Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Happy National Braille Week

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn't mean he lacks vision”
Stevie Wonder

National Braille Week will be celebrated from 4th -11th January 2013 - more than 200 years after the birth of Louis Braille. And each year 4th January marks World Braille Day commemorating the birth of Louis Braille on 4th January 1809.

Louis Braille was born in a small town near Paris. Playing in his father's leather workshop when he was 4, Louis tried to use a sharp, pointed tool called an awl, used for making holes in leather. He bent over, intending to try making shoes like his father did, but the awl slipped and went into his eye, blinding it.
With sight in just one eye, he attended school for two years, but his other eye became infected by the first, and he became totally blind. He had to leave school because he wouldn't be able to learn much more without eyesight. In those days there was little assistance for blind people, and most blind adults were forced to become beggars in the street as their only means of making any sort of living.
When he was 10, a school for blind boys opened in Paris, one of the first such schools in the world. Louis was lucky enough to be accepted there as a pupil. As in all schools at that time, discipline was harsh, and pupils who misbehaved were beaten, locked up and fed bread and water. Most people left school at the age of 12 in order to work in factories or down mines.
At the school for the blind, pupils were taught practical skills like weaving cane seats on chairs or making slippers so that when they left the school they would be able to earn a living. Once a week, the boys were taken for a walk in the park, linked together by a long rope. They were taught to read but not to write. The writing they read was raised on the page so that they could feel the words with their fingertips. The letters were made by pressing copper wire alphabet shapes into one side of the paper to make a raised shape on the other. It was very difficult to tell the letters apart. Because each letter had to be made out of wire first and then forced into the paper with a press, blind people couldn't write anything for themselves.
In 1821 a soldier named Charles Barbier came to give a talk at the school. He told them about a system he had invented called 'night writing', so that soldiers could pass instructions along at night without having to talk and let the enemy know where they were. Because they couldn't use a light, which would let the enemy spot them, they had to feel the messages. Night writing consisted of twelve raised dots which could be combined to represent different sounds. Unfortunately, this system was too complicated and the army didn't use it.
However, Louis was quick to see the possibilities of the system. He worked over the next few months and came up with a simpler version made up of 6 dots. For several years he developed it further, adding maths and music codes.

In 1827 the first book in braille was published.
It took a while for the system to catch on. Sighted people did not realise how useful it could be, and it was not taught in the school for the blind. However, blind children began learning it in secret. Eventually, the benefits of the system were realised and it was put into use. One major benefit was that at last blind people could write, using a simple tool to make the dots. This was the beginning of true independence for blind people.

Later in life, Louis Braille invented another new method for writing, called raphigraphy. It was a method that enabled both the blind and the sighted to read it, so that now blind people and sighted people could write to each other. He also invented a machine similar to a typewriter that produced raphigraphy.
Louis Braille became a teacher in the school where he had been a student. He did not live to see his system widely used. He had always had poor health, and he died of tuberculosis in 1852, at the age of 43.
So who uses braille? Millions of blind, deafblind and visually impaired people worldwide. In a world where communication is everything, living without it would be impossible.
Braille allows people to read books, exam papers and other important documents that need to be understood to get through life and the working world. It also lets people use computers in a society where technology is used nearly everywhere we go. Even some mobile phones are fitted with braille coding!
Although helping people with braille has been a huge success, there is still lots more to be done. Braille on mobile phones is miles away from developing countries who just can’t afford enough braille books. Some facilities like bank machines and button panels on elevators still don’t have braille. These are basic tasks that should be easy to come by when you’re getting through the day.
When the important day comes around, visually impaired people along with their family and friends, will be taking part in events all around the globe. In the past people have celebrated by taking part in essay competitions or braille readings.
It really is happening everywhere. Postage stamps with Louis Braille’s picture have been published in many places and an asteroid called Braille orbits our planet in space!
If you’re interested in finding out more about braille, visit the National Braille Week website.
Here is a quick Braille lesson:

Not so easy after all – what do you think?

“Sometimes, I feel I am really blessed to be blind because I probably would not last a minute if I were able to see things”
Stevie Wonder

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