Braille Literacy Awareness Month: It All Began 205 Years Ago with Louis Braille

engraved image of Louis Braille and his birthplace

It’s appropriate to begin our celebration of Braille Literacy Awareness Month with a profile of Louis Braille (January 4, 1809 – January 6, 1852), creator of the braille code. His elegant and enduring code revolutionized reading and writing for blind people throughout the world.

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Online Louis Braille Museum

AFB’s online Louis Braille Museum is a rich repository of photographs, documents, and historical texts that illustrate the life and legacy of Louis Braille, the creator of the braille code.

Using photographs, engravings, and illustrations from books preserved in the American Foundation for the Blind’s Archives and Rare Book Collection, the museum traces Louis Braille’s life from his childhood in Coupvray, France, through his student years in Paris, to his invention of the braille code and the recognition of its importance throughout the world.

Following are excepts from the AFB Online Museum that explore Louis Braille’s early years: the accident that caused his blindness and his educational experiences that led to his enrollment at the Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where he was to spend the rest of his life as both pupil and teacher.

Louis Braille: the Beginnings

Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809 in Coupvray, a small French village 25 miles east of Paris.

Louis was the fourth child of Simon-René Braille and Monique Baron. Simon-René was a master harness maker who was respected throughout the Coupvray region for his craftsmanship as a maker of high-quality leather goods for horses. His success as a craftsman helped Louis’ father to purchase land, farm buildings, and a vineyard in Coupvray, and to provide a comfortable life for his family.

One day when Louis was three years old and was playing in his father’s workshop, he picked up a sharp awl and tried to make a hole in a piece of leather as he had seen his father do many times. The young child lost control of the tool and stabbed himself in his right eye, crying out in pain. When his parents reached him, his eye was streaming blood. A local remedy of lily water was applied to the injury, probably aggravating the already badly inflamed eye. The infection spread quickly to Louis’ left eye. Both eyes continued to deteriorate and by the time Louis was 5 years old he was completely blind.

Braille’s parents were determined that Louis should be educated to become independent – a remarkable expectation at a time when many blind people in rural France lived by begging or peddling. Both Simon-René and Monique Braille could read and write and they recognized the importance of education for the intelligent child. Louis was taught to read and write by feeling nails hammered into boards in the shapes of letters. His father also carved a wooden cane for Louis so that he could learn to navigate his home and village without assistance.

Louis began his formal education in 1815 when he received private lessons from the new village priest, Abbé Palluy. The priest soon recognized that the young boy was fully capable of a regular education regardless of his lack of vision. The following year, Louis was admitted to the town school, where he received instruction side by side with his sighted peers. Quickly, he showed himself to be one of the brightest pupils in the school.

Louis had to memorize what he learned when he received instruction from Abbé Palluy and the local school teacher, Antoine Becheret. In 1818, when he was nine years old, Louis’ schooling was disrupted by the government’s introduction of a new method of teaching called “mutual instruction.” The method was based on students instructing one another, thereby reducing the central role of the teacher in the classroom.

Abbé Palluy strongly disliked the new method and searched for alternative educational options for Louis. He learned about a school in Paris dedicated to teaching children who were blind, and with the help of a local nobleman arranged for Louis to attend the school on scholarship. Louis’ parents realized that he needed special instruction if he was to progress, and, after much soul-searching, they agreed to send him to the Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where Louis Braille was to spend the rest of his life – as both pupil and teacher.

More about the Braille Code

The braille alphabet is based upon a “cell” that is composed of six dots, arranged in two columns of three dots each. Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed by using one or more of the six dots that are contained in the braille cell.

The following chart provides a good example of the design of the braille alphabet. You can download this free braille alphabet card from National Braille Press:

the braille alphabet

Types of Braille

Braille has codes for writing text, music, and even technical material for math and science. Text or literary braille has two forms: non-contracted or alphabetical braille and contracted braille for saving space:

  • Alphabetic braille, formerly called Grade One, writes out each letter and word exactly as it is spelled out in print. For example, in alphabetic braille the word “can” is written by using three separate braille cells – one cell for each of the three letters in the word “can.” If you’re interested primarily in writing shopping lists, keeping telephone numbers, or writing labels or brief notes, alphabetic braille may meet your needs.
  • Literary braille, formerly called Grade Two, is also called “contracted” braille. For example, in literary (or contracted) braille the word “can” is written in a highly condensed or contracted form, using only one braille cell to represent the entire word. The majority of books and magazines are written in literary braille because it requires much less space than does alphabetic braille. If you want to read novels, magazines, or newspapers in braille, it is recommended that you learn to read and write literary braille.

Resources for Braille

The following resources can help you get started in learning more about braille: