by Robert Leslie Newman
From the Editor: The Omaha Chapter of the NFB of Nebraska conducts a White Cane Banquet each October. Last year Dr. James Nyman addressed the assembled audience, and we reprinted his speech in the March 2009 issue of the Braille Monitor. This year, in honor of the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the inventor of the Braille code, David DeCant, a blind actor, addressed the crowd as Louis Braille. This is almost exactly what he said:
Bonsoir. Good evening. I am Louis Braille, and I am proud to have been asked to be the keynote speaker for this White Cane Banquet. As we start this important time together, I have a question for you. I want to hear your answer. Messieurs et Mesdames, is it not true that being able to read and write is the heart and soul of literacy, and that all people, the sighted and the blind, must have this skill for a complete and meaningful life?
Ah oui, all of us are in agreement--reading and writing are important. I know we will also agree that my message, my story has relevance to everyone in this room, blind or sighted. Recall that I was once sighted and became blind. If life has taught me anything, it is that, no matter whether you are sighted or blind, with the proper methode and chance egale--tools and opportunity--you can compete with your fellow man. Ah oui, I will begin by telling you my story--where I lived, how I was blinded, how blind people once lived, how I invented the raised-dot system named for me, how Braille has spread across the globe, and how it is used. Then I will report on how Braille is faring today here in your country.
As you can tell, I am French. I was born on January 4, 1809, in a small French village called Coupvray. I was the baby of the family, the youngest of four children. My papa was a harness maker; his workshop was attached to our small stone cottage. I loved to watch my papa work his magic. From a shapeless hide, a large piece of leather, he could fashion a system of straps to harness the power of the horse. Like most little boys who watch their papas work, I wanted to grow up to be just like him. One day, when I was three, I sneaked into my papa’s workshop. I looked at and touched everything, picturing how my papa made the harness. The shiny tools were especially interesting. When I found my favorite one to watch him use, the awl that makes the little holes, I decided to try using it. I knew from watching my papa that I had to make the hole right in the middle of the strap. I looked very closely, placing the point of the awl just so, and I pushed. The leather was very tough, so I pushed and pushed and, mes amis, I do not know how it happened. I poked my eye; it hurt.
(Shrugging in resignation) Infection came, taking both my eyes. In those days we did not have the medicines of today, and I am lucky I did not die.
(Another expressive shrug) C’est la vie. Though my parents did their best for me, the only blind people they had ever seen were beggars on the streets. (Placing his hand over his heart with much emotion) Mes amis, God love them. They believed that, if only I had a good education, I might make something of my life. So at age seven I was enrolled in the village school. I did well for not being able to read and write. (Pausing for emphasis) But, Messieurs et Mesdames, I ask you, what is an education without literacy?
Mais oui, my parents wanted more. They had heard of a school in Paris, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, where a blind youth could learn a trade. So at ten I left my home and family to go to the big city. I will not tell you the details of life in that damp and drafty old building with steep, winding staircases and long, narrow hallways, where the slightest noise echoed. And, mon Dieu, the food! This banquet food (making a broad, two-armed gesture meant to include his surroundings) in comparison is a feast. But that school had one advantage beyond price, books that could be read with the fingers. The print was raised. One traced each sentence, letter by letter, word by word. In many cultures well-meaning people have tried using such a system of embossing the language. (A shrug) Messieurs et Mesdames, though the blind can read the words, the system is very slow.
When I was twelve--for those of you who care for such things, it was 1821--we learned of a new raised system of reading. A soldier came to our school--I will never forget him, Captain Charles Barbier. He showed us his system called “night writing.” He had devised it to keep his soldiers safe when they had to read a message at night. The good captain thought his system might prove useful to the blind. Mes amis, you will not be surprised to hear that, like other boys and girls would be, we were fascinated by the raised dots and dashes of this new code. Alas, there was no punctuation or capitalization, and the symbols were not letters but sounds. All too soon everyone lost interest in night writing.
However, I could not stop thinking about the code and running my fingers over and over the dots, wondering what could be made of this idea; I knew something was there. Then success! By the time I was fifteen, I had streamlined the system, which I based on six dots in two vertical rows, like the “6” on a domino. And, for you English speakers, I added an extra letter to my new French alphabet, the “w,” so that it would work for you too.
(Pausing reflectively) Messieurs et Mesdames, those of you who know history know that my raised-dot system was not accepted with open arms. No, not even by my teachers, not until 1844. (After a tiny pause, brightening) However, the blind of the world did eventually receive the gift of literacy, the ability to read and write independently. I am proud to say that others have taken my French system of reading text, made it fit their languages, and developed additional codes, such as the one for mathematics. Now the blind in all cultures can be literate. Braille--ha—(looking self-conscious) I still find it awkward to use my surname for my code. But I think of what my English school friend once said: “Hey, Braille, better your surname than mine--Jones.”
But enough about me and the early history of Braille. It is time to look at the present and the future of literacy for the blind in America. (Pausing to lift a copy of the Braille agenda for the evening) I am holding up tonight's Braille agenda. So first I commend you for honoring the equality of the blind, providing us equal access to this evening’s written material. I ask you, is it true that the blind in the United States of America in the twenty-first century have equal access to your culture’s print texts? (Pausing for the shouts of No! to die down) Messieurs et Mesdames, what is it that you are telling me; what am I hearing? Let me review my research about where Braille literacy has been, where it is today, and where it must be in the future.
(Cocking his head and raising an eyebrow) You Americans do know that Braille was not your only touch system for writing? You too had your (hand tracing an imaginary curve to illustrate raised print writing, then tracing a block letter in the air) Roman letters. Messieurs et Mesdames, such writing is pretty to look at, easy for the sighted to read, but too slow to read with a finger; and one cannot write it by hand. Then there were the dot systems--you have had several. There was New York Point and American Braille. As a Frenchman who knows about revolutions, I remind you that, before you Americans could finally decide which code to settle on, you had what was called “The War of the Dots.”
Finally in 1932 you made Braille the accepted standard for reading and writing for blind people in the United States. By the 1940s and 50s many blind adults in rehabilitation were being taught Braille and 50 to 60 percent of blind children were learning to read and write Braille. Like me, the majority of these children lived in the schools for the blind, where blindness skills were deemed important. And oui, blind children learned to read at the same time as sighted children. There was equality--no difference in their ability to read rapidly--many words a minute--un, deux, trois—Ha, I was counting—excusez moi--when I get excited, I revert to French. As I was saying (counting on his fingers) Braille readers were reading one-, two-, three-hundred words a minute, and more--blind people reading as fast as their sighted brothers and sisters. Though, mes amis, (shrugging in resignation) back then Braille books were not as common as print; Braille readers of the last century were not like the fortunate Braille readers of today. Today you have the computer, the Braille printing machine, and the wonderful—qu’est ce que c’est?--the electronic Braille device with dots that move up and down to make the Braille symbols with no paper--the refreshable Braille display. Think of it, reading without paper! My research reveals that this beautiful machine was the invention of a Frenchman. Oui, then with this technology connected to the Internet, voila, you have at your touch in Braille everything that has been written. Braille readers have never had it so good in education, in employment, and for pleasure. Oui, let us talk about where Braille is being used in this culture.
(Referring to his notes) Pardon, I read my Braille notes. You need to help me here. Please answer this question. Do you agree, reading is a necessity? (Listens to the crowd's response) Ah, oui, Braille is used in the home to label things, take care of business, read books to our children, and more. In education we see Braille in the schools for reading textbooks, taking notes, and giving speeches, and it is especially good for math and—(eyebrows raised and mischievous grin)--for learning languages like English and French.
My notes next tell me that Braille is used for employment. Oui, as we witnessed this evening, young Adam helping his employer’s customers, reading information with his paperless Braille display, and Michael, who will use both print and Braille in his professional position. Of course many more blind people are using Braille for employment. You and I know that blind people can do many, many types of jobs, but you and I also know that it has always been hard for the blind to find employment. And, though more blind people are working today, my research shows that from 35 to 70 percent of blind people are still unemployed. And, mes amis, of the blind who are employed, 90 plus percent of blind people with jobs are Braille readers. (Slapping the table and shaking his Braille notes for emphasis) I say to you: what does this mean? Is it not literacy, Braille literacy, that has tipped the balance, making these blind workers successful?
(Waiting for the crowd to settle down) Messieurs et Mesdames, looking back at America’s record, I can see from the statistics that, since the blind have left their residential schools for public ones, the emphasis on blindness skills decreased. I saw this in Paris when I was young. If you can see a little, the sighted want you to use your vision. Can you believe it? When it comes to reading and writing, as those of us who know about blindness recognize that print is not always the better methode. (Looking serious and striking his fist on the table) And now there are reports of a Braille literacy crisis in your schools. Ninety percent of your blind students are not given the tool that will allow them to read and write. (Shaking the Braille agenda at the crowd with some heat) For shame! I hold this Braille up to the world and ask you: what is this? Is history repeating itself? In this modern age with more information to read and learn from than any other time in history, I find it incroyablex that you are moving blind people away from fluency, from complete literacy!
From its conception Braille has never been only for blind people who cannot see at all. It has always been for people blind or sighted who are unable to read print efficiently.
If I may speak, one blind person to other blind people, to the blind of this new century and to those who work with the blind, we have all understood that there are different levels of blindness. Some are like me, unable to see any light; for us print is not an option. But mes amis, most blind people are able to use their limited vision, so they can read some print. And we know that, if you resist the limitations of blindness and try to live using only your limited sight, you limit yourself. We also know that the person who embraces both blindness and sight and learns the methodes for both blindness and sight, he is the complete one. He is not limited. I have never met one of these blind-sighted people who has regretted learning both print and Braille. Before I let go this thought, let me remind you of the sighted man who created the touch system of reading and writing for sighted soldiers, Captain Charles Barbier. He knew the value of using a touch system when the visual one was dangerous.
(Starting in a reflective mood) I must back up for a moment to make an observation. I find it significant that in my travels around this century I do not find that those who use modern gadgets for reading have abandoned reading for themselves. The sighted have their monitors on and actively read the print. Granted, the blind use computers egalement with the sighted. However, when I stand nearby and listen to the words being read aloud to them, it is no different now than it was for centuries past--the blind are just listening; they are being read to. They understand the sentences, but not the punctuation or the look of the page. They can pronounce the words but not the spelling. These blind people cannot read that story to another person. They cannot read a book to a child. How will such people do math, in their heads? How will they read the labels on their food or medicine containers? On which side of the employment scale do blind people wish to sit, the unemployed or the employed?
Messieurs et Mesdames, my report is near its close. We must speak of the future, not of what may be, but of what must be. When you asked me to examine the history and use of Braille here in America, I did not know what I would find. I will admit, I did not expect to find that an efficient methode, a tool for reading, would fall from favor. I do not believe that I have identified all the reasons why this has happened. However, in some places Braille is viewed as a negative symbol, a stigma associated with the unacceptability of blindness. Some educators even say that Braille is slow and obsolete, which we know is not true.
In my research I also found forces for good, groups of people who believe that it is respectable to be blind. They recognize that a good methode of reading and writing is necessary. Messieurs et Mesdames, this group, the National Federation of the Blind, is speaking the loudest and is working the hardest to change what it means to be blind and to promote Braille literacy. I commend you! (Raising his arms and voice) I have read about your programs: Braille Readers Are Leaders--competing with other Braille readers so that later children can compete with everyone); your support of Twin Vision books--Braille and print text on the same page--your support for laws and rules to make teachers teach Braille when print is not a good option; your insistence that young students be taught by certified Braille instructors; your work with other countries to establish a unified Braille system; your Braille Buddies program; Braille letters to Santa Claus; your exciting commemorative Braille coin. And I know that you teach Braille in your blindness training centers. Your voices and your written words, both print and Braille, are in all corners of this big country.I stand with you. Just as I knew two centuries ago that to compete I needed a good methode for reading and writing for full literacy, I believe that we are of the same mind and heart today. Just as I found nearly two hundred years ago that it was a struggle to have Braille accepted even after it has been proven to be equal to print, I see you are faced with the same reality, same struggle today. Let my voice here tonight be remembered. Let us inform the world that we have joined hands in the effort to make this change for all systems of literacy are good. Braille literacy is equal to print literacy, and literacy is what makes people equal.