The Big Question: Why is Braille under threat, and would it really matter if it died out?

Author: By Jeremy Laurance

Why are we asking this now?

This week marks the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth on 4 January
1809. He was the inventor of the embossed system of type that is now used
for reading and writing by blind and partially sighted people all over the
world. Texts from almost every known language have been translated into
Braille from Albanian to Zulu.

So what is the problem?

Braille is under threat from new technologies such as voice recognition and
talking computers that can “read” text. It is not being taught
widely in schools, is not popular with parents of blind children, and social
services departments often do not have the budget to help adults learn. It
is feared that, without a campaign to save it, Braille could become
redundant.

Why does this matter?

The more blind you are, and the longer you have been blind, the more essential
it is. Experts liken the invention of Braille for the blind to the invention
of the printing press for the sighted. Although computers and the internet
are now the tools of choice for millions of sighted readers, none has yet
dispensed with pen and paper. Of 500,000 people in the UK who are registered
(or registrable) as blind, around 50,000 have no alternative to Braille, ie
their sight is so bad that they cannot manage with large-print books. Of
these an estimated 18,000 are current users of Braille

When did Louis Braille invent it?

In the 1820s, when he was just 15. The young Louis went partially blind after
injuring an eye while playing with tools in his father’s workshop. Later the
second eye became infected from the first and he suffered total loss of
sight. His father worked as the village saddler and the family lived in the
small town of Coupvray, near Paris. They were not well off but a local
landowner recognised that Louis was intelligent and arranged a scholarship
for him to attend one of the first schools for the blind in the world, The
National Institute for the Blind in Paris.

Where did Braille get the idea from?

In 1821, while he was a pupil at the school, he attended a lecture by Charles
Barbier, a captain in Napoleon’s army, who demonstrated his system of “night-writing”.
Relying on touch, it used a coded system of raised dots to send and receive
messages at night without speaking or using light. It was developed at
Napoleon’s behest. He wanted a way for his soldiers to communicate without
alerting the enemy.

What was wrong with ‘night-writing’?

It was too complicated for soldiers to learn and was rejected by the military.
But Louis quickly realised its potential for the blind. The major failing
was that it was not possible to encompass the whole symbol without moving
the finger, so it was impossible to move rapidly from one symbol to the
next. Louis set about refining it into the now familiar system of pinpricks,
using six dots to represent the alphabet.

How does it work?

The six dots are arranged in two columns of three each, which may be raised or
flat, giving 63 combinations, which are used to represent the letters of the
alphabet and punctuation. Braille is read by passing the fingers over each
character ? a key benefit being that each character can be read using a
single finger tip without re-positioning.

More advanced Braille, employed by experienced users, is a form of shorthand
where groups of letters are combined into a single symbol. With both hands a
Braille reader can read 115 words a minute compared with an average 250
words a minute for a sighted reader.

What is its main drawback?

That it is difficult for the sighted to use it. This is why, for almost its
entire history, it has been under threat. There has always been a
technological development just around the corner that would make it
redundant. When Louis Braille died in 1852, aged 43, his invention would
have been lost but for the determination of a British doctor, Thomas
Armitage, who with a group of four blind men founded the British and Foreign
Society for Improving Embossed Literature for the Blind. The organisation
later became the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

Is Braille becoming more widespread?

Yes. Although books are available in audio form, there is no alternative to
Braille for the blind who want to read a menu, sing a carol, write a phone
number down or make a speech. Driven by anti-discrimination legislation,
large organisations are increasingly recognising the need to provide Braille
translations in lifts, on menus, in hotel rooms and for bank statements.

What about in schools?

Blind children are increasingly integrated into mainstream schools which is
better for their development than to be isolated in schools for the blind.
But the expertise present in schools for the blind has not always been
transferred with them. In addition, some parents oppose the teaching of
Braille to their children because reading with the hands looks strange and
they fear their children will be stigmatised. Many prefer them to use
large-print books because even though they may struggle they will at least
look “normal”.

Who is the most famous user of Braille?

The best known is probably former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett. He
described to the BBC yesterday the difficulty of learning Braille as a child
in the 1950s ? which in those days had to be written from right to left so
that when the paper through which the holes were punched was turned over it
read conventionally from left to right. Despite the difficulties he said it
was a “liberator” which ultimately led him to one of the highest
offices in the land. Today he faces a new challenge ? finger ends burnt by
cooking and damaged by rough use in the garden have lost their sensitivity. “But
I still plough on,” he said,

Did it help his speeches?

He believes it did ? by forcing him to extemporise from notes rather than
reading a written version. He admits that he found reading statements from
the Despatch box a trial because they had to be delivered verbatim ? but
making a speech was a different matter. Braille helped him master the art of
oratory.

Was Louis Braille honoured for his invention?

Not until 100 years after his death. He spent his life in the Institute,
teaching Braille to students and translating books. But when he died ? of
tuberculosis contracted in his twenties, probably aggravated by poor and
damp living conditions ? he had no idea it would one day be used worldwide.
In 1952, his achievement was finally recognised, his body was exhumed by the
French government and re-buried in the Pantheon in Paris, and he has since
been celebrated as a hero for all blind people.

Is it vital that Braille be kept alive?

Yes

* It is an irreplaceable means of communication for people who are totally
blind

* There are almost 50,000 people in Britain who have no alternative to
Braille, and many more worldwide

* For reading a menu, operating a lift, finding where things are in a hotel
room, there is no alternative

No

* It cannot be used to communicate with, and is not understood by, most
sighted people

* Computers are getting better at translating the spoken word into text and
vice versa

* Parents are worried that children who read with their fingers may be
stigmatised

Watch author Ian Rankin discuss the campaign to save the Scottish Braille Press

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