In 1824, Louis Braille, a young blind student in France, created a system of tactile communication that would forever change how the visually impaired learn to read, write, learn and communicate.
Almost 200 years ago, Braille invented the raised alphabet that bears his name and every year, on his birthday of January 4, Braille’s innovation and contribution to the visually impaired is honored during “World Braille Day.”
Braille is a tactile alphabet system of six dots in a small grid featuring letters, numbers and symbols for most of the world’s languages. The importance of Braille as an essential guide to millions of visually impaired people around the world can’t be understated. Braille allows visually impaired persons to study literature and learn alongside their sighted peers.
Louis Braille invented the tactile alphabet as a 15-year-old student at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. Braille wanted the opportunity to read books like his sighted peers, so this young student created a system of raised dots that would be simple to learn, replicate and use.
After losing her sight as a young adult, Judith Rasmussen has experienced the significance of using Braille in her everyday life. Rasmussen, Program Assistant for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, converts publications with Duxbury software, which converts print into Braille by inserting proper coding. The computer software then allows Braille to be printed on an embosser.
For work and everyday tasks, Rasmussen also uses a Perkins Brailler and a slate and stylus. A Perkins Brailler is a Braille typewriter, while a slate and stylus is a manual system designed to emboss raised, tactile bumps or dots onto paper.
“It depends on what I’m doing and where I am. If I’m at my office and want to write down an appointment date and time for a client, I write on an index card with a slate and stylus and also keep my addresses and phone numbers written on index cards with it too,” Rasmussen said. “At home I use a Perkins Brailler for writing out recipes, banking info and things like that.”
Rasmussen is preparing for changes to Braille communication coming soon.
“How you (format) emails and websites is going to change with the new Unified English Braille system that will go into effect (this year),” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen converts publications into Braille in a process that takes several hours, depending on the length of the publication. For instance, converting the Council Courier newsletter takes at least 20 hours of work to complete each issue.
“It’s a multistep process,” Rasmussen said. “But it depends on how long the document is and how many copies need to go out.”
Rasmussen said Braille has given her the freedom to enjoy her favorite publications without having to listen to them in audio form.
“I find it very pleasing to be able to read something myself,” Rasmussen said. “I was a language major in college, so when I first lost my sight and was listening to things, I wondered where do the paragraphs end? Where is the punctuation for things? I wasn’t sure. It’s very nice to actually be able to read something myself, see the words with my fingers; know the geography of the text based on where the words and punctuation are. Plus, I don’t always like to be tied to technology all the time with listening devices.”
Braille has also been vital to Rasmussen’s writing ability.
“I can easily write down somebody’s phone number and take notes and if I didn’t know Braille, I wouldn’t be able to do that,” Rasmussen said.
After spending years studying foreign languages at both UW-Whitewater and UW-Madison, Rasmussen realizes the value of proper communication in multiple forms.
“When you’re reading something yourself, you’re actually learning something about the language, whereas if you’re just hearing it all the time, I think people are making mistakes in everyday grammar,” Rasmussen said. “Language is an important tool in communication.”