An Appeal to the Senses: The Development of the
Braille System in Nineteenth-Century France
The invention of the Braille system marked a major turning point in nineteenth-century France in the education and integration into society of those with vision loss. Although the Braille system was initially met with resistance from sighted people, especially those who taught at the school that Louis Braille attended, his system of reading revolutionized society, and it is still in use today. Louis Braille, however, did not create an entirely original reading system, but adapted and simplified other existing tactile reading methods, namely Valentine Hauy’s and Charles Barbier’s. Furthermore, the Braille system depended on the acceptance of tactile reading among sighted people to progress into a transformative system that granted the blind autonomous access to the cultural benefits of reading and allowed them to participate in society in new ways.
Before the Braille reading system could foster significant cultural improvement for the blind in nineteenth-century society, it needed cultural support that had so far been absent, leaving the blind at a disadvantage. Without a developed and efficient reading system that did not rely on sight, people with vision loss lacked access to cultural engagement, since one of the primary methods for most people to engage with culture was through reading. In fact, in the nineteenth century, blind people were often considered to have the worst disability, such that they were essentially useless to society (Weygand, 2009). It was commonly believed that people with vision loss were incapable of pursuing a profession or culturing themselves (Weygand, 2009). Occasionally, a prosperous family or benefactor would support a person with vision loss (Mellor, 2006), but even then that person would struggle to fully integrate into society.
Nineteenth-century French society was unsure of how to deal with people with long-term disabilities, but eventually targeted education strategies were adopted. While people with temporary difficulties were able to access public welfare, the response for people with long-term disabilities, such as hearing or vision loss, was to group them in institutions (Tombs, 1996). Originally, a joint institute for the blind and deaf was created, and although this partnership was primarily motivated by financial considerations rather than by the well-being of the residents, the hope was to help them to develop skills valuable to society (Weygand, 2009). Once blind institutions separated from deaf institutions, the focus shifted towards education of the blind, as was the case for the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, which Louis Braille attended (Jimenez, Olea, Torres, Alonso, & Harder, 2009). This societal acknowledgement of the uniqueness of disabilities fostered an environment in which education of the blind was deemed culturally beneficial.
Several different systems of tactile reading can be seen as forerunners to the method Louis Braille developed, but these systems were all developed based on the sighted system. Notably, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris taught the students to read embossed roman letters, a method created by the school’s founder, Valentine Hauy (Jimenez, et al., 2009). Reading this way proved to be a rather arduous task, as the letters were difficult to distinguish by touch. The embossed letter method was based on the reading system of sighted people, with minimal adaptation for those with vision loss. As a result, this method was not successfully implemented within the blind community at large.
Braille was bound to be influenced by his school’s founder, but the most influential pre-Braille tactile reading system was Charles Barbier’s night writing. A soldier in Napoleon’s army, Barbier developed a system in 1819 that used 12 dots with a five line musical staff (Kersten, 1997). His intention was to develop a system that would allow the military to communicate at night without the need for light (Herron, 2009). The code developed by Barbier was phonetic (Jimenez et al., 2009). In other words, the code was designed for sighted people and was based on the sounds of words, not on an actual alphabet. Nevertheless, Barbier discovered that variants of raised dots within a square were the easiest method of reading by touch (Jimenez et al., 2009). Barbier’s cumbersome system was suitable for the transmission of short messages between military personnel. This reading system was not suitable for daily use by blind people, however, as the symbols were too large for the fingertip, greatly reducing the speed at which a message could be read (Herron, 2009). As a result, his system was also inappropriate for widespread adoption within the blind community.
Barbier’s military dot system was less complicated than Hauy’s embossed letters, though, and as a result, it provided the framework within which Louis Braille developed his method. Barbier’s system, with its dashes and dots, could form over 4000 combinations (Jimenez et al., 2009). Compared to the 26 letters of the sighted alphabet, this was an absurdly high number. To reduce the possible combinations, Louis Braille kept the raised dot system, but developed a system that would reflect the sighted alphabet. He replaced Barbier’s dashes and dots with just six dots in a rectangular configuration (Jimenez et al., 2009). The result was that the blind population in France had a tactile reading system using dots (like Barbier’s) and based on the sighted alphabet (like Hauy’s); crucially, this system was the first developed specifically for the purposes of the blind.
Even though the Braille system gained immediate popularity with the blind students at the Institute in Paris, it had to gain acceptance among the sighted leaders before its adoption throughout France. This support was necessary because sighted teachers and leaders would ultimately be responsible for the propagation of Braille resources. Many of the teachers at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth resisted learning Braille’s system because they found the tactile method of reading difficult to learn (Bullock & Galst, 2009). This resistance was symptomatic of the prevalent attitude at the time that the blind population had to adapt to the ways of the sighted, rather than develop their own methods. Over time, however, and with the impetus to make societal contribution possible for all, the teachers began to appreciate the usefulness of Braille’s system and the resulting ease with which people with vision loss could read. It took approximately 30 years, but the French government eventually approved the Braille system, and the system established itself (Bullock & Galst, 2009).
Although blind people remained disenfranchised throughout the nineteenth century, their increased access to culture through the Braille system in turn granted them growing opportunities for social participation on par with the sighted. Most obviously, the Braille system allowed people with vision loss to read the same alphabet used by sighted people (Bullock & Galst, 2009). With this new means of accessing culture through written works, blind people were later able to integrate more smoothly into society because their ability to access information more closely paralleled the abilities of sighted people. In other words, the closing of the gap between the abilities of blind and the sighted helped limit cultural understandings of the blind as essentially different and useless.
The Braille system meant that the blind community now had the ability to participate in certain cultural experiences previously unavailable to them. Written works, such as books and poetry, had before represented an inaccessible cultural avenue to the blind population. The distribution of books in Braille, however, enabled people with vision loss to access written culture autonomously, without the aid of reader. Furthermore, the Braille system led to the development of a music notation system for the blind, although Louis Braille did not develop this system himself (Jimenez, et al., 2009). This development helped remove an obstacle introduced by the popularization of written musical notation in the early 1500’s. At about this time, blind musicians were no longer able to compete with sighted musicians, since music transitioned from performance by memory to performance by written repertoire (Kersten, 1997). As a result, a tactile musical notation was necessary for equality in musical ability between the blind and sighted (Kersten, 1997).
Braille radically enhanced the abilities of the blind and societal understanding of what the blind could do. But the invention of the Braille system was not dependent solely on the evolution of tactile reading from Hauy and Barbier’s systems; both the advent and success of Braille depended on the societal acknowledgement of blind people as valuable, meriting a separate reading system. Similarly, the success of the Braille system was not restricted to the practical tactile reading made available to the blind; its significance stems from providing blind people broader access to culture and concomitant gains in social status.
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