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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Braille ad invites readers to 'achieve their vision'

A recent issue of The Economist contains a striking advert for investment bank UBS. The advert consists of a double-page spread of uncontracted braille. The text of the braille advert is reproduced in print on the right-hand page. It matches the braille text exactly (I checked) and reads as follows:

What lessons can a financial institution draw from a chance encounter in 18th century Paris? Valentin Haüy watched in dismay as unfortunate members of a home for the blind were subjected to public humiliation. Rather than shut his eyes, he was inspired to found what became the National Institute for Blind Youth. The very school at which Louis Braille was to develop his eponymous reading system. To succeed, Braille required Haüy's persistence and commitment. At UBS, our client advisors fulfil a similar role. Using our dedication and knowledge to help you achieve your vision.

UBS think that this advert brings to life 'the story behind the development of the Braille reading and writing system'. I'm not so sure. Apart from the fact that the history of braille is much more convoluted than this text makes out, the ad omits to mention the controversial circumstances surrounding Haüy's first encounter with the blind inmates of the Hospice des Quinze-Vingts in Paris. As this post from the Wellcome Library shows, Haüy's decision to found an Institution for the Blind was inspired by his encounter with a particularly vulgar and raucous group of blind musicians, whom he described as 'an atrocity'.

Haüy wanted to establish an Institute which would educate the blind in a more regulated way, making them both more decorous in their appearance and more harmonious in their music making. I'm not sure whether he was doing this for the benefit of the blind or so that the good people of Paris would no longer have to be confronted with the unsavoury sight and sound of an unruly gang of blind musicians. Haüy no doubt did a lot of good. And the Association which bears his name is still changing lives today. But I can't help thinking that he was acting out of a misguided belief that the sighted world knew better than the blind one.

Funnily enough, a similar sentiment can be found in the final line of the UBS text. Their use of the word 'vision' is a jarring reminder that no amount of well-meaning braille can compensate for the fact that most people prize vision over the other senses. This belief in the supremacy of sight is so widespread that presumably it did not occur even to the RNIB, who produced the braille used in the advert, to object to this unfortunate turn of phrase. But it is precisely the perpetuation of such assumptions which makes sight loss such a traumatic event. I don't want to suggest that the RNIB are complicit in the perpetuation of negative myths of blindness. But I do think that an advert about UBS's 'dedication and knowledge' should have been more careful in its choice of words.

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