Episodes, Literacy

21. Getting a Feel for Braille

 

Happy Braille Literacy Month, everyone! We almost missed out on the celebrations, but The Book Owl discovered this important holiday just in time. In this episode discover what workshop accidents and Napoleon have to do with the history of one of the most intriguing forms of reading and writing.

Links Mentioned in This Episode

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Transcript (or Roughly So)

Intro, Part One

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

So this time around we’re looking at a special type of reading. Or rather, we’re not going to look at it, we’re going to get a feel for it. Because this type of reading isn’t done with the eyes. It’s not done with the ears. It’s done with the fingertips. And in some ways, we have Napoleon to thank for it.

Cheesy Sales Pitch

But before we jump into that I just have one quick reminder. If you’re listening to this episode on the day of its release, that would be 28 January 2021, or soon after, you have just a couple days left to grab the first box set of my historical fantasy series The Osteria Chronicles for a mere 99c.

This set includes The Trials of Hercules, The Voyage of Heroes, and The Maze of Minos and the sale ends on the 31st, so don’t dilly dally if you want to nab this deal. And of course, the links you need will be in the show notes.

Alright, onto the episode.

Intro, Part Two

So Happy Braille Literacy Month, everyone! That’s right, January is all about bringing awareness to this fascinating form of reading and writing. Why January? Well, because the creator of braille, Louis Braille (which I’m just going to say braille from now on so you don’t have to endure my horrible French) was born on 4 January 1809. 

Oh, and if you really want to get your braille celebrations going, you should have also celebrated World Braille Day which took place earlier in the month on Louis’s birthday. What? You missed it? Well, just be sure to mark it on your calendar for next year because I think once you hear how braille came to be, and the struggle it took to get it adopted, you might have a little more appreciation for it.

Warning

Now before we get too far into this episode, I’m going to say I’m not really great on my politically correct terms for things, so I will be using the word “blind” when referring to people who can’t see well or can’t see at all. So forewarning if that sort of thing offends you.

Okay, let’s get into this dotty madness.

A Quick Bit About Braille

I’m sure most listeners have come across braille writing some time in their lives. Of course I’m a big old word nerd, so I’ve always been fascinated by it and can’t resist running my fingers over it when ever I find a plaque, or a directory, or some museum signage that has a braille option. I simply can’t fathom how a person’s fingers interpret those dots into words, and when I can’t figure something out, it intrigues me even more.

But just in case you don’t have clue what braille is, it’s a block of raised dots that represent letters or groups of letters or sometimes entire words that are commonly used such as the, and, but, and that sort of thing.

The reader reads left to right, typically by running both index fingers over the dots. And each of these blocks consists of six dots that are arranged in two columns with three dots in each column, so imagine how the number six looks on dice. The letter or letter grouping then depends on which dots in that block are raised and which aren’t.

And braille isn’t its own language, its more of a translation. Which means it basically takes the letters and words of say English or French or German and transcribes them into these blocks of dots that can be read with your English, French, or German fingertips

And just because I was curious, I looked up the reading speed of braille reading versus eyeball reading and the average eyeball reader reads about 200 words a minute. Braille readers average about 125 words a minute, but some can reach speeds of 200 words a minute. Which again, blows my mind that your fingers can read that quickly.

But while all that’s interesting, the story of how braille came about is far more interesting. And it’s also where we come back to Napoleon.

Getting Dotty with Napoleon

So back in the early 1800s this little Corsican guy named Napoleon had made himself ruler of France. France is a pretty darn big country, but he wanted to expand his empire so he was going around starting fights with his neighbors. You know the type, right?

Well, Napoleon wanted to maintain the element of surprise, so he wanted his soldiers to be able to communicate at night so they could plan their maneuvers and be kept alert of any trouble from the enemy.

Trouble was, the enemies were no idiots. They were keeping an eye on Napoleon’s men. When a French soldier received a note, he’d light a lamp to see what it said and then, blam! The enemy sharpshooters would see the light, shoot in that direction, and well let’s just say it’s hard to follow orders or plan an attack when you die trying to read those orders or attack plans.

And here I picture Napoleon having a bit of a temper tantrum, kind of like the Napoleon character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure when he’s bowling and he’s like Merde! Merde! Merde!. Luckily, unlike the Bill & Ted Napoleon, the real life Napoleon had Charles Babier working for him.

Babier came up with a system of what he called night writing. This consisted of a 12-dot block with raised dots to correspond to each letter or phonetic sound. And I think the 12 dots were in two columns, I can’t recall. 

It kind of worked, but it was slow going because people’s fingertips just couldn’t feel all the dots at once. Imagine as you’re reading, scanning a word, then having to go back over each letter one by one to understand what that word is and you’ll start to understand why Babier’s system worked, but was a painfully slow way to read more than just a quick missive.

But let’s pop over to another area of France.

You’ll Put Your Eye Out, Kid

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, on 4 January 1809. And a little warning for anyone who is squeamish, you might want to fast forward about 30 seconds.

Louis’s dad was a leatherworker and little Louis liked to hang out with papa in his workshop, and he even likes to try his own hand at working the leather.

One day when Louis is about three or four, papa isn’t paying attention as Louis is trying to use an awl to poke a hole in a scrap of leather. And Louis is getting into it, he’s down close and really scrutinizing his efforts. Well, the awl slips and pierces Louis in the eye. Yeah, I know. Cringe!!

A doctor is called, the wound is bound, but infection sets in and ends up spreading to his good eye, so he ends up blind in both eyes. And I bet Louis’s mom had a thing or two to say to Louis’s dad about child minding.

So back then it would have been easy to write Louis off as being an invalid who won’t amount to anything, But hoorah for mom because she treats Louis as if he’s no different than her other kids. And Louis thrives in the environment she creates for him. He becomes known for being a good pupil and for being exceptionally bright, so he ends up winning a scholarship to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. And I think this is when he was about 9 or 10 years old.

An Understanding Teacher

At the Royal Institute was an instructor named Valentin Hauy, who also founded the school. Hauy wasn’t blind, but he did understand the need to get his students reading. He came up with a system where he basically kept your same 26 Latin letters and raised them on the page using heavy paper that was embossed with the letters. The kids could read the books, but it was a slow way to read.

Also, to create just one of these books was really time-consuming and expensive and the books themselves were fragile and pretty damn huge just to fit all the test in. As such, the school only had three of them, but Louis read these books over and over. And another problem with hay’s system was, to make the books required these specialized copper dohickies to emboss the letters onto the paper, so it wasn’t convenient to get the students writing.

The Hauy system was flawed, but is did prove that touch could be used to read long passages of text, not just quick notes. He referred to it as “talking to the fingers with the language of the eye.”

Hauy, although his system wasn’t the greatest, was really a superstar for his students, especially gifted ones like Louis. Hauy even cut out leather templates of the letters of the alphabet. Louis would then take these and trace around them to write letters home every week. Which, wow, that’s some dedication to writing to your mom and I bet she really appreciated it.

A Fortuitous Visit

And it’s at the Royal Institute where Louis and Charles Babier’s stories come together. See, in 1821 or possibly 1820 — my sources were a bit unclear on exactly which because one said Louis was 11, which would be 1820, others say Babier showed up in 1821. Either way, Babier shows up at the Royal Institute to show off his night writing thingamajig, thinking it might be handy for the students, even though it was a clumsy system to use.

Louis, who had already been tinkering with his own system of writing for the blind, immediately recognizes the possibilities of Babier’s system and pinpointed the problems such as it being too complex for the human finger and that each block should represent a letter or group of letters, not a phonetic sound.

Louis sets about to working on how to perfect the dotty writing and in only a few years has cobbled out a functional way of writing and reading for the blind. And it really did work, as is evidenced by its still being used today. And just to show off, Louis also worked out a musical notation system for the blind. You know, in his spare time.

And I have to include this quote form Louis because it really does show off The Book Owl’s own belief in the important of reading and writing.

He said,

“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

Attitude Problem

By 1833, Louis has moved on from being a student at the Royal Institute to being a teacher there, instructing students in geometry, algebra, and history, while also playing the cello and the organ in churches across France. And you would think his system of writing and reading would have been snatched up and adopted by the Royal Institute without question.

Nope.

See, Hauy died in 1822 and his successor seemed to have the stereotypically French stubbornness against any type of change. He refused to alter any aspect of how the school operated, its course material, and most definitely not how its students would read and write. In fact, this guy was so stubborn, he actually fired another teacher, not Louis, for having a history book translated into braille. Sheesh!

But even though the school refused to adopt it, braille was spreading across France and by the 1880s would be embraced by much of the world. 

Short-Lived Genius

Unfortunately, although brilliant and talented, Louis wasn’t terribly healthy. When he was 40, he’d already been suffering an illness, possibly tuberculosis, for over a decade, and he had to retire. And in 1852, when he was only 43, he died. 

And still by this point, his system wasn’t being used at the Royal Institute. Finally, the students revolted and demanded Louis’s system be incorporated into the curriculum and voila!

And before we jump into some stats about braille today, Louis’s childhood home in Coupvray is now an official historic building that houses the Braille Museum. I’ll have a link in the show notes that has some information about it, if you want to check it out.

There’s also a large monument in his home town honoring him, and in 1953 on the 100th anniversary of his death Louis’s body was given the honor of being moved to the Pantheon in Paris. But, and I don’t know if this is touching or creepy, as a symbolic gesture, they left his hands buried in Coupvray. Yeah, make of that what you will.

So What About Braille Today

Well, I won’t go into all the details, but there has been a long progression of braille typewriters, with the first one being invented in 1892. But the style that really stuck around was developed in 1951 by David Abraham who was a woodworking teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind. It became known as the Perkins Brailler and it was so well-designed that the only real changes to this style of braille writing machine was to make it quieter and more portable.

Because of these writers, braille is more accessible than ever and you’d think it would be widely taught and used and all that. Well, unfortunately, funding for schools means braille is being taught less and less and braille literacy is plummeting, which is really sad because it is such a cool form of writing, and who knows, with as bad as my eyes are, I may need it one day.

So here’s the stats about all this. In 1960 about half of legally blind kids could read braille. And these numbers are for the US. In 2015, that number fell to only 9 percent. And some of this, as I mentioned has to do with schools no longer teaching braille, or teaching it far less. But there’s also the advent of screen readers and text-to-speech technology. 

But some of it also has to do with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which pretty much shut down schools for the blind and said the blind students should be educated in public schools, again, without providing extra resources or funding for that move or giving the students the specialized reading skills they might find handy.

The problem with braille illiteracy is, just like any illiteracy, we see a direct correlation between braille literacy and employment rates among blind people. Even though blind people can read paper or screen text with text-to-speech software, people who only read this way have a high rate of unemployment compared to those who read braille as well. Basically, if you’re blind and you’re braille illiterate, you’re statistically far more likely to be unemployed than a blind person who can read braille.

And of course, as with people who aren’t blind, this unemployment then trickles down to overall health and well-being, and is just no good for anyone. And for those of you who get the book owl podcast newsletter, I’ll toss the actual numbers in your bonus content this time around.

So with that go celebrate these last few days of Braille Literacy Month full of the knowledge that reading is super important but so is teaching people to read in the way that’s going to give them the best jump on life.

Updates

And speaking of reading, it’s time for updates. I know, weird transition. The Undead Mr Tenpenny is now in the hands of a fair number of early reviewers. And let me just say I am nervous! I’m literally having nightmares about this. Which is really crazy because if you asked me six months ago about this book I would have gone on and on about how much I loved it, how fun I thought it was, how much I thought it was going to be one of my best sellers. 

Now, after the last couple of my own read throughs, doubts finally nabbed hold. And they are not letting go! I feel like the writing is just rambling and makes no sense. I feel like all the effort I put in to setting a few things up in this first book, which don’t get explained until the second book, are going to leave readers confused and annoyed, and I’m just a basket case over the whole story, my writing style, and arghhh! And now I have to sit back and wait for the book to get torn apart by these early reviewers…I need wine. Lots of wine.

Outro

Okay my book loving friends, that’s it for this dotty episode. If you enjoyed the show, I’d love it if you shared it with just one other person. Have a great couple weeks, and I will hoot at you next time.

Credits

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2021, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com