World Braille Day is annually celebrated on January 4, the birthday of the Braille inventor, Louis Braille who was born over 200 years ago. The day recognizes the teenage Frenchman’s contributions in helping blind and visually impaired people to read and write. Internationally, this day is used by NGOs and disability organizations to create awareness about the challenges faced by visually impaired individuals and to encourage businesses and governments to create economic and social opportunities for the blind. Teachers in schools explain to students how this invention enabled visually impaired to read and write to educate themselves like any normal human beings and join the national mainstream.
Prior to Braille, visually impaired people read using the Haüy system which embossed Latin letters on thick paper or leather which was quite complicated and required much training. Having encountered the shortcomings of this system, teenager Louis at the age of 15, invented Braille. Louis Braille’s code was based on six dots and arranged in two columns of three dots with 63 possible combinations of the dots. It was arranged in small rectangular blocks of bumps and indentation, called cells, with each cell representing a letter, number or punctuation designed to be read by fingers rather than eyes.
Till date, since Braille is a tactile code, all languages and even certain subjects like mathematics, music and computer programming can be read and written in Braille. For over 200 years, it is still used by millions of children and adults alike. There are now several different versions of Braille. In 2015, a new Unified English Braille (UEB) was introduced to the UK. The purpose was to develop one set of rules – the same everywhere in the world – across different types of English-language material.
Braille is essentially a methodology of replacing sight with touch where every hard copy needs to be copiously converted to a Braille variant. On a small scale, Braille can be produced easily, using a Perkins-style brailler. However, on a larger scale, digital text documents are sent to electronic braille embossers, for larger-scale printing. Like printers, the faster the embosser, the more it costs. The first braille displays appeared in the mid-1970s, and the first commercially produced braille display, the VersaBraille, was released in 1982. Five years later, the Braille ‘n Speak was released as the first portable notetaker that used a Perkins-style keyboard for inputting data, instead of a QWERTY keyboard.
In the modern era, electronics has become a dynamic game changer for Braille users! Our conventional laptops, tablets can have its text on display connected to braille displays, so that the text can be read by touch. Electronic refreshable braille displays create the dots in braille cells by raising and lowering plastic or metal pins to correspond to the dots in the letters or numbers being represented. Typically, braille displays offer anywhere from 10-80 cells in a linear display, and the cost goes up dramatically as the number of cells increases.
The Transforming Braille Group, an international consortium of groups and agencies whose mission was to locate a manufacturer willing to design and produce a braille display reader for commercial resale, ushered in Orbit Reader 20. The University of Michigan’s School of Information’s Sile O’Modhrain leads a project called Holy Braille that is developing and creating a full-page braille and tactile graphic display device. A large part of this project has been to reinvent the braille “dots” or movable pins used on current electronic braille displays to create a model using a system of bubbles and fluid to raise the surface of the screen. Other innovative new braille devices include Blitab and insideOne, endeavouring to reduce the cost of braille displays into affordable display devices.
What Louis Braille in effect has given to the future generations of his visually impaired brethren is access to communication to acquire knowledge so as not to be despised or patronised by more privileged members of society; to be treated as equals. As cited by former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam, self-belief multiplies strength and willpower gives confidence for success.3 Louis Braille, himself having undergone the travails of being visually impaired, in effect has empowered visually impaired persons to establish themselves and get included in societal activities. Learning Braille has not only opened employment opportunities and improved access to services and facilities for the visually impaired, companies and employers are today sensitized. They have access to a dedicate and trustworthy set of potential employees.
For India, which is challenged with the largest number of visually impaired persons in the world, his invention and Louis Braille himself has been the messiah of hope.