The Big Question: Why is Braille under threat, and would it really matter if it died out?

Why are we asking this now?

This week marks the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth on 4 January 1809. He was the inventor of the embossed system of type that is now used for reading and writing by blind and partially sighted people all over the world. Texts from almost every known language have been translated into Braille from Albanian to Zulu.

So what is the problem?

Braille is under threat from new technologies such as voice recognition and talking computers that can "read" text. It is not being taught widely in schools, is not popular with parents of blind children, and social services departments often do not have the budget to help adults learn. It is feared that, without a campaign to save it, Braille could become redundant.

Why does this matter?

The more blind you are, and the longer you have been blind, the more essential it is. Experts liken the invention of Braille for the blind to the invention of the printing press for the sighted. Although computers and the internet are now the tools of choice for millions of sighted readers, none has yet dispensed with pen and paper. Of 500,000 people in the UK who are registered (or registrable) as blind, around 50,000 have no alternative to Braille, ie their sight is so bad that they cannot manage with large-print books. Of these an estimated 18,000 are current users of Braille

When did Louis Braille invent it?

In the 1820s, when he was just 15. The young Louis went partially blind after injuring an eye while playing with tools in his father's workshop. Later the second eye became infected from the first and he suffered total loss of sight. His father worked as the village saddler and the family lived in the small town of Coupvray, near Paris. They were not well off but a local landowner recognised that Louis was intelligent and arranged a scholarship for him to attend one of the first schools for the blind in the world, The National Institute for the Blind in Paris.

Where did Braille get the idea from?

In 1821, while he was a pupil at the school, he attended a lecture by Charles Barbier, a captain in Napoleon's army, who demonstrated his system of "night-writing". Relying on touch, it used a coded system of raised dots to send and receive messages at night without speaking or using light. It was developed at Napoleon's behest. He wanted a way for his soldiers to communicate without alerting the enemy.

What was wrong with 'night-writing'?

It was too complicated for soldiers to learn and was rejected by the military. But Louis quickly realised its potential for the blind. The major failing was that it was not possible to encompass the whole symbol without moving the finger, so it was impossible to move rapidly from one symbol to the next. Louis set about refining it into the now familiar system of pinpricks, using six dots to represent the alphabet.

How does it work?

The six dots are arranged in two columns of three each, which may be raised or flat, giving 63 combinations, which are used to represent the letters of the alphabet and punctuation. Braille is read by passing the fingers over each character – a key benefit being that each character can be read using a single finger tip without re-positioning.

More advanced Braille, employed by experienced users, is a form of shorthand where groups of letters are combined into a single symbol. With both hands a Braille reader can read 115 words a minute compared with an average 250 words a minute for a sighted reader.

What is its main drawback?

That it is difficult for the sighted to use it. This is why, for almost its entire history, it has been under threat. There has always been a technological development just around the corner that would make it redundant. When Louis Braille died in 1852, aged 43, his invention would have been lost but for the determination of a British doctor, Thomas Armitage, who with a group of four blind men founded the British and Foreign Society for Improving Embossed Literature for the Blind. The organisation later became the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

Is Braille becoming more widespread?

Yes. Although books are available in audio form, there is no alternative to Braille for the blind who want to read a menu, sing a carol, write a phone number down or make a speech. Driven by anti-discrimination legislation, large organisations are increasingly recognising the need to provide Braille translations in lifts, on menus, in hotel rooms and for bank statements.

What about in schools?

Blind children are increasingly integrated into mainstream schools which is better for their development than to be isolated in schools for the blind. But the expertise present in schools for the blind has not always been transferred with them. In addition, some parents oppose the teaching of Braille to their children because reading with the hands looks strange and they fear their children will be stigmatised. Many prefer them to use large-print books because even though they may struggle they will at least look "normal".

Who is the most famous user of Braille?

The best known is probably former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett. He described to the BBC yesterday the difficulty of learning Braille as a child in the 1950s – which in those days had to be written from right to left so that when the paper through which the holes were punched was turned over it read conventionally from left to right. Despite the difficulties he said it was a "liberator" which ultimately led him to one of the highest offices in the land. Today he faces a new challenge – finger ends burnt by cooking and damaged by rough use in the garden have lost their sensitivity. "But I still plough on," he said,

Did it help his speeches?

He believes it did – by forcing him to extemporise from notes rather than reading a written version. He admits that he found reading statements from the Despatch box a trial because they had to be delivered verbatim – but making a speech was a different matter. Braille helped him master the art of oratory.

Was Louis Braille honoured for his invention?

Not until 100 years after his death. He spent his life in the Institute, teaching Braille to students and translating books. But when he died – of tuberculosis contracted in his twenties, probably aggravated by poor and damp living conditions – he had no idea it would one day be used worldwide. In 1952, his achievement was finally recognised, his body was exhumed by the French government and re-buried in the Pantheon in Paris, and he has since been celebrated as a hero for all blind people.

Is it vital that Braille be kept alive?


* It is an irreplaceable means of communication for people who are totally blind

* There are almost 50,000 people in Britain who have no alternative to Braille, and many more worldwide

* For reading a menu, operating a lift, finding where things are in a hotel room, there is no alternative


* It cannot be used to communicate with, and is not understood by, most sighted people

* Computers are getting better at translating the spoken word into text and vice versa

* Parents are worried that children who read with their fingers may be stigmatised

Watch author Ian Rankin discuss the campaign to save the Scottish Braille Press

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
newsJohn Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Bey can do it: Beyoncé re-enacts Rosie the Riveter's pose
newsRosie the Riveter started out as an American wartime poster girl and has become a feminist pin-up. With Beyoncé channeling her look, Gillian Orr tells her story
Life and Style
Donna and Paul Wheatley at their wedding
healthShould emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit