Friday, January 02, 2009

braille is awesome

Few inventions have been as simple yet liberating as Braille. To mark the 200th birthday of its inventor Louis Braille, former British home secretary David Blunkett explains how it shaped his life by providing him from an early age with a window on the world.

Picture a little boy of four. He arrives at school - boarding school - for the first time. Worried, sometimes even frightened, but determined not to cry.

Picture then a little boy with a contraption in front of him on his desk the following morning. A stylus (to him, a pin with a wooden knob on the top) in which he's expected not only to press downwards to make what he considers to be a "hole" in thick paper, but the daunting prospect of being told that he's going to operate from right to left.

The reason why it was necessary to write from right to left was that, in those days, without the sophistication firstly of mechanical and then of electronic Braille production, the dots had to be pressed downwards and, when turned over, would provide a mirror image.

It was therefore not only necessary to write from right to left, but also to reverse the actual letters so that with the exception of letters like A and C, other parts of the alphabet had to be reversed. D had to be written as an F. In Braille, this is exactly the mirror image - and therefore came out on the opposite side exactly as you'd read it left to right. If all this sounds complicated, it damn well was! Thankfully, new systems were developed as I went through the education system which allowed the production to be bottom-up (with the dots punctured upwards from left to right, immediately readable by the user).

Despite all its difficulties in those early days, this system was nevertheless a liberator for me and hundreds of thousands of blind men and women like me.

Invented by Louis Braille at the age of 15, the idea came from a soldier who had served in the Napoleonic army in Poland and had attempted to devise a system that could, with night-time manoeuvres, allow messages to be sent and instructions to be passed from hand to hand.

It didn't work, because the system was too complex and the soldiers didn't get it. Not surprisingly, because to read Braille without being able to see you need to develop sensitive finger ends.

Finger ends which, unlike mine, need to be protected from burns developed whilst cooking, or rough handling of gardening implements and the like. My fingers have developed what in a sighted person might be called "cataracts", but I still plough on.

Art of oratory

All those years ago, Louis Braille decided that it was crucial that he should be able to read and, above all, to be able to write down his thoughts.

Two hundred years later, when chairing a meeting it is vital that I have an agenda on my own that I can refer to without reference to someone else. It is vital that I have notes even when I shy away from actually reading speeches verbatim.

It's no secret that I found reading statements at the Despatch Box in the Commons a trial. Statements have to be read verbatim because the print version has been handed out, whereas of course speeches are an entirely different matter and much more up my street - as, of course, with answering questions.

With a set of notes you can make a speech having learnt the art of oratory at a very early age. In fact it's probably a question of cause and effect. My own development of oratory came from the fact that by using notes I could overcome the difficulty of not being able quite so fluently as I would wish to skim over a written page of Braille - for Braille doesn't have the opportunity to provide highlights.

You can't simply write Braille in large form so that as with print you can "catch your eye" on something that it is absolutely vital to deliver or to emphasise. Underlining is possible, but more out of technical form than in terms of being able to quickly highlight what needs to be referred to and at what point.

Therefore, for me, Braille has been a method of ensuring that I can work on equal terms, using my own initiative and doing it in my own way.

For others, it has been an absolutely vital way of ensuring private correspondence and, with more recent developments, being able to demand bank statements which allow privacy rather than relying on someone else to read them (perhaps a neighbour) at a time when confidentiality could be crucial.

In the future, so many of the public forms and communications we receive could easily be put in Braille by the use of computer software and the transcription equipment now readily available to public authorities.

My staff use exactly such software, along with Braille embossers, in order to be able to produce material for me on a regular basis.

So, as we celebrate the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, we lift a glass at the New Year to thank him for the ingenuity, the confidence and the determination that ensured that others like him sought and gained independence, equality and dignity.

Whilst doing so, we should recognise the critical role of organisations working with and on behalf of blind people, such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind here in the UK, whose support and resource base is crucial to making this old invention come alive in imaginatively new ways.

The year 2009 will indeed, here and across the world, be a chance to recognise this form of communication as an essential liberator, a window on the world for children reading their books (under their bedcovers, as I did), or adults being able to go about their business with confidence - and with the certainty that very few other people will be able to read their secrets.

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