Open letter to Louis Braille


Dear Louis,


Any number of people think that I've lost a screw somewhere, with this rather peculiar habit I've acquired lately of writing to celebrities that have passed on into another dimension.


And so it is... Last November, I sent a letter to Valentin Haüy from Paris, in which I let him in on the triumphs and difficulties that blind people are having the world over to find jobs. By the way, I thought you'd like to know that it was published in March in a French magazine that bears your name. I'm going to see if there's a way I can get you a copy, via Internet, because I'm sure you have access to the "net", that you haven't been told, as I have, that I'll have to wait another month for the connection.


Louis, some things sadden me and others simply annoy me. There were, and still are, people who don't understand how valuable your system is and are always on the lookout for something to replace it. How stupid!! I have to confess that the first time I set my fingers to a page written in your code (I must have been about 10 at the time), I was truly dismayed, thinking to myself that I'd never be able to decipher that chaotic scramble of dots; but a few months after I'd been in one of those so-called special schools, I cleared that psychological hurdle and had begun to read by touch rather effortlessly.


It is probably true that, while perhaps not always explicitly, people are ranked according to their sensorial capacity, and since -according to those who think like that- people who can see more or less normally are "better" than those who see very little, and those that see little are "better" than those who cannot see at all, whenever an adult or child has some remaining vision, no matter how little, they are advised to learn to read print; often neither they nor their families are even informed of the existence of Braille. I must point out in all fairness, though, Louis, that in the olden days, when I was in school, children who could see quite a lot were obliged to read your code with their fingers, which had its drawbacks, since that, of course, did not appeal to them at all; they preferred playing football to studying.


When, in the early seventies, a new device that they called the Optacon appeared on the scene - really, Louis, it was revolutionary back then - I read time and again that that would be the end of Braille. Why so much antagonism, Louis? Is there something inherently obscene about reading with your fingers? I know only too well that you, after hours and hours of long discussion with Charles Barbier, decided that combinations of six dots were the best for tactile perception. When you presented your idea to the sighted teachers in your Institute, though, they didn't like it. They thought that, using it, all that the blind would be able to aspire to would be to enrol in the secret service. Your code - according to them - would become an undesirable barrier to communication, separating those who could see from those who could not. And I also realise that you put all your effort into persuading them that reading could be much faster with your method and that information, as a result, could be accessed much more fully.


But, unfortunately, you had to leave this world without the satisfaction of seeing the intrinsic value of your system understood.


Allow me, Louis, to share an almost painful and very frustrating experience with you: in the process of moving my belongings from my parents' home, someone used my school books as fuel for a fire; books dictated by my schoolmaster father or other school monitors, or that I had simply copied from material that I would find in the most unsuspecting places. I had stolen countless hours during my early teens from the time that I should normally have devoted to leisure or collective meals, to put together my own childhood library with my stylus and slate. And do you know, Louis, what the answer was when I asked why they had done that? ... "Because they were taking up too much space."


And something similar happened when, after European summer holidays, I returned to my university dormitory: all my Braille books had disappeared. When I sought out the author of that evil deed, her only defence was: "But they were so big and bulky, and so ugly..."


And, speaking of aesthetics, ask my friends (just in passing) at the FBU in Montevideo if a Braille book can or cannot be pretty.


I solemnly declare, Louis, that your system is completely innocent of the attempts on common sense delivered by more than one person who advised me not to read Braille on the bus, train or plane, because it attracted too much attention and was bad for my image.


And, Louis, I'd like you to be able to perceive the rage I felt deep inside when, in 1990 in Mongolia, I discovered a blind mathematician who had gained high scientific renown in his country, a man who had lost his sight at the age of 30 and who had found certain doors open to him as a university professor... How indignant I grew, Louis, listening to him explain how he spent hours and hours with a tape recorder memorising reflections, conclusions, mathematical formulae... They'd told him, Louis, early on, that Braille would never do him any good. And even now, just last Friday in Lebanon, a high Government official was making a show, personally and by phone, of the blind people who, thanks to his sensitivity, had found jobs in government offices. What a shame, though, Louis, that the only person with whom I had a chance to talk directly in that whole batch of good intentions, replied when I asked that no, he had not learned Braille!


But enough is enough, Louis, of all this annoying chatter about the injustice done to your wonderful system which - I'm prepared to admit - was probably more often than not the fruit of pure and simple ignorance or sometimes perhaps, the best of intentions.


Fortunately, from the standpoint of here and now, that ingenious, liberating tool that you bequeathed to us also has its bright side and many are those that appreciate it, understand it (and even love it) and among them, Louis, all those who have the patience to listen to this letter that I am sending you from Montevideo. Your system - we've given it your last name - Braille, is being taught more and more in recent months in the United States, because, quite in spite of the obstinate stand taken by some, others fought tenaciously to have learning Braille recognised as a human right and included as such in the laws of several states.


Braille is produced today at a lower cost and in much bigger quantities than could have even been imagined not very long ago. And this is so, Louis, because many people, blind and sighted, believed that it was worth while to use their imagination and intelligence to seek formulas to apply information and electronic technology to Braille production. Truly, Louis, technology is not making your extraordinarily simple code redundant, but rather is enhancing its potential. For me and others, it is no longer utopian to consult extensive dictionaries and encyclopedias through it, using CD ROMs and other electronic access media. Nor is the feasibility of building my own personal library, which actually would be my Braille library, a concern any more, since the storage space problem can now be avoided thanks to electronic storage systems.


And now, Louis, please be indulgent with me and lend me your attention for just a while longer, so I can tell you about a few things that have happened to me that reflect on attitudes that are diametrically opposed to the ones I mentioned in the first part of this letter.


In 1971, for instance, much to his credit, my semantics professor in a summer course in Cambridge, England, when he found out that I was going to be in his class, ingeniously prepared relief diagrammes for his seminar that he himself had drawn with a ballpoint pen. Even the letters were there, Louis, in your code, based on an alphabet that someone had mysteriously asked me for without my knowing why.


Or that young lady in Tokyo, last December, who, while I was trying to sort out the practical problems involved in boarding the plane that was to take me back to Spain, came up to me saying with unmistakable glee, "Sir, here are the papers you left behind on the plane last week." And to think, Louis, that my intention was for them to have ended up in the dust bin, because I no longer needed them! Thanks to modern technology, Louis, I can do that often now.


Then there was the woman in charge of a home delivery food service who, just a few weeks ago, wanted to know whether I managed to distinguish between the considerable number of dishes that went into the diet lunch I'd just ordered. "Not very well" I answered. And I'll spare you, Louis, the gory details of the trouble I got myself into when my smelling identification abilities failed me as I tried to recognise what was in each container. But how comforting to see her reaction! "Let me see what I can do" she said. The next time the containers were all marked with labels: she'd devised a convention whereby a circle was dessert, a cross mark the main dish and a straight line the appetizer. Unfortunately, she went so far as to put the names of each dish in her version of relief writing on the containers. And, anxious to know whether her attempts at integration had been successful, she called me back to see the results. Such a positive attitude encouraged me to suggest to send her adhesive labels for writing Braille with a stylus and small slate, with the letters of your alphabet on the overleaf. Now I can distinguish the salad dressing from the meat sauce with no problem! What satisfaction, Louis, to have managed to convert her original beneficent attitude, as per Valentin Haüy, to a much more emancipatory one of the kind that your system encourages.


I am sure you believe me, Louis, when I say that I do not by any means want to be exceptional or privileged; that I ardently hope that all those children and adults whom I still encounter in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who devote so much precious time to copying books by hand that others could easily produce for them, will soon have access to the basic tools and material that exist today. I do not doubt, Louis, that you will support me as I raise that request to a man called David Blyth, who they say represents blind people all over the world and a very eloquent and intelligent young woman, Norma Toucedo whom, as I've been told, has been entrusted with promoting the enhancement of literacy opportunities so that one and the other will do all they possibly can to keep my fervent desire from vanishing like a fleeting dream.


And you know what, Louis? For some time now, I couldn't care less what they think about my image. I exhibit your invention everywhere. I read material the way you invented it standing, lying down, sitting, in any position. And there's always a little slate like the one I gave the lady at the food service in my pocket. Because your code, Louis, has afforded many, many blind people - myself among them, naturally - dignity, freedom, and many hours of incomparable spiritual enjoyment.


I solemnly promise to be faithful to you, although I know that, in the end, if by whatever ways or means, someone some day finds something that proves to be better than the system you proposed to the world in 1825, you, I and everyone will be overjoyed.


Very cordially yours,



Pedro Zurita.

Montevideo, Uruguay


27 March 1996


(Traducida del español  por Margaret Clark)