point in favor of American braille indicating a strong trend toward the newer system. One of their strongest arguments was that, as New York Point publishers made little or no use of their cumbersome capitals or their four-dot long hyphens and apostrophes, most books were published without using any of these signs.
Studies based on tests made with a very few subjects claimed evidence in favor of braille, which was used effectively at the second hearing. However, the most telling blow that was given New York Point occurred at the first hearing. It was an exhibit offered by Frank Hall which showed two copies of a title page of a book in ink type, one entirely without caps as it would appear in New York Point and one correctly capitalized as it would appear in American braille.
Mr. Hall also showed an exhibit in ink type with apostrophes and hyphens omitted. Much was heard in those days of what was termed the "illiteracy" of New York Point which, when translated into ink type, made New York Point books look like very poor models of English to place in the hands of blind children.
Helen Keller's letter to Mr. Palmer summed up much of the argument in behalf of American braille. It reads as follows:
My Dear Sir:
I regret that I cannot appear at the hearing before the Board of Education of New York City on March the 24th. I have been deeply interested these many years in the question of raised types, not so much for my own advantage (I read all the systems) as for that of the large number of blind persons who may not share my good fortune. I understand that you are to consider the relative merits of American braille and New York Point. Between these two systems, it seems to me, there can be no question when the facts are all properly presented to you.
I have always found New York Point a difficult, unsatisfactory system. I object to it as it appears in most books which I have seen because it does not use capitals, apostrophes and hyphens. This sometimes spoils the sense for the reader. But it has a worse effect upon the young pupil. He is liable to get an imperfect idea of capitalization and punctuation. I have received letters written on the ordinary ink typewriter from blind persons which contained errors significantly like the defects of New York Point, and I cannot but believe that this illiteracy is traceable to their habitual use of a defective mode of punctographic writing during school years.
It is true, the makers of New York Point have devised capitals; but it is noteworthy that this very winter the State Library at Albany was trying to decide upon a suitable capital sign. Forty years after this system was supposed to be "perfected," it is still in an undecided state! The capitals, when they are used, are not always unequivocal. I have often mistaken D for j, I for b and Y for double o in signatures, and I waste time looking at initial letters over and over again. I am not satisfied with the signs for hyphen and apostrophe that I have found because they are cumbersome. It is possible to mistake the apostrophe for ou, especially in proper names.
New York Point is much harder for me to read than American braille. It wears my reading finger more to travel over letters three dots wide and two high as they are in New York Point than over letters two dots wide and three high as they are in American braille. Also, it is a most trying task to decipher many letters which I get in New York Point. The writers evidently have trouble either with the system or the machine. Of the letters I receive in the two systems, a far larger proportion are well written in American braille.
I note, too, that in the great world of the blind New York Point is a provincialism. The machines for it are made only in New York, and write only New York Point. On the other hand, machines for braille are made in Germany, France, England and America. I have owned American and German braillewriters which place me in communication with people all over the world.
I am sure that in all important respects American braille is superior to New York Point because it meets completely the needs of capitalization, punctuation, legibility and physical ease of reading.
With high regards, I am
(signed) Helen Keller
One of the high points of the evening for the writer was the effect the hearing had on his companion Charles F. F. Campbell. While Charlie was more in sympathy with English braille than with either of the American systems, he dearly loved a good fight. He had suggested to the writer that they find a secluded comer where they could listen unobserved. Being the editor of the Outlook for the Blind he felt he should hold a neutral position. Except when presenting a matter in written form where words could be carefully weighed, a neutral role was a very difficult one for him to play as he was always enthusiastic about anything in which he believed.
When the exhibit of the two title pages was placed on the blackboard and the stunning effect of its appearance on the seeing members of the audience was evident, Charlie threw his arms around the author and added to the applause a burst of laughter which might have been termed a whoop! Charles had hoped his presence in the room would not be noticed but this now became a vain wish as every worker for the blind knew his expressive laugh. Friends and enemies alike (and he had both of a plenty) exclaimed in an audible whisper, "Charlie Campbell is here!" This is mentioned because it was so characteristic of this exuberant man who had such a profound influence on work for the blind during the first two decades of the century.
After mature deliberation the committee of the New York Board of Education finally handed down its decision in favor of American braille.
Most of the money for educational books for the blind comes from the United States Government. The federal appropriation for school books is made to the American Printing House for the Blind of Louisville, Kentucky. This institution, which is today the largest embossing plant for the blind in the world, is governed by a board of trustees on which the superintendent of every publicly supported school for the blind in the United States is ex officio a member. In addition there are seven lay board members residing in Kentucky. From these lay members the president is invariably selected, and they constitute the executive committee which handles the day-to-day business of the institution.
As long as most of the superintendent board members were advocates of New York Point, they had been able to prevent any of the federal money being used for publishing in braille. This forced the schools using braille to rely upon private philanthropy, or upon state appropriations for their books.
In 1910, however, it was evident that the forces of New York Point and the braille advocates on the board were nearly equal in number. This resulted in what at the time looked like a smart maneuver on the part of New York Pointers to preserve the New York Point monopoly on government funds.
It had been customary, since 1880, for the American Printing House for the Blind to hold a meeting of its board of trustees at the same place and time as the biennial convention of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind. This saved the superintendents attending the conventions the expense of going to Louisville to attend the annual meeting of the Printing House those years. In 1910, nineteen of the superintendents of schools using braille petitioned Colonel Andrew Cowan, President of the American Printing House for the Blind, to hold its usual board meeting that year at Little Rock, Arkansas, immediately following the convention of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind. Shortly before Mr. Benjamin B. Huntoon, Superintendent and Secretary of the American Printing House, sent out a letter announcing that it had been found to be illegal for the American Printing House as a Kentucky corporation to hold its board meetings outside of the state. To the braillists this seemed to be a sharp move. Several of the superintendents lived on the Pacific Coast, and meeting the cost of going to Louisville from Little Rock would be a hardship for them.
When the superintendents gathered for the convention that year, emotions were running high. Since 1902 it had not been customary at these conventions to hold any public discussions on the type question. Experience had shown that the acrimony engendered made calm deliberation on educational problems well-nigh impossible. However, it was decided to disregard the old custom and bring into an open meeting the whole question of braille versus New York Point, as well as the sudden discovery of the illegality of American Printing House board meetings being held outside the state of Kentucky. The braillists had long looked forward to the time when they would have a majority on the board. They then could demand and would be able to force the allotment of a certain proportion of the federal appropriation for the embossing of braille books. Now it looked as if this opportunity might be snatched from them, for the year at least, through what seemed to many of them like a trick.
Those who attended the 1910 meeting will never forget the debate which was held in that hot, humid room in Little Rock that afternoon, late in June. Feeling ran so high that it was hard to find a member of the association whom they all could trust to preside. However, they finally selected a rugged old Hoosier, George Wilson, Superintendent of the Indiana School for the Blind, who had the reputation of rock-bound integrity. He professed to be entirely openminded on the subject of braille and New York Point. After careful study he had chosen for his school the braille system of music notation, while New York Point had been selected for literary purposes.
It was not an easy task to preside over this assembly. On one hand there was a group fearing that their favorite New York Point type was about to go down to defeat at the hands of an ill-advised group of newcomer braillists, and, on the other hand, a group of braillists who saw themselves about to be swindled by a technicality out of an opportunity to have government money made available for books in their type.
As the gentlemen assembled one could feel the tension in the air. It was decided that no questions would be barred at this meeting and that no punches would be pulled. Mr. Huntoon, who had exploded the legal bombshell, became both the target of criticism and the defender of the American Printing House for the Blind.
Everybody wanted the floor, so it was ruled by the chair that no one could speak more than once, until everybody else had had a chance. In fairness to the Printing House, it was also ruled that its superintendent might answer questions regardless of the number of times he had had the floor previously. Mr. Huntoon was, at that time, a zealous, elderly man who believed earnestly in New York Point. He was one of probably not more than ten per cent of the group who could personally read either system. As the author looks back on that meeting he remembers the eagerness of Mr. Huntoon to bring out certain points. Since he could not personally raise these points, except in answers to questions, he would appeal to the chair in his high-pitched voice to have someone ask him "the following question." Finally, Mr. Huntoon objected to one of the questions which seemed to reflect unfairly upon him and his institution. He said that he would not "waste his breath on a jackass like the questioner." The chairman ordered him to withdraw that remark or he would suspend the discussion immediately. After a tense minute or more, Mr. Huntoon rose slowly to his feet and said, "Having delivered myself of the epithet, I now gladly withdraw it." This broke the tension and the meeting burst into prolonged laughter which seemed to give everyone as much relief as Mr. Huntoon's epithet had afforded him.
As a result of the discussion the braillists all determined that they would attend the Louisville board meeting the following day even if they had to ride home on brake beams. A special sleeping car was reserved for them and the annual meeting at Louisville had a record attendance that year.
Regular business of the Louisville meeting was disposed of with the customary dullness that characterizes most annual board meetings. Finally, under new business, the motion for which everyone was waiting breathlessly was made, taking the form of a proposal that forty per cent of the government appropriation be expended on the publication of American braille books. The vote was a tie. This left it up to the chairman of the meeting, Colonel Andrew Cowan, a local businessman of very high repute, to cast the deciding vote. Mr. Huntoon implored him in a whisper to kill the motion. Colonel Cowan disappointed his New York Point friends by stating that the motion seemed like a reasonable request since forty per cent of the pupils represented by the superintendents were in schools which had officially adopted American braille. He cast the deciding vote in favor of the resolution, and one can easily imagine the chagrin of the New York Point members. From that time on, forty per cent of the federal appropriation went for American braille books until Revised braille completely supplanted both of the contending systems.
Meanwhile the blind people, who were the real sufferers as a result of the controversy, had become heartily disgusted with the fight going on between superintendents of schools for the blind, few of whom could read either system.
In 1901 the American Blind People's Higher Education and General Improvement Association at its Kansas City convention passed a resolution which read as follows, "That a committee be appointed to investigate the various forms of tactile print, and to labor for the adoption of some one universal system."
In 1902, pursuant to this resolution, the Tactile Print Investigating Commission was created, consisting of four members, and chaired by Ambrose M. Shotwell, a blind man who was braille printer of the Michigan School for the Blind and later braille printer and librarian of the Michigan Employment Institution for the Blind in Saginaw. A prominent member of the commission was John B. Curtis, also sightless, who was supervisor of classes for the blind in the Chicago Public Schools which operated a small braille printing shop.
The Tactile Print Investigating Commission, handicapped by lack of any funds with which to work, conducted a few tests to ascertain the relative legibility of letters having a few dots as compared with letters having many dots. It also made a few tests designed to determine the relative legibility of words containing letters of one and two dots in height and one and two dots in width. The number of subjects tested were too few to more than suggest conclusions which were later arrived at after testing several hundred readers.
Before the commission wound up its affairs it also endeavored unsuccessfully to get the British Braille Committee to cooperate with it. The principal achievement of the commission was that of focusing the interest of a larger number of thoughtful blind people upon the desirability of the adoption of a uniform type based upon scientifically demonstrated principles.
In 1905 the successor to the American Blind People's Higher Education and General Improvement Association, the American Association of Workers for the Blind, at its convention in Saginaw, Michigan received a letter from Charles W. Holmes, resident of Rock Island, Quebec, Canada, and President of the Alumni Association of Perkins Institution for the Blind, which is quoted in part because it expresses so well the feelings of thoughtful blind people at that time.
I desire to...present our views upon the great type question, which seems just now to be one of the most important and prominent before the consideration of the blind and their friends. The most lamentable fact in this connection is that we have at present five distinct codes of embossed print, and virtually subdivisions of some of them as well-since some books are printed with, and some without contractions. In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which at best is woefully limited) the blind reader must learn, and keep well up in, all these codes.... How long would our seeing friends stand for such a state of affairs in ink type? Imagine for a moment the ridiculous situation that would arise, if the daily papers published in Boston had an entirely different system of characters from those used by New York publishers, and that a Philadelphia man could not read either without special training, because his own city had adopted a third, as unlike the others as the Chinese characters are unlike the Roman.... What we need, and must have, and will have if we but make up our minds to it, and stand by each other, is an international, universal code of embossed type for all English-speaking countries.... Will not this association which is a mighty power in the affairs of the blind in this country, put its shoulder to the wheel and see to it that the word to quit is not given till the wheel moves? ...
It would be very acceptable to the advocates of braille, if that code could be taken as the basis of the universal code. New York Point supporters would feel the same satisfaction, if that system could be put to the front, and so with each of the five, no doubt. But in such an undertaking nothing can be accomplished unless all are willing to make concessions, cheerfully, and if necessary stand prepared to abandon their own individual choice, and abide loyally by whatever may ultimately be agreed upon by the majority....
...At present there are a good many books printed in more than one code, which is a needless waste of time and expense but is necessary under present conditions in order that the readers in different systems may have the privilege of reading them. Stereotyping is playing an important part in our printing now and is one of the strongest arguments for a universal code. When once the plates are stamped for a certain book, the additional expense of striking off a few hundred more copies is, comparatively speaking, very trifling. There already exists a most praiseworthy system of exchange of books among our printing houses and libraries. Let this continue and be extended systematically on both sides of the water.... Think what a great increase of literature there would be for the same total expense that is now laid out by the combined presses of England and America, and every book available to every reader, on both sides of the ocean.
May I not urge upon you my friends, that you give this matter your most serious consideration... till the end is accomplished? We shall have opposition both from the blind themselves and from some of those in authority over them, no doubt; there will be more or less confusion and perhaps inconvenience for a time to the readers, but what great good was ever yet brought about... without opposition and sacrifice?... The time is now ripe for action; the English-speaking world, so far as the blind are concerned, is aroused. They are feeling their way toward a solution. If we let this opportunity pass, it may be years before another occasion so favorable will present itself...
Mr. Holmes also wrote a similar letter to the International Conference on the Blind which was held in Edinburgh the same year, in the hope of interesting British authorities in the subject.
The Tactile Print Investigating Commission was succeeded by the Uniform Type Committee of the American Association of Workers for the Blind which was set up by the following resolution at the 1905 convention at Saginaw, "That we favor the adoption of some one uniform type for use in schools and general reading, and that a committee of five be appointed to communicate with the British Braille Committee, and to continue the work heretofore assigned to the Tactile Print Investigating Commission." This committee consisted of the following, all of whom were blind: Charles W. Holmes, Elwyn H. Fowler, John B. Curtis, Lee N. Muck, Ambrose M. Shotwell. Two of the members were New York Point advocates, two American braille advocates, and the fifth soon became known to be partial to British braille.
The Uniform Type Committee began by stating that linetype was passing from the stage as a competitor. It recognized, however, that Moon type had a certain value for use by blinded aged and hard-handed persons. In this connection it was suggested that a dot system arranged in a cell three dots high and three dots wide and roughly resembling Roman letters might be superior in some respects to Moon type as it would be less expensive to manufacture by movable type, easier to learn, more tangible, and capable of being written by hand. This suggestion, however, never got beyond the academic discussion stage.
The committee decided to concentrate its study on the relative merits of the three point systems, American braille, New York Point and British braille. The problem was broken down into certain characteristic elements of the systems which could be compared one with another. It was hoped that the claims for the various systems were susceptible of scientific testing. For example, New York Point is a dot system in which no letter is more than two dots vertically, while horizontally it might be one to four dots. On the other hand, braille consists of one or more dots arranged within the braille cell, three dots vertically and two horizontally. Which is more legible?
Test sheets were prepared, each containing an equal number of characters. On one sheet these characters were one, two or three dots high; on the other sheet the same number of characters were arranged one, two or three dots in width. These characters were placed in lines as they would appear in an embossed book and grouped in from two to five characters such as might appear in words. Each character, of course, was the equivalent of a braille or a New York Point letter.
In administering the test a blind subject was asked to read the sheets and simply call out the number of dots in the character under his finger so that it made no difference whether or not he knew the letter for which it stood. A stop watch was held by an observer who followed on another copy of the test and the subject was directed to call the number of dots in these characters as rapidly as he could recognize them. It was felt that if the sheets having characters three dots wide (characteristic of New York Point) could be read faster or with fewer errors than the sheets with characters three dots high (characteristic of braille), a superiority for New York Point would be indicated, If, however, the characters three dots high could be read more rapidly than those with the horizontal arrangement of dots, a superiority for braille would be suggested.
Several scores of persons were tested in this way, and it was found that even in the areas where New York Point was the prevailing system the sheets with characters three dots high were read more rapidly.
Other tests were devised which, it was felt, would test other characteristics of the systems. Unfortunately, as in the case of the committee's predecessor, the members had little opportunity to get together because of the lack of working funds.
At the 1907 meeting of the American Association of Workers for the Blind a report was made which was inconclusive because data had been collected with so few subjects that the findings might conceivably be reversed if a larger number of readers were to be tested. The committee was continued. In 1909 the American Association of Workers for the Blind met in Columbus, Ohio. A report was submitted which, for the same reason, was not convincing to persons having a predisposition toward New York Point. It became known at this meeting that the two New York Point advocates on the committee had become so convinced of the superiority of braille over their former favorite system that they now were advocates of braille, so that the committee then stood four favoring American braille and one favoring British braille. The New York Point advocates who attended the convention were outraged at the betrayal of their favorite type. Dignified superintendents took the platform and denounced the committee, denounced its methods, denounced its motives, and, had congressional investigations then been the order of the day, they would probably have demanded either a congressional investigation of the subject or, at least, that a grand jury be called to search out the culprits.
To calm the turbulent waters, and on the motion of a braille advocate, it was voted that the number on the committee be increased to ten by adding five who favored New York Point. Among the newcomers were two who for several years were destined to play a major role in the settlement of the type question--H. Randolph Latimer, sightless member of the faculty of the Maryland School for the Blind, and Miss L. Pearl Howard, a young graduate of the Iowa State School for the Blind. Mr. Latimer withdrew soon after election, but rejoined the committee again in 1911.
Something of the spirit of the committee may be gathered from a recent interview between the writer and Miss Howard, who said,
When offered the appointment on the committee I asked if I was expected to work for the general adoption of New York Point or for a uniform type, whatever it might be. The reply was that I should work for a uniform type regardless of any predisposition I might have. This was all I wanted to know and I accepted service under those conditions. This decision may have cost me some of my Iowa friends who were in favor of the New York Point.
Little money, however, was made available to the committee, so that they had to depend for the most part upon their own slender purses to meet the costs of any investigations they might make. In the spring of 1911 the committee felt that it must try out relative legibility tests on more people. Accordingly, in spite of the committee's lack of funds, arrangements were made for Miss Howard and Mr. Elwyn H. Fowler and his seeing wife, Mary, to visit the New York State School for the Blind at Batavia where New York Point was the official embossed type. The purpose of this visit was quite as much to test the validity of some new tests as to assemble convincing data.
The next biennial convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind was held in June 1911 at Overbrook, Philadelphia in the assembly room of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind. The committee had little to report at that meeting beyond plans for more scientific study if at least $3000.00 could be made available. It offered to raise $1800.00 if those at the convention would show their faith in the committee by pledging $1200.00. The committee's report consisted principally of an effort to impress upon the lay public and upon the seeing superintendents of schools for the blind the nature of the problem in hand, the tragic confusion of the whole affair to the blind, and the shamefulness of wasting money in the duplication of books in the various systems.
The committee selected a seeing man, Charles F. F. Campbell, to expound the report of the committee to the convention because he was known as one of the most ardent advocates of just treatment of the blind who ever lived. Charlie had a flair for presenting in a clear way problems of concern to the blind. It is fortunate that he was chosen for this task. He was more accustomed to public speaking than any of the members of the committee. As a seeing man he could plead that the seeing members of the association and the seeing public, to whom the type question was largely an academic one, give the committee of blind people funds with which to work.
The committee reported that they must have money enough to employ two agents, one blind and one seeing, to travel about the United States from one typical community to another, explaining the methods and objectives of the committee and, through tests, collect data which would eventually enable any fair-minded person approaching the subject dispassionately to decide upon a satisfactory code of embossed type.
The convention consisted of men and women of whom perhaps half were blind, and all of them were deeply interested in problems of vital concern to the sightless. Practically all of them were in very modest circumstances—some were teachers, some were broommakers, some were home teachers, some were small businessmen, some were dependent upon small pensions of one kind or another. However, this group represented the rank and file of blind people as well as of workers for the blind. Whatever decision they arrived at, while not binding upon anyone, would have a great moral influence on the thinking of those in control of agencies for the blind.
It was to this group that Mr. Campbell pleaded for funds to carry on the scientific study of a field in which thousands of dollars were wasted every year through duplication. Everybody agreed that duplication was wrong, but no one had enough data on which to base an argument for any one type which would be convincing to those predisposed to another.
Mr. Campbell made an impassioned appeal to this group for moral support, but, more importantly, for financial support. No evangelist ever made a more heartfelt plea. That little group of 330 men and women was thoroughly aroused. Charles W. Holmes, Chairman of the Uniform Type Committee, who then held a position in work for the blind in Massachusetts, announced that he would start the fund with $100.00, one month's salary. Others followed with smaller amounts. One man, who many present knew was living on a pension of $150.00 a year, pledged $5.00. Finally the Director of Perkins Institution for the Blind, an old advocate of American braille who felt that so far as he was concerned the question had been settled for twenty years, pledged $200.00 from the Howe Memorial Press, an organization affiliated with Perkins Institution. No million dollar pledge of a Rockefeller brought forth more enthusiastic cheers. At the end of an hour it was announced that $1500.00 had been pledged. The committee then felt that with this show of confidence it could go forth and raise, from the general public, the additional $1800.00 it had pledged itself to collect. Before the next meeting a total of $4,133.60 was raised. With the funds now in sight the committee could proceed with some real research.
Word of this meeting and its results spread over the entire community of the blind of the United States. It now looked as if the end of the type dispute was in sight. How little most of them realized that it would be another five years before anything even resembling uniformity would be found in the United States and that more than twenty-one years would elapse before they had a uniform type for the English-speaking world.
About this time Mr. M. C. Migel, a wealthy, retired silk manufacturer in New York City, who had long been interested in blind people, heard of the Uniform Type Committee's work. For twelve years he had given one evening a week to reading to blind men and women residents of the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Blind in New York City. He became very fond of many of the people who attended his reading circle, and one time brought back from England a braille book for one of the girls in the institution. Much to his amazement he found that she could not read it, not because she was illiterate, but because the book was in British braille and she was a reader of New York Point.
When he heard of the Uniform Type Committee and its efforts to bring some solution to the problem, he stopped in the reading room for the blind at the Library of Congress and asked Mrs. Gertrude T. Rider, the librarian in charge, if she thought money contributed to the Uniform Type Committee would bear fruit. A few days later Miss L. Pearl Howard and Mrs. Elwyn H. Fowler, representatives of the Uniform Type Committee, visited the library. While she felt that she could not expose Mr. Migel to a direct appeal from the committee, Mrs. Rider promised these representatives that she would suggest to Mr. Migel that he get in touch with them or with the chairman of the committee. A little later Mr. Migel called on Walter G. Holmes, managing editor of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind, and learned that it was a source of great distress to him that he had to issue the magazine in two editions, one for those who read New York Point and one for those who read braille. He begrudged the waste of precious money. However, he had some doubts about the ultimate success of the efforts of the Uniform Type Committee. He had seen too much bitter controversy to allow himself to believe wholeheartedly that the committee could settle the question.
Mr. Migel posed this query to Mr. Holmes; would it be worthwhile for him to give a thousand dollars to the committee? Mr. Holmes said it depended on how much "one thousand dollars" meant to him, to which Mr. Migel replied that really a thousand dollars did not mean too much to him.
With the funds raised at Overbrook and with some additional money which had come in from other sources, the committee was able to employ Miss Howard and Mrs. Fowler on very modest salaries. This pair of devoted representatives travelled about the country conducting tests in thirty-six states. Everyone was eager to know what these tests were showing. Was New York Point showing up better than it had originally, or was braille still in the ascendancy?
After visiting a majority of the schools for the blind in the United States where either New York Point or American braille was in use, the committee felt that some tests should be made in a school where the British version of braille was in vogue. Practically the only school in North America answering this description was the one at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Accordingly, Halifax was visited and several scores of pupils were tested. Immediately, the agents were impressed by the facility with which these pupils read, and to their consternation a study of test sheets indicated a striking superiority of British braille over either American braille or New York Point.
A hasty meeting of the committee was called in Boston and the results to date reviewed. Twelve hundred American readers had been tested. They were about equally divided between New York Point and American braille. In most respects American braille had been demonstrated to be superior to New York Point, though New York Point had certain space-saving advantages resulting from its variable base which made books in that system more compact. Now they were confronted with results of tests made of British braille which seemed to show that that system was superior to either of the American systems. However, it was judged both dangerous and unfair to scrap the two American types on the showing made with British braille by hardly a hundred readers.
The data collected, however, was so convincing that when it was laid before the committee, it was apparent to all that neither American braille nor New York Point would survive. However, British braille had exhibited certain weaknesses, and if the slate were clean and a new system devised it seemed probable that a punctographic code theoretically superior to any of the three could be developed.
The committee feared that if British braille were adopted with all of its faults, some future student of the subject might again upset the whole world of the blind with a type controversy by promoting a scientifically demonstrable superior code. Therefore, it was decided to strike out boldly and work out an entirely new code--a code that would utilize the British or French braille alphabet and, for contraction purposes, utilize characters which had been demonstrated to be the most legible to represent groups of letters recurring with the greatest frequency in the English languages code--which would not only utilize a cell three dots high but would also utilize the variable base which had given to New York Point its space-saving and some other advantages.
Accordingly, on June 25, 1913 the committee recommended at the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind held at Jacksonville, Illinois that an entirely new system, to be known as Standard Dot, be promulgated for use throughout the entire country, scrapping both New York Point and American braille.
The recommendations of the committee were approved when put before the delegates to the convention and the committee was directed to elaborate further the proposed system. This outcome was not a victory for any of the contending systems. The American braille code was discarded but the three levels of dots upon which it was based and the principle of frequency of recurrence, fundamental parts of the system, were retained. The New York Point code was also discarded but the variable base as well as the principle of frequency of recurrence was retained. The advocates of both systems were crushed, and they were left to take what comfort they could out of what remained, plus the fact that their hated rival had fared no better.
What is this British braille system that had shown up so well? What had been happening in England during all this time? In 1876 through the influence of the British and Foreign Blind Association, later the National Institute for the Blind, Louis Braille's French alphabet, with upwards of two hundred contractions and abbreviations adapted to the English language, won ascendancy over all other competitors as the reading code for the blind of Great Britain. Among its contractions were characters standing for ing, ch, sh, action, ally; and such abbreviations as slid for should, bl for blind, rcv for receive, dcv for deceive, etc. After several years' experience with the new code considerable dissatisfaction with its set of contractions had grown up throughout Great Britain. The Hora Jucunda, a braille magazine published in Edinburgh, opened its columns to a discussion of the merits and demerits of braille as early as 1893. Soon it began agitating for the appointment of a representative committee to revise the system.
In 1902 the various interested groups got together on a committee known as the British Braille Committee sponsored jointly by the British and Foreign Blind Association and the Gardner's Trust for the Blind. This committee, after some three years of work, agreed upon a new set of rules and contractions. This system was to be known as British Revised braille. The alphabet, numerals, punctuation and a few other signs made up what was called Revised braille grade 1. Revised braille grade 2 consisted of grade 1 plus some two hundred contractions: and abbreviations. Revised braille grade 3 consisted of grade z plus upwards of a thousand more contractions and abbreviations. These contractions were selected largely on the basis of personal observation as to their usefulness and frequency of recurrence in English. Some one said that these contractions were an aggregate of individual preferences rather than a set of scientific symbols, as no extended study had been made to demonstrate their value.
However, this committee submitted its report to its sponsoring organizations in 1905 shortly before the meeting of the International Conference on the Blind in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh convention approved the report. This action, however, had no international significance because only a few foreign visitors attended this British meeting.
To revert to the American Uniform Type Committee in 1913—a more detailed study of British braille seemed called for. A careful study of the committee treasury and of the cost of travel to Great Britain and other financial considerations indicated that by scrimping painfully and omitting a printed report, and by travelling on the steamship at the lowest possible rate, the representatives of the committee could go to England and make a limited number of tests.
On the day before leaving for England Chairman Holmes received a letter from Mr. M. C. Migel in New York expressing his interest in the work of the committee and enclosing a check. No one unacquainted with the zeal of the Uniform Type Committee members can realize what this sudden discovery of such a financial sponsor meant to them. Now the representatives of the committee could travel in a dignified, comfortable way with resources which would enable them to visit several large centers of population in Great Britain where a sufficient number of blind subjects could be found to give conclusive results.
The representatives of the committee were Messrs. Fowler and Latimer, Miss Howard and Mrs. Fowler. They sailed in the early summer of 1914, and their stay in England coincided with the International Conference on the Blind in London.
Several other persons intimately familiar with the work of the Uniform Type Committee were also in attendance. The delegates were most cordially received by workers for the blind in Great Britain, who gave full support to the investigations carried on by the committee. Upon its return to America the work was begun on the development of the proposed Standard Dot system.
In 1915 the convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind was scheduled for Berkeley, California, mainly to give its members an opportunity to visit also the Panama Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco, across the Bay. The sister association, the American Association of Instructors of the Blind for the same reason had postponed for one year its convention originally scheduled for 1914, and had decided to hold a joint meeting with the American Association of Workers for the Blind. Before the two associations the Uniform Type Committee reported the completion of its work on the development of the Standard Dot code and recommended its adoption for general use. The American Association of Workers for the Blind accepted the report and adopted the new system. The American Association of Instructors of the Blind, composed mostly of seeing executives, was a little more cautious. It voted to accept the Standard Dot system only on condition that the British type authorities would likewise.
The report also recommended that the Uniform Type Committee be forthwith discharged, as its work was considered finished. This was done, and in its place the two associations created the Commission on Uniform Type for the Blind to carry on the work.
Miss H. C. Russell was present at this meeting, representing the National Institute for the Blind in Great Britain. She was not overly optimistic about the acceptance of the new code by her British countrymen.
As one looks back on it now, in the light of what has happened since, it was naive of any of this group to think that the practical, hard-headed British authorities in control for the blind, who were perfectly satisfied with the type they then had, would accept any such proposal. As recently as 1905 the British had revised their code and at great expense had scrapped their old system of contractions upon the recommendation of a committee that had given long study to the subject. However, in a spirit of innocent optimism, Standard Dot was seriously proposed as a worldwide type for the English-speaking blind. The British studied the code and while the official correspondence on the subject was polite, they popularly dubbed it "Standard Rot" and would have none of it.
Under the date of December 15, 1915 Mr. W. M. Stone, Headmaster of the Craigmillar School for the Blind in Edinburgh, wrote an open letter to Mr. H. R. Latimer, Secretary of the new American Commission on Uniform Type for the Blind, which was obviously intended largely for home consumption. This letter which was published in the British periodical Teacher of the Blind for January, 1916 read in part as follows:
What is it that you claim for Standard Dot? I know what you will reply—uniformity, increase of accuracy, increase of speed. Well, we want uniformity, we want it badly; but we think there are other ways of reaching it. There would be uniformity if you adopted British braille. There are more readers of British than of any other system of punctography. People frequently talk as if British braille was the concern only of those living in the British Isles. It is the system of the blind of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and India. It is as nearly identical with the braille of European countries as differences of language make possible, and it is actually read by great numbers of every European country. Therefore, if uniformity is to be the great gain, it is only reasonable to ask you to conform to our system. With regard to increase of accuracy, I must candidly say I think that accuracy after reaching a certain point is of little importance. I find that blind people, children or adults, read quite as accurately as seeing people. And the gain you show in accuracy is so very small, only two per cent. You see I am accepting your figures, but it must be remembered they are only theoretically obtained, no actual tests between the two systems have been taken. There remains speed, which is equivalent to fluency. I think this is much more important than accuracy, for without ease there is no pleasure and without pleasure there is little real reading. Well, what is your claim for this point? Only a gain of six per cent. It comes to this, then, so far as I have been able to work it out, that the sacrifices are what I have stated, and the gain is problematic increase of speed...
The universality in the use of British braille implied in Mr. Stone's letter was not as significant as it sounds. There were probably less than five hundred braille readers in all of India and the combined reading blind populations of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and a small section of Canada using British braille was probably not greater than the reading blind population of New York and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, about all that was common in braille between Great Britain and the European countries he refers to was the alphabet, and Standard Dot utilized the British braille alphabet.
Two days later (December 17, 1915) Mr. Stone wrote a personal letter to Mr. Latimer which included the following paragraph:
I am so sorry that Standard Dot appears to us in this country impossible of acceptance. We don't doubt for a minute that it is a very good system, but then so is British braille, and why should we change to gain so little?
In the United States, also, Standard Dot met with little enthusiasm. It was clear within a few months that without British participation the new code would never go into practical use. It was evident to the most optimistic of Standard Dot devotees that there was no hope of arriving at a uniform code based on anything but British Revised braille. Mr. Latimer, Secretary of the commission, wrote a letter dated January 8, 1916 to Mr. Henry Stainsby of Great Britain reporting on a recent meeting of the Commission on Uniform Type. In this letter he stated that it was the unanimous opinion of the commission that cooperation with Great Britain as to securing one uniform type for the blind of the English-speaking world was still the paramount aim of the commission. He also stated that the commission would like to know, should the Americans undertake the adoption of the British braille system as the uniform type of the English-speaking world, would the British official representatives be willing to undertake the improvement of the British braille system in so far as contractions, capitalizations, etc., were concerned.
He reported that the commission had appointed a subcommittee consisting of Messrs. Olin H. Burritt, M. C. Migel and H. R. Latimer to take this matter up at once with Great Britain and suggested that the British appoint a similar committee that would be thoroughly representative and official.
The British took steps immediately to set up a corresponding committee. At the request of the British committee the commission proposed certain changes in the British braille system which in its opinion would not cause too much confusion to those already using the recently Revised British braille but which would make it much more palatable to the American students of the subject.
The American educators objected especially to certain abbreviations and contractions, upon the theory that it would make blind finger-readers poor spellers when they came to writing on the typewriter. The Americans also felt that the large number of contractions and abbreviations would be too difficult for many blind people to master.
The American subcommittee suggested that the customary rules for capitalization in inkprint be observed instead of disregarding capitalization altogether, as was the custom in British braille books. To Americans it seemed probable that British publishers would not have fallen into the practice of omitting capitalization entirely if it had not been for the fact that the two-dot capital sign in British braille was so obtrusive as radically to alter the word form. The committee also recommended that a few contractions having a very low frequency of recurrence, and many which had been demonstrated by the Uniform Type Committee's tests as having a low degree of legibility, be deleted from the Revised braille code. Among the former were such characters as the sign for "Christ," "Lord," "unto," etc., which were obviously designed to take care of words recurring with great frequency in religious literature; and among the latter were such characters as those for "still," "child," "enough," etc. The committee further recommended that fourteen others which effected a space saving of less than two hundredths of one per cent be omitted as imposing a burden on new learners out of proportion to their space saving value, and that Roman numerals be followed by a period instead of an apostrophe.
Receiving no immediate reply from the British committee the American Commission on Uniform Type decided to cover itself by obtaining some additional authority from the American Association of Instructors of the Blind at its convention which met in Halifax in June, 1916. The commission recommended that that association adopt Revised Braille grades 1 and 2 as authorized in Great Britain, provided however, that the duly authorized English committee come to a full agreement with the American Commission on Uniform Type for the Blind concerning such modifications in Revised braille as had been proposed by the American commission or as might be proposed by either the American commission or the English committee.
The commission further recommended that it be continued and that it be expanded to include representatives of residential schools, public schools having classes for the blind, home teachers, embossed printing presses and libraries for the blind.
These recommendations were approved by the Association.
It should be borne in mind that in all this work the British authorities in the world of the blind were handicapped by the disruption caused by the first world war which during 1916 and 1917 was absorbing most of the thought and energy of the British people. This accounts in a large measure for the long delays which sometimes occurred between the transmission of American proposals and the British action on them. However, British interest in the subject of uniformity was evinced in the formation of the National Uniform Type Committee on July 28, 1916, with Sir Arthur Pearson, of St. Dunstan's fame, as chairman.
In March, 1917 the Commission on Uniform Type received a letter from Sir Arthur Pearson which reads in part as follows:
...The suggested changes in braille contained in your report March, 1916 have been carefully considered...by the National Uniform Type Committee as a whole.
It appears to us that many of the suggestions of your committee have been made with a view to eliminating certain difficulties which are assumed to exist, but our experience of British braille leads us to believe that these difficulties have assumed a rather exaggerated importance in your consideration...
The National Uniform Type Committee is quite cognizant of the fact that the present system of British braille is capable of improvement but their experience leads them to the belief that improvement does not lie along the lies suggested in your report.
We deeply regret that after long and most careful consideration we have been forced to the conclusion that the proposed changes would not be acceptable to users of British braille and would tend rather to weaken the system than to strengthen it. They seem to us indeed to be, if we may say so, of a minor and somewhat vexatious nature which, while of sufficient importance to derange existing knowledge of braille, are not of real value in securing its perfection....
We shall, of course, be most happy to consider any further suggestions which due consideration may lead you to offer, and we once more assure you of our earnest desire to arrive at conclusions which will benefit the English-speaking blind community in the manner which we both desire.
The British committee did not vouchsafe for the consideration of the American commission any changes in the braille system which might be acceptable to them as improvements.
Failing to obtain any concessions whatever from the British braille authorities, the commission decided that America should go it alone for the time being. Its recommendations to the American Association of Workers for the Blind at its 1917 convention at Portland, Maine were designed to bring about the adoption of a uniform type for the United States which would be entirely legible to British readers and at the same time leave the way open for future negotiations to bring about the addition to the American system of as much of the temporarily rejected portion of Revised braille grade 2 as might later be agreed upon. To this end the following recommendations were made to and adopted by the American Association of Workers for the Blind:
That the association, in adopting this report, expresses its earnest desire to have the question of uniform type settled without further delay.
That the commission be authorized to draw up, as soon as possible, a form of "Revised Braille" based upon the present grades 1 and 2 to be designated for the present as grade 1-1/2.
That the said grade 1-1/2, shall consist of the alphabet, punctuation marks, numerals, and all single-cell contractions of grade 2, except such few characters as for special reasons it may seem wise to revise (such as the substitution of dot 6 for the present capital sign) with the understanding that no new contractions be introduced.
That the joint commission as now constituted shall be a permanent board vested with final authority in matters pertaining to uniform type; and that all printing houses be urged to conform to its rulings in actual practice.
In 1918 the American Association of Instructors of the Blind also endorsed the work of the Commission on Uniform Type, and thus the commission was set up as a preliminary board vested with the final authority in matters pertaining to uniform type for the blind.
The commission, acting under its delegated powers, now officially adopted for use in the United States Revised braille grade 1-1/2, as the uniform type for the blind of America, while utilizing mathematical and chemical notations of the British as standard.
The following year the commission agreed that the British key to the braille music notation together with such additions and amplifications authorized by the National Institute for the Blind in London, should be the standard, except that the text to be published in the United States should conform in its verbal text to grade 1-1/2 of Revised braille. So far as America was concerned, it now had a uniform type which it believed would be equally usable by British and American finger-readers. Experience, however, showed that the British made comparatively little use of American books partly because the libraries for the blind of Great Britain did not offer many such books to the readers and partly because facile readers of grade 2 in England were slowed down in their reading by the fact that grade 1-1/2, by the omission of so many contractions, presented to the finger in practically every sentence several words which had an altogether different form from that to which the reader was accustomed. Obviously, there was much yet to be done before the benefits of a uniform type for the English-speaking world could be enjoyed.
In 1919 the Commission on Uniform Type asked the American Printing House for the Blind to employ a competent man to make decisions regarding the various phases of work involved in printing for the blind, the standardization of printing, etc., use of types, etc., said man to be thoroughly conversant with the technical and educational problems involved in printing embossed books and the manufacture of apparatus for the blind. This man was supposed to act on all technical and educational questions in conjunction with a joint committee to be appointed respectively by the trustees of the American Printing House for the Blind and the Commission on Uniform Type for the Blind. The failure of the trustees of the American Printing House for the Blind to pass favorably upon this request made it incumbent upon the chairman of the commission to appoint various subcommittees to carry on the work contemplated.
One of these subcommittees was concerned with international unity. One more attempt was made to win British cooperation. Mr. Burritt and Mr. Latimer wrote a joint letter in behalf of the commission to the British authorities reporting that a new subcommittee had been appointed to act with the British as an international subcommittee on uniform type. Nothing came of this beyond an invitation to come to England to study their braille reproducing processes which, according to Sir Arthur, had then reached a "state bordering on perfection."
The American blind were tired, however, of changes. Many still living had first learned linetype, then New York Point, then American braille, then Revised braille grade 1-1/2. The rank and file of finger readers had a good deal of sympathy with a speaker at one of the national conventions who in a burst of oratory said, "If anyone invents a new system of printing for the blind, shoot him on the spot." It was deemed wise therefore to let the discussion of complete uniformity between the United States and Great Britain lie dormant for awhile.
In 1922 the Commission on Uniform Type gave its report to the American Association of Instructors of the Blind and recommended that it be discontinued and that its powers be delegated to the newly organized American Foundation for the Blind. The same recommendation was made by the Commission on Uniform Type to the American Association of Workers for the Blind at its convention in Janesville in 1923. The recommendation was adopted and the Foundation accepted the responsibility. It, however, exercised its powers with great reserve because it felt that the instructors' association whose members controlled most of the braille printing in the United States had not acted entirely favorably upon the delegation of authority. It was natural that the printing houses and the men who controlled them should be conservative about making any more changes in the braille system. The abandonment of New York Point and American braille had been a costly action as it meant the scrapping of a supply of tens of thousands of braille plates which had been manufactured at so much expense over so many years.
The American Printing House, in the meantime, went forward with the publication of a new set of textbooks and supplementary reading matter in braille grade 1-1/2. Most current magazines adopted grade 1-/2 and practically all the books of any kind published for the blind in the United States between 1917 and 1932 were in this grade of braille. The matter was left dormant until the late 1920's when the American Foundation for the Blind began to study the relative merits of grade 1-1/2, and grade 2 from a somewhat new standpoint.
Investigation showed that grade 2 occupied some twelve per cent to fourteen per cent less space than grade 1-1/2 and could be written with the use of a substantial percentage of fewer dots. Furthermore, the advantages of interchanging books with Great Britain, where large numbers of interesting titles were being produced each year, could not further be ignored. While the British readers looked longingly at the rapidly growing selection of titles in grade 1-1/2, they claimed that they could not read it as rapidly as grade 2. At first the Americans felt that the contention that grade 1-1/2 could not be read as rapidly as grade 2 by experienced grade 2 readers was just an illustration of British obstinacy. However, there was a psychological basis for this British contention. Rapid finger-readers, like visual readers, do not spell out words character by character; they come to recognize many common words, especially short ones, by their word form. Many words as written in grade 2 have an entirely different word form than the same word in grade 1-1/2, For example, "nation" in grade 2 using an "n" followed by the two cell contractions for "ation" contains only three braille characters, whereas "nation" written in grade 1-1/2 contains six characters.
As a result of this psychological objection, aggravated probably by a certain amount of prejudices, few grade 1-/2 books were used in England except by students and other avid readers who were willing to tolerate the annoyances of grade 1-1/2 for the sake of being able to read certain titles not available in grade 2.
Some of the younger blind men in Great Britain as early as 1929 began urging that something be done to meet the Americans part way in order to bring about a uniform braille code. In that year the writer, who had then been appointed the executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, stopped in London on his way to an International Conference on Work for the Blind in Vienna. He found that the British authorities were willing to make a few modifications to grade 2 if these modifications did not involve any particular inconvenience to their readers. They were also willing to consider the dropping of a few signs which were originally included because of their frequency of recurrence in religious literature, such as the sign for "Christ," etc. It was apparent, however, that few concessions would be made to appease the American reader.
The author, upon his return to the United States, launched a campaign among blind people to sell the idea that uniformity was worth one more sacrifice. It was pointed out that so long as there was lack of uniformity between the British and Americans, the subject was bound to keep cropping up. Mass meetings of the blind were held all over the country. Thousands were addressed on the subject. It was most gratifying to find how large a proportion were willing once more to undergo the inconvenience of learning a new system for the sake of stopping the waste resulting from duplication.
Perhaps the most cautious among those interested in the subject were the seeing superintendents who controlled the American Printing House for the Blind. When they learned that the executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind was in England sounding out the British authorities on the possibility of making some concessions to bring about the adoption of a uniform type, a committee of the American Printing House, the board of trustees, composed principally of men who were also trustees of the American Foundation for the Blind, sent the director a cable, a copy of which does not seem now to be extant. However, the substance of the cablegram, which was concocted at a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, was as follows:
We are not sure what you are doing in your effort to bring about international braille uniformity, but whatever it is, please desist.
Fortunately for the director's peace of mind the cablegram did not reach him until his conferences with the British authorities were over.
At the World Conference on Work for the Blind held in New York in 1931 some of the British delegates expressed themselves as interested in greater braille uniformity. There were many informal discussions of the subject between the American and British though nothing official was done. The fact that during that year the United States Federal Government began an annual appropriation of $100,000 to meet the cost of printing books for the adult blind was probably not without influence with the more canny British representatives of the blind. Therefore, when the formal approach to a new consideration was made by the American Foundation for the Blind the British were ready to receive the Americans with cordiality but not prepared to make much in the way of concessions.
In 1932, public opinion had shifted to such an extent that a committee of three was appointed, commissioned both by the American Association of Instructors of the Blind and the American Association of Workers for the Blind to go to England with plenary powers to agree upon a uniform braille code.
On July 19, 1932 the agreement sometimes referred to as the Treaty of London was signed by the representatives of the blind of Great Britain and of the United States. A key to the slightly modified code was drawn up in London before the committee adjourned. The burden of the job was borne principally by Louis W. Rodenberg of the American committee and Miss D. A. Pain in behalf of the British.
What changes were made by this agreement? Not many, so far as British braille was concerned. The more or less valuable religious signs were dropped so far as general usage was concerned though they were permitted in religious books. Publishers were directed to be more careful about not bridging syllable divisions with contractions. Roman numerals were to be followed by a period, not an apostrophe. Capitalization was made optional with the publisher. The British two-dot capital sign and the one-dot italic sign were interchanged. The British raised little objection to switching the capital sign and the italic sign because in general they didn't intend to make much use of them anyway.
Grade 2 was now ready for general use in the United States. The Library of Congress, which pays for the publication of most of the braille books embossed for blind adults in the United States, adopted the new grade 2 immediately.
The Treaty of London was confirmed by the American Association of Workers for the Blind at its meeting in Richmond in 1933, and by the American Association of Instructors of the Blind in St. Louis, Missouri the following year. The American Printing House adopted the Standard English braille grade 2 for its junior and senior high school textbooks.
Upon the unsubstantiated dictum that the use of contractions makes bad spellers, and upon the contention that grade 2 contains so many contractions and abbreviations that it is too difficult for the primary pupil to learn, the authorities of the American Printing House were very slow to publish lower grade books in any code more contracted than grade 1-1/2, Gradually, however, grade 2 was extended downward until since 1950 few books except for children of the first grade are published in grade 1-1/2, This slow adoption of Standard English braille grade 2 has probably resulted in a generation of poor braille readers, because the method of teaching reading has forced children to familiarize themselves with three successive groups of word forms; first, the word form presented to the finger by grade 1 (full spelling) used in the lower, primary grades; second, the word form of grade 1-1/2 used in books below high school; and third, the word forms of grade 2 in which books to be used by most adults are printed. During all this discussion, great hopes were held that uniformity would prevent duplication and bring about a cooperation among American and British publishers that would make the available funds purchase much more extensive libraries. It was hoped that in some way some kind of physical exchange of books would be worked out. As a matter of fact, while the Treaty of London was being negotiated a representative of the American Printing House and a representative of the Library of Congress went to London to discuss with the braille book publishers of that country methods of exchange of books. The basis of exchange was agreed upon, but were never carried out in more than a token fashion. Some few books were exchanged, and in a few instances the braille plates of one country were loaned to the printing houses of the other country so that books could be printed without the actual exchange of money. The whole matter was somewhat complicated by restrictions placed upon the British authorities in buying abroad. In America the Library of Congress has felt hampered by a prejudice against the spending of American tax dollars for British books when the same books could be manufactured in this country if enough money were paid for them; that is, if the Library of Congress, who might want ten or fifteen copies of a book, would be willing to pay enough for those books to meet the cost of making plates, the books could be made in the United States and the American money kept at home.
The printing houses for the blind in this country must bear some responsibility for the fact that this exchange did not work. They were anxious to keep their plants running at full capacity, and resented seeing part of the federal appropriation for books for the blind spent in England.
But this was not the only reason why the exchange of books never became active. The Library of Congress had hoped that the American Printing House, or some other agency for the blind, would obtain British books in exchange for American books and then sell these British books to the Library of Congress. As the American Printing House and other American braille publishers had no desire to tie up their money in stocks of British-made books which they had no binding assurance would be purchased by the Library of Congress, nothing was done about it.
This whole matter could be solved by the Library of Congress if it would face the criticism of a policy of spending money abroad and would purchase such of its required books from England as are already published in braille in that country.
Perhaps this will not take place until someone puts behind this idea something of the drive which brought about the adoption of a uniform type for the English-speaking world. Doubtless, sooner or later, someone will take this matter up aggressively and put an end to the duplication of books published in braille in the United States and Great Britain.
In this connection, it may be contended that British-made braille books will never be as popular in the United States as they could be until British publishers print their books properly capitalized as judged by standards for inkprint books.
We in America have been critical of the British for not collaborating with the Americans in the development of a uniform type for the blind people of both the British Empire and the United States. The Americans, however, have not been entirely without blame. For example, as early as 1902 Dr. F. J. Campbell, later Sir Francis Campbell, wrote a letter in behalf of the British Braille Committee to the American Association of Instructors of the Blind which was meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. It read in part as follows:
During the last week in April a large and influential conference was held in London under the auspices of the Gardner's Trust for the Blind....
Among many subjects which were discussed at the conference the great need of a uniform system of reading and writing for the blind was felt to be of such importance that a representative committee was appointed to carefully consider the methods now in use in this country and in America, and to adopt, if possible, some system which from its simplicity and general excellence would be acceptable throughout the English-speaking world.
...We hope that your conference may result in great benefit to the blind in the United States, and we welcome the opportunity of commending to you this difficult problem which we have been requested to consider.
The adoption of one system of point writing for the English-speaking world will cheapen books and bring the embossed literature of America, the United Kingdom and Colonies into common use among the blind...
This letter was sent to Mr. John E. Ray, Superintendent of the North Carolina School for the Blind and given by him to Mr. Benjamin B. Huntoon, recording secretary of the association. Dr. Campbell said at the 1907 convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind that he learned later that Mr. Huntoon and Mr. Wait, chairman of the executive committee of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind, thought it better to put the letter away without reading it to the convention.
Thus, both sides were at fault during the long struggle for a uniform type for the blind for the English-speaking world.
As I Saw It. Copyright © 1955 by American Foundation for the Blind, New York. All rights reserved.