Around the Globe in Six Dots
Braille Celebrations Take Center Stage in 2009
by Sara Bennett
Brampton, Ontario, Canada

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the inventor of the tactile communication system for people who are blind, and commemorative events are taking place, or have already taken place, on nearly every continent.

In Paris, France, and nearby Coupvray, where Louis Braille was born, the National Institute for the Young Blind and the Valentin Hauy Association planned to host an international conference, "Braille 1809-2009: Writing with Six Dots and Its Future," from January 4-8, 2009, with 300 delegates and 55 speakers, representing 26 countries, expected to attend.

January 4's agenda (Louis Braille's birthday) included a commemorative mass in the chapel of the National Institute for the Young Blind, where Braille studied, taught and developed his code, a wreath-laying at his tomb in the Pantheon, and an organ recital at Notre-Dame-de-Paris Cathedral. Scheduled events for January 5-8 included plenary sessions titled "Louis Braille and His Time," "Braille in Various Languages," and "Braille in the Context of New Technologies," with optional sessions on music/math/information technology, code unification, users' perspectives, social integration/employment, and children's books/games. The inauguration of the Valentin Hauy Association's new media library, a Louis Braille historical exhibition, and a visit to his Coupvray home were other scheduled activities. The conference coincided with the publication, by Editions du Patrimoine, of a French translation of LOUIS BRAILLE: A TOUCH OF GENIUS or LOUIS BRAILLE: LE GENIE AU BOUT DES DOIGTS, and author, C. Michael Mellor, was a featured speaker during the "Louis Braille and His Time" plenary session. Mellor was also available for book signings.

According to an interview with Vincent Michel, president of the International Committee for the Celebration of Louis Braille's Bicentenary, found on the  Swiss Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired's Web site  (www.sbv-fsa.ch), Coupvray will also see VI 2009, June 18-20, a convention on what it means to be blind today, featuring personal testimonies from around the world, and sessions on social inclusion through education/employment and access to culture/media. A mobile exhibition on braille will travel throughout France, to European capitals, and perhaps to the Southern Mediterranean.

Elsewhere in Europe, Scotland was due to see its first National Braille Week, January 4-10, to kick off a series of events sponsored by Royal Blind, including the launch of an interactive  Web site  (www.nationalbrailleweek.org) featuring braille games and trivia, and the opportunity to send braille messages to friends.

Sightsavers International is also headquartered in the United Kingdom. Rachel Heald, press officer for Sightsavers, said, "We are focusing on stories about the ways in which braille has changed lives, like a program officer in our South India office who started learning braille at age 4 and doesn't know where he'd be without it, having used it to attain a master's in political science and also to learn four languages. Despite technological developments, he feels learning braille is still an essential skill for anyone who is blind."

In South Africa, from January 4 onward, braille users, blindness-related organizations, schools, libraries, religious groups and companies will all be celebrating Braille's birthday through the re-issuing of a commemorative stamp, exhibitions, media promotions, the launch of both the Afrikaans version of LOUIS BRAILLE: A TOUCH OF GENIUS and the first domestically-produced large print/braille recipe book, and an Amazing Race with blind team leaders and braille clues, according to Marieta van Royen, National Coordinator of the South African Louis Braille Bicentenary Planning Committee.

In India, on January 4, 2008, the Blind Persons' Association opened a library, housing braille, cassette and print materials, in advance of Braille's 2009 bicentenary. Through a series of programs and exhibits, it hopes to educate society about Louis Braille and his code. The All India Confederation of the Blind reported other events in the nation, or in Asia as a whole, including a national poster competition, braille essay contest (with topics like how to pay tribute to Louis Braille and what one would do as Secretary General of the United Nations from a disabled person's perspective), and a conference on the status of braille in the Asian region (with sessions like student braille literacy rates, textbook availability, and promoting braille among government/schools/blindness organizations).

In Australia, a book of interviews with braille users is being published by Australian Braille Literacy Action to recognize the inventor's legacy. And a group of 20 or so blind and sighted people planned to spend seven hours writing a six-word braille message in a Sydney beach's sand, each dot being a sand dune about 18 inches wide and high. A sunrise concert, French breakfast (croissants and champagne), tributes to Louis Braille, and the throwing of bottles containing print/braille messages into the water SOS-style were expected to round out the festivities. Aerial shots of the sand message and live streaming of activities were planned for TV and the Internet. For information, visit  www.e-bility.com/disability-news/louis-braille-200.php . Meanwhile, neighboring New Zealand will have a South Auckland street named Louis Braille Lane, complete with print and visual braille dots, says Caitlin Sinclair, the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind's communications coordinator.
Canada's CNIB Library will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth at its annual braille conference in Toronto in the fall of 2009. Though details are yet to be finalized for this event, 2008's edition, "Keeping Up with Print: A Braille Challenge," included two commemorative activities. Besides workshops on print/braille books, braille literacy and transitioning, adaptive teaching strategies, product/service update and code changes, a role-played interview with Louis Braille and the debut performance of a song in Louis Braille's honor by Terry Kelly, a singer, motivational speaker and member of Braille 200, the committee overseeing 2009 celebrations (www.braille200.ca), were also planned. For a week in January, VoicePrint Canada, a division of the National Broadcast Reading Service, intended to air special programming. And the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians' chapters planned to visit schools, colleges and malls in January with print/braille posters, fun braille exercises for the public, and offers to braille out the names of passersby.

In the United States, the first U.S. readable braille coin, the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar, available spring 2009, was unveiled at the National Federation of the Blind's convention in Dallas, in July 2008. The U.S. Mint will produce 400,000 coins, depicting Louis Braille and the word "Liberty" on one side, and a schoolboy reading a braille book, a white cane on his arm, with the words "independence" and "Braille" on the other. A $10 surcharge will help NFB fund braille literacy programs. Also due out in the spring is the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired's AER Report, highlighting the milestone. And the Hadley School for the Blind was to throw Louis Braille a happy 200th birthday party.

According to Adrianna Montague-Gray, Senior Media Relations and Interactive Marketing Manager, the American Foundation for the Blind plans to create a Louis Braille section on its Web site ( www.afb.org ), add new "Louis Braille" pages/games to the Braille Bug ( www.afb.org/braillebug/ ), and digitize a book by Louis Braille in French and English, NEW WRITING PROCESS FOR THE BLIND (NOUVEAU PROCDE POUR REPRESENTER PAR DES POINTS).

Finally, National Braille Press (888) 965-8965 or  www.braille.com ) is selling mementos of the Bicentenary, such as lapel pins, note cards, wall posters, print/braille bookmarks, keychains and plaques. And as publisher of LOUIS BRAILLE: A TOUCH OF GENIUS, NBP has created the Louis Braille Bicentennial Traveling Exhibit, taking images and text from the biography to libraries, schools, museums, corporations and non-profit organizations throughout 2009, with Mellor scheduled to appear in San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, New York, and at the Hadley School for the Blind in Illinois.

After reading LOUIS BRAILLE: A TOUCH OF GENIUS and interviewing its author, I discovered that both men, Braille and Mellor respectively, showed great passion and determination in developing the effective communication system and in completing the biography.

Mellor, who holds a master's degree in the history of science and who worked in the blindness field for 25 years, including as editor of both the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness and the Matilda Ziegler magazine, saw his book published in 2006, some eight years after he first saw the inventor's personal correspondence in Paris, and he says his appreciation of the braille code, academic background and knowledge of French are what helped to fuel and sustain his passion and interest in the man who created, tested, revised and finalized the braille code. At the time of this writing, Mellor's biography had sold 815 hardcopy braille books, 86 electronic versions and 2,450 print copies. When asked to share his thoughts about braille, he replied: "I have always been very interested in codes, and when I came upon braille in my work, I was really impressed by how clever, yet simple, it was to produce. Simplicity is usually very difficult!" And what were his thoughts on the inventor? "I was utterly astonished to discover that, with a friend, Louis Braille actually invented the dot matrix printer--though it was not known by that name. While I imagine most blind people think of him as being a literary type, Braille's orientation was in fact toward science. He wrote a booklet about teaching math to blind children, and among his possessions were 'scientific instruments,' though unfortunately we do not know what they were. And I did not previously know that he was an accomplished musician--on organ, cello and piano. I think the most interesting thing I learned about Louis Braille was that he was highly intelligent, yet completely lacking in arrogance or pride. He never bragged about his achievements." For information on upcoming bicentenary events around the world and links to participating organizations, visit:  www.LouisBrailleBicentennial.com 

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