by Paul Edwards
In January of 1809 in a small village in France, Louis Braille was born. At the age of three, he injured his eyes in his father’s harness-making shop while playing with an awl. He had an opportunity to attend one of the very first schools for the blind in the world, which was located in Paris. Pupils at the school were introduced to print by learning the shape of letters. But there was really not a viable way for blind people to read. Essentially blind people could listen to literature but, for the most part, blind people in France and everywhere were expected to learn simple manual trades which they often performed in enclaves set aside to make them useful, contributing “sheltered” workers.
A representative of the French military came to the school in Paris with an idea for a military code that used raised dots to produce recognizable messages that he thought could be used to communicate military messages secretly. Louis Braille took this idea and simplified it into what became braille.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that braille became widely accepted as the most appropriate and viable reading and writing system for the blind. There were periods in the United States when Moon Type, a kind of raised shape approach, was the most common system. By 1900 the first braille printing presses had been developed, but it wasn’t ‘til the early 1930s that a uniform braille code was adopted that included contractions and became known in this country as “grade two braille.”
It was not until after the second world war that the Perkins braille writer emerged. Electronic braille displays and portable braille printers didn’t emerge ‘til near the end of the 1970s.
Technology, however, was a double-edged sword. Just as braille displays and braille printers were arriving on the scene, synthetic speech was being developed and suddenly there was a viable alternative to braille that could be used to educate students in school and to create access to information for people who are blind of any age.
Almost immediately it became clear that the survival of braille was under threat and a special-interest affiliate of the American Council of the Blind was born to promote the use and safeguard the continuing relevance of braille. This organization was and is called the Braille Revival League (BRL). Over the past 40 years this organization, whose president I have the honor to be, has worked tirelessly to advance the interests of the system of reading this French village boy perfected almost 200 years ago.
Our organization has worked with others to get laws passed in states to make it difficult for teachers to deny blind students the opportunity to learn braille. We have worked along with the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) to assure that the rules for braille are changed so as to make the production of effective, contracted braille better. Despite its unpopularity with some, we championed the acceptance of Unified English Braille (UEB) which means that, for the first time in history, the braille produced in all English-speaking countries in the world is the same. This will mean, with the emergence of new international copyright conventions, that braille from these countries will be able to be shared. We have also encouraged the development of low-cost braille displays and now are at a stage when a braille display can be bought for $600 rather than the $3,000 it would have cost only five years ago.
The Braille Revival League produces an award-winning magazine twice a year called “The BRL Memorandum.” We do “Braille Buzz” calls every two months which explore all aspects of braille. If you are interested in joining our organization, send an email to our treasurer, Jane Carona, at [email protected], or call her at (301) 598-2131. You can join for only $10 a year. Our web site, braillerevivalleague.org, has lots of information about braille and past issues of “The BRL Memorandum.”
We need you! More and more producers of hard-copy braille are going out of the braille production business. Many children in schools are still not being given access to braille learning. Many adults who lose their vision do not get the chance to learn braille. “Reader’s Digest,” which had been produced by the American Printing House for the Blind in braille for well over a half century, has ceased to exist after the September issue! The population of active braille readers is getting older. We need to promote its use at the local, state and national levels! We have state affiliates of the League in Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois. We would love to see other states create League chapters. Promote the use of braille by working with or preferably joining the Braille Revival League!