Leading the Way for People with Vision Loss to Become or Remain Literate

woman reading braille on women's bathroom sign

Who Was Louis Braille?

image of Louis Braille.

Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809. He led the way to literacy for blind children and adults worldwide. Louis Braille was blinded in an accident when he was three years old. He was working/playing in his father’s harness shop, trying to punch a hole in a piece of leather when an awl (sharp tool) slipped and hit him in his right eye. His right eye soon became infected and the infection spread to his left eye, leaving him totally blind by the age of five.

Louis Braille was an intelligent and diligent student. He invented the braille code in 1821 as a pre-teen. He was determined to create a system of communication that would lessen the gap between the blind and sighted. The disappointing news is that braille did not become the official code used by people who are blind until after his untimely death in 1853. One year after his death braille became the official code used by the blind in his home country of France. The braille code made its appearance in America at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis in 1860.

Disappointing That Adults Often Do Not Learn Braille

braille alphabet

Today many adults who could profit from learning to read and write braille do not take advantage of the gift Louis Braille gave us. Most adults, especially those in the over-50 crowd, think they are too old to learn. Many people think they do not need braille because they have some usable vision. People also mistakenly think that with the advent of technology, braille is outdated and no longer important.

Braille is important for everyone of any age who has a vision loss. Those of us who have a vision loss (either total or partial), need all the tools we can find to increase our level of literacy, independence, and overall quality of life. Technology has built upon the foundation of literacy and freedom that Louis Braille created when he invented the braille code.

Learning to Read and Write Braille Presents Challenges

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Learning braille takes some time, effort, and practice to learn the braille code, and to develop reading speed. It is my desire that the paragraphs below will encourage and inspire prospective braille students.

Consider Learning Survival Braille

Start with baby steps. If you learn to identify braille numbers, you will be surprised at how much independence and enjoyment you will acquire. After learning to identify numbers you can find the correct floor on an elevator. Elevators are often dark and it is difficult to find the correct button. No more putting your nose up to the panel, no more pushing the wrong button and getting your ups and downs mixed up on the elevator. Just slide your finger across the panel and locate the floor you desire. I suggest starting with a building with only a few floors.  An added bonus is that if you are in a hotel or any other facility with braille room numbers, you can find the correct room number without sighted help.

Examples of How Braille Can Be Used

One of my most thrilling experiences as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (VRT) occurred while working at Camp SAVi in Alabama.  SAVi stands for seniors adjusting to vision impairment.  A few of the campers decided to learn the braille code for numbers. Not only could they find the correct floor on the elevator, but they could also locate each other’s room. That was an exciting night as campers who usually stayed in their rooms, roamed through the hotel visiting each other.

Another exciting moment I had as a VRT occurred when I was working in Gadsden, Alabama. This came in 2010 the time of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf. One of my students called and said, “I must learn braille today.” Both of us were in a panic, he was panicked as he felt the urge to learn braille, and I panicked as he gave me this tall order.  He then explained saying, “my family is spending a week at the beach, I usually walk along the beach, and even get in the water. But because of the oil spill, I cannot do that. My family plays cards, and I want to play with them.” At that point I felt relieved, as his request was doable. I taught him that he could play cards by adding a few additional letters to the numbers. He learned, “A” for ace, “C” for clubs, “K” for King, “S” Spades, and “Q” for queen. By trying this system, he found he could play cards with his family and even became somewhat of a card shark!

To add to this example, by learning a few additional letters, you can play several games that have been transcribed into braille. It is also possible to keep track of dates using a braille calendar.

Learning the Entire Alphabet Gives You More Options

If you learn to read and write the entire braille alphabet (uncontracted braille), you will travel down the pathway to literacy even further. You will be able to make braille labels for anything or everything. You can label the food in your pantry and refrigerator/freezer, the clothing colors in your closet, and important papers such as insurance policies etc. After learning the alphabet (uncontracted braille), the next step is to learn contracted braille or Unified English Braille (UEB), the code used by speakers of English in North America and Commonwealth nations. After learning contracted braille, books and magazines will be at your fingertips.

Getting Started

January 4, 2021 (Louis Braille’s 211th birthday) is coming soon. You can honor Louis Braille by embarking upon the adventure of learning to read and write braille. Some people only learn survival braille; others choose to learn the entire braille alphabet. Still others decide to go and learn uncontracted Unified English Braille. Learning any level of braille will empower your life. It will be a decision you will never regret.

Contact your state or local agency serving people who are blind or who have low vision—also, Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired offers correspondence classes.

A wide range of teaching aids and games are available online, and in the app store.

Happy Birthday Louis Braille! May your legacy live on forever!