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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Where has (all the) Braille gone?

The Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA) in Paris was the first recorded school for the blind and it is still operating today. The Institut, which was founded by Valentin Hauy in 1784, moved to its current location on Blvd des Invalides in 1843. Louis Braille was a pupil, and then a teacher, at the Institut and developed his famous reading and writing system there between 1821 and 1825.

Given the crucial role played by the Institut in blind history, it seemed fitting that the opening evening of the History of Blindness and the Blind Conference would be held there. After spending the afternoon learning about the tactile inventions of Hauy, Braille and Foucaud at the neighbouring Musee Valentin Hauy (rue Duroc) it was a real pleasure to be shown around this venerable institution. I have walked past the Institut many times en route to the Valentin Hauy archive but this was the first time I had found my way inside.

As I admired the original architecture, peeked through the door of the classroom where Braille taught, and flicked through books in the library, I wondered how much has changed at INJA since the British aristocrat Sir Francis Head described the School in 1851. In his charming collections of sketches of Parisian places, A Faggot of French Sticks (available to read on googlebooks) Head describes his visit to the Institut in absorbing detail. He is particularly taken with the Braille writing and reading system which the boys are proud to demonstrate and he is very interested in the music lessons which he overhears. Even though his unseen observations of the blind girls at work has something voyeuristic about it, I like his description because it is refreshingly matter-of-fact. Unlike many nineteenth-century writers I have come across, he does not linger over the pitiful afflictions of the pupils or the tragedy of their condition. Instead he recounts how they get around the school unguided with an admirable absence of condescension or astonishment.

Head's comments are memorable because they reveal an approach to the blind which is more enlightened than many present day attitudes. It would never occur to him to ask 'are you coping?' for example. Part of this positive attitude may come from the fact that Head had recently been diagnosed with an eye condition: 'blephamphthalie' for which he was receiving treatment in Paris. But perhaps part of it also comes from the happy and healthy atmosphere of the Institut itself.

During my visit to INJA I was struck most of all by the absence of Braille. In our local mainstream secondary school which my (sighted) children will probably attend when they are older, there are Braille labels outside all the classrooms. But I found no such helpful signage in INJA's buildings. I came across no Braille books in the library and the only tactile objects in the classrooms were maps and globes. I was expecting INJA to be a haven for Braille users, a place where Braille proliferates, but instead it was, for all its blind history, an oddly Braille-free zone. The teachers were vague about its absence. They cited lack of funding and the fact that after a few weeks at the school students find their way around just fine. It also seems that advances in computer technologies mean that children are less willing to learn Braille because they no longer rely on it to read and write.

But that is hardly the point. Braille is still the universal language of the blind. If we want to see Braille used in the sighted world as a matter of course in public places like restaurants, museums and hotels, then surely the first School for the Blind should lead by example. Surely an Institut devoted to the education of the blind should have a political investment in the proliferation of Braille?. As I felt for the Brailled number 7 button in my dingy hotel lift, I wondered what Head would have said if he could have returned to INJA today.

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