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Monday, 19 August 2013

Touching the Book

W. Ridgway after George Smith,
 Light and Darkness, engraving, 1871 (Wellcome Library)
Louis Braille is one of the heavyweights of blind history. Along with Helen Keller he is the blind person children are most likely to learn about at school and as MIchael Mellor recently demonstrated, he is (rightfully) celebrated across the world for the creation of his eponymous writing system. But this overwhelming focus on Braille’s achievements gives us a rather unbalanced view of how tactile reading and writing systems developed in the nineteenth century. The Musée Valentin Haüy in Paris, and now the Touching the Book exhibition currently running at Birkbeck College, London, tell a rather different story.
The visitor to both exhibitions is immediately struck by the variety of different reading and writing systems on display. Before Braille was eventually adopted as the universal language of the blind in the late nineteenth century (and even later in the United States), books were being produced in a number of different tactile alphabets. In Paris, Valentin Haüy developed a raised-letter system based on the Roman alphabet which was used for some years at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles even when Braille himself was a teacher there. In the UK, five or six alternative systems competed for supremacy, each being championed by a different blind school, church organisation or wealthy philanthropist. The variety of these systems testifies both to the ingenuity of their inventors and to the fact that enabling the blind to read was a legitimate, even urgent project in Victorian England.   
I would recommend the 'Touching the Book' exhibition to anyone interested in education, science, religion, visual culture or blindness in the Victorian era. It offers a fascinating glimpse of the race to develop the most useful tactile reading system and shows that Louis Braille is not the only one who deserves a place in history.

This guest post for the exhibition's blog explains some of the differences which I have noticed between British and French embossed books.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Smart Glasses: Science Fiction becomes Fact

The 'bionic glasses'

Much as I love my white cane, it does not always keep me safe. It helps me avoid pavement-level obstacles like bollards and kerbs but it is not so good at detecting overhanging branches, open windows or head-level signs. In fact I always seem to have a bruise or a bump somewhere on the upper half of my body from an annoying or painful collision with an unexpected object of some kind.

Last week I took part in some fascinating research which might well put an end to these injuries. Dr Stephen Hicks and his team at the University of Oxford Department of Clincial Neuroscience are developing some 'smart glasses' which use a tiny camera and an LED display to create a live, real-time image of the size, shape and position of solid objects. This would mean that sign-posts, wheelie bins and bus shelters would become completely detectable, even in absolute darkness. (I forgot to ask Stephen whether the glasses would also detect the partially blind person's least favourite objects: mirrors, transparent walls, display cabinets and glass doors).

I spent two hours with Stephen and his team testing out the glasses. When I put them on I felt like a character in a science fiction novel. Like Jean in Maurice Renard's novella 'The Phony Man' I was suddenly seeing the world in a completely different way. Objects which would have been impossible for me to see shone before my eyes in shades of pink and white. I found the glasses incredibly easy to use and within minutes I was happily navigating my way round a series of obstacles. I would find these glasses especially useful at night, in glaring sunlight or in dappled shade. They would not only stop me from walking into things, they would also help me keep a watchful eye on my children who are often the first things to disappear when light conditions affect my vision.

Stephen and his team are still testing the glasses and are keen to hear from anyone who might find them useful. I'm hopoing to go back in a few months to have another go.

Monday, 5 August 2013

History of Blindness Conference: Updates and Impact

The International Conference on the History of Blindness and the Blind which took place in Paris in June 2013 made a huge impact on me both professionally and personally. I learnt an immense amount about the history of the blind in various countries and at various times. I met a wonderful selection of interesting, intelligent and accomplished individuals and have already continued a number of conversations started there.

Below I list (in roughly chronological order) blog posts, webpages and recordings related to or inspired by the conference.

 - All the conference presentations are now available, both in English and in French, on the Singer-Polignac Foundation website.

 - My Blind Spot posts 'Guide Dogs for the Blind' and 'Where has (all the) Braille gone?' were directly inspired by the conference.

 - Author Mike Mellor wrote about his role in the conference for the National Braille Press Blog

 - Selina Mills' feature on the conference was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

 - Heather Tilley's 'Touching the Book' exhibition, which she discussed at the conference, has now opened in London. After I visited the exhibition I wrote a piece for the exhibition blog comparing the British and French approaches to the embossed book.

 - La Ligue Braille have conference reports on their website in French and in Flemish.

 - Selina Mills reports on the growing interest in the history of blindness in the September issue of History Today (p. 7).

 - Conference delegate Dr Brian Miller discusses the conference in Accessible World's Special Program Series (download and listen here).