Visual impairment : Became blind at three, due to accident
Born : 4 January, 1809
Died : January 6, 1852
Louis Braille was born January 4, 1809 , in Coupvray , France , a small country village about twenty-five miles east of Paris. He lived with his mother, Monique, his father, Simon-René, his two older sisters, Monique-Catherine and Marie-Céline, and his older brother, Louis-Simon. Their home was a stone cottage in the village.
Simon-René Braille was a harness-maker. He was a master craftsman and was known throughout the region as a skillful and honest worker. His workshop was attached to the house, and Louis liked to watch him while he cut and shaped the leather into harnesses, reins, saddles, and collars for the villagers' horses.
One day when Louis was three years old, he went into the workshop. His father was not there. He picked up a sharp tool and tried to cut a piece of leather as he had seen his father do. The tool slipped and plunged into his eye. The injured eye became infected, the infection spread to the other eye, and Louis Braille became blind.
In those days blind people faced a miserable future, usually as beggars or side show performers. Only those from wealthy families had any hope of an education and the possibility of meaningful work.
Simon-René and Monique Braille were deeply concerned for their young son and did all they could to help him. It is said that Louis' father taught him the alphabet by guiding his fingers over strips of wood into which upholstery nails had been pounded in the shapes of the letters. When Louis understood the letters, his father guided his hand and taught him to write.
At about the same time Simon-René was teaching his son the alphabet, the Abbé Palluy, priest of St. Pierre Church in Coupvray, began instructing Louis about the ways of nature. He taught Louis to identify the songs of the birds, the cries of the animals, and the fragrances of the flowers. He taught him why the seasons change and why night becomes day. And he taught Louis about God.
Louis began attending school in Coupvray when he was seven years old. He surprised the teacher by his ability and intelligence. In spite of his blindness, he soon was at the head of the class. He was an exceptionally bright little boy. The Abbé Palluy, concerned for Louis' future, learned of a special school in Paris where blind children were educated and taught a trade. A scholarship was arranged, and Louis was accepted as a student. In 1819, just six weeks after his tenth birthday, Louis and his father traveled by stagecoach to Paris. There, Louis entered the Royal Institute for Blind Youth where he would live, study, work, and later teach.
The Royal Institute for Blind Youth was located in a rundown old building near the River Seine. It was set up in Paris in 1784, as the world's first school for blind children by Valentin Haüy. The Institute offered advantages that could not be found elsewhere. There, blind girls and boys could study grammar, geography, history, arithmetic, science, and music, and they could learn a trade that would enable them to earn a living.
Louis was an outstanding student and excelled in every subject. He especially enjoyed the music classes, and he became a fine pianist and an accomplished organist. When he was sixteen, he accepted a paid position as organist for a small church near the Institute. For most of his life, he served as organist at one or more of the churches in Paris.
Learning at the Institute was primarily by listening to the lessons and repeating them. There were a few books. Valentin Haüy had developed a printing system by which the letters were raised, or embossed. The books were large and heavy, and feeling each letter one at a time was slow. It was the best method available at that time, however, and the children eagerly read every raised-letter book they could find.
The children especially enjoyed the weekly rope walk to the Botanical Gardens. Led by a sighted teacher at the head of a rope, about twelve children held on to the rope behind the teacher. They walked this way to the gardens where they heard new sounds, listened to birds' songs, smelled the garden fragrances, and listened to the teacher describe the flowers and trees. Sometimes they went to the Museum of Natural Sciences where they were allowed to touch some of the exhibits.
Although Valentin Haüy, now in his seventies, had returned to Paris in 1817, Dr. Guillié, the director of the Institute at that time, had wanted nothing to do with him. He would not even permit him to visit the Institute. Mr. Haüy lived a lonely life in a small apartment a few blocks from the school he had founded forty-eight years ago.
A new director, Dr. Pignier, was appointed in 1821. Dr. Pignier was an intelligent and gentle man, a kind of father figure for the children. When Dr. Pignier, the new director, learned of the unkind way in which Mr. Haüy had been treated, he helped the students plan a special celebration to welcome him back to the school. On August 21, 1821 , Dr. Pignier sent a carriage to bring Valentin Haüy to the Institute. The teachers and students applauded as the seventy-six-year-old man entered. Deeply touched, he talked with the students and told them of his love and gratitude.
During the program in his honor, a chorus of students sang a song that had been written in 1788 by some of the Institute's first pupils. (Those early students had written the song in tribute to their founder and had first sung it for him on Valentine's Day thirty-three years ago) Mr. Haüy was so overcome that all he could say was, "It is God who has done everything." He died seven months later.
The events of the day made a lasting impression on twelve-year-old Louis Braille, and he felt deep love and admiration for Mr. Haüy. That same year he began experimenting with circles, squares, and triangles cut from leather in an attempt to develop a special alphabet for the blind.
In 1821, a soldier named Charles Barbier visited Louis' school. He bought with him a system he had invented called 'night writing'. Night writing had originally been designed so that soldiers could pass instructions along trenches at night without having to talk and give their positions away. It consisted of twelve raised dots which could be combined to represent different sounds. Unfortunately it proved to be too complex for soldiers to master and was therefore rejected by the army.
The thirteen year old Louis Braille quickly realised how useful this system of raised dots could be, provided it was simplified. Over the next few months he experimented with different systems until he found an ideal system using six dots. He was fifteen years old when he completed his alphabet. It consisted of various arrangements of raised dots within a six dot pattern, combined with short dashes.
Louis continued experimenting. He adapted his raised dot method so it could be used to write music. In 1829, when he was twenty years old, he published a little book with a long title: 'Method of Writing Words, Music and Plainsong by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them'. This booklet explained for the first time the reading and writing method that would be known throughout the world as Braille.
Louis' raised dot method was enthusiastically adopted by the students at the Institute. Dr. Pignier recognised the genius of the system and encouraged Louis in every way he could. Sighted teachers and officials, however, were slow to accept the new method and actively fought against its use. It wasn't until 1844, eight years before Louis Braille died, that the value of the raised dot alphabet was officially recognised.
Louis lived a busy and productive life at the Institute. He studied the organ, played for church services, and took classes at the College de France. When he was seventeen years old, he began to tutor younger students at the Institute. Two years later, he was appointed to a full time teaching position. He taught grammar, geography, arithmetic, and music. In return, he received room and board at the Institute and a small salary.
Louis Braille was a kind, compassionate teacher. He was greatly admired and respected by his students. One of his pupils wrote of him: "He carried out his duties with so much charm and wisdom that the obligation of attending class was transformed into a real pleasure for his pupils. They competed not only to equal and surpass each other, but also in a touching and constant effort to please a teacher whom they admired as a superior and liked as a wise and well-informed friend, ready with sound advice."
The Institute, with its damp, dark rooms, poor ventilation, and inadequate food, was an unhealthy environment in which to live and work. Many of the students became sick. Louis' health began to fail when he was in his early twenties, and by the time he was twenty-six, he knew he had tuberculosis. At that time, there was no cure for the illness. The main treatment was rest.
Louis continued to revise and perfect his raised dot alphabet. He removed the dashes that were in his original plan. (Although dashes are easy to read by touch, they are difficult to write with a stylus.) He added the letter w at the request of an English student at the school. (His original alphabet did not include a w because w was rarely used in the French alphabet at that time).
He then turned his efforts toward developing a way that blind people and seeing people could write to each other. He knew that not many sighted people would learn the raised dot alphabet, therefore, blind people would have to learn the regular alphabet.
Louis developed a system that consisted of using a stylus to punch a series of dots in patterns that were the shapes of the regular letters. Blind people could read the letters by feeling them, and seeing people could read the letters with their eyes. He called the method Raphigraphy. The students at the Institute happily used it to write letters to their parents and friends.
It took much longer to punch dots in the shapes of letters than it did to punch the dots of the regular braille alphabet. Pierre Foucault offered to help Louis solve this problem. Pierre, who became blind when he was six, had a brilliant mind for mechanical matters. He invented a machine which he called a Keyboard Printer. When a key was pressed, the shape of a letter was made on a piece of paper in ink; the shape of the letter was also impressed on the paper in a raised outline. It was one of the first typewriters.
In 1838 the government provided money to replace the old rundown building that housed the Institute. The new building was completed in 1843. At a special program celebrating the opening of the new school, Joseph Guadet, assistant director of the Institute, gave a speech about the advantages of the raised dot method. He paid tribute to its inventor, Louis Braille, who was in the audience.
Next there were demonstrations to prove to the audience that blind people really could read and write. Someone from the audience dictated a poem, and a young blind girl wrote the poem in braille. Another blind girl who was out of the room during the dictation came back to the room and easily read, without mistakes, what the first girl had written. They did a similar experiment with music braille. This was the first official recognition of the braille method, and the beginning of its spread throughout the world.
Louis' health worsened as the years went by. He improved somewhat during vacations in the fresh country air of Coupvray, but his heart was with his students and his work. He could not stay away long. In the early months of 1844, Louis became too weak to continue teaching. He lived a calm, quiet life, enjoyed a warm and loving companionship with his friends, and encouraged and advised his former students.
He managed his money carefully, buying only what he needed, so that he could save a little from his small income to help others. He used his own money to buy books and braille writing materials for poor students, paid them to copy the books into braille, and then gave the books to others.
Louis' health seemed to improve in 1847 and he returned to teaching for three more years. Although he was weak and had to talk softly to save his strength, his teaching was of the highest quality, and his students loved and respected him.
During this time, the braille method of reading and writing was used in all of the activities at the Institute. Books were copied into braille. Teachers and students used braille in the classroom. Braille was used in music classes and in chapel services. The method began to spread throughout Europe. In time it would be used by blind people all over the world.
His health again worsened, and Louis asked to be allowed to retire. The director knew Louis would not have enough money to live decently, so he kept him on as a teacher. He taught only a few piano lessons when he was able.
Louis became gravely ill in December of 1851. He remained calm and at peace, convinced that his mission on earth was finished. During this time he said to a friend: "Yesterday was one of the greatest and most beautiful days of my life. I tasted the greatest joys. God was pleased to hold before my eyes the dazzling splendors of eternal hope. After that, doesn't it seem that nothing more could keep me bound to the earth?"
Louis Braille died on January 6, 1852 , two days after his forty-third birthday. His body was buried in the little cemetery at Coupvray. After his death his friends found a small box on which he had written "To be burned without opening." They were curious and opened the box. In it were hundreds of notes of debt from students to whom he had loaned money. His friends respected his wishes and burned the box and its contents.
One hundred years after Louis Braille's death, his body was moved from Coupvray to the Panthéon in Paris to lie with other great men and women of France. People came from all over the world to participate in the ceremonies.
The stone house in Coupvray where Louis Braille was born and grew up is now a museum. The street on which it stands is named Louis Braille Street. Visitors to the museum can view documents and mementoes relating to the life and work of Mr. Braille.