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Reading For the Blind: How Braille Was Developed

By Anne Vize

This article gives you some insight into the man behind the dots - all those tiny rows of dots arranged in intricate patterns that make text accessible to people who are visually impaired. So who invented Braille? What were its beginnings?

Military Beginnings

It was the early 1800s. An army officer, Charles Barbier, was visiting the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France. While he was there he showed a young man aged only eleven his system for what he called 'night writing.' Barbier had created the system in response to a challenge from Napoleon Bonaparte to create a system that allowed soldiers to communicate in silence at night. There was a need for a code that could be interpreted by the fingers when there was no light to see by, which could convey messages from one person to another. Unfortunately, the system created by Barbier had been so complex that none of his poor soldiers had been able to learn it, rendering it therefore almost completely useless.

The Birth of an Idea

Louis Braille was the young visually impaired boy of eleven who was captivated by the system of night writing. He spent the next six years perfecting the code and simplifying it so that it could be taught and learned. By 1821 he had it mastered, and the system of raised dots arranged around a basic rectangular shape was born. The Braille alphabet has given visually impaired people around the world access to text independently.

About Louis Braille

Louis Braille accidentally caused his own blindness as a very young child as a result of stabbing himself in the eye with one of his father's tools. Ironically, he later used the same type of tool to make the marks in paper which became the Braille alphabet. As a talented and gifted student who was very musical, Louis learned to play the cello and the organ and was asked to play all around France.

Sadly, his time at the institute was a troubled one as the students were often treated poorly and had meagre rations of food to eat. There were very few books available that he could read, which must have been a source of endless frustration for the highly intelligent Braille. Louis Braille never lived to see his communication system fully accepted in France as he died of tuberculosis at the age of just 43 years old. His body was later interred at the Pantheon in Paris where it still lies.