Louis Braille’s invention of a tactile six-dot reading and writing system enabled blind and visually handicapped people throughout the world to read and write as well as sighted people. Helen Keller, the renowned author, political activist and lecturer, once said, "We the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg. Without a dot system, what a chaotic, inadequate affair our education would be!"
The Library of Congress commemorates the 200th anniversary of Braille’s birth with "Louis Braille: His Legacy and Influence." The exhibition can be viewed online.
The 25 exhibit items include description labels in braille as well as print. Some items on display are a 1951 Perkins Brailler, which is a braille typewriter; a 1954 braille edition of Scrabble; a tactile watch; a 1955 braille edition of "Good Morning, America" by Carl Sandburg; braille music transcription; a photo of the Library of Congress Reading Room for the Blind, circa 1902; and the commemorative 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar.
Born Jan. 4, 1809, in Coupvray, France, Braille lost his sight at age 3 as a result of an injury. Educated at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Braille was recognized as highly intelligent and creative. By age 15, he had developed the initial version of a tactile system for reading and writing—later refined to a raised, six-dot cell with 64 possible combinations corresponding to the alphabet, punctuation and key symbols. He later devised braille systems for music and mathematics.
Braille, a talented cellist and organist, became a well-respected teacher at the Institute. He died at age 43 in 1852 from tuberculosis. His raised-dot reading system had not been taught at the Institute, and Braille died unaware of the success of his invention. The braille system started to be taught two years after his death, and in 1868 it spread worldwide. Today there are approximately 85 braille systems in the world based on Braille’s invention.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which curated the exhibition, administers the free program that lends materials to residents of the United States who are unable to read or use standard print materials because of visual or physical handicaps. These materials include braille and recorded books and magazines, music scores in braille and large print and specifically designed playback equipment.
Although Helen Keller is certainly one of the most admired figures in American history, few are aware of her predecessor, Laura Bridgman, also a deaf-blind individual. This article in the October 2001 issue of the Library of Congress Bulletin highlights her legacy.
The Library is also home to the Alexander Graham Bell Family papers. A long-time teacher and advocate of the deaf, the prolific inventor was instrumental in facilitating Keller’s education with Annie Sullivan, the innovative teacher who taught the young deaf and blind girl to communicate.