Future Reflections Special Issue, Vol. 14 No. 2

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MEET DR. NEMETH

Do you know what the Nemeth Code is? It's the way you write arithmetic in Braille. You can add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

You can write fractions. When you are older, you will learn algebra. Algebra is a kind of math you will learn in high school and college.

It used to be hard to write math in Braille. But the Nemeth Code makes it easy. With the Nemeth Code, we can write anything we need in math. The Braille will say the same thing that the print books say.

Where did the Nemeth Code get its name? From Dr. Abraham Nemeth (NEMM-eth). He invented it.

You probably know that Louis Braille invented Braille letters. Louis Braille lived in France. He was born in 1809. He died in 1852, long before you were born. But other people are still inventing new ideas for Braille today. Dr. Nemeth is one of them. Not long ago Dr. Nemeth gave a speech about his life at a convention (very large meeting) of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what he said:

I was born in New York City. My parents came from Poland. They had not been in the United States very long when I was born. (Nemeth is really a Hungarian name. My grandfather was born in Hungary.) I have always been totally blind.

My father taught me how to pay attention to where I was going. We talked about turning right or left. We smelled the bakery. We listened to the traffic on the street.

I started school at Public School #110. In your town probably the schools are named after famous people. But in New York City we just put numbers on the schools. We made a joke and said that New York is such a big city that we ran out of names of famous people. In school I learned to read and write Braille. I learned typing. I learned geography. We had a big globe where you could feel that the land was higher than the ocean. The mountains were the highest. Now, you know that after I grew up I invented the Nemeth Code for math. But when I was in grade school I was not very good at math. I really had a lot of trouble with it. In eighth grade they said that my math was very bad.

In high school I had an extra-good teacher. This resource teacher helped me catch up. He showed me a better way to write problems in Braille, and I started to like math. I thought about ways that we could write math even better.

Then I went to college in Brooklyn. I wanted to be a math teacher. But many people said it was too hard for a blind person to do that. They said it was too hard to write lots of math in Braille. They said it was too slow.

At first I couldn't get a job as a math teacher. I had some other jobs. I sorted and packed Talking Books. I loaded trucks. I did some sewing. I wrote letters. These jobs are okay, and many people like them. But I wanted to be a math teacher. Maybe you have heard of Helen Keller. She was a famous person who was deaf and blind. When I was working at these other jobs, I Brailled some letters for Helen Keller.

World War II lasted from 1941 to 1945. After the war ended, I tried again to get a job teaching math. First, I got a part-time job at Brooklyn College. I helped men who had fought in the war. While they were fighting in the war they forgot some of the things they learned in school. I helped them review their math. I kept looking for a full-time job. I was very happy when I was hired to teach math at the University of Detroit.

I kept working on ideas for writing Braille math. I thought of ways to make things easier to read. I made some lists of symbols. (A symbol is something that stands for something else. For instance, the + sign stands for the "plus" or the idea of adding.) There is a committee that decides how Braille should be written. It is called the Braille Authority of North America (BANA). This group decides about Braille for the United States and Canada. They write rules for Brailling books.

This committee looked at my new ways of writing math. They said my ideas were very good. They asked me to write a list. In 1952, they made lots of copies of my lists. They called it "The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation." People usually just call it the Nemeth Code for short.

Today there is a big book about the Nemeth Code. Every few years it is printed again, with some changes. People often say to me, "You keep changing the Code. When will it be all finished?" It will never be finished. It has to keep changing because the world keeps changing. Math keeps changing. It's like the dictionary. We always need new dictionaries because there are new words. Also we use the old words in new ways.

Math keeps changing, too. For instance Greek and Russian letters are used a lot more in math than they used to be; we have to have good ways to write them. Computers have also changed the way we do things.

People like the Nemeth Code. It makes it easy to write math correctly in Braille. I am glad that I have helped people. But I don't want to stop working! Just a little while ago, I wrote the code for a new talking calculator. It would be boring if I were not working on something new.

Based on the article "Teaching Mathematics: One Career for the Blind," by Abraham Nemeth (Braille Monitor, November, 1989, pp. 678-686). Rewritten by D. M. Willoughby after additional conversation with Dr. Nemeth.

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