When Louis Braille devised his system of raised dots back in the early 1800s while still in his early teens, he couldn't have known that his work would have a profound impact around the world for the visually impaired.
Braille was just three when he stabbed himself in the left eye with an awl while playing in his father’s harness workshop. After a few days the wound became infected and spread to Braille’s other eye, causing him to become blind in both.
A very bright child, when he was 10 Braille won a scholarship to the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris, the first school of its kind in the world. From age 12 to 15 he worked to improve his code, eventually coming up with six raised dots corresponding to the alphabet—what is known as braille today. Later on he added symbols for mathematics and music.
This year—a time when braille is used in every country and virtually all languages—marks the 200th anniversary of Braille’s birth, and countries around the globe are celebrating the bicentennial.
“Braille is literacy. It gives you freedom and independence. Basically everything you would do with a pen and pencil, that’s what braille does for a person who cannot read the printed word,” says Myra Rodrigues, a volunteer and board member of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) library.
Rodrigues, who taught braille for 10 years, has been visually impaired from childhood. Yet with the aid of braille, before she retired she worked for the Ontario government for 21 years. Using braille notes, she also gave speeches as a research analyst.
“Braille has been everything to me,” she says. “I have my herbs with braille labelled on there. My cook books are all in braille. I do my groceries in braille. I read magazines in braille. It’s labelling my CDs so I know what I’m listening to.
“It was a gift to the world. It really, really made our lives much easier.”
Braille is also source of entertainment, allowing users to play cards and bingo, among other games. “It’s a marvellous thing,” Rodrigues says.
Rodrigues co-wrote Celebrating Braille: A Canadian Approach, the first Canadian Braille textbook produced in almost 50 years. Released in January in honour of the Braille bicentennial, the book guides students through a step-by-step approach to learning braille, using Canadian content and up-to-date vocabulary, including words such as “Iqualuit” and “iPod.”
The five-volume textbook, which took three years to write, provides a hefty dose of Canadiana for students who previously had to make do with mostly U.S. fare.
“We tried to reflect every province in this book,” says Rodrigues. “The books used by CNIB teachers, over the decades, they’ve been primarily from America. There was only one Canadian book and it was soon out of date. They were good books but they didn’t reflect Canadian values; so students were reading about Abraham Lincoln.”
On her 65th birthday in September 2007, along with others Rodrigues set out on a year-long series of half-marathon power-walks in every province and territory across Canada, raising $60,000 for the CNIB library.
In honour of the Braille bicentennial, Brazil, Algeria, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, and India have issued commemorative stamps. The U.S. Mint is set to release a limited edition collectable 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar this month.
Canada’s celebrations include Braille exhibits at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa and La Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal, educational and awareness programs such as library reading series and read-a-thons, and various Braille competitions including a special international essay competition around the theme “Technology as a Bridge to Braille Literacy.”