keynote address for ICEB general assembly 2024

Jonathan Mosen, a well-known personality in the blindness community, presented the keynote address for the 2024 ICEB general Assembly in New Zealand. It is a very interesting, knowledgeble and entertaining speech. Enjoy!

Peter Brass


Safeguarding the legacy, investing the inheritance

Keynote address to the International Council on English Braille, delivered by Jonathan Mosen MNZM on Sunday 26 May 2024

Madam president, delegates and guests.

In 1952, after 100 years of lying at rest in his beloved village of Coupvray, Louis Braille’s body was relocated to the Pantheon, in recognition of what the late Cyril White, a gifted and internationally respected blind New Zealander, called Louis Braille’s “priceless gift to the blind”. Hundreds of blind people accompanied  him, canes tapping through the streets of Paris, to say thank you from the blind of the world.

Louis Braille lived a humble life, and his death from the tuberculosis that had plagued him for more than half his life was not widely acknowledged. There was no newspaper coverage, no recognition that the world had just lost a genius. Yet just a century later, a blip in history, Louis was on his way to the Pantheon in a fitting testimony to the magnitude of his legacy.

Helen Keller was there that day, to deliver an address in fluent French. In that address, she said,

“On behalf of the blind people of the world, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for having generously recognised the pride and efforts of all those who refuse to succumb to their limitations. In our way, we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg. It is true that the dot system is very different from ordinary print, but these raised letters are, under our fingers, precious seeds from which has grown our intellectual harvest. Without the Braille dot system, how incomplete and chaotic our education would be! The dismal doors of frustration would shut us out from the untold treasures of literature, philosophy and science. But, like a magic wand, the six dots of Louis Braille have resulted in schools where embossed books, like vessels, can transport us to ports of education, libraries and all the means of expression that assure our independence.”

And now here we are in Auckland, gathered together on the bicentenary of the Braille code’s invention, with Braille more vibrant and relevant than ever. Revering Braille the man and Braille the code as I do, I would have been honoured to have received your invitation to deliver a keynote address at an ICEB General Assembly at any time. But to receive it in this particular year is both an honour I will cherish, and an immense responsibility. When we reach such an important milestone, it is right that we take time to celebrate, time to reflect, and time to look to the future. I wish by way of this address to capture the precarious course of history that has led us to this point, and to offer some thoughts on how we can continue to invest our inheritance of literacy, the master key to all the doors of opportunity.

But first, I acknowledge with considerable respect the vital work of ICEB and the Braille authorities around the world. I mean it with affection when I say that one has to be a bit of a nerd to get excited about much of the work that ICEB does. But it is vital work, and given the nerdy nature of it, it is a testimony to the way many of us feel about the Braille code that proposals you make and decisions you take can often evoke strong emotions. You have ensured that the code remains relevant in a constantly changing world. Thank you for making a difference. You have done Louis Braille proud.

I haven’t yet had the privilege of serving on a Braille authority, but I have managed the development of several refreshable Braille products, similar to the one I am reading from today. That in itself is a responsibility, to know that the decisions you make about the design of the hardware and the software that drives it, directly affect those who are using Braille in all walks of life. After all, it only takes one defective Braille cell, with one defective Braille dot, to turn your house from having a roof with a significant peak, to a roof with a significant leak. This may be the only speech I will ever give where I can make that joke and have it understood by most of the audience, so I’ll make the most of it.

Not only has the Braille code given me so much opportunity, Louis Braille’s story, when I read it as a child, gave me my first taste of the blind pride I now feel so deeply. Having read how it came to be that I was reading dots under my fingers, it was lifechanging to learn that it was someone who was blind like me who’d solved the most significant problem blind people faced. One blind person utterly transformed the destiny of the blind of the world. Louis Braille made me realise that we as blind people can, indeed must, take charge of our destiny.

Blind people are a minority, and most of us, through much of history, have been marginalised, oppressed, considered unworthy and incompetent. I say most of us, because as Leona Godin so thoroughly and entertainingly chronicles in her personal and cultural history of blindness, “There Plant Eyes”, societies have had difficulty deciding what to make of us. A common theme that persists to this day is that sight is acquainted with knowledge, while blindness is associated with ignorance, wilful or otherwise. It is telling, but not at all surprising, that many biographies of Louis Braille have light and dark in their titles. Historically, blindness has also been acquainted with sin.

It hasn’t been all bad though. Many ancients revered blind people as having special powers as seers, poets and prophets, although they were seldom the heroes of their own stories.

There are also blind people throughout history who made memorable contributions outside the realms of prophecy and poetry. Even before the invention of the Braille code, there have been blind monarchs, generals, politicians, global travellers, lawyers, mathematicians, scientists, scholars, theologians, musicians, businesspeople, even astronomers.

So if blind people were making these significant contributions long before the Braille code, do we give Braille the man, and Braille the code, more credit than is due? My answer to that is an emphatic absolutely not. Throughout history, there have always been individuals from oppressed or disadvantaged minorities who have succeeded thanks to dogged determination, privilege, luck, or a combination of all those things. Some of us have a natural ability to create or pursue opportunity. Like all human beings, some of us are better at taking risks or seizing the moment than others. Some of us are more intellectually inclined than others.

The legacy bequeathed to us by Louis Braille is that his code not only makes writing and reading accessible, his code is the key to equality of opportunity. It hasn’t made all those preconceptions about blindness evaporate, but when we can write something down and read it back, when we know how to spell, when we can discern the way a document is laid out, when we can create priceless memories that will last a lifetime by reading bedtime stories to our children or grandchildren, we have equipped ourselves with a skill that significantly narrows the chasm of opportunity.

The idea that the average blind person should receive an education was radical and new at the time of Louis Braille’s birth in 1809. In 1771, at the age of just 26 and while walking the streets of Paris, Valentin Haüy happened to see ten blind men, who were being both cheered and jeered, wearing dunce caps, a cone-shaped hat that is used as a symbol of stupidity or ignorance. They also wore asses ears. They were pretending to play broken musical instruments. The atmosphere was one of humiliation and belittlement, lasted a month, and was known as “the café of the blind”. As legend has it, witnessing this demeaning spectacle inspired Haüy to set up the first school for blind people. He promised himself, “I will put in their hands volumes printed by themselves. They will trace the true characters and will read their own writing, and they will be enabled to give harmonious concerts.”

Ultimately, having been further inspired by a talented blind woman who was privately educated, he established the Institute for Blind Youth, the first school for blind children, in Paris in 1785. With the school’s creation came the introduction of a key element of blind culture for children and young people that was to last around two centuries. Young children would travel long distances and be deprived of regular family life for much of the year, in order to receive an education.

Taking that journey from his village of Coupvray in 1819 was a ten-year-old boy named Louis Braille. Louis had become blind at the age of three when, just trying to be like his dad who was a harness maker, he lost control of a sharp tool he’d picked up, lost his sight in one eye, and then lost sight in the second due to infection.

He was a bright child with a supportive, encouraging family. They taught him the print alphabet as a child using raised letters. Louis had actually been mainstreamed at his local school for a while, until a place was secured for him at the Institute for Blind Youth, where all knew he would flourish.

Since the school’s founding, blind children had been reading raised print letters. The books were incredibly bulky. A few excelled at their reading, most did not, and all were slow. The full power of literacy was not available using this system in that they couldn’t write something down and read it back.

Once the students left the institute, there were no raised print books in the community, which meant blind adults were unable to use the skills they had acquired.

There had to be a better way, and a thinker, inventor, and former military man, Charles Barbier, was thinking about the problem. Given the commitment of this audience to Braille, I feel sure everyone will know the legend of Charles Barbier, who invented a system of night writing for the military, which the military rejected, so he thought it might help people who couldn’t see. Legend has it that he showed it to the Institute for the blind, Louis checked out the system and this precocious 15 year old told him what was the matter with it. The trouble is, we now have compelling evidence that that’s not what happened. That evidence is summarised in a fascinating article by Philippa Campsie, published in 2021 in the Disability Studies Quarterly, called “Charles Barbier: A hidden story”.  The narrative about Barbier having invented the code for the military was mere speculation on the part of the author Pierre Henri, in his book published in French whose title, translated into English is “The Life and Work of Louis Braille”. Henri did not have access to Barbier’s papers, so he made an educated guess as to how Barbier’s code ended up under Louis Braille’s fingers. In the book, he states, “As a former captain of artillery, Barbier had perhaps once felt how useful it could be for officers in the field to be able to write messages in the dark and later read them with their fingers”. It’s a plausible theory in the absence of firm evidence. But over time, the theory has been considered established fact. With Barbier’s papers now readily available, we can debunk the theory altogether. We know that the blind were in fact the primary audience for his tactile code, one of several codes he was working on in an effort to simplify the process of reading and writing to make it more accessible to those for whom conventional Latin characters proved difficult to learn, including the poor and working class.

While it is true that a phonetic version of Barbier’s raised dot writing code existed, it is not true that it is the only one that existed. The phonetic one was Barbier’s preferred method, but having been taught to read print at the Institute, students there preferred the system that used the written alphabet. The 12-dot alphabet system, while suboptimal because of the size of the cell, was easy to learn, and students who knew the print alphabet picked it up quickly. Writing the code was straightforward, because Barbier developed the tools for writing it and distributed them freely.

The idea that there was some sort of fractious relationship between Barbier and Braille is also false, based on primary documents. Letters now make it clear that Barbier had not heard of Louis Braille or his system of writing until 1833, four years after the publication of the first draft of the Braille code. When they did get to know one another, the correspondence was cordial, and it was clear that there was considerable mutual respect.

In telling you this, you might ask if I’m not undermining the revered place Louis Braille has in blindness history and culture. Far from it. Think of it this way. Without Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others, the Beatles couldn’t have created the most significant popular music of the 20th century. The fact that “Heartbreak Hotel” came first doesn’t detract from the stunning brilliance of “A Day in the Life.” We in no way lessen the credit due to Louis Braille by giving Barbier his.

The facts about the respective roles of Barbier and Braille are an example of a pattern repeated many times in blindness history. Barbier’s heart was clearly in the right place. He was what today we would describe as “a sighted ally”. He believed in the dignity that comes with being able to read and write, and he actively sought to find a way to give that to blind people. But it took a blind person to refine the concept and make it truly viable.

Louis Braille was a gifted organist, and as an adult briefly considered leaving his job as a teacher at the Institute for Blind Youth to become a parish organist. Little wonder then that he turned his considerable ability to using his system to make it possible for blind people to read and write music. His elegant six dot cell contained enough capacity for musical notation. The code accommodates any instrument, and was so superior to existing methods that music was the first official use to which the Braille code was put at the Institute.

While the Braille code is what Louis is most known for, he in fact was the first to make a discovery that impacted the lives of almost everyone on the planet. He invented a concept he called decapoint. Decapoint was a system of 100 dots on a 10 by 10 grid. You could write it right to left with a stylus, then flip the page over and read what you’d written, but Louis didn’t stop there. He enlisted the help of a friend to design a machine called the raphigraphe, or needle writer. Blind people were able to write in print and verify what they’d written. Sighted people could use the method as well, affording privacy to the blind student who could read letters from home without the need to ask a sighted person to read them out loud. The global significance of this is that decapoint was the first time that print letters were represented as dots on a page. A blind man had given the world the concept that would later be used in dot matrix printers, cameras, computer screens and other technology. With technology evolving as it does, today we’re talking many millions of dots, nevertheless the concept is the same.

We are fortunate that in the formative years of the Braille code, the Institute for Blind Youth was headed by François Pignier, who encouraged Braille’s investigations and was a strong supporter. During his tenure, he published two editions of Braille’s alphabet system, and under his watch, the first ever book in the Braille code was produced in 1837. But Pignier was forced out of the role in 1840 by his ambitious and increasingly frustrated deputy, Pierre Dufau. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of the Braille code, Dufau did not want it in his school. In his view, blind students should be taught to read print like everyone else, despite the clear shortcomings of embossed print as a tactile reading system and the many benefits of Braille. This was convenient for sighted teachers, who weren’t required to learn anything different, but it was very much to the detriment of the students. I can only imagine the sense of anger, hurt and injustice the students felt at this time. Blind students at the Institute for blind youth had had a tantalising taste of full literacy, then the Braille code was banned, any Braille books that existed were burned, and those caught using the Braille code were punished. This was an atrocious form of abuse. But the kids were never going back. The code went underground. In fact, as any parent will tell you, and as we ourselves remember from our own youth, the one sure way to make something more attractive to a teenager is to ban it. It had become their secret code, a bond that drew young blind people together, a part of the emerging blind culture. While we are right to correct those who call Braille a language, it is not, this story is similar to the experiences minorities have endured over centuries when they have been punished for using their preferred form of communication.

Eventually, the evidence was too overwhelming for Dufau to ignore, and when the new building for the Institute was opened in 1844, the students conducted a compelling demonstration of the code for the public. I am so pleased that Louis Braille got just the tiniest inkling of the extent to which he would change the world.

So, blind people the world over started using Braille right away, and we all thrived, right? Mate, there is a reason so much time is allocated in the Agenda for this address.

The Institute for Blind Youth was the first school in the world to adopt the Braille code, with some other European countries following closely behind.

In 1876, through the influence of the British and Foreign Blind Association, later the National Institute for the Blind, Louis Braille’s French alphabet became the reading code for the blind of Great Britain. It also included around 200 contractions and abbreviations. They were revised in the early part of the 20th century and we got the concepts of what for many years were known as grade one and grade two Braille.

There are many examples of a divergence of systems that have created inconvenience for people but nonetheless have not been unified. Cars still drive on different sides of the road, there are different measuring systems and temperature scales, different voltage levels for appliances, and difference sockets to plug things into the power, different Kilohertz spacing on the AM band, different TV systems and different frequency bands for cell phones just to name a few. Were it not for the determination of blind people, tactile codes may have been added to that list. Indeed, that’s exactly how it was for a while, when America fought what in very dramatic fashion it calls its “war of the dots”. I could give a separate address devoted to the war of the dots. It’s a story of inventors, advocates, passion, vested interest, frustration and political intrigue.

But let me give you the executive summary. Samuel Howe developed Boston Line Type in 1853 and remained opposed to Braille all his life. He believed that blind people having a separate code that did not resemble print was disadvantageous.

In 1860, the Braille code was adopted at the Missouri School for the Blind and it became the first American school to adopt the code.

William Wait, who was the Principal of the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, was aware of the overwhelming evidence that many blind children struggled to read raised print. Many adults couldn’t read it at all. He first tried to convince schools in Boston and Philadelphia to accept Braille, which he had seen delivering good results in Missouri. They refused, so Wait developed his own system, new York point, which people have described as like a Braille cell on its side. Its advocates said that its biggest advantage was that it took up less space than Braille so books were less bulky. Later, it was found that the variable width of a New York Point cell made it more difficult to mechanise, and punctuation was so difficult that capitalisation was seldom used.

By 1871, New York Point had gained acceptance among an association of teachers of the blind who were mostly sighted.

By 1890, mirroring the experience of French blind students half a century earlier, some blind children in some US schools outside Missouri recognised the simplicity, speed and elegance of Braille and started using it for personal purposes, but it was frowned upon officially.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Boston Line Type was losing favour in the US, and schools were either using New York Point or Braille. But just to add some more confusion, Joel Smith developed a code called American Braille.

You can appreciate that by this time, blind people were becoming frustrated by this increasingly bitter argument. In 1905, Charles Holmes, a blind man who was President of the Alumni Association of Perkins Institution for the Blind, articulated the mounting frustration of many blind people when he wrote in part,

“In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which at best is woefully limited) the blind reader must learn, and keep well up in, all these codes…. How long would our seeing friends stand for such a state of affairs in ink type? Imagine for a moment the ridiculous situation that would arise, if the daily papers published in Boston had an entirely different system of characters from those used by New York publishers, and that a Philadelphia man could not read either without special training, because his own city had adopted a third, as unlike the others as the Chinese characters are unlike the Roman…. What we need, and must have, and will have if we but make up our minds to it, and stand by each other, is an international, universal code of embossed type for all English-speaking countries.”

By 1909, a young woman named Helen Keller pleaded for the adoption of Braille universally. She had been required to learn four codes just to get all the material she needed. Not everyone had such skill or patience.

In an attempt to reach a peace treaty to end the “war of the dots” once and for all, a Uniform Type Committee was founded in the United States. Eventually, it was determined that the way to choose the best code was to gather some quality data from blind people to determine which one of these competing systems actually allowed blind people to read the fastest. At the eleventh hour, something new and unexpected was introduced to this series of tests, British Braille. The evidence was clear, readers of the British Braille system read more efficiently than those reading any of the American versions.

Yet still, America came up with a system based on Braille they called Standard Dots, which they wanted to be the uniform system of writing for blind people in English speaking countries. The Brits were having none of it, they were happy with what they had. Why wouldn’t they be, the evidence was clear. With typical English wit, they derided Standard dots as “standard rot”. The British system based on Braille’s alphabet was already being used by then in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India and even by America’s Canadian neighbours.

In 1917, America decided to adopt Braille in a manner that would be readable by other English speakers, but with some of its own rules. This was called grade one and a half. What this meant was that those outside the US could read US Braille books but found the absence of some familiar contractions slowed them down, but Americans getting books from other English-speaking countries had difficulty, because they weren’t being taught all the contractions.

Finally, in 1932, what became known as the Treaty of London was signed, which established a uniform English literary Braille system.

The genius of Braille’s legacy, and those who have safeguarded and advanced it, is that Braille has remained largely unaltered from its original design, while being able to keep pace with mechanisation, mass-production, computerisation and wider use of formatting.

People are still using the slate and stylus or the pocket frame, the original  method of Braille writing where you use a stylus to poke dots through the slate onto a page in mirror image. I come from the Perkins Brailler generation and was never taught to use a slate and stylus at school. But those who were, or who picked it up themselves from an early age, have the closest thing to a pen and paper that a blind person can have, and the speeds that can be achieved are impressive.

There have been many mechanical Braille writing devices over the years, with early attempts proving cumbersome and troublesome. Viable mechanisation came to Braille in 1892 when Frank Hall, who was Superintendent of the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind, invented the Hall Braille Writer. It had the basic functions that would become typical of such products, including a six key keyboard and a moving carriage like a typewriter.

There were numerous others, but the big breakthrough occurred in 1951, when David Abraham, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston Massachusetts first showed his Perkins Brailler, which had been under development for many years. It would have been released considerably earlier, but all manufacturing materials and production were dedicated to the second world war. It was built like a tank, so could withstand the rigours of school life and required a relatively light touch. It was quieter than earlier devices, still, get a bunch of kids in a classroom hammering away on them and they could create quite the racket. It has been a remarkably enduring, successful product. At the school for the blind I attended as a child, when you were presented with your very own Perkins Brailler, it was a major life event, a rite of passage. It’s a testimony to the precise and premium manufacture of these devices that that Perkins I was presented with as a young child saw me all the way through high school, university, and as an adult in the computer era I’d still used it from time to time to label things. As a kid with non-24 sleep/wake disorder before we called it that, the Perkins was at just the right height to rest my head on it and have a quick noddy if the teacher wasn’t paying me too much attention.

The mass-production of Braille material was given a significant boost in 1957, when the thermoform machine was developed. It was useful not just for textbooks and music, but also for tactile graphics. From a single master, it was possible to create multiple copies of a book cost-effectively and efficiently. The Braille was durable, able to withstand the passing of books from student to student over the years.

The mainstreaming of blind children created additional pressures for champions of Braille, and resourcing challenges for public policy makers. The idea that blind children should be educated in the least restrictive environment, a concept now enshrined more widely in international instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities, is laudable and important. Much has been achieved because of concentrated pockets of excellence in blindness education. Schools for the blind offered opportunities for mentoring, and for what today we would call networking. In earlier times they have been catalysts in several countries for the formation of the organised blind movement, which in turn has created more societal change. However, for many, the costs have outweighed the benefits. Those costs have included separation from family which caused life-long fractures in the family dynamic, and in some cases abuse. Mentoring and networking opportunities for blind kids are essential, and must continue to be delivered in ways that reflect today’s schooling practices. Policy makers have been slow to appreciate and acknowledge that having disabled kids attend their local school is resource intensive. The means of achieving equitable education will require varying degrees of ongoing resourcing depending on the impairment type. For some, making one-off modifications to the built environment may be sufficient. For blind children however, it is important to recognise that if a classroom teacher does not know Braille, that classroom teacher is, in blindness terms, illiterate. With blind children now found in many more schools, there is increased pressure on accessible format resources and teachers who know Braille. The struggle for advocates of Braille has been tough. It still is. We must ensure that Braille is not limited only to the blindest children, or those that are perceived to be the most capable. Everyone has the right to read. We must also proudly proclaim that Braille is not a last resort, or something to be ashamed of. It is an attitude that can be summed up in the sentence, “this child can read print, but this child has to read Braille”.

As is the case in every aspect of life, computers changed everything for Braille. Their impact was first felt on the production of Braille through Braille translation software as early as the 1960s. In 1976, the first edition of Duxbury was installed for a paying customer when it arrived at the CNIB.

Soon the era of microcomputing was upon us, and it wasn’t long before a myth, perhaps a hope among some, took hold. It was suggested that now that computers could talk, we don’t need expensive, bulky old Braille anymore. There was no shortage of so-called experts who said Braille had outlived its usefulness and would simply die out. Never a falser word was spoken.

By the early 1980s, there was plenty of innovation taking place on the Apple II platform. The first computer I used was an Apple iiE which included Raised Dot Computing’s Braille Edit software. The programming genius behind it was David Holladay, who died earlier this year.

Connected to that Apple IIe was a Cranmer Modified Perkins, a relatively low-cost Braille embosser, and one of several embosser products that were becoming available at that time.

While it was becoming easier to produce Braille and get it on paper, a quiet revolution had begun in the form of refreshable Braille displays. I was fortunate to have access to a VersaBraille from Telesensory Systems Incorporated, and was delighted to see one again when I visited the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray. The VersaBraille was an early example of computers not replacing Braille, but making it more vibrant than ever. On a C60 cassette, you could store hundreds of pages of Braille, and even though the device was heavy, you could still carry many volumes of Braille with you.

In a touchable glimpse of the future, we connected all these devices together. Because I showed a bit of aptitude with this technology and quickly got to the point where I could troubleshoot for the teachers, I was allowed to push the boundaries and use a VersaBraille for some of my classes, and even some of my exams. This changed my life, because before that, I would have to first Braille my work, and then type it out on an Olympus typewriter so my teacher could read it. I was always in a hurry, understandably I think. After all, I was effectively being required to complete my work twice, which I objected to. So, I would type quickly. I would frequently transpose letters in my haste, but not being able to read back my own work, I had no idea when I had done it. I was marked down for making errors I couldn’t see, and therefore couldn’t fix. The combination of the VersaBraille, the Apple IIe, and a good old dot matrix printer, a modified version of Louis Braille’s concept over a century earlier, changed all that. I could write in Braille, read it back, correct my work and then send it to a printer. Astounding!

A less costly option that achieved this objective was the Braille’n’Print, which was introduced by the Australian company Quantum Technologies in the mid-1980s. By removing the bottom from a Perkins Brailler and inserting this device under it, a blind student could Braille their work on a Perkins, and have that work sent to a printer, thus halving the work we had to do.

Over the years, refreshable Braille displays have evolved, and although still expensive, they have reduced in price significantly in real terms. One of the achievements I’m proudest of in my time holding senior roles at assistive technology companies is overseeing two separate 40% reductions in the cost of refreshable Braille display products.

Braille devices were widely adopted in the blind community that offered note taking, book reading, appointment management and other functions long before such devices had become commonplace in the mainstream. Blind people in some parts of the world were accessing online book repositories long before Kindle, Apple Books, and other mainstream options.

The Internet and the digitisation of documents have of course radically altered everyone’s lives, but there have been particular benefits for Braille readers. As a child, I would pester my three older sighted sisters and my parents to read the newspaper to me. So life changed for me on the day I first logged on to the CompuServe Information service in 1988 and used the Executive News Service. It was expensive for anyone, but particularly for a penniless student, yet for the first time I was reading a newspaper at the same time as everyone else. I dreamed of a day when I didn’t have to ration my access to this treasure-trove of knowledge. As part of my daily meditation practice, I keep a gratitude journal. I frequently express gratitude for the fact that I can now read in Braille almost any newspaper in the world at the same time everyone else is reading it. I am glad to have lived in an era where I can remember what it was like before that was possible. I will never take it for granted.

Today, most offices are largely paperless. A blind person with a Braille display can write beautifully formatted documents and verify them before sending them to sighted co-workers. We can instantly read documents sent to us. It opens up employment opportunities that were previously difficult for us to do without sighted assistance. We must now work hard to change the biggest barrier that holds us back, misconceptions about blindness and our capability.

We can now bank, shop and transact other business with dignity and complete independence, accessibility permitting of course. And we can self-transcribe. First came stand-alone reading machines including the original Kurzweil Reading machine, then we had desktop scanners and cameras with dedicated OCR software. Now I commonly take a picture of a menu at a restaurant with my smartphone’s camera and read the menu on my Braille display.

Many people around the world have access to BookShare, and possibly accessible format repositories unique to their own country. Additionally, blind people can now purchase a book from a mainstream eBook provider on release day and read that new bestseller in Braille at the same time as everyone else.

We have come a long way, and there has never been a better time in history to be blind. But all this assumes that people have access to the technology and the training to make the most of it. That is not the case far too often. Hopefully we will see a combination of new technology that makes refreshable Braille devices more cost-effective to produce, and recognition by Governments around the world that the right to read is a human right. Increasingly, the best way to guarantee that right for blind people is to give every person who wants one a Braille display. This is already happening in several countries, and there are programmes those of us who are not so fortunate can advocate for our respective governments to emulate.

Sighted people can now produce material of a quality and type variation that would have only been possible by professional printing companies a few short decades ago. Print has evolved to make greater use of typefaces and fonts. For Braille to continue to be a faithful representation of print, and give blind people an appreciation of how today’s documents look and should be formatted, Braille needed to evolve too.

One of the most significant modifications to the Braille code was the introduction of two more dots to the cell. This increased the number of possible combinations from 63 with a six-dot cell to 255 with an eight-dot cell.

Eight-dot cells had been used in some other limited contexts since the mid-19th century, but they are now commonplace on refreshable Braille displays and embossers. Time will tell whether eight-dot displays remain the norm or whether we’ll see more six-dot devices to save cost. One of the strengths of an eight-dot cell, the fact that it could give you a one to one representation of the computer screen, no longer applies in an era of proportional fonts, graphical user interfaces and multiple character sets, although the extra cells for displaying formatting information are still useful, and innovative attempts have been made to make the most of the extra two dots for more efficient interaction with stem subjects.

Even though there is now no question among the informed about the primacy of Braille as the literacy tool for the blind, robust, highly technical, AKA nerdy, and passionate discussions continue about its evolution, and I suspect always will. In 1992, formal work began on the Unified English Braille project, in response to two giants in the field, Abraham Nemeth and Tim Cranmer, expressing concern over what they called the “proliferation of Braille codes” with different symbols for common characters. ICEB officially adopted the project in 1993, and I remember attending a fascinating conference about the topic here in Auckland. Later I produced a documentary for ACB Radio covering the controversies as the debate dragged on, particularly regarding the efficiency questions around the representation of mathematics. UEB has ensured that Braille is a code fit for the 21st century. Most Braille is now produced with the assistance of computer software, whether it be software powering refreshable Braille displays or translation software preparing a file to be sent to an embosser. It was imperative that ambiguities that could be confusing to machines be eliminated. It was absolutely necessary that we had symbols representing formatting that was seldom used before but is now commonplace, such as bullet points. A blind person needs to know they’re there. Rather than the single all-purpose symbol that meant italics and a range of other means of emphasis, we can now depict precisely what emphasis is intended. There are numerous benefits, they are significant, and many of you in this room played a role in making it happen.

We will all, in our own ways, continue to invest wisely the inheritance bequeathed to us by Louis Braille and subsequent generations of Braille champions. Multiline refreshable Braille technology will open new doors, hopefully making it easier for blind people to consume rich multimedia content and pursue careers in maths and science. The eBraille format will ensure there is a universally agreed upon, flexible, portable means of storing that information. Well, let’s hope so, universality has always been hard-won with Braille. All this reminds us that the next chapter of the history of this precious code is ours to write. With the decisions delegates take at this General Assembly this week, you are making history, a history that will be summarised by someone else on the 300th anniversary of the code, long after we’re gone. I look forward to seeing what technological marvels lie ahead that will further ensure that every blind person can dare to dream, work hard to achieve that dream, and maximise their potential.

But the technical side is just one important part of that equation. The other part of it can be captured in a single word. Belief. Blind people ourselves must continue to boldly assert our worth. We must believe that it is our right, as it is the right of every citizen, to be given the opportunity to learn how to write something down, and read back what we’ve written. Braille is the only equivalent to print that a blind person has. And until society at large agrees to give up reading, blind people must not be fobbed off with the erroneous idea that machines doing the reading for us is good enough.

If we internalise that fundamental belief in our worth, we must then be strident in our articulation of that belief to those who may be disinclined to resource our right to read properly, be it by not training and hiring sufficient teachers, or by failing to fund the tools that allow us to engage optimally in the information age. Not only is reading a human right, funding literacy makes economic sense. Why wouldn’t any sensible government invest in part of its population’s ability to contribute to society at many levels.

Like a number of you in this room, I have spent time at Louis Braille’s birth place in Coupvray, which is now a museum. I examined the exhibits with fascination, handling an instrument similar to the one that caused Louis’s accident. I reflected on just how random, how precarious, history is, how the course of people’s lives can rest on a split second decision or a path not taken. What would my life be like if Louis Braille hadn’t had his unfortunate accident? How would the world be different if Pierre Dufau, and not François Pignier, had been running the school during the formative stages of Louis’s work on his code?

I sat in the garden outside Louis’s house, just meditating, almost overwhelmed by the moment and the knowledge of where I was. I thought about how different my life with be without those precious dots under my fingertips, as a broadcaster, a CEO, a dad and a granddad. It seemed so woefully inadequate, but I bowed my head, and out loud in that garden, I said, “merci, Monsieur Braille”.

Braille is the name we give to this code that has unlocked the door to literacy for us, it is named after its inventor. I am proud that after consultation with our community here in New Zealand, our Braille Authority has now ruled that Braille, when referring to the code, should always be written with a capital B, just like the Morse Code, Celsius, and other important scales, codes and systems are. I hope in my lifetime to see the lower casing of the code’s name eliminated in all ICEB countries. Louis Braille gave us so much, it is the very least we can do to honour him.

Coupvray France is a long way from Auckland New Zealand. It may be a long way from where you live as well. But Euclid Herie beautifully pointed out that a memorial to Louis Braille is never far away. He said, “And so I say to you now, that if you would seek a memorial to Louis Braille, look about you. Whenever a blind person reads, two hands sliding gracefully across the page of Braille text, there is the living memorial to Louis Braille.”

I began this address with the day Louis Braille’s body was relocated to the pantheon in recognition of his greatness. But that’s not quite the full story. Coupvray was proud of this humble genius who altered the course of history for a once uneducated minority. They were reluctant to give him up. And so a compromise was reached. In Coupvray, you will still find Louis Braille’s hands. The hands which, as a child, inflicted the accident that changed history. The hands that experimented and laboured as he perfected his code. The hands that played the organ and read Braille music. The hands that probably wiped away tears of frustration when his code was banned. And the hands that, perhaps, despite his modesty, were raised a little in celebration as he lived to see his code start to gain the respect it now enjoys. 200 years after the creation of this priceless gift, my hands have reached the end of these remarks that celebrate his legacy, and challenge us to use it, cherish it, evolve it, promote it. I wish you well with your deliberations this week. Thank you for the honour of opening your General Assembly, and merci, Monsieur Braille.