[AI] louis braille medal reg.
SRI HARI GUDELLY
gshari27 at gmail.com
Thu Apr 22 21:50:47 EDT 2010
By Pedro Zurita
Louis Braille, who was born two hundred years ago, did not have the
chance in his lifetime to witness the unbridled success of his simple
but brilliant invention, a system which revolutionised the lives of
blind people by opening the doors to knowledge and culture, fields
which were hitherto out of bounds to them.
The birth pangs were not, however, insignificant. Braille completed
his code in 1825, when he was barely 15 years old, but he passed away
two years before France officially adopted his system in 1854. For
decades his method faced rejection from both teachers at the Young
Blind People’s Institute in Paris, where Braille himself studied and
taught, and from sighted people. It was even banned for some time, and
it was not until 1878 when an international congress held in Paris
recognised the braille system, giving it the boost it needed to be
implemented gradually worldwide. Since then training, development and
independence for blind people have relied largely on this reading and
writing system that is now, two hundred years after it was invented,
used in practically every language in the world.
Although in the past few years many have hailed the replacement of the
braille system due to technological breakthroughs, no alternative
method capable of substituting it completely has yet been developed.
What is more, there are numerous signs that it enjoys rude health as
it is used increasingly in everyday settings to enable blind people to
become more independent. Braille is still irreplaceable in this
respect, as we can see, for example, with the cosmetics firms, food
companies and wine merchants who market their products with braille
labeling, the European Union directive that makes it obligatory to
have braille signage in new lifts, or the fact that since October 2005
all medicines in the European Union must carry braille labeling.
Yet more initiatives can be found in the field of citizens’ rights.
Countries such as France, Germany, Spain, India, Mexico, Colombia and
Costa Rica are using braille to come up with different methods to
ensure blind people are able to exercise their vote independently in
The logic of an alphabet
The simple and logical structure of the braille system is based on the
presence or absence of dots in a cell containing two parallel columns,
each with three dots. The different permutations of dots in the
six-dot cell give us 63 different combinations representing all the
letters of the alphabet.
Louis Braille based his system on the so-called "night writing"
developed by Charles Barbier, a captain in the artillery, to enable
the military to send messages in the dark. Braille learnt about this
tactile code when he was just 10 years old and, after studying it, he
reached the brilliant conclusion that the two columns containing six
dots each put forward by Barbier should be reduced to two columns of
three, an ideal size for the perception of a fingertip. Braille also
showed that the sense of touch was significantly more sensitive to
dots than to the linear system used in the code created some years
previously by Valentin Haüy. Haüy’s system, which used lines to
represent the letters of the visual alphabet, was the one Braille had
learnt when he began at the Young Blind People’s Institute in Paris,
founded by Haüy himself in 1784.
Using this knowledge, Louis Braille came up with a very logical code:
the first ten letters of the alphabet are formed using combinations
only of the top two rows in the cell; the next ten are the same as the
first ten with the addition of the bottom dot in the left-hand column,
and the following ten letters use the bottom dots in both columns.
After that only the bottom right-hand dot is used, and so on.
Punctuation marks are represented by combinations of dots using only
the two bottom rows.
Louis Braille, however, did not stop after inventing the braille
alphabet; he is also responsible for adapting his system for
mathematics, creating a clever system of abbreviations, and for music,
developing a vertical system that is still used to this day.
Braille and new technologies
We do not have accurate figures on the number of braille users, nor do
we have research showing a correlation between the use of the reading
and writing system and academic qualifications. However, from the
information we do have and available estimates we can deduce it is
used by a minority of the blind and low vision. This is for a variety
of reasons, among them the difficulties older people have in learning
braille and the high cost of producing braille resource material. In
addition, in recent times we have witnessed the development of new
technologies based on text to speech which have reduced noticeably the
extent to which braille is used, especially because a lot of
information and books are easier to get hold of using electronic
Both methods, however, far from being mutually exclusive, can
complement each other. In the 80s and 90s there were significant
breakthroughs in computing and electronics, and we are now able to
produce much more material in braille a lot more cheaply. Suitable
complementary computer programmes make it possible to present the same
information that is written on the computer in braille. There are now
many resources that are an improvement on what most people used to
have, but for people with a visual impairment many of these
technological breakthroughs have opened up possibilities that were
previously unimaginable. For example, a huge amount of information can
now be stored on a CD-ROM, a DVD or other tiny storage devices that
are now available and accessible to more and more people with vision
loss who use a computer.
Internet also opens up brand new horizons for those of us who cannot
see but have access to an adapted computer. Reading the newspaper is
now no longer a utopian pipe dream for the blind. Nevertheless, the
truth is that all these innovations do not take anything away from the
value of braille, and in fact they contribute to strengthening its
merit. Nowadays the ideal system is to combine braille and
text-to-speech software when using a computer and, more generally,
when handling information.
Braille as a universal system
Although braille is used by a minority of people with vision loss, it
must be recognised as a truly universal system since it is used in all
languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. In the last few
years it has also been applied in minority languages such as Guaraní,
widely spoken in many parts of Paraguay, Tibetan and Dzongkha, one of
Bhutan’s official languages. In Africa, braille has expanded recently
to include Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, the official languages in Rwanda
and Burundi respectively.
The World Braille Council, set up under the auspices of UNESCO in
1950, played a leading role in the application of braille in the
written languages of the world. It carried out the very important task
of preserving unity in dots that were common to several languages and
made a vital contribution to extending braille to languages less
widespread than English, French or Spanish. Its chairman at the time,
Sir Clutha Mackenzie, published World Braille Usage in 1953, a
magnificent work that sets out general principles and includes braille
alphabets in those languages where they were available at the time.
The World Braille Council then came under the wings, firstly, of the
World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (WCWB) and later, following
its foundation in 1984, of the World Blind Union.
Information has led to change in the main linguistic groups and in
specific languages. These changes have been undertaken without taking
other languages into account and without the involvement of a
universal authority, thus leading to less consistency in the use of
certain punctuation marks such as, for instance, brackets, even in
closely-related languages like French, English and Spanish, while
there is still a wide range of alternative forms of representing the
now ubiquitous "@" in E-mail addresses.
Unification is, for many, a desirable objective, but the goal is
difficult to achieve when it involves giving up things one considers
to be the best for one’s own language. An international braille code
does exist and is used more and more, but the WBU Braille Council
still has an important task ahead of it to unify and promote it.
Louis Braille (1809-1852)
1809: Louis Braille was born on January 4th in Coupvray, a small
town east of Paris.
1812: at the age of three, he accidentally stabbed himself in the
eye with an awl when he was playing in his father’s saddle-maker’s
workshop. The infection spread to his other eye and he became totally
1819: Louis joined the Young Blind People’s Institute in Paris,
founded in 1784 by Valentin Haüy. He stayed at the Institute for 24
years, first as a student and later as a teacher.
1820: Braille was introduced to the night writing system developed
by army captain Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier for the army. He studied
the system, made some improvements and developed his own method, which
he completed in 1825 when he was just 15 years old.
1827: Braille became a teacher at the Young Blind People’s
Institute, where he taught grammar, history, geography, arithmetic,
algebra, geometry, piano and cello.
1829: the first version of his method was published. The second
version, including some improvements, was published eight years later
and contains the braille method as we know it today.
1852: on January 6th, Braille died of tuberculosis aged 43. He was
buried in Coupvray, where the house in which he was born still stands
and is now a museum.
1952: Braille’s body was moved to the Pantheon in Paris, not far
from the Young Blind People’s Institute where he spent most of his
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