Saturday, December 06, 2008

Louis Braille is now 200 years old!

Scott Davert is like a lot of other students at Western Michigan University -- he can't live without his PDA.

He uses his to download books, to listen to MP3s, to check his e-mail and even as a global positioning system.

But unlike most of other students, Davert was born blind.

Who was Louis Braille?

Born: Jan. 4, 1809.

Grew up: In Coupvray, France, near Paris.

Became blind: At the age of 3, Braille became blind after a sharp tool in his father's workshop injured his eye. An infection spread and blinded Braille in both eyes.

His system: Braille started developing the reading and writing system named after him at the age of 12. He was attending a school for the blind in Paris when a visiting soldier told the students about an invention called "night writing." Braille improved the system and published his first book in 1829.

How it works

Braille uses a system of raised dots to represent letters and punctuation marks. The foundational character, or cell, is six dots arranged in two rows of three.

He was among about a dozen volunteers who helped host a celebration Thursday for Louis Braille's 200th birthday inside WMU's College of Health and Human Services. The party was to celebrate Braille's contributions for the blind and to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the reading system for the visually impaired.

About 50 people shuffled through 16 different activity stations, each about Braille.

There was a Braille twister game, Braille riddles, even Braille cake and cookies.

Davert headed a table about Braille technology. His PDA, called Braillenote, resembles a typewriter with only nine elongated keys. Across the bottom, it has a strip of what look like piano keys, each with tiny holes that allow pegs to rise and fall, spelling out the letters of the Braille alphabet.

"It's helpful. I can keep up appointments, write papers for class and take notes," said Davert, a graduate student studying to become a teacher for the blind or those with low vision and to do rehabilitation counseling.

Davert's Braillenote model cost $55,000. Fortunately for him, since he is attending college, he was provided with one by the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

Jonathon Grueke Kalamazoo GazetteWestern Michigan University student Tieu Kohler, center, helps WMU student Moriam Abiolu, left, read braille from a children's book during Thursday's 200th anniversary celebration of Louis Braille's birthday at Western Michigan University's College of Health and Human Services building. Both students are in a braille reading class at Western Michigan University, "She's my braille buddy," said Abiolu of Kohler, "She checks my homework and make sure I'm doing things right."

Lucy Edmonds, a former WMU student who now lives in Lansing, said blind and visually impaired students didn't have half the technology they do now when she went to school.

"When I was a student, most of our books were on tape," said Edmonds, a 1978 Western graduate. "If not, we would have to pay people to read to us. I had to take a cassette recorder to lectures."

Jonathon Grueke Kalamazoo GazetteWestern Michigan University graduate student Esteban Zuniga, 24, right, helps Andre Perry find the right space while playing a game of Braille twister during Thursday's 200th anniversary celebration of Louis Braille's birthday at Western Michigan University's College of Health and Human Services. Zuniga, double majoring in orientation mobility and vision rehabilitation therapy, explained the game was divided into four cells with a rope underneath and each dot represented a number instead of color.

The Kalamazoo native recalled attending Michigan's School for the Blind with Stevie Wonder. "He would give me autographed pictures to give to my friends. He was really nice," she said of the blind music legend.

Edmonds, a Braille speed reader, read the latest book in the Harry Potter series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," during Thursday's party. She emphasized the importance of Braille.

"It's something I'm real passionate about. People think that with computer and technology that Braille will just go by the wayside, but that's not true," she said.

Betty Lujan-Roberts, of the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center, agreed.
"So many people say technology is so big and bad and that maybe Braille isn't needed anymore, but that's not right," she said. "Louis Braille gave me that gift to use my own abilities without that equipment."

Jonathon Grueke Kalamazoo GazetteA cake for the 200th birthday of the creator of Braille is served at a party Thursday at Western Michigan University.

Lujan-Roberts returned in October from a visit to Coupvray, France, to visit Braille's grave site.
"It was sort of like treading on holy ground," she said. "He gave those of us who are blind so much, the gift of reading, writing and spelling."

Sources: American Foundation for the Blind, National Braille Association, Braille Institute.

Contact Linda Munnelly at or 388-8575.


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