by Winifred Downing

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille occurred on January 4, 2009. He was born in Coupvray, a rural town about an hour's drive from Paris. Visitors can see his father's harness shop and the living quarters above it to gain a clear picture of the life of this extraordinary human being.

When young Braille was three years old, he lost his sight as a result of an accident he had playing with his father's tools. He attended the local parochial school but then enrolled in the school for blind children in Paris when he was 10. By the time he was 15, he was already developing the braille system, which has been used ever since and now in every country that has services for blind children. He lived only about 40 years, never saw the wide acceptance of his invention, yet changed the lives of every blind child on earth with his 6-dot system, two dots across and three down. Even blind people who haven't learned braille have benefitted because of the greatly enhanced image that the blindness community enjoys because of the many advantages of using braille.

The Missouri School for the Blind was the first in the United States to adopt the braille system in the late 19th century, but shortly afterward schools and libraries were established and proliferated. In the early 20th century, Great Britain and the United States developed systems of contractions and short forms which diminished the size and thickness of the books and reduced the number of characters for the fingers to recognize. In about 1950, Dr. Abraham Nemeth introduced a mathematics code, enabling blind children to enter more fully into the academic world.

Remarkable and far-reaching as was Braille's system, what it was called upon to express 200 years ago is far different from what is necessary now. Including a blank space, there are just 63 different formations possible in the 6-dot arrangement. When advanced mathematics, computers, and the study of physics and chemistry became part of the academic world, piecemeal additions were made, resulting in four separate codes to master. Since the vast majority of blind children are now mainstreamed, they are expected to be fluent in all the areas available to sighted classmates; and dealing with literary, mathematics, and computers in the first several grades, they encounter such problems as three different dollar signs, two parentheses, two percents, two periods and a decimal point, and other anomalies. Realizing the disincentive to learning braille these problems posed, about 20 years ago, people associated with the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) began working to develop a single code which would represent all the symbols embraced by the four codes then in use.

The Unified Braille Code (UBC) first developed the literary area, and that was quite acceptable even though it involved some changes in what long-time braille readers were accustomed to seeing. Because of some basic concepts initially regarded as central to the project, however, the real difficulty emerged when attempting to express mathematical and technical material. From that point of view, the transcribers and users of braille turned thumbs down on the UBC.

From the very beginning, though, Dr. Nemeth believed he had the plan for a single code; and over the last 12 years, he has worked on it constantly, recently presenting it to BANA where its chair, Judith Dixon, maintains that it should receive a complete analysis. A request that she follow this path was expressed by a resolution passed at the convention of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) in Louisville in 2008. Because almost no one really likes change, and because many of those associated with BANA were so closely involved with the development of the UBC, the task is not widely or willingly embraced. This difficulty, however, is one with which “Forum” readers can assist greatly. Transcribers and users of braille, assured that the Nemeth Uniform Braille System (NUBS) will not require omission of any of the braille characters and usages now included, can express their enthusiasm for change for the benefit of all the blind children of the future should NUBS be accepted. They can do it by writing to Judith Dixon, BANA chair, e-mail [email protected], or leaving a voice message for her at 1-800-424-8567. Readers who may know nothing directly about braille can still express their conviction that a single code (NUBS, if it is deemed appropriate) must be established, to ensure that Louis Braille's original invention will continue to meet the needs of the world's blind children.

As I have studied NUBS over the last 8 years, I have presented workshops at conventions of ACB, the California Council of the Blind, and the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped. After having articles about it appear in braille and taped magazines, I have sent out several hundred sample copies of the literary code and the science code for anyone who wants either or both. For transcribers or other sighted people interested in braille, the materials are available in print. The offer still stands. Please contact me, Winifred Downing, at 1587 38th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94122; phone (415) 564-5798, or e-mail [email protected]

Let's have this 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth also be the birth of a single code based on his system and extended to meet the needs of blind children in the 21st century!

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