“In our way, we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg. It is true that the dot system is very different from ordinary print, but these raised letters are, under our fingers, precious seeds from which has grown our intellectual harvest. Without the braille dot system, how incomplete and chaotic our education would be!” — Helen Keller
Our feature story is this 15 minute Great Moments in Science and Technology video:
The Life of Louis Braille – A Brief Review
Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France. Blinded due to an accident that occurred at the age of three, his parents did all that they could to help him continue to learn and become independent. He was taught to read and write by feeling nails hammered into boards in the shapes of letters and ultimately proved himself to be highly intelligent.
He had many accomplishments in his lifetime, but he is known for pioneering braille, a code created so that the blind and visually impaired could read and write through touch. The code is made up of characters represented by various patterns of six dots.
Louis’ code was inspired by a system developed by Charles Barbier, a retired artillery captain from Napoléon’s army. Barbier had invented “night writing,” or sonography as he called it, a coded system of 12 raised dots that allowed soldiers to communicate silently at night.
Developing the Dot System
From age 12 – 15, while attending the Institution for Blind Youth, Louis worked passionately on his dot system. His fellow students loved the system, but officials at the national department of education were skeptical because the system did not closely resemble the Roman-alphabet letters used by the sighted. His system eventually was banned at the school, though at times the students practiced Louis’ system in secret. The secrecy was a necessity since the school’s administration would destroy anything written in braille.
The desire for equality pushed Louis to continue to develop his code. He said, “Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded that we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals — and communication is the way we can bring this about.”
As the years went by, Louis expanded his system, eventually creating symbols for both math and music. Additionally, he added the letter “w” so that the system could be used in English. His original alphabet did not have a “w” because, at the time, that letter was not included in the French alphabet.
Besides his development of braille, Louis was a skilled musician and treasured teacher; he wrote math textbooks for the blind; and he had a book published featuring his braille dot system. Unfortunately, he never saw the full adoption of his system in his lifetime.
Death at a Young Age
On January 6, 1852, just two days after his forty-third birthday, Louis died of tuberculosis. He originally was buried in Coupvray, but on June 20th, 1952, his remains were disinterred at Coupvray and taken to Paris where a funeral was held in his honor. You can view a portion of the funeral here.
Though his body was moved to Paris, Louis’ hands remain entombed in an urn in the churchyard in Coupvray.
The house in which Louis was born is now a museum that honors his life and work. A plaque on the wall reads, “He opened the doors of knowledge to all those who cannot see.”
The only known image of Louis is derived from a daguerreotype, the first successful form of photography. The image shows Louis with his eyes closed because it was taken shortly after his death. In real life, he kept his eyes open.
The Adoption of Braille
Although Louis developed his dot system as a teenager, it wasn’t until 1854, two years after his death, that his system was adopted by the French government as the standard for reading and writing for the blind.
By the late nineteenth century, the system had been adopted throughout most of the world, excepting the United States, which did not adopt it until 1932. Helen Keller strongly advocated for the adoption of braille in the United States, referring to braille as the magic wand of the blind.
Braille is not a language; it’s a code. In fact, there is a braille code for every major language as well as codes for mathematics, music, and computers. Use these activities and links to learn more about braille:
- Practice braille with these games and worksheets.
- See your name in braille and play several word and decoding games with Braille Bug.
- Print this free download to write your child’s name in braille. Use gemstones if you want raised dots.
- Watch a video to discover how blind people write braille.
- Look for places in your community where braille is used.
Character and Bible Lessons
- Tie in a Bible lesson by teaching little ones about spiritual blindness.
- Louis Braille’s hard work was a great example of perseverance! Learn more about perseverance with a simple ice cube activity.
- What do you think would have happened if Louis didn’t persevere? What impact has his perseverance had on the world?
- Discuss the impact Louis Braille had on the world after his death. He didn’t see the full fruits of his labor in his lifetime, but his perseverance eventually made a difference worldwide. It reminds me of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
- Read a short biography about Louis.
- Learn more about Louis from the American Foundation for the Blind (this was a particularly helpful resource; it had just enough information for a short study).
- Look at a picture of the first full-length book that used the braille dot system.
- Find Coupvray, Louis’ birthplace, on a map. (Scroll down to the relief map after clicking the link.)
Library Book Suggestions
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