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Louis Braille
(1800 - 1852)


 


Louis Braille
(1800 - 1852)

Born

4 January 1809, in Coupvray, France, a small town located southeast of Paris.

He and his three elder siblings, Monique Catherine Josephine Braille (b.1793), Louis-Simon Braille (b.1795), and Marie Celine Braille (b.1797), lived with their mother, Monique, and father, Simon-René, on three hectares of land and vineyards in the countryside. Simon-René maintained a successful enterprise as a leatherer and maker of horse tack

Early Life

As soon as he could walk, Louis spent time playing in his father's workshop.

At the age of three, he was playing with some of the tools, trying to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. Squinting closely at the surface, he pressed down hard to drive the point in, and the awl glanced across the tough leather and struck him in one of his eyes.

A local doctor bound and patched the affected eye and even arranged for Louis to be met the next day in Paris by a highly respected surgeon, but no treatment could save the damaged organ.

In agony, the young boy suffered for weeks as the wound became severely infected and spread to his other eye.He survived the torment of the infection but by the age of five he was completely blind in both eyes

His devoted parents made great efforts, quite uncommon for the time, to raise their youngest child in a normal fashion, and Louis prospered in their care.

He learned to navigate the village and country paths with canes his father made for him, and he grew up seemingly at peace with his disability.

His bright and creative mind impressed the local teachers and priests, and he was encouraged to seek higher education.

Education

Braille studied in Coupvray until the age of ten.

Because of his combination of intelligence and diligence, he was allowed to attend one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.

The school was an underfunded, ramshackle affair, but it provided a stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together.

Braille read the Haüy books repeatedly, and he was equally attentive to the oral instruction offered by the school.

He proved to be a highly proficient student and, after he had exhausted the school's curriculum, he was immediately asked to remain as a teacher's aide.

By 1833, he was elevated to a full professorship.

For much of the rest of his life, Braille stayed at the Institute where he taught history, geometry, and algebra.

Learning to Read

The children were taught how to read by a system devised by the school's founder, Valentin Haüy. Not blind himself,
Haüy was a committed philanthropist who devoted his life to helping the blind.

He designed and manufactured a small library of books for the children using a technique of embossing heavy paper with the raised imprints of Latin letters.

Readers would trace their fingers over the text, comprehending slowly but in a traditional fashion which Haüy could appreciate.Although helped by the Haüy books, he also despaired over their lack of depth: the amount of information kept in such books was necessarily small.

Because the raised letters were made in a complex artisanal process using wet paper pressed against copper wire, thechildren could not hope to "write" by themselves.

So that the young Louis could send letters back home, Simon-René provided him with an alphabet fashioned from bits of thick leather.

It was a slow and cumbersome process, but the boy could at least trace the letters' outlines and write his first sentences.

Braille

Braille was determined to fashion a system of reading and writing that could bridge the critical gap in communication between the sighted and the blind.

In his own words: "Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] 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 we are vulnerable.

We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about."

In 1821, Braille learned of a communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army.

Some sources depict Braille learning about it from a newspaper account read to him by a friend, while others say the officer, aware of its potential, made a special visit to the school.

In either case, Barbier willingly shared his invention called "night writing" which was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper.

These impressions could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak.

The captain's code turned out to be too complex to use in its original military form, but it inspired Braille to develop a system of his own

Braille worked tirelessly on his ideas, and his system was largely completed by 1824, when he was just fifteen years of age.

From Barbier's night writing, he innovated by simplifying its form and maximizing its efficiency.

He made uniform columns for each letter, and he reduced the twelve raised dots to only six, the smallest perfect number offering the highest proportion of combinations.

He discarded all the dashes because they took up too much space.

Crucially, Braille's small clusters of six dots were capable of being instantly recognized as letters with a single touch of a finger, without any movement or repositioning

Music

Braille's ear for music enabled him to become an accomplished cellist and organist in classes taught by Jean-Nicholas Marrigues.

Later in life, his musical talents led him to play the organ for churches all over France.

He held the position of organist in Paris at the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs from 1834–1839, and later at the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

Died

Braille had always been a sickly child, and his condition worsened in adulthood.

A persistent respiratory illness, long believed to be tuberculosis, dogged him, and by the age of forty, he was forced to relinquish his position as a teacher.

When his condition reached mortal danger, he was taken back to his family home in Coupvray, where he died in 1852, two days after he had reached the age of forty-three.

 

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