Above the front door of Louis Braille’s house in Coupvray, France, hangs a plaque with the words “he opened the doors of knowledge to those who cannot see”. This humble house, lying 40 km east of Paris, is now a museum honouring the blind man who gave us the key to that door of knowledge; Louis Braille.

Louis Braille was born on this day in 1809 in his small village of Coupvray. The fourth child of the local saddle maker, the Braille’s were a modest family living in a modest house in modest times. What was about to happen in this saddle maker’s workshop was not only about to change the life of their family forever, but also for the lives of blind people forever.

Like most other three year olds, Louis Braille was curious and adventurous. He wasn’t content playing in the corner with his blocks. Like most boys he wanted to play with things he shouldn’t. This day he crept into his father’s workshop and started playing with a sharp tool called an awl. Louis slipped while trying to punch his leather sample and instead of imprinting his piece of hyde, he imprinted his eye. Panic struck the Braille house where Louis was rushed to the local herbalist who treated the injury with lillie water. An inevitable infection from the injured eye took Louis’s second eye and by the age of four he was blind.

However, There are lots of events to be thankful for in the life of Louis Braille. First up his father taught him how to write using a board he made containing letters of the alphabet made from saddle making pins. Louis Braille was then able to attend his local school in his local village before mainstreaming was even a word! He then went off and attended the first school for the blind in the world which just happened to be 40 km away in Paris. The next significant event to be thankful for in this story was a visit to that school by a French military captain called Charles Barbier who brought to the school a system of night writing. Barbier had invented this system of reading and writing for his soldiers to use in the dark but it was deemed to complicated for the soldiers so it was decided to bring it to the school for use by the blind.

Louis Braille took this code, and at the age of 12, began creating his system of reading and writing for the blind. It took him three years to perfect and once he had, it was a hit amongst the rest of the blind kids. Not so keen on the new code were the establishment at the school, for this system was based on six dots, bearing no similarity to the print alphabet for which they were familiar. Opposition from the teachers only increased the student’s enthusiasm for the code which had become rife once the lights went out at night. For the first time in their lives, the blind kids were able to write down their very own thoughts.

Louis Braille died from tuberculosis at the age of 43 in 1852. Even though his code was an instant hit amongst the blind, it was not officially adopted until two years after his death in 1854. The code is still in use to this day in over 90 languages from Albanian to Zulu. Maths, music as well as words can be written in this tactile code, with the basic alphabet remaining the same to this day.

If Louis Braille “opened the doors of knowledge to those who cannot see” then his code must be considered the key to that door. We must therefore conclude Louis Braille is responsible for unlocking the potential of many a blind person around the world who were able to open their door of knowledge through the use of braille. On January 4, 2009, the international blind community gathered in Paris to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth.

“Are you going to Paris for Louis Braille’s bi-centennial anniversary Julie?” I got asked.

“Why not!” I replied.

I had myself a new goal therefore I needed a new vision. A vision is a picture of your goal once it has been achieved. If I was going to get a vision I needed to get myself a coach to help me with it.

When I placed an A4 image of Louis Braille up in my office I wasn’t quite sure why I had. What I also wasn’t sure about was kissing the cheek of Louis with my pink trademark lipstick! However – what I was sure about was that I was “going to Paris with a splash” which was the goal I had set with my coach to help me get to Paris. The splash came from landing myself a spot on Campbell Live for the fund raising truffle-athon that was designed to raise awareness of funds for my trip as well as raising awareness of the beauty of braille too!

Still the laminated image of Louis with the kissed cheek sat in my office – cellotaped to my computer desk for everyone but me to see!

The tickets were booked – the day arrived to leave Dunedin and my partner Ron and I headed off for our Parisian blind adventure.

January 4 arrived – Louis Braille’s birthday but this one was a special one – the 200th anniversary of his birth. I decided to begin my own celebrations by climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower! Along with two of our friends, Ron and I headed to the iron structure that towered over the city! Up the stairs, up the lift. Up more stairs, up the lift, until we reached the top! I could hear the doors opening and then silence. No-one moved! We were at the top of the Eiffel Tower and no-one wanted to go out! Except for me! I pointed my cane towards the light and wandered out onto what I hoped was a fenced platform! I was right and before I knew it I had reached the enclosed metal surround that kept people safe. At that moment I stopped, poked my mouth through the grate and called out “Happy Birthday Louis Braille!”

The international blind community commenced it’s celebrations with an “invitation only” affair at the Pantheon that afternoon. Unable to read French or print it was easy for this blind woman to overlook this small point. So – bold and ignorant – Ron, two friends and I turned up to the Pantheon, completely uninvited, to pay our respects to Louis Braille’s tomb.

After much French celebration we headed down to the crypt to visit Louis’s tomb. Down one lot of steps which lead to another and yet another – we finally ended up just outside his resting place. Just before we reached Louis, a sign, including information in braille, as well as a bust of Louis Braille appeared in front of us.

I said to Ron “take a photo of me hugging Louis would you?”

As Ron was getting into position to take the shoot I slipped my arms around Louis’s neck and before Ron had time to shoot – I had placed a kiss on Louis’s cheek – the pink kiss that I had given him all those months previous on that piece of A4 paper. I had connected with my vision – the vision of kissing Louis Braille on the cheek and my vision had now become my reality.

We continued upstairs before heading off to Nostradamus at night to hear five blind organists perform for the blind community. Louis Braille was indeed a fine organist so the performance seemed fitting.

For three days the international blind community celebrated the life of Louis Braille and the contribution his code had made to their potential. 450 people from46 countries around the world gathered to celebrate the life of this little French boy who made a huge contribution to the world in which he lived and the future of his mighty code.

The conference was punctuated with a civic dinner on the last night at the City Hall with the Mayor of Paris!

The day after the conference ended we travelled to Coupvray to visit the birthplace of Louis Braille. The humble house where this little French boy had had his accident back in 1812. We began in the kitchen where I got to place my hands on that board Louis father had made him to get to know the shape of print letters. We moved downstairs to Louis’s father’s workshop where Louis had his accident with a sharp tool that caused the infection that eventually lead to his blindness. We then finally moved up to the attic, now a museum, where I got to put my fingers on that night writing Charles Barbier had taken to the School for the Blind, where Louis as a 12 year old student got hold of and created his own six dot code.

At the end of the tour, we headed down to the front of the house where I felt for a small kiwi flag I had placed in my winter jacket pocket. As I was kneeling down to stick the flag in the garden to let Louis Braille know kiwis were thinking of him on his special birthday, little did I know I was beneath that sign which reads “he opened the doors of knowledge to those who cannot see”

Happy 205th birthday Louis Braille!

Thank you to my husband Ron Esplin for the water colour portrait of Louis Braille used in this blog entry!