Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017
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Connect the dots

Braille was developed by many hands, but it was a blind boy from France who refined the system

As the bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth approaches, the value of his embossed system of writing is clearer than ever. Blindness is no longer the life sentence to misery and ridicule it was centuries ago. Countless innovations — from educational and vocational programs to guide dogs and gadgets — allow nearly one million legally blind Canadians to lead active lives. Still, assistive technology and even prescient pets pale in comparison to the value of the relatively simple system envisioned by a young boy living in France in the early 19th century.

 


 

AWFUL AWL

Louis Braille was born in January 1809 in the village of Coupvray near Paris. The son of Simon-René Braille, a leather worker, young Louis was entranced by his father’s workshop and often played there attempting to imitate his father as he worked making shoes and harnesses.

One fateful day in 1812, three-year-old Louis was in the workshop at his father’s side when he accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with an old awl — a pointed instrument used to pierce holes in leather. The wound soon became infected and it eventually became apparent that his vision in that eye was lost forever. Even worse, the infection soon spread to his good eye — a condition known as sympathetic ophthalmia — and before long, the boy was completely sightless.

Fortunately, Louis’ parents continued his education at home and school. Eventually, he could no longer progress in a mainstream environment, however, because he was unable to learn to read or write. His likely fate was as a beggar. In 1819, his luck changed. At the age of 10, the family priest — who’d befriended the young boy and taught him about nature, religion and the world around him — arranged for a scholarship at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. That such a school even existed was a recent phenomenon; had Louis been born a few decades earlier, such a specialized education would have been impossible, especially since his family was far from wealthy. It would be a turning point for both Louis and, eventually, the history of sightlessness.


 

SHAMEFUL SHOW

The first school of its kind in the world, the Royal Institution for Blind Youth was founded in 1784 by Valentin Haüy (1745-1822). Haüy’s family and his excellent education at the monastery where his father worked as a bell-ringer and weaver led to a successful career as a calligrapher and interpreter; Haüy’s fluency in 10 languages would eventually earn him the title of Interpreter to the King Louis XVI! Presumably, his upbringing was also responsible for several strong character traits, not the least of which was mercy. When he was 26, a disturbing experience at the Fair of St. Ovid in Paris set him on the path to his life’s work.

In the 18th century, the sightless were presumed to be mentally deficient and were ridiculed and shunned by society – both secular and religious. The scene Haüy witnessed at the fair was a common entertainment in the day — a group of blind “musicians” made to wear fake glasses and dunce caps, trying to play real instruments in a symphony of noise, to the shameful delight of a crowd shouting insults and roaring with laughter.

An aghast Haüy later learned that the sightless performers were from the Quinze-Vingts hospice for the blind, at the time the only option for blind people hoping to be spared a life on the streets. The experience stayed with Haüy for years, so much so, in fact, that he took in a blind boy he found begging in the streets of Paris. Haüy was intrigued by how the boy identified coins by feeling their surface and knew therein might lie a way to educate the sightless. He was committed.

In 1784, after years of working with the blind, Haüy opened his school. One of his first teachers was François Lesueur — the boy he’d saved from the streets and taught to read and count using a system he devised out of wooden blocks carved with letters and numbers. A year later — after his students’ reading ability had impressed Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI — his school was given a royal charter and renamed the Royal Institution for Blind Youth, the first of its kind in the world. When Haüy was driven out of France during the Revolution, he went to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was commissioned by the Czar to set up a school. Similar institutions inspired by Haüy’s model soon followed throughout Europe.


 

SCARY SCHOOL

Of all the Institution’s students, many went on to lead fulfilling lives, but none more so than young Louis Braille. He thrived at the school, despite the deplorable conditions. The building was dark and damp, and the kids were sometimes beaten severely and even starved, so strict was the discipline and harshly enforced were the rules. Still, it was no different than most schools for sighted children in this regard and it certainly offered a better alternative to a life of begging.

Students were taught history, geography, science, grammar and math. Louis himself became quite an accomplished pianist in his early years there — part of Haüy’s mandate was to teach music, perhaps because of the farce he had seen at the Paris fair — and even earned himself a part-time job playing the organ at a nearby church.

In 1821, a new director named Dr Pignier was hired to improve conditions and things did indeed get better. The kids were given a natural education as well, going on nature walks and learning about animals and plants through sound and touch and smell. That same year, an interesting speaker was invited to teach a very special course...


 

NIGHT WRITERS

The Braille system wasn’t the first form of embossed writing. “Night Writing,” as it was known, was also a French invention, albeit one devised with war and not the blind in mind. In 1810, Napoleon commissioned Captain Charles Barbier to come up with a way for soldiers lurking in the dark to communicate quietly and without the need for light. Barbier’s 12-dot system of raised bumps divided into single grid-like cells effectively represented most letters of the alphabet — in addition to several of the more commonly used letter and sound combinations — and proved to be a useful tool for the troops.

Word spread and when the French Royal Academy of Sciences realized that Barbier’s application might be put to another use, he was sent to the Royal Institution in Paris. Night Writing soon swept the school when it became apparent that it was a vastly superior system to the current one, a simple embossed version of the Roman alphabet whose curves and lines were difficult for fingertips to distinguish. More interested in communication than the battlefield, Barbier refined his system and later developed a tool to allow the students to write for themselves.

Louis Braille was entranced. His keen mind led him to improve the system, which had one serious flaw — the reader’s fingertip wasn’t large enough to cover an entire symbol cell at once, which slowed the speed at which one could read. The precocious 12-year-old set to work trying to simplify Barbier’s system and eventually succeeded. When completed three years later, Louis’s code used a maximum of six dots, which, in varying combinations, represented every letter of the alphabet.

Despite Dr Pignier’s support, the school had yet to officially adopt Louis’s system, but it was used nonetheless, sometimes in secret. In 1829, the first book in the new Braille system of embossed print was published: The Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. Its author became somewhat of a celebrity at the Institution, and as he grew older, instead of leaving as many of his friends did, Louis stayed on to teach full-time.


 

BRINGING BRAILLE ABROAD

During these years, Braille continued to develop his life’s work, even modifying it to include symbols for musical and mathematical notation. In 1844, the Institute began to teach his system exclusively and Louis believed it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the world took note of what was going on. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis in 1852 at the age of 43 before his system was adopted worldwide. He was known throughout his life as a kind and generous man, often using his meagre income to purchase books for the school’s poorer students.

If only he had lived a few more years. An English physician named Thomas Armitage — founder of what would become the Royal National Institute for the Blind — took up Braille’s cause in 1868, in part because he himself was losing his vision. Over the next few decades, more and more schools in Europe, Great Britain, Canada and the US jumped on board.

Today, Braille remains the most popular written communication for the visually impaired... and it’s all thanks to one little blind boy with a thirst for knowledge.

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