Braille Monitor                                                                                 February 2006

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Louis Braille Touched Us All

by Deborah Kendrick

Couple, still in their wedding dress, nuzzle noses outside a movie theater.
Deborah Kendrick and John Hawkins at their wedding

From the Editor: Deborah Kendrick is a freelance journalist and columnist in Ohio. She has just been elected to the NFB of Ohio board of directors. The following column appeared in the January 8, 2006, edition of the Columbus Dispatch. In Ohio the week beginning January 4 is Braille Literacy Week. Here is Deborah Kendrick’s tribute to Louis Braille:

I was using a phone in a hotel lobby years ago when my friend, laughing, tapped me on the shoulder and guided my hand to a place on the wall at least a foot above my head. In a millisecond the dot pattern my fingers encountered sent the printed message to my brain, "No smoking." (What were they thinking to post a sign in Braille on a wall above a pay phone where no ordinary mortal, Braille-reading or otherwise, was likely to be touching?) Beyond the joke, that memory evokes pleasure. Like hundreds of other tactile glances over the years—finding a bit of Braille on a monument, a commemorative plaque, a bottle of perfume, even some articles of clothing at Target—the aha flash of joy is one of sheer delight in being included, having my literacy count as much as anyone else's.

It's a gift of the very best kind, finding words I can read in unexpected places, and an especially grand gesture of the inclusive kind swept through cyberspace this week. Email messages were rapidly criss-crossing the planet last week as blind people and their friends and colleagues spread the word that Google's home page greeted visitors with the Google logo in Braille, along with a "Happy Birthday Louis Braille" message to honor the inventor's birthday, January 4.

In 1809 three boys were born who would change the world: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, and—the one sadly under-celebrated—Louis Braille. Born in Coupvray, France, Braille was blinded at age three in an accident in his father's harness-making shop. He was lucky to have loving parents who encouraged his independence and who sent him at age ten to a boarding school in Paris, one of the first such schools for blind children.

And the rest of us—generations of blind people in every country of the world—have been lucky that he was a genius who seized a code shown him by Charles Barbier, a code used for "night-writing" by soldiers, and perfected it as a means of reading and writing for people without sight. When asked by parents of blind children what single tool has been most significant to me as a writer, student, parent, advocate, all-round member and lover of society, the answer is unequivocal: BRAILLE.

As I write these words, I look (with my hands) at them in Braille. When I read my email, press releases, newsletters, and the latest romance or thriller—in hardcopy or electronically—I read them all in Braille.

And I am not alone. The good news is that between 85 and 90 percent of all blind adults who are employed are Braille literate. But the bad news is that only 30 percent of all blind American adults are employed—most of that larger group having never learned Braille. Well-meaning but misguided educators have diminished emphasis on Braille in schools, so that only 10 percent of blind children today are taught to read and write.

Louis Braille was an inventor by the age of twelve. He grew to be a beloved teacher and gifted musician. Because of his remarkable invention, blind people today are teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers, musicians—and parents reading Braille storybooks to their children.

A bill (H.R. 2872) introduced in the U.S. House by representatives Bob Ney (R-OH) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) would designate one of the two commemorative coins minted in 2009 to be in recognition of the bicentennial of Louis Braille's birth. It could be a simple but marvelous gesture, at long last, to honor a man who gave such a gift to the world—and garner recognition for the system of literacy that has the power to improve the lives of millions of blind children and adults.

(A forthcoming biography, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, by C. Michael Mellor, will be published in March by National Braille Press. The book will be available in both print and Braille, <www.braille.com> or (800) 548-7323.)

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities. <dkkendrick@earthlink.net>.

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