Today is Word Braille Day. Coinciding with the birthday of Braille inventor, Louis Braille, the day recognises the important role the reading and writing system continues to play in providing independence for blind and low vision people.

In honour of the day we asked Chantelle Griffiths, Braille Awareness Coordinator and member at the Blind Foundation, to give us some insight into the impact braille has had on her life. Her are her words…

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and both necessity and invention can come from the most unexpected of circumstances.

As the festive season draws to a close, we here in New Zealand enjoy the long-awaited summer with friends and family. I sit with a good book in the shade, marvelling at how necessity and invention culminated in a revolutionary idea that changed the lives of vision-impaired people like me around the world over 200 years ago. It enables me to enjoy the latest bestseller at the same time as my sighted peers. To you, this may not sound like a big thing. But to me, it means everything.

The 4th of January marks the birthday of Louis Braille, born in Coupvray, France in 1809. After a childhood accident left him blind in both eyes, he began studying at the Royal institute for Blind Youth in Paris at age 10. At the time, the only way for a blind person to read by touch was via embossed print letters, created by pressing wire into paper. This made it impossible for a blind student to write independently, and to have books produced in this way was costly and impractical.

The young Louis seized upon a system of dashes and dots that could be read by touch called Night Writing, created for the military by Charles Barbier. He immediately saw it as a more effective way for a blind person to read, and at the age of 15, developed his own system using a simplified version of only six dots. He reasoned that each character could be easily deciphered under a fingertip, and it was an instant success among his peers. He also created a system of musical notation using the same six dots.

There was much resistance to the new system among staff at the Institute, where Louis himself had been a teacher for many years. And it was not until 1854, two years after his death, that it became formally adopted by the school and more widely recognised as an acceptable method of literacy for blind people.

As I run my fingers over the words of my book, I think of how the necessity, in Louis’s mind, was the need for blind people to communicate independently via the written word. Through his thirst for knowledge, he recognised that for a blind person to communicate on an equal footing with their sighted peers, reading and writing needed to be easy, efficient and practical. An equivalent to, yet separate from, the printed alphabet. Using the invention that resulted, a simple system of six small dots, for the first time, blind people would have equal access to literacy and numeracy in a way never seen before, creating opportunities for full participation in education, employment and life.

I think of how attitudes have changed in the years since, as braille has been considered the primary literacy medium for blind and vision-impaired people for many years now. It offers access to the written word in a way that parallels print for a sighted reader, providing literacy in a world where audio is often seen as the default way for a blind person to access information.

It makes me sad to know that Louis Braille did not live to see his system adopted as the primary literacy medium for the blind and vision-impaired in nearly every country, providing a way for them to read and write in nearly every known language from Albanian to Zulu. But what makes me sadder still is that, because of the rise in technology which relies on speech output as its main interface and the often prohibitive cost of modern braille devices, the use of braille is rapidly declining. As is the understanding of how important basic literacy skills are for the vision-impaired.

To me, it’s not just about consuming information quickly and efficiently. It’s about setting up our children and ourselves for success in a visual world. In a lifetime of living and working within the blindness community, I have never heard a parent argue that their sighted child should not learn to read because computers can read for them. Yet I hear this on a regular basis in a community in which braille literacy was once treasured and passed down to generations of blind students as a matter of course.

However, I also recognise that this is only part of the problem. The larger issue is awareness and education; how important it is for blind and vision-impaired people and their families to understand that braille literacy opens doors to countless opportunities in life. Studies show a vision-impaired person who reads braille has increased chances of success in employment and education. Braille readers are able to take advantage of accessibility initiatives like elevator buttons with braille and tactile signs in the community. And for the bookworms like me, reading remains a rich source of education and entertainment.

It’s also up to the braille readers among us to demonstrate how braille is used every day. For everything from labelling spices and canned foods, to reading to children, playing games and delivering speeches. Musicians have equal participation in musical activities because they can independently learn to play a piece without hearing it first. Churchgoers can read the Bible and follow along in their songbooks with others in the congregation. Parents can follow a recipe to prepare nourishing food for their families, and children can succeed at school on their own merit in the same way as their peers, without constant help or supervision from support staff. Braille has kept me in meaningful employment since I left school, and even though I may not always choose to use it in every situation, I know I have the ability to independently read and write whenever and wherever I choose.

Therefore, instead of mourning the decline of braille and listening to a talking book, I choose to celebrate this historic birthday by using braille in every way I can think of. Whether it’s composing an email on my iPhone with a braille display, labelling a newly planted herb in my container garden or simply by reading everything I can get my hands on. Literally. This is how I choose to celebrate the birth of a man who changed forever the landscape of what it means to be vision-impaired, as I feel that using the six-dot system he created and which bears his name – the simple, practical, portable system that allows blind and vision-impaired people to have true literacy – is the most fitting way to celebrate.

There is a quote by Jim Fiebig that comes to mind as my fingers skim across the page. Transmitting concepts, images and emotions to me through words that were meant to be read. “There is a wonder in reading braille that the sighted will never know: To touch words and have them touch you back.” I will be forever thankful to those who chose to give me independence through braille literacy as a child. I will be forever grateful for the folk who work tirelessly to make content accessible for the vision-impaired. And I will be forever indebted to Louis Braille, the man who touched the world with his genius, and my life with his legacy.

About Chantelle

Chantelle Griffiths was born in Auckland and has been blind since birth. She has always had a passion for reading and writing and had her first poem published in a New Zealand newspaper at age ten. She loves composing and listening to music and volunteers at the BLENNZ music school once a month, helping vision-impaired students learn to read braille music. While living in Australia, Chantelle developed a keen interest in cooking and enjoys the challenge of making food you might normally buy at a supermarket, such as ice cream or sausages. Chantelle loves technology and audio production, and regularly hosts her own internet radio show. She also cohosts the Perspectives Podcast with her good friend Mike Lloyd.

Watch a great video from Chantelle on Braille below.