Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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Louis Braille: The Father of Literacy for the Blind

by Deborah Kent Stein

Louis BrailleEditor’s Note: I am honored to write a note of introduction about the author of this brief biography of a great man. Blind from birth, Deborah Kent Stein had a passion for the written word from an early age; filling page after page with Braille as she wrote stories and journals. For decades, she has made a respectable living as an author of books and literature for young adults and children. Having received the benefits of the work of great blind men and women (such as Louis Braille) she has had a life-long commitment to giving back and helping other blind people realize their dreams, too. She is an officer of the NFB affiliate in Illinois, coordinator of the Braille pen-pal program (Slate Pals) for the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, and a tireless mentor and advocate for blind children and youth in her state. She exemplifies in every way the very spirit of Louis Braille himself. Here is Deborah’s account of the life of Louis Braille:

Every year thousands of people from all over the world make a pilgrimage to the French village of Coupvray. Their journey’s end is a simple stone cottage where, nearly two hundred years ago, an inquisitive three-year-old named Louis Braille had an accident that changed the course of history.

Born on January 4, 1809, Louis Braille was the youngest of four children. His father, a harness-maker, ran a workshop attached to the family home. Louis loved to watch his father cutting and fastening strips of leather with an assortment of shiny tools. One day he crept into the workshop when no one was looking and tried to punch a hole in a piece of leather with his father’s awl. The tool slipped, piercing the child’s eye. In the weeks that followed an infection set in. Miraculously, in those days before antibiotics, Louis Braille survived the infection, but it left him totally blind.

The only blind people Louis’s parents had ever seen were beggars on the streets. Yet they were convinced that their bright little boy was capable of much more, if only he were given a chance to learn. When Louis was seven his parents enrolled him in the village school. Much of the study was done through recitation, and Louis proved to be an apt pupil. Without a way to read and write, however, he was at a terrible disadvantage. At last his parents learned of a school in Paris where blind boys could study and learn a trade. Painful though it was to send their son away to the big city, they decided that the school was his only hope for a productive future.

Louis Braille entered the Royal Institute for Blind Youth when he was ten years old. The school was housed in a damp, drafty old building with echoing halls and steep, winding stairways. The boys ate meager meals of porridge with slabs of doughy bread. The school had few books for the children to read. The books used a form of embossed print that had been invented years ago by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy. Slowly and laboriously the boys traced the raised print letters with their fingers, sounding out each sentence, word by cumbersome word.

In 1821 an army captain named Charles Barbier approached the director of the school with an exciting new idea. Barbier had developed a system for reading by touch which he called “night writing.” He created the system as a means for soldiers to read messages in the dark, without alerting the enemy to their whereabouts by lighting a lantern. He suggested that his night writing might prove useful to the blind.

Eagerly the students at the Royal Institute experimented with Barbier’s system. Instead of using embossed print letters, night writing was based on raised dots and dashes. Unfortunately the system had no way to show capitalization or punctuation. Words were not even written with standard French spelling; instead, words were written as they were pronounced.

Most of the boys lost interest in Barbier’s night writing, but twelve-year-old Louis thought it had possibilities. In every spare moment he worked to improve the code, sometimes staying up late at night although the morning bell sounded at six. He abandoned Barbier’s dashes and developed a streamlined system based on six dots in two vertical rows, like the “6” on a domino. The first ten letters of the alphabet used the four upper dots. The next ten added the lower left dot to the earlier combinations. The letters u, v, x, y, and z were formed by adding both of the lower dots. The original code did not include the letter w, because w was not used in French. Louis Braille later created a symbol for w on the suggestion of an English classmate. To this day, the Braille letter w does not fit the pattern of the rest of the alphabet.

By the time he was fifteen, Louis Braille had perfected his writing system. The code which came to bear his name could be used for music and mathematics as well as straightforward text. It had symbols for capitalization and all of the punctuation marks. The students at the Royal Institute were enthusiastic about the Braille system, but some of the teachers regarded it with suspicion. Braille looked nothing like print, and the sighted teachers were reluctant to learn it. The Braille system finally became the school’s standard reading mode in 1844.

Louis Braille was a gifted musician as well as a man of inventive genius. He studied piano and organ at the Institute, and in 1825 he took a paying job as organist in a Paris church. The following year he began to tutor younger blind students, and when he was nineteen he was appointed to serve as a full-time teacher at the Institute. He worked at the school for the rest of his life, teaching geography, French grammar, music, and mathematics. He received room and board at the school in addition to a small salary.

Years of damp rooms and poor diet took their toll on Braille’s health. When he was twenty-six he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Little by little he grew weaker and more frail, but he remained devoted to his students. He was a beloved and admired teacher who often used his humble savings to help a student in need. Surrounded by loving friends, Louis Braille died at the Institute on January 6, 1852, at the age of forty-three.

In the decades that followed, the Braille system was accepted as the reading method for blind people throughout the world. In 1952 Braille’s body was moved from the cemetery in Coupvray to rest in honor at the Pantheon, the Paris cemetery that holds the remains of some of the nation’s most celebrated intellectual leaders. Braille’s hands, the hands that opened the gates of literacy for millions of blind people, remain entombed in a simple urn in the churchyard in Coupvray.

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