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 January 4 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.
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 25 miles 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 of 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. This was a fantastic opportunity for blind people all around the world to say “thank you in the key of braille”.
Thanks too to the attached water colour of Louis Braille, painted by my husband and also braille lover, Ron Esplin!