Louis Braille’s Vision

 By Ginny A. Roth

Blind man reading a braille book

Man Reading a Braille Book, 1938
National Library of Medicine #A023326

This 1938 photograph taken by Roy Perry features a man who is blind reading a braille book at the New York Association of the Blind. We feature this photograph to coincide with National Braille Literacy Month, which occurs every January in honor of the birth of Louis Braille born January 4, 1809.

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a town in north central France. He was blinded at the age of three when he accidentally poked himself in the eye with his father’s stitching awl. The infection that ensued spread to his other eye and by the age of 5 he was completely blind.  Despite his disability, the creative and intelligent Braille attended school and learned as much as he could by listening to his teachers.  At the age of ten he attended the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, the world’s first school for children who were blind.  Increasingly frustrated that the only books available to him contained letters in raised-print, Braille adapted night writing or sonography, an embossed 12-dot system devised by Charles Barbier for French soldiers to communicate with one another without sound, to a less cumbersome system that individuals who were visually impaired could use for reading and writing.  This improved system, which would become universally known as braille, was simplified to a 6-dot system where each braille cell consisted of two parallel lines of 3 dots each.  Individuals who were visually impaired could read by passing their fingers over the raised dots, each cell representing a letter, a number, a punctuation mark, or a whole word.

Louis Braille published the first-ever book about braille in 1829.  Since then, braille has been adapted to almost every known language, and continues to evolve with the advent of new technologies.

For an example of a book using raised-print for individuals who were blind or visually impaired,  see The Life of Philip Melancthon in the History of Medicine Division’s historical collections.

portrait of Ginny outside Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.