Understanding Braille

By Markus Weinzinger and Gavin Sampson

Braille can be described as a breakthrough. It is a way for the blind and poorly-sighted to be able to read and get around. It is Braille that enabled people with these and related hardships to gain a level of respect thought to be reserved for a “whole man”.

Braille has a very interesting history from its creation for military use all the way to modern uses.  Charles Barbier originally created Braille for a secret military code in Napoleon’s army. It proved too difficult for soldiers to understand and was rejected by the military. Later, at the Institute of the Blind in Paris, Louis Braille saw two major defects in the system and simplified it so the human hand doesn’t have to move as much to feel out words. This made the code similar to shorthand. Now, there are several forms of Braille for different languages: there are French, English, and even Chinese versions. Braille has evolved from a rejected military code to a useful language for the blind.

How many people really read and understand Braille? In 1960, 50% of legally blind schoolchildren in the U.S. could read and understand Braille. A major turning point for Braille was in 1973, when the government started to put blind children into normal schools instead of special blind schools. These normal schools could not afford a Braille teaching program. Because of this, in 2011 only 9% of legally blind children preferred Braille as a primary reading medium. It is unknown exactly how many people in the United States can read Braille. Regardless, braille is still an important medium for blind people.

When walking past doors in a building, one might notice the familiar bumps of Braille under the door’s designation. Keyboards feature a thin bump on keys “F” and “J” to allow blind people to type and communicate online. Around town, elevator and payphone buttons feature Braille to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired.

Braille has been recognized for its role in the lives of the blind, and has spurred international tributes. National Braille Week recently occurred in the United Kingdom, taking place two centuries after the birth of creator Louis Braille. National Braille Literacy Month is in January. The American Foundation for the Blind and the World Braille Foundation help in raising further awareness for assisting the blind and increasing braille’s presence.

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