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Reading By Touch

"There is nothing more absurd, I think, than to have five or six different prints for the blind..." wrote Helen Keller. She would help change that.

By Cori Brosnahan

English Braille primer. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

Helen Keller was born in 1880, just over 50 years after Louis Braille published his eponymous writing system. Braille, who was three when an accident in his father’s workshop left him blind, had been frustrated by the reading system available to him at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris: embossed Latin letters. Tracing the text was a slow process, and the books were so huge and expensive to produce that few existed. Moreover, the system did not offer a realistic way for a blind person to write.

Braille understood that the blind needed access to the same information as everyone else if they were to be treated equally. Determined to facilitate that transfer of knowledge, he began working on his own system, inspired by a code of dots and dashes created for soldiers by a French Army captain. Braille was just 15 when he completed his alphabet of raised dots, produced using a slate and stylus. His invention was met with praise from some corners, and consternation from others. At one point, school administrators confiscated Braille’s writings and burned them; they wanted their students to use raised lettering because the teachers couldn’t read Braille’s dots.

But braille proved too powerful a tool to deny. It spread from France to England and across the pond to the United States, inspiring spin-offs as it went. Investments in machinery and tradition meant institutions clung stubbornly to their own systems. By the time Helen Keller came of reading age, there was a host of competing alphabets — a state of affairs some called the “War of the Dots,” and Keller simply called “absurd.”

Boston Line Type spelling book. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

“She used four or five systems pretty regularly,” says Jennifer Arnott, research librarian at Perkins School for the Blind. Those included American Braille, English Braille, another dot system called New York Point, and Boston Line Type, an embossed Roman alphabet. Keller’s frustration at having to know all of them was compounded by how few books were available in any of the codes to begin with.

“She couldn’t call a library like the one here at Perkins and say I want a copy of a famous literary novel of the day because there was so little available in an accessible format,” says Kim Charlson, Executive Director of Perkins Library. Perkins, one of the only organizations producing accessible reading material in first decades of the 1900s, published just a dozen braille books on a good year. The books early publishers did produce tended toward the classics and the “morally uplifting.”

“The Bible got done early because everyone wanted blind people to read it. Heaven forbid you just wanted to read a good story!” says Charlson. “Getting any book was a treat, but getting one that Helen would have wanted to read because of her studies and her intellect would have been even more challenging.”

But Keller persevered. When the material she wanted to read wasn’t available in an accessible form, people read to her, spelling into her hand. Though it took months to transcribe a volume of her schoolwork, Keller became the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1904. Fourteen years later, in 1918, braille was standardized in the United States, thanks in part to Keller’s advocacy. Another cause she championed, a national library program for the blind, was created in 1931. A small sample of Keller’s personal library that she donated to Perkins between 1909 and 1915 includes works in a variety of languages, and makes for an impressive reading list by anyone’s standards.

New York Point System primer. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

Today, computers have dramatically changed the landscape for blind readers and writers. While braille literacy has declined since 1960, voice technology enables users to read and write swiftly and efficiently. Devices like iPhones have built-in screen readers that blind users can listen to at remarkable speeds. “We’re living in an incredible period for the potential of technology to change the lives of people who are blind,” says Dave Power, president and CEO at Perkins School for the Blind. “If a person who’s blind picked up your phone, you’d be amazed at what they could do with it.”

Louis Braille had wanted the blind to gain access to the worlds of knowledge contained in books. When Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968 at the age of 87, she had not only read more than most, she had also become the author of a dozen books, sharing her own knowledge and wisdom with the world. And she accomplished all that in an analog era. “What an amazing thing it would be to show Helen today’s technology,” says Kim Charlson. “Just think of what she could have done.”

Read about Helen Keller's favorite books.

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