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Feeling for words

Posted in History, Science on Monday, 16 April 2007

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Reading Braille

When Laura Bridgman was two years old, she became desperately ill with scarlet fever. The effects of the disease in 1831 were devastating, and she was left blind, deaf and dumb. Despite these terrible afflictions, Laura, an American girl, grew up to be a cheerful, happy citizen who did much to help others in her situation. A tremendous contributor to her happiness was the superintendent of an institute for the blind in Boston.

He devised labels with raised letters on them which were stuck to various common objects such as forks and spoons, and after a lot of effort and patience, Laura learned the whole alphabet by connecting the objects with the letters spelling out their names.

This raised-letter system is still used, mostly to help elderly blind people, but books for the blind are now printed mainly in an alphabet of raised dots. The method was invented in 1829 by a Frenchman named Louis Braille, and thousands of sightless people are grateful to him for opening a window on the world they cannot see.

Louis Braille

Louis Braille

When Louis Braille was a young boy he used to play in his father’s saddlery, punching holes in scraps of leather with a sharp tool called an awl. Sadly, a day came when the awl slipped and Louis’ eyes were so badly injured that he became completely blind. While he was a pupil at a school for the blind in Paris, Louis thought a great deal about the marks the awl used to leave in the scraps of leather. It occurred to him that if a machine could be made to punch only half way through leather, or some other suitable material, a dot would be raised on the other side.

Braille eventually worked out a system in which different variations of groups of six tiny raised dots represented the letters of the alphabet. There were also special signs for some words, syllable signs, and punctuation marks.

Young blind people with sensitive fingers are able to learn Braille more easily than older people, or people whose fingertips have become hardened because of their occupation, or less sensitive through age. Because the paper used to print Braille books has to be thicker than that used for ordinary books, they are bulkier and more expensive, so that most blind people using the system depend on libraries for their reading matter. Newspapers, magazines and pamphlets are also printed in Braille all over the world. Typewriters and then computers have been designed for writing Braille, and blind persons can be trained to use them so that they can correspond with one another. Using computers they can now write books and articles of their own.

Louis Braille not only became a teacher at a Paris school for the blind, but he also studied music and was regarded as one of the best organists in Paris. Much respected and loved by many people, Braille died in 1852 at the age of 43.

One comment on “Feeling for words”

  1. 1. Peter says:

    Love the horrible irony
    ……..good coming out of bad……
    the thing that made him blind gave him the idea of braille!
    and with a surname like that! I’ve been telling my family this story.. a amazing man

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