Louis Braille

This week we discussed the hypothetical: what if Louis Braille had not become blind?

June 13, 2019

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Audio Transcript


Embracing Braille – Louis Braille

Presented by Vileen Shah

June 13, 2019

Vileen Shah: The topic today: If Louis Braille had not become blind.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I said, I do not like to have a hypothetical title for a topic, but knowing this, I did this because I wanted to generate a kind of curiosity, a kind of inquisitiveness by giving you this topic. And the result is interesting, quite a few of you wrote to me, two of the active participants sent me their views, their brief articles and before I even begin I would like to mention about that.

Michelle Boyd, I hope she's here, sent me an interesting write up and Sheila Gunn also did. And they both reached or detailed this topic very differently. Michelle Boyd said if Louis Braille had not become blind, what he would have become and truly speaking, this is not something against you Michelle if you're listening to me. Truly speaking, I never thought of that, when I decided this topic title. I had another aspect in mind as Sheila Gunn addressed, that if Louis Braille had not become blind, what would have happened to the blind world, to the people who are blind and visually impaired all over the world?

What would have happened about the literacy, about the learning how to read and write for the blind? I mean, that's something I had in mind, but thank you Michelle for giving me another perspective that is also interesting. If he had not become blind, if he had remained sighted, what would have happened, what he would have done? That's interesting too.

Okay, so when I start talking about this topic, several things come to my mind. First of all, I believe, we need to take a look at the timeline when Louis Braille was born. A historical perspective of the time in which he was born and he was raised and he made his career. First of all, very few of us know, that when Louis Braille was born, which was January 4th, 1809, almost everybody knows that, but very of us know, that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born in the same year. President Abraham Lincoln, about whom I don't have to tell you much and I'm not running a history class here, but he was born in 1809, and Charles Darwin, who gave us the theory of evolution, evolution of life, was born in 1809.

Just a side note, that I started writing a fiction based on the theory of evolution given by Charles Darwin. Of course a fiction, so all characters are fictitious. I did not finish, so we'll not go to that, but I have a closer connection with the theory that Charles Darwin gave.

All right, moving on. 1809, as I said, was the time, but let's take a look at the French history at that time, and the history of the world very briefly. That were a time of Napoleonic war. Napoleon Bonaparte, almost I may say, assumed all powers like a king. He wasn't a king at all, he did not want that title anyway. But he exercised all powers like, autocratic perks and monarch, since 1799. Not only that, he had a dream to be the king of the world. He wanted to have all the countries under his control, and therefore, he waged a war in Europe and won many countries.

Again, there is an interesting sidebar of the history, that thanks to President John Adams, who did not wage a war against France, that had helped the United States in the independence war, but to show his steadfastness, and because of that Napoleon Bonaparte decided to sell Louisiana. And that's what we purchased for $15 million, in 1803.

So basically, that was a time, of course then Napoleon was defeated and all that history we don't want to go into, but that was a time, what I said before, of Napoleonic war in Europe, when Louis Braille was born. And there is a real good connection between the invention that he made, of the script, the writing system based on dots, what we call braille now, and the history. Because the story goes, that first of all Louis Braille, let's address that story first, before even I connect it with the history. Louis Braille, he must be very active and aggressive child I think, because when he was only three years old, he went up the workshop of his dad. His father was supplying the leather ware, the saddle, the harness, for the soldiers in the French army. See, you can connect something here.

Also, obviously, when you make the leather wares, you need tools, and some of the tools are sharp. So Louis Braille, a child of three years went up the workshop, picked up a sharp tool, pointed tool and accidentally poked into his eye. Probably the right eye. Obviously, the right eye started bleeding, and those days were the days when people around us used to care for each other. So the ladies came running, the father was away on his business and some lady suggest that put lily water, because lily water is soothing, cooling, and somebody put the lily water into his eye. Well, it did not help and the infection spread. So he became blind by one eye for two years. He was able to see with another eye, maybe the left.

But there's another part of the physical science, not exactly physical, biological science, body. That the eyes are very sympathetic. If you lose one eye, you're very likely to lose another one. Thanks to the science and medical technology now, that it doesn't happen so much, but in those days, yes. Naturally, that happens and it happened with Louis Braille that he lost both his eyes by age five.

His parents were very different and those days, it was customary in Europe, to let the blind people beg on the street. In fact, that was a recognized profession for the blind and that's where the word handicap comes. Something that I do not like to use, the word handicap. Handicap means a person who holds a cap in his hand, and that was a recognized profession for the blind. So the blind would stand at the street corners, at the church doors and other prime building doors, gates, hold a cap in their hands, and beg. And people will throw coins into that. That was a way of earning livelihood for most blind people.

But, Louis' parents did not want that. They wanted their child to be educated, to learn. But there was no way. How a blind child would learn anything? However, they decided to do something, so they sent Louis to the regular school. In those days, I know, it wasn't easy. Nobody would accept a blind child, but the school was nice. And, of course, because Louis couldn't read, couldn't write, but he had a tremendous memory, so he started learning, and he passed his first grade. In the meantime, the scholarship was awarded to him and Louis was recognized to go to National Institute for the Blind, also called Royal Institute for the Blind Youth, in Paris.

So age 10, he went to Paris. Just imagine, a small child, in those days the family ties were very intense. You don't want to leave your home, you don't want to leave your brothers and sisters. Louis had three brothers and sisters and he was the youngest among all. But, education was more important than anything else, so Louis went to a school in Paris. It was a school that taught blind children how to read and write. But the system was based on print. The print letters would be raised, so that the blind people can feel the raised lines and read. Louis Braille was expert, he was so brilliant, so he learned that so well.

But, during that time, when he was about 12 years old, Charles Barbier. I don't know how to pronounce it in French, but I think it's Charles Barbier. So, Charles Barbier, actually in American English, including my Indian accent. Charles Barbier, a captain of the army came to his school. And he mentioned, that in the army they're using a system, a writing system called night writing, which was based on dots and dashes. Because in the dark, remember those days there was no electricity, in the dark you can't read the linear system. If you recall, those who were here, I mention that the print, writing in print is linear. Which means you write in lines, not in dots.

But the army was using a system based on dots and dashes, so that even in the dark, people could see the dots, and could make out what that message was, and that's how the messages were translated to people during night time using the night writing, based on dots and dashes. So Captain Charles Barbier who is at the school of Louis Braille, mentioned that probably something like that can be developed for the blind, a script, some system based on dots and dashes.

So the blind children were taught this kind of system, but nobody found it convenient, nobody liked it much, none of the children, except Louis Braille. Louis Braille was very impressed with this idea. And he decided to develop the system based on dots. And I'll be brief here, because I want say a lot about other things. So here we go.

The system was based on twelve dots, the system that was used in the army. Louis Braille embossed twelve dots, and tried to feel. If twelve dots would make a letter, if twelve dots of any number in between one and twelve, how a fingertip would feel it. See how genius he was? He used that and he realized, that no, all twelve dots cannot go underneath one fingertip. So he decided to reduce it to nine, and he realized that no, the nine dots don't go underneath my finger so well. If I cannot read one letter at a time, if my fingertip has to move between the rows of dots just to read one letter, that's not going to help. I should be able to read at least one letter at a time underneath my finger. So nine dots were not useful. So he reduced it to six dots. Now, yes. Now six dots can be easily felt underneath the fingertip.

The question however was, how to use the six dots to prepare a script, that can write the language. And he was so good in math and music too, so he sat down and he realized that 63 different signs, using the combination and permutation of six dots can be made. And he was thrilled. All right! If 63 different signs can be made, I could develop a script that can fit to write any language. He was thinking of French at that time.

So he prepared the script. He picked the first 10 signs and assigned the letters A-J, and of course, A is one dot, and B is two dots and all that. Then he added dot three and prepared the next 10 letters. So those who have never thought of this, try that, if you add dot number three to letter A, which consists of dot one, it becomes K. Add the dot three to letter B, which consists of dots one and two, and now one, two and three, it becomes L. So by adding one bottom dot to the letters A-J, he prepared the letters K-T. And then, he added dot number six to the next row of letters. Five letters were left for him, U, V, X, Y, Z, in Britain they also call Z, but I would say Z. So add dot six to K, one, three and six, becomes U. Add dot six to L, becomes V, X, Y and Z.

And some of you might be wondering what happened to my W. Well my friends, there is no W in French. There is no W in my language, the languages from India as well. We do not differentiate between the letter V and W. But anyway that's with that sidebar.

So he did not think of W obviously, but one of his British friends brought his attention, that how about our W? You left it out. So Louis Braille said okay, sure, let's do something. So he gave a different status to the W, which consists of dots two, four, five, six. It doesn't fit into that system, but it's there.

Okay, now how about punctuation? And Louis Braille came up with the brilliant idea, let's use the lower signs. So lower a=comma, lower b=semi-colon, and it goes on and on on. A lower braille sign means, the sign that does not have dots one or four. That's the usual definition. That's how he prepared the whole list of punctuation and other signs. All that when he did, he was only 15 years old. So he presented this system before the school authorities, the school principal, and the founder and everybody. And he was laughed at, today forget it, blind people don't want to read like this, they should read like the sighted people do, the print letters raised.

So he was not listened to, but Braille was so persistent and he continued to develop, to refine his system. He later on became a teacher at the school, he became a full-time teacher, and then he also published. He prepared his book, and he even developed a braille music, and braille math, and he prepared books in that. I had the fortune to see his braille books, done in music and math. To feel them, I could not read, because I do not know French, but when I visited his home, in Coupvray, C-O-U-P-V-R-A-Y. That's the spelling of the village in which he was born near Paris.

I had the fortune to visit his museum, where he was born, and that was such an exciting, thrilling experience I had. And that happened because in 2009, remember, Louis Braille was born in 1809, so in 2009, the world was celebrating bicentenary of Louis Braille's birthday. And I was one of the keynote speakers, there were many others. But I was one of the keynote speakers, and as part of my being there, we were allowed to go to visit the museum, which is run by WBU, World Blind Union, where Louis Braille was born. So I literally walked into his home, and used the slate and stylus that he had used, they have saved it, they have preserved it, and of course touched those books and I was so happy.

So moving on, after that, Louis also prepared the books in math, books in music, prepared the braille, but nobody wanted. The authorities, the management did not accept. Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852. Until then, his braille script, his script it wasn't even braille script at that time, his script was not recognized. It is interesting, that Great Britain, England, which is normally an adversary to France, in the history of course, England was the first country to adopt the script, and to give it the title or the designation braille script. And that is how, Braille was his last name, and it's not even pronounced as braille in French. In Paris I have heard them saying, they used to pronounce like "bry", because in French, most of the last consonants are not pronounced.

We will not worry about that, we will continue to say braille, which is an anglicization of a French name, and that's how first country adopted his script, and, by 1854, two years after his death, the very institute where he was a student and teacher, and the very management that had not recognized his script, adopted the script as a medium of learning, as a medium of reading and writing.

After that, as we know, that braille script has been accepted all over the world. I don't know why but the United States took so long. So braille script was officially recognized in the United Stated in 1916, so almost 66 years after his death. And in 1932, English braille was made uniform in the United States, where the later history said that we now have UEB, Unified English Braille code which is used in 10 English speaking countries.

There are several things that I would like to say about if Louis Braille had not become blind, but I would be now brief, because we are reaching the end of the time. First of all, I'll take my perspective, Michelle bear with me. You did a great job when you enlightened me, if Louis Braille had not become blind, what he would have become. That's really true, all that you said, I will let you speak, probably later.

But right now, if he had not become blind, first of all, think of this. We would not have anything called braille script. Now I do not rule out the possibility that somebody else would have prepared a script based on dots for the blind to be able to read and write. Maybe, later, we do not know when, but that's all hypothesis. But, the bottom line is, that would not be the braille script, because very script that we use, has been designated to commemorate the inventor of the script, who was Louis Braille.

So there would not have been a braille script, there would not have been something for the blind and visually impaired people to learn. A number of people, millions and millions of people, who've made their career using the braille script, would not have happened. Vileen Shah would not be talking to you, if there had been no braille script. Truly, braille script has helped me a great, great deal. I learn it when I was eight years old, and since then I've been using for all my work, at home, at work and in the community. So braille is a blessing, braille is a solution, braille is a real, real, helpful medium of communicating and a great medium of literacy for the blind.

I'm going to share an article, which actually I have pulled it from the Wikipedia that will tell you more about Louis Braille and his contributions. A couple of things and then I will end this speech. That at the bicentennial celebrations all over the world many countries, released the coins in the memory of Louis Braille. The United States treasury has released a dollar, and Belgium, and India and many other countries have also stuck the picture of Louis Braille on their coins. So that is a real good way of making the 200 years of Louis Braille memorable.

Okay, questions?

Elyse: We have a hand up, from area code 850, go ahead.

Annely: This is Annely. You mentioned that you actually got to write with the slate and stylus that Louis Braille developed, and I wanted to ask is it similar to what we're using nowadays, or is it different?

Vileen Shah: It is the same. No, it's just same, not even similar, but the only difference that...

Annely: Really?

Vileen Shah: Yes, slate and stylus is same, and that just tells the genius of a person. Oh by the way, there's one writer, Michael Miller, he wrote the book on Louis Braille, and he said Louis Braille, A Touch of Genius, that's the title of his book. So something that he did, approximately 200 years ago, is still used. The only difference was, that last four-five cells, were not writing well. Somehow those were worn out or what. And also, I wrote a whole sentence. I wrote the date, it was June 9 I think, 2009. June 9, 2009 is a memorable day for me, something like that I wrote. And last four or five letters were not embossed properly, because the cells were worn out, but that's a different story. Overall it is the same system, six dots, three dots in each row, and a stylus. Okay, good question.

Annely: And it was hinged the same way as the slates are today?

Vileen Shah: Yeah, the slate opened on the left and you can feel that the technology wasn't polished so well, you can feel a little difference, but the style, the pattern, the basic idea was same. The slate opened on the left and there were four pins, yeah.

Annely: Very interesting, thank you.

Vileen Shah: Great thank you, next question.

Jasmyn: Jasmyn here. I actually want to make a statement. If it wasn't for Louis Braille going blind, I think I would be afraid to go blind from glaucoma, because braille wouldn't exist. So, braille's the best thing I've ever learned and I'm not afraid to lose my sight because I know it, and I'm able to read it, I'll be literate no matter what. And I thank Louis Braille for inventing this code and he's a genius. Over.

Vileen Shah: Yes Jasmyn, you're right, but I think everybody's afraid to be blind anyway. So one thing that we have to overcome is the fear. There's FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, fear the fear, do not fear anything, even if it is today. So that's right, but all of what you said is true, that braille is a salvation, braille is going to help you a lot. Okay, next question.

Elyse: Vileen, this is Elyse, I just put in the chat quick, the book Louis Braille, A Touch of Genius, by the author C. Michael Miller.

Vileen Shah: Miller.

Elyse: And we have another hand up with Bob, so I'll go ahead unmute Bob.

Vileen Shah: Bob Simonson yes.

Bob: How you doing Vileen? The comment I was going to make, do you think that even if Louis Braille hadn't lost his vision, that with all the millions and billions of people in the world and randomness and all that sort of thing, that somebody else would have come up with something that would have been like that, at some point in time, that still would have probably ended up being a lot like what we have through Louis Braille?

Vileen Shah: Yeah, I mean I appreciate of note your optimism, it's good to be optimistic, certainly. Someone else would have done something to educate the blind people, and many attempts were made actually, that is true, so probably someone else would have developed, probably the same script, similar script, based on dots. But what I said before, and repeat, that that would not have been the braille script, because the script has been designated by the last the name its inventor, of course. No matter what you call it, as long as it helps you to be literate, that's just fine.

Bob: It could have been the Smith script, or the Johnson script, or something like that.

Vileen Shah: But you know, that's right, that's all hypothesis, the reality is that we do have the braille script.

Bob: Exactly.

Vileen Shah: Okay, anybody else?

Elyse: I don't have any hands up, here's a hand, number is starting with area code 903, go ahead, say your name for us.

Michelle: Sure, this is Michelle. Dr. Shah, thank you for enlightening us with information that, some of it I clearly didn't know. But when you did your speech, that had to do with blindness, can you tell us the topic of it, when you were there for the bicentennial, or at least braille, the topic?

Vileen Shah: Good question. The topic assigned to me, I did not choose, but I loved it. The topic assigned to me was Education of Blind and Visually Impaired Children in North America. Now remember, before the world conference we had, and the 200 participants came from all over the world. From African countries, from Asian countries, and of course from the United States, Canada and all. So obviously they had to go by the regions. The North American region was one of them, and they gave me this topic, Education of Blind and Visually Impaired Children in North America, and one of the things I mention in my presentation was, that it is unfortunate that the braille literacy level in the North America, particularly in the United States is barely 10-12%. Which means almost 80, or 88% of the blind and visually impaired people do not know braille. That is miserable. Over.

Michelle: And secondly Dr. Shah, I read that just recently as a comment on the what you said and I almost didn't believe it. So thank you for sharing that percentage, because I just share it with a group recently, when I was reading my braille, and at my church. So I'm just ecstatic that you are sharing all this information, and I'm learning a lot. Thank you.

Vileen Shah: Thank you, thank you for your good comments, positive notes. Okay next question.

Elyse: Sure we have a hand up, the area code is 407, tell us your name please.

Alan: Hey Vileen, it's Alan.

Vileen Shah: Hi Alan, yes?

Alan: Well, when you were talking about if the code hadn't been created. They were working on raised alphabetic letters, which were hard to do, because you had to kind of feel the letter and if nobody invented code, then that's what we got stuck with, that's what we would have today, and that was not a really good way of trying to read something. Over.

Vileen Shah: Perfect, very true, very true. Particularly when it is linear, it's not easy for the fingertips to recognize, before we could have dots. The fingertips can feel the dots, quickly calculate the dots, and feel that there are two dots underneath the finger, or five dots, that's how braille is readable, because of the dot system.

Vileen Shah: Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all so much for your patient hearing, and careful questioning and suggestions and everything, and I think we covered the question-answer session for this topic today. Okay and, talk to you soon, till next week, a week from today. You all have a good week ahead and good weekend, take care, bye bye.