In recognition of the January 4th birthday of Louis Braille, the inventor of the braille code system, the United States government has named January National Braille Literacy Month.
The Braille code system is a way to read and write by touch rather than vision. Many assume that the Braille system is only used by people who are blind, however, the Braille system is beneficial for people with visual impairments and those with double sensory loss and/or multiple disabilities.
Contrary to popular belief, Braille is a tactile code, not a language. In fact, many languages, including English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic, can be written and read in Braille.
The inventor of the braille code system, Louis Braille, was born in France in 1809. Although he was born with full vision, a tragic accident took his sight away at the age of three. He then attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in France.
During braille’s infancy, it was very difficult to produce reading material using raised characters. Braille’s desire for access to more books led him to experiment with different ways to create an alphabet that was easy to read at your fingertips.
At the age of 12, Braille received the inspiration for what would soon become Braille code during a speech by a guest speaker at school.
Charles Barbier, an artillery captain in the French army, was a guest lecturer for the Braille class.
Barbier had designed a system allowing soldiers to communicate at night without sound called ultrasound. He thought this system would be of great value to the Institute for the Blind and presented his system to the Braille class.
The sonogram system combined a 12-point system to represent the 36 sounds of the French alphabet, but this system was complex and did not lend itself to spelling or punctuation.
With the information he learned about the ultrasound system, Braille spent the next few years perfecting a usable code for the blind.
By 1824, at the age of 15, Braille had created a practical system to share with his school mentor and the world.
A complete braille code is made up of six raised dots and can represent every letter, number, punctuation, and symbol used in print (including musical notes).
Although the braille system revolutionized print media for the visually impaired, it was still difficult to bring braille literature to the masses until an invention was created by a local teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind.
The Perkins School for the Blind, located in Watertown, was founded in 1829 and was the first school in the United States specifically for the blind.
Famous Perkins alumni include Laura Bridgeman, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
In 1834, the Perkins School opened the Perkins Printing Department to provide books for its students and the visually impaired community.
This department was later named Howe Memorial Press, after the Perkins School’s first headmaster, Samuel Gridley Howe.
Braille printing remained a long process until 1941, when Perkins School carpentry teacher Frank Hall created the first prototype of the Perkins Brailler.
Perkins Braille works almost like a typewriter and was designed to make Braille easier to print and more accessible to use. The Brailer was perfected over the next 10 years and was widely produced in 1951.
Due to the huge success of the Perkins Brailler, the name of the Howe Memorial Press department was changed to the Perkins Products department.
Advancement in technology has brought the Smart Brailer, launched in 2012, which can display, vocalize and braille information entered by the user. With this new technology also came a new name and a new era for Perkins’ former printing department.
In 2015, the print department was again renamed Perkins Solutions, which now includes digital accessibility consultancy services in addition to product manufacturing.
Today, two levels of the Braille code system are used.
Uncontracted Braille, where each letter is represented by a braille cell, and an abbreviated version that represents common letters or words using one or more braille cells, making the braille system even more user-friendly.
This January, as you curl up with a good book, reflect on the importance of National Braille Literacy Month.
Thanks to the invention of the braille code, visually impaired, partially disabled and blind students are able to reach a level of literacy that was previously unattainable.
For more information on braille literacy, visit www.pathstoliteracy.org.