Few inventions have been as simple yet liberating as Braille. To mark the 200th birthday of its inventor Louis Braille, former British home secretary David Blunkett explains how it shaped his life by providing him from an early age with a window on the world.
Picture a little boy of four. He arrives at school - boarding school - for the first time. Worried, sometimes even frightened, but determined not to cry.
Picture then a little boy with a contraption in front of him on his desk the following morning. A stylus (to him, a pin with a wooden knob on the top) in which he's expected not only to press downwards to make what he considers to be a "hole" in thick paper, but the daunting prospect of being told that he's going to operate from right to left.
How Braille works
Louis Braille became blind aged three. In 1821 he started to devise
the Braille system to help people with visual impairments to read and write.
Each Braille character is made up of six dots positioned in two
columns of three dots each.
Braille is read by passing the fingers over each character. The
characters represent the letters in the alphabet as well as punctuation
A key benefit of the six-dot system is the ability to recognise each
letter using a single finger tip, without the need for repositioning.
Using both hands to read Braille achieves an average speed of 115
words per minute, compared to 250 words per minute for sighted
That little four-year-old was, of course, me. And yes, I was expected, along with all my fellow pupils, to use an old-fashioned Braille writing frame which had the six-dot system invented by Louis Braille, born on 4 January 1809, to produce the alphabet and much more.
The reason why it was necessary to write from right to left was that, in those days, without the sophistication firstly of mechanical and then of electronic Braille production, the dots had to be pressed downwards and, when turned over, would provide a mirror image.
It was therefore not only necessary to write from right to left, but also to reverse the actual letters so that with the exception of letters like A and C, other parts of the alphabet had to be reversed. D had to be written as an F. In Braille, this is exactly the mirror image - and therefore came out on the opposite side exactly as you'd read it left to right.
If all this sounds complicated, it damn well was!
To read Braille without being able to see you need to develop sensitive finger ends
Thankfully, new systems were developed as I went through the education system which allowed the production to be bottom-up (with the dots punctured upwards from left to right, immediately readable by the user).
Despite all its difficulties in those early days, this system was nevertheless a liberator for me and hundreds of thousands of blind men and women like me.
Invented by Louis Braille at the age of 15, the idea came from a soldier who had served in the Napoleonic army in Poland and had attempted to devise a system that could, with night-time manoeuvres, allow messages to be sent and instructions to be passed from hand to hand.
It didn't work, because the system was too complex and the soldiers didn't get it. Not surprisingly, because to read Braille without being able to see you need to develop sensitive finger ends.
Finger ends which, unlike mine, need to be protected from burns developed whilst cooking, or rough handling of gardening implements and the like. My fingers have developed what in a sighted person might be called "cataracts", but I still plough on.
Art of oratory
All those years ago, Louis Braille decided that it was crucial that he should be able to read and, above all, to be able to write down his thoughts.
Two hundred years later, when chairing a meeting it is vital that I have an agenda on my own that I can refer to without reference to someone else. It is vital that I have notes even when I shy away from actually reading speeches verbatim.
Mr Blunkett was rarely seen without his guide dog, Lucy
It's no secret that I found reading statements at the Despatch Box in the Commons a trial. Statements have to be read verbatim because the print version has been handed out, whereas of course speeches are an entirely different matter and much more up my street - as, of course, with answering questions.
With a set of notes you can make a speech having learnt the art of oratory at a very early age. In fact it's probably a question of cause and effect. My own development of oratory came from the fact that by using notes I could overcome the difficulty of not being able quite so fluently as I would wish to skim over a written page of Braille - for Braille doesn't have the opportunity to provide highlights.
You can't simply write Braille in large form so that as with print you can "catch your eye" on something that it is absolutely vital to deliver or to emphasise. Underlining is possible, but more out of technical form than in terms of being able to quickly highlight what needs to be referred to and at what point.
Therefore, for me, Braille has been a method of ensuring that I can work on equal terms, using my own initiative and doing it in my own way.
As we celebrate the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, we lift a glass at the New Year to thank him for the ingenuity, the confidence and the determination
For others, it has been an absolutely vital way of ensuring private correspondence and, with more recent developments, being able to demand bank statements which allow privacy rather than relying on someone else to read them (perhaps a neighbour) at a time when confidentiality could be crucial.
In the future, so many of the public forms and communications we receive could easily be put in Braille by the use of computer software and the transcription equipment now readily available to public authorities.
My staff use exactly such software, along with Braille embossers, in order to be able to produce material for me on a regular basis.
So, as we celebrate the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, we lift a glass at the New Year to thank him for the ingenuity, the confidence and the determination that ensured that others like him sought and gained independence, equality and dignity.
Whilst doing so, we should recognise the critical role of organisations working with and on behalf of blind people, such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind here in the UK, whose support and resource base is crucial to making this old invention come alive in imaginatively new ways.
The year 2009 will indeed, here and across the world, be a chance to recognise this form of communication as an essential liberator, a window on the world for children reading their books (under their bedcovers, as I did), or adults being able to go about their business with confidence - and with the certainty that very few other people will be able to read their secrets.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I have been a Braillist for many years now and am delighted to see that interest and understanding of this wonderful communication method is on the rise. It could have so easily fallen by the wayside due to increased provision of audio recordings but I am much encouraged that it is still prevalent. The only thing that concerns me with regards to the provision of Braille is that the so called "Lead Distributors" in the UK have become complacent due to their inherited status and that work that I have received from them in the past has been more than substandard and inaccurate, which is unacceptable when it comes to Braille. Buck up your idea's and your proofreading skills RNIB, you were great once, with a little care and consideration you could be great once again and deserving of the title Royal National Institute for the Blind! Gemma Nicholl, Llanelli
It's a fantastic invention which sadly Louis Braille never saw realised since he died before anyone used it. His tutors though quietly impressed by his innovation where more concerned about reprinting books, retraining people how to read and building the machines to do it when they were already using the old raised letters system Anon
Thanks very much for another helpful insight. I listened to the BBC World service report this morning and was fascinated, so it was good to read directly about your experiences. I do especially like the idea of being able to read under the bed covers in the dark! That may even appeal to someone I know very well and inspire him to learn Braille, as reading by sight with a significant visual impairment can be arduous to say the least. Mark Bagott, Newcastle Upon Tyne
My father lost his sight late in life. He did not have the luxury or the time to learn Braille but what he did have was the RNIB and the local 'Blind' Society. He was an avid reader and thanks to all of them he continued to read via tapes and CDs. All of this, and time was given freely. Thank you Heather, Milton Keyes
What a wonderfully inspiring story. In todays world, children are loosing the art of reading books etc.. I hope especially with the gift of sight that they can be encouraged to read more. Richard, Milan
A pleasure to read Mr Blunkett when he isn't on a political hobby horse. Sensible topic sensibly discussed. Thank you. Rex Imperator, Lincolnshire uk
Louis Braille attended The Institution for Blind Children in Paris, which was the world's first workshop created specifically for the blind (1786). Its founder, Valentin Haüy (1745-1822), summarized the background to his philanthropy as follows: 'At the Saint-Ovide Fair, in September 1771, I observed about a dozen blind pensioners from The Hospice for the Three Hundred - dressed in grotesque clothes and wearing opaque spectacles - playing a discordant piece of music, with all manner of instruments, which appeared to excite the pleasure of the spectators. From that moment, I swore to myself that I would teach the blind to read and write so as to give them back their dignity.' Dr. Roger Peters, Bristol
I have taught myself Braille,(not easy) as my wife and I administer and organise BARTIMAEUS CENTRE FOR THE BLIND in Bangalore, India. On a purely voluntary basis we offer tuition and accommodation to about 14 poor, blind students to rehabilitate them and hopefully find them employment. This allows them to develop as valued individuals. Our curriculum includes, mobility, English language and computer skills. Braille is our 'backbone'! Reg Ansell (Retired U.K. headteacher), Ross on Wye U.K. (6 months) and Bangalore India (6 months)
This is a fascinating insight into some of the less obvious challenges of Braille usage. I'm surprised that technology isn't a bigger part of the braille user's world though. Kelly Mouser, Upminster, England
I dated a man several years ago who was blind and he lamented that the young students at the schools for the blind were not being taught Braille. He said that they were being raised as illiterates. I hope this trend has changed since that time. Angela, Abingdon, Virginia USA
Dear Mr Blunkett, I was so amazed to learn that there are so much involved in Braille system. You have explained it in easy to grasp language and it gave a new vision to my understanding. Dr.G.Srinivasan, Derby
A real tribute to Louis Braille on his 200 year birth anniversary celebration is to make education accessible to every blind child, to show empathy not sympathy towards blind. Governments, societies, NGOs should work hand in hand to achieve this goal. asra fatima, hyderabad. India
Politics and other things aside, Mr Blunkett has been a shining example of someone overcoming a disability. The story told above is inspirational. Michael Black, Manchester
Terrific story but it would have been better had it also included the description of the mechanics behind the new way of creating Braille. We have been discussing it at the lunch table and will attempt to Google this new missing information. Anon
I had to learn Braille for a job I took 3 years ago. I am sighted but worked with Blind women and men in Zurich. I found working with Braille very uplifting as I learnt Braille, both types of German Braille - there are two - a more complicated version to shorten the words (not unlike shorthand) and music Braille (my Job was transcribing sheet music into Braille). I left the job after receiving a chance to pursue my own music and can still read Braille (with my eyes). I am so glad to have learnt Braille as I also had to learn to write with simple Braillers (right to left AND mirrored) and working with blind people was so much fun as the power of conversation was so much more advanced than with most sighted people. Blind people tend to be better listeners, appreciate music more, have unbelievable memories and can sense things us sighted people mostly can't. Obviously there are different forms of Blindness and different people are affected differently by the onset of sight-loss. Phil McCammon, ZH/UK
This is wonderful. I wonder whether teaching Braille to dyslexic children would help them more than struggling with normal print? Mrs JE Holmes, Pembroke Wales
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.