Saturday, May 24, 2008


Louis Braille


Louis Braille is famous because he invented the special alphabet by which blind people can read. He became blind in an accident when he was four years of age, but overcame his disability to become one of the most famous people who ever lived in France.
The Braille Alphabet.
Louis was born near Paris in 1809. Louis Braille's father was a shoemaker and Louis often watched him at work. One day, he crept into his father's shop when his father was not looking.
Louis picked up a sharp, pointed tool called an awl. It was used to make holes in leather, so that shoes could be sewn with a needle and thread. Louis thought it would be good fun to try to make some shoes. As he bent over the leather and set to work, the awl slipped. It jabbed into his eye and destroyed it. The injury to his eye became infected . His good eye was infected too, and he lost sight in both eyes. Louis was only 4 years old.
Luois went to school with his friends, but it soon became obvious that he could not learn much at school because he could not read and write. This was a problem as in those days he would have had to become a beggar like all people who were disabled or who had no jobs. He was lucky though, since he was sent to one of the first schools in the world for the blind in Paris.
The conditions at Louis' school were very hard. The school was cold and damp. Students were beaten and given very little to eat. However, Louis was taught skills such as weaving cane for baskets and chairs. Each week the teacher would take the boys out for a walk, tied to each other on a long piece of rope so that they would not get lost. Louis was taught to read by feeling regular letters of the alphabet which were raised on the paper. He was not taught how to write.
One day something happened that changed the boys' lives forever. In 1821 a soldier named Charles Barbier came to visit the school. He bought with him a system which he had invented called 'night writing'. 'Night writing' had originally been designed so that soldiers could pass instructions along trenches at night without having to talk and give their positions away. It consisted of twelve raised dots which could be combined to represent different sounds. Unfortunately it proved to be too difficult for soldiers to learn, so the army rejected it .
The young Louis Braille quickly realised how useful this system of raised dots could be, providing he could make it more simple to learn. Over the next few months he experimented with different systems until he found an ideal one using six dots. He continued to work on the scheme for several years after, developing separate codes for maths and music.
In 1827 the first book in braille was published. Even so the new system did not catch on immediately. Sighted people did not understand how useful braille could be and one head teacher at the school even banned the children from learning it.
Fortunately this seemed to have the effect of encouraging the children even more and they took to learning it in secret. Eventually even sighted people began to realise the benefits of the new system. Not only could people with impaired vision read braille but they could also write it for themselves using a simple stylus to make the dots. For the first time they began to be truly independent and to take control of their own lives.
Louis Braille eventually became a teacher in the school where he had been a student. He was admired and respected by his pupils but, unfortunately, he did not live to see his system widely adopted. He had always been plagued by ill health and in 1852, at the age of 43, he died from tuberculosis.
For a while it seemed as if people would forgetr his system. Fortunately a few key people had realised the importance of his invention. In 1868 a group of four blind men, led by Dr Thomas Armitage , founded an association which grew to become the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the largest publisher of braille in Europe and Britain's largest organisation for people with impaired vision.
By 1990 braille was being used in almost every country in the world and had been adapted to almost every known language, from Albanian to Zulu. In France itself, Louis Braille's achievement was finally recognised by the state. In 1952 his body was moved to Paris where it was buried in the Pantheon, the home of France's national heroes.
Source: RNIB.

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