Happy World Braille Day!

Today is World Braille Day!

Were I a more organized person, I would now present you with a scrupulously researched history of Braille, deep insights into the so-called “War of the Dots”, and a wonderful interlude on the use of raised text in the Halifax School for the Blind.

Instead, a few things I’ve gathered from my readings:

There had been a raised-dot writing process before Braille invented his own, but it took up more space. Braille simplified it and quickly taught his friends and fellow classmates at the Paris school for the blind how to use it. Previous to that, blind people had been taught to read using embossed letters. Letters would be embossed by getting paper wet and then putting it down on carved (wooden? metal? I can’t remember) 3-d letters. This strikes me as incredibly cumbersome.

At first, Braille’s new method was embraced by the school. However, when the former headmaster retired, a new headmaster came in and was determined to get rid of everything that had been done by the former one. I wrote some notes about this:

“To dramatize and enforce the new system [of embossed writing for the blind], Dufau made a bonfire in the school’s rear courtyard and burned not only the embossed books created by Huay’s [First principal of the first school for the blind in Europe] original process but also every book printed or hand-transcribed in Louis’ [Braille] new code. This comprised the school’s entire library, the product of nearly 50 years’ work. To make sure no Braille would ever again be used at the school, he also burned and confiscated the slates, styli, and other Braille writing equipment.”


“Dafau’s students rebelled and Braille survived. The older students taught the younger students despite the punishment of slaps across the hands and going to bed without dinner.”

Reading Hands: The Halifax School for the Blind, pp 25-26.

I don’t know yet how braille made its way from France across to England and then across to North America (there was a competition! And the “New York Press” style of raised dots), and know even less about how or whether or went elsewhere. (Lucky for me, there are books! I will learn! It will be exciting!)

One thing I like about braille is that it was invented and refined by blind people. Despite attempts to wipe it out, blind students refused to give it up – much like Sign Language, in fact.

WebAim provides some insight into how Blind people use the web.

Happy World Braille Day! Please feel free to correct my history in comments, and also to leave links and book recommendations. I would like to recommend Woeful Afflictions, by Mary Klages, which is a fascinating look at Victorian attitudes towards disability.

By 4 January, 2010.    history  , ,  


  1. There was an article in the NY Times Magazine this week about Braille and newer text-to-speech technologies. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/magazine/03Braille-t.html

  2. (Um, nevermind. I hadn’t noticed that that article was linked in recommended reading when I posted that comment.)

  3. I can recommend a few different books:

    Braille Into the Next Milenium
    A Touch of Genious

    Both are good books.

  4. Hooray for braille! It’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a full-time ‘braille user’ because my braille reading is so slow, I read most things on my computer, but even so, I use braille for labeling my cds and dvds and all kinds of other things and for making short notes for class. When I come to think of it, though I don’t read many books in braille, it is still an essential tool for me which I use every day, I think the many different uses of braille are often ignored in debates over its usefulness, with the main focus being on the size and weight and inconvenience of braille books. Anyway, hooray again for braille.

  5. “Dafau’s students rebelled and Braille survived. The older students taught the younger students despite the punishment of slaps across the hands and going to bed without dinner.”

    That is hardcore. I had no idea.

  6. Wow, that’s amazing! Thanks for sharing, Anna.

  7. (Disclaimer: I’m sighted) Every time I read — as in the NYT article — about the Braille “controversy”, I find myself wondering: would parents of a sighted child be satisfied to hear that their child was not learning to read print, but being read aloud to by text-to-speech software? Would they be pleased to learn that their child was being graded in school on her “tape recorder reading” skills?

  8. I used to work with a lab that researches technology to help blind people with wayfinding and orientation. My group developed electronic maps for people who cannot use braille (for example, people with cognitive or physical disability, or people who lose their vision as adults). However, I was encouraged to learn about braille when I worked there, because it gives a lot of good ideas about ways to present information. One of my favorite things that I saw was a double-sided city map that had streets and neighborhoods on one side, and a mirrored public transit map on the other side. The user would read both sides at once.

    Actually, the analogy I was thinking of is schools that no longer teach sighted children how to write neatly, or to write in cursive. Even though the technology (typing) is often faster and more accessible, I would argue that there are still practical, cultural, and intellectual benefits to handwriting, as there are to braille.