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World Braille Day

World Braille Day is celebrated on 4th January which is Louis Braille’s birthday. Opening up the world of books and reading to those affected by visual impairment and sight loss is truly a gift. Do we take this pleasure for granted Perhaps? It is hard to imagine a life without the ability to read. For those with sight loss the world must be a strange and challenging place.

Louis Braille was a small boy living near Paris when he was forced to face such a challenge. At the age of just 3 he was accidentally stabbed in the eye while playing in his father’s harness workshop. A resulting infection led to his complete sight loss by the age of 5. Quite a traumatic start in life for young Louis. But Louis won a Scholarship to the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris when he was 10 years old. He became an accomplished musician and organist while at school, and he also taught at the school from 1826. However, it was at the age of 15 that he developed the 6-dot code system that is known today as braille.

The latest worldwide eye health data tells us that 43 million people globally are living with blindness, and 295 million are living with moderate to severe visual impairment. It is estimated that in around half of these cases sight impairment could have been prevented or has yet to be addressed. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3.8 is Universal Health Coverage. In 2019 the World Health Organisation recommended that “integrated, people-centred eye care” should be the care model of choice and committed to ensuring its widespread implementation.

Braille is not a language; it is a tactile alphabet that can be used to write in almost any language. Sadly, Louis Braille did not live long enough to see the development and widespread use of his invention: he died of TB at the young age of 43. Two years later in 1854 his school adopted the braille system, but it was not until 1932 that the universal braille code was adopted for the English-speaking world. Today the largest collection of braille books in Europe can be found in Peterborough in England with over 25,000 books.

Soroptimist clubs throughout the world carry out project work to support those with visual impairment. In Perth, Scotland, club members have and continue to make sensory books for visually impaired children. These range from story books to stimulate the child’s imagination; books that teach skills such as doing up buttons, laces, and zips; educational books about shapes; and books about numbers with braille titles.

Louis would have been amazed to see the worldwide use of the system he devised at the tender age of 15. Perhaps if you have recently received a gift of a book, as you open it you will think of the pleasure that books and reading can bring to so many across the world, and the gift that Louis has given to so many who otherwise may not have been able to share this pleasure.

Pat Stewart
SI Aberdeen