Writing history

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Braille was created 200 years ago by a blind school student. Paul Brown celebrates the fight of blind people to win its acceptance.

Most schoolchildren are taught about the "plucky" blind teenager Louis Braille who, so desperate to read and write, invented the six-dot tactile system which bears his name. The bicentennial year of his birth is regarded by the major blindness charities as an opportunity for fundraising. For socialists it is a chance to celebrate with blind people the ingenuity of Louis Braille, and the courage of his students in perpetuating his innovation.

At a time when the Royal National Institute of Blind People is sacking highly skilled and essential braille transcribers from the National Library for the Blind we need to understand the importance of braille and take inspiration from the struggles for its survival.

Today the practicality and simple elegance of braille are recognised and valued as the standard form of reading and writing used by blind people in virtually every language.

Over 180 years after Braille worked out his six-dot system its benefits remain unmatched, and it has proved remarkably suitable to computer production. The beauty of braille is that it can be used for printing large numbers of books and magazines. Many blind people also choose to write their own notes in braille. This distinguishes braille from many of the other tactile reading and writing systems devised for blind people, which cannot be easily produced by hand.

Helen Keller, socialist and braille user, said at the celebrations to mark the centenary of Braille's death, "We, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg."

Braille was born in the French town of Couvray in 1809. Blinded through an accident in his father's saddle-making workshop, Braille originally attended his local primary school, but at age ten was given a scholarship to the world's first blind school in Paris.

The Royal Institution for Blind Youth, a cross between workhouse and school, was the forerunner of many such establishments throughout Europe. These "industrial" schools had a mission to prepare blind people for work and to bring them the word of god.

When Braille arrived, the school had only 14 tactile books. They were produced by placing wire-shaped Roman letters between two sheets of wet paper which when dried could be read by tracing the letters with a finger. Such books were slow to produce and even slower to read, as each letter had to be traced.

Braille got the idea for his tactile code following a visit to the school by Charles Barbier, a French army captain who had devised a system of night writing to enable soldiers to communicate silently and without a light.

Braille, only 12, had previously tried unsuccessfully to produce a tactile reading and writing system. He was struck by the possibilities of Barbier's code and learned it quickly. However, Braille soon discovered that the major drawback with Barbier's dots and dashes was that they were too large to be felt in their entirety by a single finger touch.

In 1824 Braille, now 15, unveiled his new alphabet. He had found 63 ways to use his six-dot cells, which were compact enough to track with one finger. He also devised a simple slate with holes so that letters could be punched out with a stylus. His fellow students immediately grasped the usefulness of this tactile reading and writing system and they taught it to themselves. With their input Braille carried on perfecting his system.

Aged 20, he published his first book, Writing Words, Music and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. A few years later Braille and two blind friends were made full professors at the school. They successfully used his system for teaching in their classes. Ironically this was in the same year Braille was exempted from the French army because he was blind and "could not read or write" - this for the man who had solved one of the great problems of literacy before he was out of his teens.

Pierre-Armand Dufau, the director of the school, decided to introduce a new code devised by John Alston from the Blind Asylum in Glasgow. This system was again based on raised Roman letters. To ensure that braille was never again used at the school, Dufau burned the entire stock of the school library, confiscated all braille writing materials and inflicted harsh punishments on anyone caught using it. The students, however, refused to accept the ban and taught it to each other using paper and knitting needles, nails and forks. After several years the school had to concede defeat.

But this wasn't the end of the fight for braille; new methods of production meant that others were devising new tactile reading and writing systems, often based on Latin script and usually without the input of potential readers. The sighted educators of the day argued that a tactile reading and writing code not based on the shape of Roman letters would further increase the differences between blind and sighted people. However, what they were really concerned about was controlling what and how blind people wrote and read and normalising them to conform to a seeing world.

So the liberating tradition that brought us braille is one of people fighting for knowledge and autonomy. The recent sacking of braille transcribers is an attack on the hard won right to read. Revolutionaries should celebrate the tradition of struggle demonstrated by Braille's students and fight to oppose cuts in services and struggle for control over access to literacy and independent lives.