World Braille Day, celebrating communication via raised dots

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.

Braille - opening up new worlds of communication through touch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Braille – opening up new worlds of communication through touch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

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.

Looking forward to a brighter, clearer future on World Sight Day

Today we celebrate World Sight Day, an annual day drawing attention to blindness, visual impairment and rehabilitation of the visually impaired. Globally, it is estimated that almost 300 million people suffer from severe visual impairment (blindness and low vision). About 90% of these live in developing countries.

There are many factors that cause chronic blindness. These include cataract, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, corneal opacities, diabetic retinopathy, trachoma, and eye conditions in children (e.g. caused by vitamin A deficiency). Uncontrolled diabetes is the main factor contributing to age-related blindness in both developed and developing countries.

The age groups most affected by visual impairment are people over the age of 50 (who suffer mainly from age-related impairments) and children below the age of 15 (mostly due to refractive errors – myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism).

A gentle reminder of the world through the eyes of the visually impaired. And this would be classified as mild impairment.
(© All Rights Reserved)

A very important fact worth noting is that more than three quarters of all blindness is preventable or curable. Children in low and middle-income countries in particular are often victims of preventable eye diseases – diseases that, if left untreated, can lead to irreversible blindness. The WHO, in partnership with LIONS Club International, six years ago launched a worldwide, multi-year project to address curable diseases in children – an effort that has so far helped more than 100 million children through increased access to eye care in 30 countries. Many interventions are very basic, such as screening babies and children for eye problems as early as possible. Yet these can have a huge impact, because the earlier any problems are identified, the easier they typically are to address.

Looking at the past 20 years, things are definitely looking positive.  Worldwide, visual impairment is decreasing, despite an aging population. This is largely due to the increased effectiveness in treatment of infectious diseases.  Many countries have also made progress in terms of the establishment of nationally coordinated programmes to address visual impairment, greater focus on eye care in primary and secondary health care, awareness campaigns including school-based education, and stronger involvement of the private sector and civil society. There are also global initiatives like “Vision 2020: The Right to Sight”, created by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, that are doing amazing work to address the issues that still remain.

So while the problem remains huge, it’s nice to at least be able to say “It’s getting better.”  Definitely a good reason for celebration on World Sight Day!