The History of Braille and How It Has Affected The Blind

Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or who have difficulty with vision. This allows the visual cortex of people who are blind to convert “simple tactile information into meaningful patterns that have lexical and semantic properties”. In other words, this system allows the portion of the brain that interprets visual perception to pick up on these sensory cues and interpret the patterns into verbal properties.

braille
A blind person reading braille

 This system has had a tremendous impact for individuals living with vision loss because it has enabled the individuals to be able to educate themselves by reading books engraved with braille, as well as navigate society where braille has been used to aid them. For example, in modern society, braille can be seen in several places including in ATM machines, inside banks, on Metrocard dispensers inside the train stations, and in schools to help students. Braille was a system that became recognized as a way to help people who are blind and became implemented as a reading and writing method for blind people. Although this incredible system has been incorporated into society to help the blind and is still used to this day, this was not always the case, and society did not recognize all of the things that blind people were capable of. In fact, in ancient times, the blind was not seen in a positive light and did not have the rights that they do today.

According to Frances A. Koestler, “Of all the ills and imperfections of humankind, blindness is the most universally dreaded.” She also states that “primitive mythologies often interpreted blindness as a sign of divine disfavor.” This resonates with statements made by Ronald Berger, where he explains that in certain tribes, there was a belief that a disabled child was “a divine punishment for parental misconduct”. Berger also echoes Koestler’s statement that society’s attitude and mentality towards people with disabilities, including people who are blind, had been “shrouded in insidious mythologies.” This was a way for society to be able to “explain the inexplicable”.

The Blind Oedipus

The Blind Oedipus

This kind of attitude can be seen in classical literature such as Oedipus, where blindness was interpreted as a punishment for social or religious transgression. People who were blind were generally seen as being unable to contribute to society. They were not expected to be able to do things that could help in sustaining society such as being able to hunt or fight. Because of this, many people suffering from disabilities, including the blind, were sold into slavery, women were sold to prostitution, or many lived as beggars.

In many early civilizations, babies that were born blind were abandoned and left to die either from being eaten alive by animals or from being exposed to the elements. The families viewed those born with blindless as being “accursed for their sins”, and so abandoned their family members due to the disability. Omvig also echoes Berger in which he states that families would let their child die when the child was diagnosed with a disability. This kind of societal mindset towards people with disabilities continued on as late as the early 1980s. An example of this was the case of an Indiana boy born with Down syndrome and an esophageal blockage. The parents decided to forego treatment of the esophageal blockage upon the advice of their physician. Not only did the general public have this attitude towards people who were blind and disabled, but individuals in healthcare as well. Although blindness was seen as living a life of “misery”, a cursed life, or a “sentence to second-class status”, the blind were later found in certain state or church sanctioned professions or guilds. In the 19th century, many blind people came together in an effort to improve their situation, share ways that they could become successful, and ways to have a voice in socity. This mentality slowly paved the way for blind people to improve their way of life within society.

In 1979, French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote an essay suggesting that blind people could use their sense of touch as a way to read. This essay foreshadowed the inventions of the Braille writing system. There are numerous blind people throughout history who are known for their successes and contributions to society. Amongst them are Hellen Keller, Homer, and Jorge Luis Borges. However, a notable individual who was the pioneer of the Braille system was Louis Braille. Braille was born in 1809 in Paris,

louis-braille

Louis Braille

France. Braille was blind since age three after an accident that injured his right eye. There were no medical treatments at that time that could have saved his eyesight. Braille later attended the national Institute for Blind Children in Paris. It was here where he learned of the “Ecriture Nocturne”, or “Night Writing”, a tactile code system invented by Charles Barbier, a French military officer, which allowed officers to communicate with each other in the battlefield in the dark. Braille adapted this raised-dot system introduced by Barbier, but changed it in that he only used six dots which made it easier for the blind to read. Although the system was initially rejected, the school later accepted this system method of transcription. One of the most important aspects of the Braille system is that it made it possible for the blind to be teachers of the blind. This revolutionized education for the blind and allowed blind individuals to be able to communicate with one another. This eventually led blind people to have the ability to write their own stories and and narratives which allowed sighted people to be able to learn about the details of the lives of blind people.

In the beginning of the 20th century, many professional organizations and associations for the blind formed in the United States. Such organizations include the American Association of Workers for the Blind, American Council of the Blind, and the image_wrapperNational Federation of the Blind. Thanks to these organizations and the activists that fought for the rights of blind people, many changes were made through history that successfully improved the lives of the blind. Several schools that educate the blind are accessible in countries around the world. Blind people are no longer treated the way that they were treated in ancient times. In fact, the medical profession and scientists have created several aids to help blind people with mobility. For example, blind people can now use long canes or dog guides to navigate independently. Electronic travel aids, and the use of Braille in public such as in ATM machines and different train stations are ways that have helped the blind have more accessibility in society. Society’s mindset towards blind people and people with disability has completely changed over time. American_Council_of_the_Blind.max-1000x800In ancient times, society viewed the blind as cursed people and did not give them a chance at life. Doctors and healthcare professionals would advise families against helping children and family members who were blind. However, thanks to pioneers such as Louis Braille who invented the Braille writing system and the work of several organizations and activists around the world, blind people can now live independently and have the same rights as people who are not blind. There are ways to treat or manage blindness in medicine now that was not a possibility in ancient times, and blind people can now live a life with positive experience as opposed to the negativity that surrounded them in ancient times.

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References

Berger, R. J. (2013). Introducing disability studies. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner .

Jiménez, J., Olea, J., Torres, J., Alonso, I., Harder, D., & Fischer, K. (n.d.). Biography of louis

braille and invention of the braille alphabet. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19171217

Koestler, F. A. (2005). The unseen minority: a social history of blindness in the United States.

New York: AFB Press.

Miller, B., & Rogers, K. (2014, November 18). History of the Blind. Retrieved July 08, 2017,

from https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-the-blind-1996241#ref1225431

Omvig, J. (n.d.). History of Blindness. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from

https://www.actionfund.org/history-blindness

Sadato, N. (2005, December). How the blind “see” Braille: lessons from functional magnetic

resonance imaging. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16282598

What Is Braille? (2017). Retrieved July 5, 2017, from http://www.afb.org/info/living-with-

vision-loss/braille/what-is-braille/123

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