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A Montana Yankee In Louis Braille’s Court
by Carolyn Brock
Editor’s Note: The following story was first published in the Observer, a publication of the NFB of Montana, and later reprinted in the Braille Monitor. Carolyn Brock is a teacher and an active member of the NFB. Here is her delightful report of her visit to the home of Louis Braille:
Blind or sighted, most people have heard of Louis Braille. They generally know that he was French, lived over a hundred years ago, lost his sight as a child, and grew up to develop the system of raised dots which has become the means of reading and writing for blind people all over the world. But there is much more to the story.
I had read Kenneth Jernigan’s article published in the July 1994, issue of the Braille Monitor, discussing the NFB’s financial contribution to the restoration of the Braille home in Coupvray, France, just east of Paris. The article also included a detailed description of the homesite itself. While planning a two-month stay in France last summer, my husband and I decided that a visit to the Braille home would be a worthwhile excursion.
On a previous trip to France in 1991, I had visited several centers for the blind, both in Paris and in Burgundy. Everywhere I was impressed with the pride that blind French people feel in the work of Louis Braille; at each center I was repeatedly reminded that Braille was originally a French system. This summer I learned that sighted French people share that same pride. Several days before the planned trip to Coupvray, we visited the Pantheon, the huge domed memorial to great French citizens in all fields of endeavor. Almost as soon as we walked in the door (I carrying my white cane), we were approached by a museum administrator who explained to me again how proud the French are of Louis Braille and directed us to his memorial site. I was given the English language version of a small book about Braille and the village of Coupvray.
The visit to Coupvray lived up to our expectations. It is only a mile or two from Euro-Disney and has only recently been surrounded by the sprawling metropolitan suburbs. But Coupvray itself retains its country village flavor. The old part of the village is very much as it must have been in 1769, when Louis Braille’s grandfather built the original house. Like most village houses of the time, it was a single room with a niche for the parents’ bed built into an outer wall. In the next generation Louis Braille’s father, a saddle-maker who also owned vineyards, was successful enough to build an adjoining workshop accessed by leaving the living quarters and walking around the outside of the house to the workshop entrance. Over the years the Brailles had the money to add an upstairs bedroom each time a child was born, with two different stairways leading up from the two sides of the house. To this day the house is on the edge of the village, with a rutted road, navigable only by a 4-by-4 vehicle, leading off into the woods just behind the house.
Into this family, very affluent for villagers of the time, Louis Braille was born in 1809, the last of four children. He was blinded at age three in an accident with his father’s work tools. When he was fifteen, his family sent him to the School for the Young Blind in Paris, an expense which no ordinary village family would have been able to afford.
At school in Paris young Louis was an outstanding student. He was taught the system of tactile writing being used at the time, which used conventional letter shapes. This embossing system had been developed by Valentin Haüy (who standardized the use of the white cane in Europe, and after whom the largest center for the blind in France is named). The disadvantage of the system was that there was no way for an ordinary blind person to write it. Young Louis also saw an experimental system, using raised dots instead of letters, developed by a French army officer, to communicate with his men at night. Not only was the raised-dot system easier for a blind person to read; it could also be written with very little special equipment. Louis Braille went to work refining the system. The result was the French version of Grade I Braille, with a symbol for each letter of the alphabet and the basic punctuation marks.
After becoming the first blind teacher at the school, Braille set to work teaching his pupils this new system of reading and writing. The result could have been predicted by anyone familiar with the story of Braille in modern times. The blind students loved the Braille system and used it to take notes and to write to each other. The other teachers at the school, all of them sighted, were totally opposed since they could not read it. But Louis Braille continued to teach the system, and by 1840 the French Ministry of Education had little choice but to accept it as the standard method of writing for the blind. It has since been modified for use in virtually all of the world’s major languages and contracted into Grade II versions to fit each one.
The Braille house in Coupvray is a monument to this remarkable chain of events. The living room of the house is still sparsely furnished, much as it was in the early nineteenth century. In the huge fireplace hang cooking pots used at the time. Next to the fireplace, in a child-sized chair, sits a life-sized doll of a little boy, Louis Braille at age four or five, dressed in the clothing of the period.
Next door in Simon Braille’s saddle-making workshop are the crude wooden workbench, table, and chairs, much as they must have been during Louis Braille’s childhood. Display cases contain collections of the saddle-making craft.
Climbing either set of stairs, one arrives at a landing, where the wall has been knocked out, uniting the two staircases and thus the two halves of the house. On the landing stands a life-size girl doll, one of the Braille sisters, also dressed in authentic clothing. She indicates the way to Louis Braille’s room, which now houses the rest of the museum. An attic room, still farther up, is yet to be completed.
It is in Louis Braille’s room that a visitor gets a sense of the magnitude of Braille’s accomplishment. Here are displays of the early equipment used to write Braille, primitive ancestors of our interpoint embossers and refreshable computer screens. But the most moving tribute to Louis Braille comes from the testimonials to him which are displayed throughout the room. There are cards and letters from all over the world, many of them bearing stamps commemorating the work of Louis Braille. Over and over, in many languages, they tell the stories of blind people whose lives were enriched and transformed by the work of this one person. It is a fitting monument to a man who over a century ago began changing what it means to be blind.
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