Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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Louis Braille Touched Us All

by Deborah Kendrick

The home in which Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, two-hundred years ago in 1809.

Editor’s Note: The following tribute to Louis Braille first appeared in the January 8, 2006, edition of the Columbus Dispatch and then was reprinted in the February 2006 issue of the Braille Monitor, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind. The author, Deborah Kendrick, is a freelance writer, a columnist, and a Federation leader in Ohio. Her tribute is especially appropriate as we celebrate, on January 4, 2009, the 200th birthday of the man who invented the Braille code:

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. E-mail 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.

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

Editor’s Note: The following resource information from the last two paragraphs in Kendrick’s article has been updated to reflect the current status of the Louis Braille coin and the biography of Louis Braille:

A bill (H.R. 2872) introduced in the U.S. House by representatives Bob Ney (R-OH) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) designated one of the two commemorative coins minted in 2009 to be in recognition of the bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth. This is a simple but marvelous gesture, at long last, to honor a man who gave such a gift to the world. It will raise funds for Braille literacy, and garner recognition for the system of literacy that has the power to improve the lives of millions of blind children and adults. The Louis Braille coin will be available for sale by the USA Mint on or about March 26, 2009.

(An excellent biography, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, by C. Michael Mellor, was released in the Spring of 2006. It is available from the National Braille Press in both print and Braille, <www.braille.com> or (800) 548-7323.)

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