Bicentenary of Louis Braille – The world at our fingertips
This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille – the man who created a raised-dot system of reading and writing that changed the lives of millions of blind and visually-impaired people.
Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, near Paris, on January 4, 1809. An injury to his left eye at his father’s harness-making workshop left him blind in that eye at the age of three. The injury caused an infection that spread to his right eye, leaving him completely blind two years later.
He received a scholarship to study science and music at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris and became a talented cellist and organist. But his was an exceptional case as, at the time, blind students were usually taught basic craft and trade skills, such as wicker-work or shoemaking, so they could earn a living after completing school.
At that time, the Royal Institute, founded by Valentin Haüy, used a reading system based on the Haüy method, an arrangement of copper wires pressed into the large print text of books. The books were extremely heavy and difficult to carry and had two other major disadvantages: they did not help blind students learn to write and were very expensive.
In 1821, Charles Barbier – an artillery officer who had invented an adapted night writing procedure, a basic point method that allowed soldiers to communicate without speaking – visited the Royal Institute to demonstrate his method. He used 12-dot arrangements in a rectangle to represent sounds. The method caught the interest of the young Louis Braille.
Over the next three years, Louis Braille started teaching at the Royal Institute and devoted his spare time to improving Barbier’s system. He changed the number of dots to six with each arrangement corresponding to a letter. Using his father’s stitching awl, the very instrument that had blinded him, he completed his raised-dot system at the age of 15, in 1824. Braille characters consist of six tactile dots arranged in two columns and three rows that can form 64 combinations, mapping letters, numbers and symbols.
In 1829, Louis Braille invented a six-dot musical notation system and published his first book in braille, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. He continued to further refine and improve the system over the years, finalizing it in 1837. Louis Braille and his friend Pierre Foucault, who had gone blind at the age of 6 and had a brilliant mechanical mind, developed a machine to accelerate raised-dot printing.
Louis Braille died of tuberculosis in 1852 at the age of 43. In 1952, the centenary of his death, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris.
The braille system
The braille system was adopted in France two years after Louis Braille’s death and gradually introduced in other countries and regions of the world. It became a universally-recognized standard, adapted to different scripts from Roman, Greek and Russian to Chinese, Swedish and Esperanto. Braille’s invention sparked a genuine revolution among the blind and visually-impaired, giving them better access to education, culture and information and offering a greater degree of autonomy.
Braille remains an essential tool today. It enables the blind and visually-impaired to read books and maps and even co-pilot airplanes. Braille labeling is found on articles such as food products, lift buttons, subway maps and voting ballots. In many countries, it is mandatory to label pharmaceutical products in braille.
Braille and new technologies
A portable braille printer (Credit: Blista-Brailletec)
Braille has kept pace with the technological and communication developments of the 21st century. There is now a whole range of methods for producing braille both on paper and in digital format, including simple tools such as the “frame and stylus” that push dots into paper and the “jot-a-dot” braille notetaker which is similar to a typewriter. There are also more sophisticated devices such as embossers or braille printers that connect to a computer in the same way as text printers do. Electronic notetakers and braillers give speech feedback and produce braille by raising and lowering pins on a display in response to an electronic signal.
Whether or not the visually-impaired use braille usually depends on their degree of disability and the age at which they are no longer able to read commercially available publications comfortably. Digital technologies offer new possibilities for facilitating access to content for the visually-impaired in formats other than braille, including large print publications, audio recordings, photographic enlargements and digital copies compatible with screen-reading software that can read aloud the text appearing on a computer screen or with software that magnifies the size of text displayed on a screen. Digital talking books that simultaneously generate output in braille are also available.
Braille and copyright
Any conversion – reproduction – of material into an alternative format usually requires authorization by the right owner of the work, unless a specific exception exists. A recent study commissioned by WIPO shows that the conversion of content into braille format appears to be one of the most common exceptions to the rule; often, national copyright laws provide specific limitations and exceptions for the benefit of the visually-impaired.
It is widely acknowledged that progress is still to be made in broadening the range of copyright-protected material available – both analog and digital – in accessible formats as well as facilitating dissemination across multiple jurisdictions in a timely way to enhance opportunities for literacy, independence and productivity. WIPO closely monitors options for appropriate possible steps in this regard.
More information on national copyright laws.
By Geidy Lung, WIPO, Copyright and Related Rights Sector
Tiflolibros, the first digital library for the Spanish-speaking visually-impaired, got off to a modest start in 1999 but now comprises over 20,000 volumes and over 3,000 subscribers in 40 countries. The project began in Buenos Aires, in the apartment of a blind couple who have a passion for literature.
Using Tiflolector, a software program created by André Duré, a blind programmer and co-founder of the project, Pueblo Lecuona and Mara Lis Vilar started to create the library by scanning books and then listening as a voice synthesizer read the scanned material so they could correct mistakes – a very time-consuming process. As their library grew, they exchanged their digitized books with other visually-impaired people. Soon their apartment was too small for both Tiflolibros and their growing family. They moved out and Tiflolibros took over the entire space. There are now 80 volunteers in several countries scanning and correcting new talking books for the library.
Tiflolibros accepts subscribers with severe or total visual impairment. Applicants must provide a certificate attesting to their disability. Representatives of institutions for the blind may also use the library. Members can listen to the books on the library computer or receive their books on CD by mail for less than a dollar a book. They can then listen to them on CD and MP3 players or their computers.
Tiflolibros functions under an exception for visually impaired persons that is currently part of Argentina’s copyright law. The books are translated in cooperation with publishers, many of whom already had a long standing practice of providing free copies to organizations for translation into braille.
By Sylvie Castonguay, WIPO Magazine Editorial Team, Communications Division