Valentin Haüy and Louis Braille: Enabling Education for the Blind

Alan R. Morse, JD, PhD, President and CEO of Lighthouse Guild, has written a chapter entitled “Valentin Haüy and Louis Braille: Enabling Education for the Blind,” which will be included in an upcoming publication, Foundations of Ophthalmology—Great Insights That Established the Discipline (Springer; editors: Dr. Michael Marmor and Dr. Daniel Albert).

In the chapter, Dr. Morse explains how people with blindness have been historically disenfranchised by society because of the perception that they were incapable of learning or possessing cognitive abilities. The ideas of three philosophers— René Descartes, John Locke and Denis Diderot—planted the seeds for the desire to educate people who are blind and, most importantly, accept them into society. However, it was royal interpreter Valentin Haüy and blind student-turned-teacher Louis Braille who would create an entirely new alphabet and establish the world’s first educational institutions for people who are blind, and form the foundation for future disability rights and the inclusion of people with blindness into society.

Before schools and an entirely new alphabet for people who are blind were established, people with blindness were marginalized by society because of the impression that they were unable to learn, speak, or engage with others and their surroundings. People who were born blind were often abandoned by their parents and left to die. Those who lived often became beggars or musicians. Despite the fact that even members of the nobility could be affected by blindness, those who were blind were considered to be in the same ranks as those with physical and mental disabilities. Although more than a century passed between their time and when progress toward educating people who are blind began, the three philosophers’ ideas helped Valentin Haüy and Louis Braille make it a reality.

Valentin Haüy began his career as King Louis XVI’s royal interpreter, but after observing a group of blind musicians being mocked, he decided to dedicate his life to teaching people who are blind how to read and write. He established “The Royal Institute for the Blind,” the first school of its kind, and soon several countries throughout Europe and the United States followed suit. Years later, Louis Braille, a gifted student and later a teacher at the school, created the first alphabet entirely for people who are blind using his inspirations from “night writing,” a method, created by a French artillery officer, of using raised dots and dashes on thick paper that soldiers used to exchange information in the absence of light.

Dr. Morse concludes that the development of an alphabet as well as educational systems focused on teaching individuals who are blind has helped people with blindness to succeed and be more thoroughly integrated into society. Thanks to Haüy and Braille, people with blindness are able to access daily resources and be accepted by sighted people as engaged and active members of society.