January 4th is World Braille Day, a day to celebrate the code of tiny elevated dots that has been instrumental in opening up worlds of information and opportunity to millions of people around the world suffering from blindness or low vision. The date coincides with the commemoration of the birthday of Louis Braille (4 January 1809 – 6 January 1852), the Frenchman credited with the invention of the braille code language over the years 1821 – 1837.
Louis Braille, while not born blind, was blinded through an accident when he was only 3 years old. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in France, one of the first schools in the world for blind children. Here he learned to read using a system developed by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy, who had books specially printed using a complex wet-printing process, to create raised imprints of the Latin letters in the text. While this was useful, it was very difficult to accurately read the letters by touch, and the complexity of the printing process made it impossible for an individual to use for writing. Braille yearned to read and write as well as any able person, despite his disability, and he knew that effective communication was critical if he was to function fully in a normal world. He is famously quoted as saying: “We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”
This passion lead him to devise a set of symbols, consisting of raised dots on paper, that could be felt by hand and read as a sighted person would read printed letters and words on a page. The simplicity of the raised dot system meant that a blind person could also generate a page with the code using simple tools, thus effectively enabling him to write. The system was an improvement on an earlier code system, known as ‘night writing’, developed for military use by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army.
It is a testament to his intelligence, drive and tenacity that Braille developed most of the code that was to become the basis of the braille language by 1824, when he was a mere 15 years of age. His initial system, published in 1829, contained both dots and dashes, but he replaced this with an updated, simplified edition using only dots, released in 1837.
Braille’s system of communication took some time to gain widespread adoption. First adopted at the school where he was educated, its popularity grew throughout France, and from there it slowly gained recognition in other countries. Almost 2 centuries after its invention, braille remains a critical tool for learning and communication among the visually impaired. Over the years, it has been adapted and expanded for many world languages.
In an incredible twist of fate, the very tool that accidentally blinded Louis Braille at the age of three – an awl – became the tool he used used to write his unique braille code.