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What do you do when you perceive a problem that needs solving?
As a teenager in 19th Century France, this #HistoryHero invented a new language that helped to empower millions of people just like him.
His name was Louis Braille. He was born with sight in the humble French village of Coupvray in 1809. His father was a harness-maker and as a toddler, Louis learned to help in his dad’s workshop. When he was just three, tragedy struck. Louis was hit in the eye with a sharp awl, and the injury became infected. By the age of five, Louis was completely blind.
He was intelligent and naturally driven to excel, and so learned to live with his disability. His father made him two canes to walk with, and he taught himself to navigate country paths around his village by memory. He wanted to learn like all the other boys. But there was no place for a boy like him in school.
Louis’ struggle to learn impressed the local priest, who recommended that Louis move to Paris to attend the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, the only special school for the blind -- in the world. At the age of ten, Louis left the only home he knew for a chance to obtain an education.
The Institute for Blind Youth was a small, cramped school, which until 1816 had been housed in a former prison. Students were only allowed to bathe once a month, and even simple mistakes were punished by a day without food. The children were taught to read using oversized books with raised letters that had to be traced one at a time. The system was slow and cumbersome and so expensive the institute could only afford three books. This frustrated Louis terribly.
There had to be a better way!
Then, in 1821, when Louis was 12, a soldier named Charles Barbier visited the institute. Years earlier, Barbier had designed a system of “night reading” for Napoleon Bonaparte and his soldiers. They used "night reading" to exchange simple coded messages under dark of night by feeling a series of twelve different kinds of bumps and dashes with the tips of their fingers. Remember, this was before the era of electricity. And you dare not light a candle for fear of tipping off the enemy. Then what would be the point of a coded message?
Barbier’s system turned out to be too complicated for Napoleon's men. But in it, Louis's mind's eye saw opportunity!
Louis worked on his new reading system tirelessly for three years. He reduced the number of bumps from twelve to six; he made the symbols for letters small enough that they could be identified instantly by the touch of a finger. Instead of tracing letters, the braille system made it possible for those without sight to read more swiftly and naturally, as a sighted person one. Not one letter at a time.
Louis designed his system using an awl, the same tool that had blinded him as a boy. In 1824, at the age of 15, his creation was tested and ready to launch. A teenager had just invented a language -- history's first written language for the blind.
Louis Braille died of tuberculosis at the age of 43. He'd spent his entire life in Paris as a teacher to young blind people.
After his death, the Braille system was adopted worldwide, allowing more schools for the blind to open around the globe. Louis Braille unlocked the power of reading and education for blind men and women everywhere. Because he was unwilling to let his disability get the better of him, Louis Braille’s six dots empowered blind people like Helen Keller to attend school and pursue careers and contribute to society.
In 1952, 100 years after Braille's death, blind delegates from forty nations met in France. They came to participate in one of the greatest honors of the French nation: reburial in the Panthéon. Only the most revered men and women of France are laid to rest there. Now Braille would join them. His body had been retrieved from the village graveyard where he'd passed away in 1852. With the President of France helping to carry the coffin, the delegation of the blind escorted Louis Braille's body to this most noble resting place. He remains there to this day. His tomb is forever festooned in flowers.
Helen Keller, the famous deaf and blind advocate for the disabled, was there to speak. “We the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg,” Keller claimed, invoking the inventor of the printing press without whom the book may never have been created. “Like a magic wand, the six dots of Louis Braille" gave blind people everywhere "the means of expression that assure our independence."
The braille language proved that blind people could learn and contribute to society despite their disability, a powerful legacy that transformed millions of lives in the twentieth century. That's why Louis Braille is a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. The next time you perceive a problem that needs fixing, think of the humble teenager without sight that invented a language.