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Louis Braille Celebration

Past and Present Remembrances of Louis Braille

Susan Jay Spungin

Print edition page number(s) 5-64

The guest editor of the JVIB Louis Braille 200th Anniversary Celebration is Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., consultant and retired vice president for International Programs and Special Projects, American Foundation for the Blind.


The braille code, created by Louis Braille (1809-1852), represents access to information and education, the currency of the future for children and adults who are blind or visually impaired. Being able to manage and manipulate information is vital not only to economic success but also to a person's dignity and perceived self-worth as an educated individual. It is therefore important, regardless of whatever educational program is involved, that we ensure that individuals have choice in learning and access to information now and in the future.

In 2009, the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB) will celebrate Louis Braille's 200th birthday throughout the year by publishing essays and excerpts relating to Louis Braille and the code he created. I have been honored by being invited to be the series editor of the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentennial Celebration. Essay topics will include teaching braille in public schools; issues of print versus braille and uncontracted versus contracted braille; braille competencies; consumers' and teachers' points of view on the importance of braille; braille translation technology and its impact on literacy; and the state of the art concerning the Unified English Braille Code. The October 2009 issue will be a Special Issue on Literacy, and that month's Braille Celebration column will include a brief summary of information on Louis Braille that is not widely known.

The last celebration of Louis Braille and his life conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) can be found in the March 1952 issue of one of JVIB's earlier incarnations, New Outlook for the Blind. Instead of celebrating the birthday of Louis Braille, as we will do this year, that issue marked the 100th anniversary of his death in 1852 and included the first authoritative biography of Louis Braille in the English language. Entitled The Reading Fingers: Life of Louis Braille, 1809-1852, it was a slightly abridged version of the French biography written by Jean Roblin and was translated by Ruth G. Mandaline. (The full translation of The Reading Fingers was published by AFB in 1955, and an electronic version of the booklet appears online as part of AFB's celebration of Louis Braille at: <www.afb.org/roblinbiography/book.asp>.) To further commemorate the 100 years since Braille's death, AFB and its affiliate the American Foundation of Overseas Blind (now known as Helen Keller International) issued a special seal bearing a likeness of his face and the dates of his life. The seal was entitled: "Louis Braille Centennial, 1809-1852, Light-Bearer to the World of Darkness." (An image of this seal can be viewed online in the JVIB Time Line, available at: <www.afb.org/jvibtimeline.asp>.)

I will not go into detail on the life of Louis Braille here, since the literature is already rich with accounts of his life, but I will simply highlight some interesting points that I hope the reader will enjoy as much as I do. Please check back every month to continue the celebration of this man's unique life and the impact his code has had in the 200 years since his birth.

Accounts of Louis Braille's birth and death

The description of Louis Braille's birth and early life from the Roblin biography provides a glimpse into life in the 19th century:

The fourth of January, 1809, was a day of happiness for the Braille family. The parents, however, were no longer very young; but Simon-René Braille [a harness maker, aged 44] said proudly that the new baby to be born would be "the companion of his old age." … Suffering labor pains, Monique [Baron Braille, aged 39] had been impatiently awaiting the birth. … At four o'clock in the morning, a small, puny creature, with flabby, wrinkled skin was born, and for some time, it was thought he would not live. (Roblin, 1952, p. 65)

But live he did, the youngest of four siblings. As a boy of 3 years, Louis went to his father's forbidden workbench and, "in hands, still too chubby to be skillful," took hold of a knife and a piece of leather to cut. "Suddenly it slipped and plunged violently into the child's eye; the pain was so sharp that Louis began to cry; blood gushed down his face" (Roblin, 1952, p. 66). He developed an infection that became purulent ophthalmia and eventually became blind. Abbé Palluy, Louis Braille's first teacher in Coupvray, was astonished at the young boy's ability. Eventually, his talents were made known to a local nobleman, who assisted his acceptance and scholarship to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (Royal Institution for Blind Youth), which was founded by Valentin Haüy, in Paris. Braille excelled in everything but especially in music, playing the piano and eventually the organ at Notre Dame des Champs.

In 1819, the then director of the institution, Sébastien Guillié, a cruel man, was dismissed for having a "scandalous" relationship with a "much younger" female music teacher (Mellor, 2006, p. 57). A new director was chosen, Alexandre François-René Pignier. Rectifying the mistakes of his predecessor, Pignier received Charles Barbier, who had previously been rejected by the former director, to conduct a demonstration of his writing system to the school's students, among them Louis Braille. Barbier was an artillery captain in Napoleon's army and the inventor of "night writing," which consisted of dots in relief that allowed soldiers to communicate silently and without light at night. This system of 12 dots, 2 across and 6 down, was cut in half by Braille so it would be easier to read. This new system soon replaced the raised-letters method of communication developed by Valentin Haüy. It is hard to believe that Louis Braille did all this at the tender age of 15.

And the rest is history, albeit a rocky one. After years of teaching, writing, and working on his code, Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852, in the presence of his brother, Louis-Simon, after a long battle with tuberculosis. On January 9th, the body of Louis Braille was taken to his place of birth in Coupvray and on January 10th, at noon, the burial took place. On June 22, 1952, Louis Braille's body was disinterred and placed in the Pantheon in Paris, the highest honor that France can bestow upon its dead. The people of Coupvray insisted on keeping something of Louis Braille, so his hands remained at his original burial place. "Those hands that had imparted to the hands of blind people a perfected means of reading and writing[,] are preserved in a marble container that sits on the top of his grave" (Mellor, 2006, p. 8).

Impact of Louis Braille's life

It would be impossible to assess, with any degree of precision, the actual consequences of Louis Braille's life and work. For over two centuries Braille's system has remained essentially as he designed it. Louis Braille was a man gifted with the most extraordinary qualities. Many notable figures have agreed with this sentiment, and the thoughts of two such individuals, Helen Keller and T. S. Eliot, were published in the 1952 New Outlook for the Blind:

It is high time for Louis Braille's genius to be recognized throughout the earth and the story to be told of the godlike courage and heart of gold with which he built a large firm stairway for millions of sense-crippled human beings to climb from hopeless darkness to the Mind Eternal. (Keller, 1952, p. 61)

Perhaps the most enduring honor to the memory of Louis Braille, is the half-conscious honor we pay him by applying his name to the script he invented--and, in this country, adapting the pronunciation of his name to our own language. We honor Braille when we speak of braille. His memory has in this way a security greater than that of the memories of many men more famous in their day. And his is a name which we are all under obligation to honor, in perpetuity, in the most practical way: by carrying on the work for the blind that he initiated. (Eliot, 1952, p. 287)

During Braille's 200th birthday celebration in Paris in January 2009, the school that became both his house of learning and home for many years will honor him with a conference and a program that will cover every aspect of all the braille codes and the impact of braille on the individuals around the world who depend on it. A range of topics will be discussed, from the use of slate and styli to sophisticated computer programs and translation technology, which have allowed the use of braille in virtually every language. There will be no finer tribute for a man whose name--and the method of communication it represents--is part of all languages and is synonymous with literacy for all people who are blind or visually impaired.

References

Eliot, T. S. (1952). Some thoughts on Braille. New Outlook for the Blind, 46, 287-288.

Keller, H. (1952). Editorial introduction. New Outlook for the Blind, 46, 61-62.

Mellor, C. M. (2006). A Touch of Genius. Boston: National Braille Press.

Roblin, J. (1952). The Reading Fingers: Life of Louis Braille, 1809-1852. New Outlook for the Blind, 46, 61-93.


Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., consultant and retired vice president for International Programs and Special Projects, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001; e-mail: <spungin@afb.net>.


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