Here we are in 2009 and it is now time for me to ensure that I keep this blog fresh and up to date, keeping you all informed on issues of concern to blind people in New Zealand and what the Association of Blind Citizens is up to. I will try to update the blog at least every week or fortnight.

Here we are in 2009 and it is now time for me to ensure that I keep this blog fresh and up to date, keeping you all informed on issues of concern to blind people in New Zealand and what the Association of Blind Citizens is up to. I will try to update the blog at least every week or fortnight.

Sometimes the blog will be rather personal, and that is the case this time. For me, this year began with a personal trip to Paris to share in the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. New Zealand was actually very well represented by something like eleven people, with a number of us paying our own way just to be there.

So why was this so important? Because prior to the invention of the braille method of reading and writing, blind people were essentially illiterate and generally unable to be educated. Even Louis Braille himself, when he as a small child was allowed to attend his local school in Coupvray, was denied the opportunity to move out of the first grade because he could not learn to read and write. Various attempts had been made in different countries to come up with a system for blind people to read and write. Some books were made where the printed letters were produced in a tactile form that could be read, even if laboriously, and one system of reading and writing even involved tying knots in string. But in the end, only the system invented by Louis Braille succeeded, primarily because it was the fastest for reading and also because it gave blind people the ability to write efficiently. The essence of literacy is perhaps the ability to quickly write down one’s thoughts and ideas so they can be readily retrieved and built on. It was a pity however that his system only became well established long after his death.

The braille system for reading and writing is deeply significant for people like me who use it, but it has wider significance for blind people because it was critical to the idea that blind people could be educated at all. Nowadays we pretty much take it for granted that we have the right to education, and some of us probably don’t care much about how this came about. But for me, I saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect with the past and to understand something about the man who in his own lifetime could not have foreseen the difference his invention would make. It was particularly moving to visit the relatively modest Braille family home in Coupvray, and picture the life that Louis would have had as a young blind child growing up in that village. I reflected on how the various circumstances of the time came together to give Louis the very idea that led to his invention.

In today’s technological world, there is a lot of debate about the very relevance of braille, even amongst blind people. It is easy to understand how, 200 years ago, without a system like braille, blind people were illiterate. But is it fair to conclude that blind people today who don’t know braille are illiterate? Nowadays we can use computers and other equipment to store and retrieve personal information, which gives us what some would consider to be a form of literacy. There is no doubt that a blind person today with good keyboard and computer skills can go a very long way in life without knowing any braille at all. Given this, and also that some blind people are simply unable to learn braille because their fingers for a host of reasons may just be damaged, it is easy to see how some blind people view braille users as elitist, particularly when we might sometimes be evangelical about it.

I personally want to avoid evangelising about braille, but I still ask myself what is it about braille that is so significant, even in today’s world? I answer the question this way. Mankind invented writing many thousands of years ago. The ability to write down thoughts and ideas, whether on the walls of caves, on parchment or on paper, is inherently linked with the very development of language and communication. This is the very foundation of modern society, the essence of what separates mankind from other animals. Despite today’s technology, the humble book and pen and paper are still as ubiquitous as ever. So if sighted people aren’t trading their books and pens for computers that you can talk to and which can talk back to you, then what does that tell us about reading and writing? Whatever literacy means to us today, there is clearly still something very fundamental in the way our brains can directly connect to the written word without any intervening technology. The most recent example of this is the braille signs that have been in our taxis since October. Now when I get into a taxi, I can instantly and almost subconsciously read the braille sign on the door that tells me the taxi number, etc. Sure, we could have developed a technology to do that; I could bring out my hand-held reader and an RFID tag in the car would give me all the information I could ever want to know about the taxi. But for years of course there has been a visual sign in taxis to tell sighted people this information, and I don’t see society in general wanting to change that in favour of a newfangled technology to do the same thing.

I can understand that some blind people will choose not to learn braille and people can live very happy and successful lives without it. But as long as mankind is turned on by the direct connection with the written word without intervening technology, it seems to me that braille will have a unique status for blind people. Print is inaccessible to us. Braille is our form of writing. Call us elitist if you like, but we are no more elitist than the millions of sighted people who read and write print and who wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess if Louis hadn’t invented the system of writing that bares his name, someone else would have. But he did, and we thank him sincerely for that gift. At the time, it was the gift of true literacy. Whether that is the case today is a matter of sometimes strongly held opinion. But whatever term we can come up with to encapsulate that essential connection between the brain and the written word, that is the essence of what braille is for blind people, and there is no alternative. That is why we must ensure that braille remains the fundamental tool of reading and writing for blind people, and that all blind people have the chance to learn to read and write.