The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> People with Disabilities
Louis Braille

inventor of a system that allows blind people to both read and write

Louis Braille

Louis Braille was born in a small town near Paris, France, on January 4, 1809. A childhood accident left him blind in one eye, and a subsequent infection cost him his sight in the other. Despite the loss of his vision he attended the village school for two years, but it eventually became clear that he would not be able to learn much more because he could not read or write.

At the age of ten, Braille was fortunate enough to be sent to a school for blind boys in Paris. Conditions in the school were harsh, however. The building was damp and unhealthy, pupils who misbehaved were beaten, and the food was often far less than adequate. The pupils were taught practical skills such as chair caning and slipper making so that they could make a living upon leaving the school, but received little in the way of "book learning."

Blind students at the school were taught to read, but not to write. The letters they read were raised above the surface of the page so that they could feel them with their fingertips. This form of writing was very difficult to read because it was very hard to tell the letters apart. What's more, because each individual letter had to be made out of wire first and then the wire had to be forced into the paper with a press, blind people were unable to write anything for themselves.

In 1821, a soldier named Charles Barbier came to visit the school. While there he demonstrated his system of "night writing" to some of the students. Originally designed so that soldiers could pass instructions along trenches at night without having to talk, "night writing" consisted of twelve raised dots which could be combined to represent different sounds. It proved too difficult for most soldiers to master, however, and was never adopted by the army.

A young Braille, however, recognized the basic usefulness of the "night writing" system. Over the course of a few months he experimented with variations on the system until he developed one using six dots instead of twelve. He also modified the system so that the combinations of dots represented letters instead of sounds. In 1827, the first book written completely in Braille was published. Braille continued working on his system for several years after, developing separate codes for math and music. Braille's system not only made it easier for blind people to read, it was easy to create meaning that blind persons could also use it to write.

Braille's new system did not catch on immediately, however. Sighted people did not understand how useful Braille could be, and its use was actually banned at many schools, including the school at which Braille had developed the system and where he continued on as a teacher. Undeterred, however, Braille taught the system in secret and eventually even sighted people began to realize its benefits, but not until several years after his death (on January 6, 1852).

In 1868, a group of four blind men founded the British and Foreign Society for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind. This small group grew to become the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the largest publisher of Braille in Europe and Britain's largest organization for people with impaired vision. Today Braille is used in almost every country in the world, and has been adapted to almost every known language, from Albanian to Zulu. France finally recognized Braille's achievement in 1952, when it moved his remains to Paris and interred them in the Pantheon, the final resting place of many of France's national heroes.

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> People with Disabilities

This page was last updated on January 04, 2019.