*There are 15 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, according to Research to Prevent Blindness.
*Every 7 minutes a person in the United States loses their sight, often as part of the aging process. Seventy percent of severely visually impaired persons are age 65 or older. Fifty percent of that group are legally blind.
Definition: Braille Literacy
This term has been adopted by the blindness community in many countries as the central concept for advocating that children be taught good braille skills at an early age. Advocates equate braille literacy with literacy for sighted people and point to some critical statistics to bolster their position. In the United States, unemployment for blind and visually impaired people runs at approximately 73%. Conversely, only 26% of the blind people available for work have jobs. However, among those with good braille skills, 90% have jobs. The logic then runs that if children are taught braille literacy, their opportunities for gainful employment more than triple.
Louis Braille: A Light in the Dark
Nearly 190 years after his birth, Louis Braille is hailed among the great men in French history. His development of the raised-dot reading system that bears his name has enriched the lives of generations of people who are blind. Even after putting literature at the fingertips of those who were blind, he lived and died relatively unknown.
Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France, the second son of a harness maker. Biographies suggest that his father hoped Louis would grow up to become a professor. As a child, Louis sat for hours in his father’s shop, watching with great interest as his dad cut leather for a new saddle or wove tassels and fringes for a glossy harness.
One day when he was 3 years old, Louis decided to make his own harness from a piece of discarded leather. He needed something for cutting so he took an awl he was forbidden to use. During a struggle to cut the leather the pointed tool slipped and injured his left eye. The injury caused infection in that eye, then the other, resulting in total blindness – and a seemingly bleak future for the boy.
In Europe at that time there were few, if any, services for blind people. They often were treated as if they were mentally ill or retarded; many lived on charity or as beggars. Louis adapted to village life without sight, but blindness made him an outsider until he met a new village priest, Abbae Palluy, who took a liking to the boy and gave him a sense of destiny and purpose.
Louis was 10 when the priest told the Brailles about the Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where children learned to make their own clothes, play musical instruments and read. Louis was excited by the thought of reading as he entered the Institute in 1819. As uninviting as the Institute’s school life was – the building old, the hallways dark, food meager and water scarce, Louis’s enthusiasm was not dampened.
The Institute’s method of reading was known as embossing. Large letters with raised outlines were printed so the outlines could be traced with fingers. But the size of the letters made the embossed books so large and expensive that only a few were available. Louis, inspired by the dedication of the Institute’s founder, Valentin Hauy, and hungry for a more practical way to read, began searching for a new reading method in 1821.
That same year a retired military man, Captain Charles Barbier, introduced the Institute to an alphabetical code of dots and dashes he had devised for sending and receiving messages at night. The combinations were punched into paper and meant to be read with the fingers. Although, the Institute dropped the code after only a few months, Louis kept experimenting with it. Eventually, he focused on just the dots. He would stay up nights at the Institute and spend vacations punching dots into scraps of paper, searching for answers.
Finally, in 1824, his tireless effort paid off. Louis devised what has become the modem system of braille. Its basis was the unit known as the braille cell, with spaces for up to six dots – two across and three down in each cell. By using different numbers of dots in different arrangements in each cell, Louis formed 63 dot combinations to represent letters, numerals, musical and scientific symbols. It was a practical code, too, since the dots took up roughly the same space as print.
At age 15, Louis had revolutionized touch reading, opening the door to the possibility that all the world’s literature someday could be read by blind people.