Have We Had It Wrong All These Years?

By Judy Dixon

Even those braille readers with only a passing familiarity with the history of braille will almost certainly have heard that a soldier came to Louis Braille’s school and showed the students examples of “night writing,” a system of dots that had been developed allowing the military to communicate at night. Louis was inspired by these dots and created a system of writing for blind people that is now used worldwide for reading hundreds of languages by touch.

But is this true? A recent article in the Spring 2021 issue of the Disability Studies Quarterly published by the Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society of Disability Studies entitled Charles Barbier: A hidden story by Philippa Campsie paints a very different picture. After examining original correspondence and primary source documents, she concludes that “(1) the method that inspired Louis Braille was never intended for the military but was specifically designed for blind people; (2) Barbier did not demonstrate it at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (IRJA); (3) it was not used at the school in a phonetic version; and (4) Barbier and Braille met only after Braille had published his own system.” For those of us who have closely studied the history of braille, these revelations are shocking.

Campsie examines the books written about Louis Braille and his invention and traces where our long-held notions originated. She uses a collection of Barbier’s papers donated in 2001 to the museum at Association Valentin Haüy in Paris and some of Barbier’s writings now available as Google books to piece together a more accurate timeline.

She tells us that Barbier was a captain in the French army for only two days in May of 1792; he moved to the United States in September of 1792, first living in Baltimore then moving to Kentucky in 1795. He returned to France in the early 1800s and published several documents about shorthand systems.

In 1815, he published a book describing a writing system called Point Writing that could be represented with dots. This twelve-dot system was based on a 5-by-5 grid of letters. He proposed two forms of this system, one phonetic and one using the traditional French alphabet. He specifically mentions blind people as those who might benefit. He sent his system to IRJA in 1815 but the idea was rejected by its director. In 1821, Barbier again sent information about his method to the school’s new director. This time, the director had someone become familiar with the system and the students began using the alphabetical version of it.

She says there is no evidence that Louis Braille met Barbier until 1833 when Barbier learned of Braille’s system. Braille had published a description of his writing system four years earlier. After that, they corresponded over the next few years.

While it is true that Louis Braille’s creation was inspired by a system of writing using dots developed by Barbier, there are many aspects that differ from what is portrayed in most accounts of Louis Braille’s life. The details in this article are fascinating and definitely change our view of the history of braille.

Philippa Campsie is an adjunct professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto and a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in urban and municipal affairs.

In addition to the article, there is an episode of the Disability History Association podcast released on August 5, 2021. Podcast Episode 30 – The Real Origins of Raised-Point Writing.

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