January is Braille Literacy Awareness Month, in honor of Louis Braille who originally developed the Braille code. Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809 and this year marks the 209th anniversary of his birthday!
Braille developed his code of raised dots while a student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. Louis Braille had seen a system of writing, called Night Writing developed by Charles Barbier for French soldiers that was very complicated. Braille simplified it, and created a system using raised dots within a six dot cell for each alphabetic character. These cells and raised dots are read by touch.
Although only a few books were translated into braille before his death in 1852, by 1860 the Missouri School for the Blind had adopted braille, and in 1870 the Royal National Institute for the Blind chose braille for students in Britain who were blind or visually impaired.
Today, of course braille is widely used by readers who are blind or visually impaired. Braille is taught in schools by Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) and to adults by Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (VRTs). However, according to a 2009 report by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), braille literacy among the nearly 1.3 million Americans who are blind has declined dramatically from the 1950’s when 50% of students who were blind or visually impaired learned braille, to only 10% today. This report cites several factors for this decline, including a shortage of teachers, the higher costs of producing braille texts, and increased reliance on text-to-speech technology.
Braille literacy is even more important today, because electronic braille displays can be used with computers, smartphones, and tablets, and Braille is positively linked to employment and higher education. In addition, several devices, including the Orbit Reader 20 (http://www.aph.org/orbit-reader-20/), are driving down the cost of electronic braille displays to below $500, making them more affordable to a wider range of readers.