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Disability not a barrier

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Remembering Louis Braille

By: M Ahmad

World Braille Day, 4th January every year, celebrates the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the reading and writing system used by millions of blind and partially sighted people all over the globe.

Louis Braille, born 4 January 1809, was from a small town in France called Coupvray. He and his three siblings lived with their parents, Monique Braille and Simon-René Braille. Louis’ father worked as a village saddler. As a young boy, Louis often spent time playing in his father’s workshop.

One day, aged three, he was attempting to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. As he pressed down, the sharp pointed tool slipped and struck him in one eye. Louis’ damaged eye could not be treated and in the weeks that followed the young boy’s eye became badly infected. The infection spread to his other eye. By the time he was five years old, Louis was completely blind in both eyes. A diligent and bright student, a 10 years old Louis started attending one of the first blind schools in the world: The Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris.

In 1821, Louis learned of ‘night writing’ – a tactile communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French army. Intended for transmitting battlefield communications in darkness, night writing used a code of dots and dashes set on thick paper. These impressions could be interpreted by the touch of a finger and letting soldiers communicate on the battlefield without needing to speak or have light.

It seems Louis, who was a very bright student, was inspired by Barbier’s complicated system and he set about simplifying it so it could be more user friendly for blind people. In 1824, by the time he was 15, he had trimmed Barbier’s 12 dots into six and found 63 ways to use a six-dot cell in an area no bigger than a fingertip. He also extended his code for music and later mathematics.

Aged 40, Louis had to leave his teaching post at the Institute due to the worsening of a long-term respiratory illness. He moved back to his home town of Coupvray. He died 6 January, 1852, at the Royal Institution’s infirmary.

Braille was finally introduced at the Royal Institution two years later, urged on by Louis Braille’s blind pupils. By the late 19th century Braille had expanded to countries all over the world. In 1952, the French government finally recognised Louis Braille’s achievements, universally accepted system of writing used by and for blind persons and consisting of a code of 63 characters, each made up of one to six raised dots arranged in a six-position matrix or cell. These Braille characters are embossed in lines on paper and read by passing the fingers lightly over the manuscript. His body was exhumed from the village cemetery in Coupvray and reburied in the Pantheon in Paris, where other famous French figures including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are also laid to rest. Louis’ hands were buried in Coupvray.

World Braille Day is celebrated every year on 4 January – as Louis’ birthday.

The writer is Principal (I/C) Abhedananda Home, Solina, Srinagar, Higher Secondary Institution for Hearing & Speech Impaired (Deaf & Mute) and Visually Impaired (Blind) Children. He can be reached at abhome78@gnmail.com

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