Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Bicentennial of Louis Braille [1809-1852]

Besides being the bicentennial of the births of such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Edgar Allen Poe, 2009 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille [1809-1852], the creator of the ingenious braille system, which has given countless blind and vision-impaired people the ability to read and write. Braille utilizes a six-dot cell of raised dots to represent letters of the alphabet, numerals, punctuation, and other symbols. Permutations of the six dots permit the representation of 64 different characters, and the system has been adapted to numerous different languages around the world. The compactness of each cell allows individual cells to be read without unnecessary movement of the fingertip—a weakness of earlier systems.

Braille first described his system in a 32-page booklet published in 1829 entitled, Procede pour √©crire les Paroles, la Musique et le Plain-chant au moyen de points, a l’usage des Aveugles et dispose pour eux [Method for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong by Means of Points, for the Use of the Blind and Arranged for Them]. Images of this rare work are viewable on the web site of the bookseller, Jonathan A. Hill.

To commemorate Braille’s contributions and promote literacy among the blind, the US Mint is issuing a one-dollar silver coin (pictured above) on March 26, 2009. The obverse of the coin features a portrait of Braille and the reverse depicts a child reading a book in braille with the word "braille" (abbreviated as BRL) above him--the first time a US coin has employed braille--and the word "independence" on a bookshelf behind him.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 10% of blind children in the United States are learning braille. Among working-age, legally blind adults, over 70% are unemployed, although among those who are successfully employed, a large majority know braille. For further information, visit the NFB web site, which offers resources on braille literacy and an extensive audio & video selection, including a video on the commemorative coin, Change with a Dollar.

Additional online resources of interest include the National Braille Press and the Louis Braille Bicentennial web site. The National Braille Press has also recently published the biography, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, that contains previously untranslated letters by Braille. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, based at the Library of Congress, is a national network that distributes braille and audio materials to eligible borrowers.

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