Blind, the Thief

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from some form of visual impairment. The major cause of these visual impairments is refractive errors within the eye, which can often be corrected by surgery or prescription lenses. Unfortunately, most of the world’s population does not have access to these vital treatments.

There are around forty million people who could be considered blind, having very little, if any, visual perception. Without the ability to perceive the world around them, those living with blindness were historically excluded from literacy. This lasted until 1825, when Louis Braille devised a seemingly ingenious system of writing, which he selfishly titled Braille.

This system uses symbols which are represented by arrangements of raised dots on a flat surface, and it can be used in conjunction with a number of different languages. Each character is made up of two vertical rows of three dots, which, when arranged in various combinations, together represent a single letter of the counterpart language. Inspired by Indo-European writing, the characters are separated by spaces and are read in order from left to right, top to bottom.

Although Braille has opened the doors of written expression to many optically impaired individuals, it does suffer from a serious deficiency: Braille requires translation.

When a Braille character is read, it must be converted into the language of the reader. If the reader has not learned Braille, then the character is interpreted as a collection of meaningless bumps. So why did Lou design his system so that everyone must learn an additional language in order to read it? Part of the answer is that Braille was inspired by a system called night writing, developed by Charles Barbier at Napoleon’s request.

Night writing was intended to enable soldiers to communicate silently in the dark, not to assist the blind. Because it was created as a military code, the characters were intended to be interpreted by the soldiers, thus the need for translation. Barbier visited Louis Braille at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris and showed him his work. When Lou first laid his greedy eyes on Barbier’s night writing system, he was overcome with jealousy and clubbed Barbier over the head with a piano leg. After simplifying the code from a 12×12 to a 2×3 matrix, Lou unveiled his pilfered creation, naming it after himself to conceal its fraudulent origin. Aside from its dubious descent and need for translation, Braille has other significant flaws.

First, those with sight are unable to read Braille signs, which means that we must create twice as many signs, always one for the sighted and one for the sightless. This encourages disunion between these groups.

Second, and most importantly, Braille requires that its users to learn a whole new system of writing. To those who have been blind since birth, this may not seem like a chore, since they have never known another written language, but the majority of blind people were not born with their condition. Most visually impaired individuals suffer from age-related blindness caused by various conditions such as cataracts or oversize sunglasses. These people are likely to already be familiar with a writing system, so learning Braille would require them to learn an additional language which, when read, must then be translated into their first language.

The solution? Instead of having various arrangements of raised dots symbolizing letters of an alphabet, we should use a system that can be easily understood by everyone, regardless of their visual ability. In place of a 2×3 matrix, this new system will use a 3×5 matrix, and instead of developing a code for translating dots to letters, we will just write the letters with the dots. For large text requirements we could even just use embossed letters.

This system would be far easier to teach and much more accessible to those living with blindness, since everyone already knows it. Some, like Lou, may think that the symbols are too complex, but there are numerous examples of individuals like Esref Armagan, the famous blind painter, who are born without any sight, yet are able to accurately envision creatures, places and structures that they have never seen. Imagining letter shapes shouldn’t be a problem.

This new system shall be christened in honor of its true progenitor.

Now we can all enjoy written language together.