4 January 1809 – 6 January 1852) was the inventor of braille, a system of reading and writing used by people who are blind or visually impaired. As a small child, Braille was blinded in an accident; as a boy he developed a mastery over that blindness; and as a young man – still a student at school – he created a revolutionary form of communication that transcended blindness and transformed the lives of millions of persons. Almost two centuries later, the braille system remains an invaluable tool of learning and communication for the blind, and it has been adapted for languages worldwide.
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.
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 six. He published his system in 1829, and by the second edition in 1837 had discarded the dashes because they were too difficult to read. Crucially, Braille's smaller cells were capable of being recognized as letters with a single touch of a finger.
Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, the same kind of implement which had blinded him. In the process of designing his system, he also designed an ergonomic interface for using it, based on Barbier's own slate and stylus tools: by soldering two thin bars across the slate, he created a secure area for the stylus which would keep the lines straight and readable. By these modest means, Braille constructed a robust communication system: "it bears the stamp of genius" wrote Dr. Richard Slating French, former director of the California School for the Blind, "like the Roman alphabet itself
Although Braille was admired and respected by his pupils, his writing system was not taught at the Institute during his lifetime. The successors of Valentin Haüy, who had died in 1822, showed no interest in altering the established methods of the school, and indeed, they were actively hostile to its use. Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier, headmaster at the school, was dismissed from his post after he had a history book translated into braille.
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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