Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Great read about the history of Braille in the United States

This was such an awsome read that I decided not to truncate it. I read it in the MATILDA ZIEGLER Magazine

Making a Point: The Crusade for a Universal Embossed Code in the United States
(By C. Michael Mellor, editor emeritus, Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind)

[Author's Note: This is an edited version of a paper I presented at the 2nd International Conference on "The History of the Blind and the Blind in History," Paris, France, June 22-24, 1998. Ten years later, at the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth, Jan. 4, 2009, it seems appropriate to give Ziegler readers an account of the highly controversial process by which the braille code gained acceptance in the United States. Readers can find out much more about Louis Braille from my book, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, published in 2006 by National Braille Press in braille and print; Braille.com, 800-548-7323 or orders@nbp.org. A French translation entitled Louis Braille: Le G nie au Bout des Doigts, will be published by ditions du Patrimoine in time for the international conference commemorating the bicentenary of Louis Braille's birth, held in Paris Jan. 4-8, 2009.]
The reading and writing code Louis Braille had devised by age 15 is now so widely accepted that it seems incomprehensible that its acceptance was not easy, even in France, the land of his birth. In the United States, acceptance was greatly delayed because there was fanatical support for competing codes.
When the first issue of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind was published in March 1907, it had to be manufactured in two completely different raised-dot codes because no single embossed code was recognized throughout the United States. One code, American braille, used the 3x2 cell of Louis Braille's system, but the dots did not have the same meanings as even British braille, let alone French braille. The second code, New York Point, used a system of raised dots having no relationship at all to braille. Then, as now, the Ziegler Magazine was sent free of charge to any blind person wishing to receive it. Still, the duplication of codes greatly added to the cost of the magazine, which for many years was paid out of the pocket of Matilda Ziegler herself.
Why did the United States, with its large and prosperous population, and its proportionately large numbers of blind people, take so long to decide upon a standard embossed code for making print materials available to blind readers? The story is fascinating, for it turned into a crusade in which people fought fiercely and bitterly for the system to which they were passionately committed.
For decades, the Ziegler Magazine actually used three embossed types--the third was a living fossil of the once- dominant Boston Line Type, about which I will say more. The magazine's name and address were embossed in Line Type on the front cover, along with the letters of the alphabet and frequently used contractions. The Line letters were keyed to the braille or New York Point symbols that represented them. From its inception, the Ziegler was consumer-oriented--its goal has always been to please its readers. The editor felt that Line Type on the magazine's cover would help readers who had learned that type to make the transition to one of the raised-dot systems. Even if a blind reader did not know Line Type, sighted people could read it and so describe the embossed code to him or her. Until the 1940s, the magazine's name and address appeared on the cover in Boston Line Type. Strange as it seems now, New York Point was by far the more widely used code in 1907, and the first issue of the Ziegler consisted of 5,000 copies in New York Point, and 2,000 in braille. Not until the late 1920s did the magazine's mailing list show that Point was yielding to braille. Still, anyone who closely studied the subject at the turn of the century could detect that the long-term trend was against the seemingly dominant Point. It nevertheless was three decades before a uniform code was adopted in the United States.
As in other countries, various attempts had been made to devise representations of print that could be detected by the fingers of blind individuals. In the early 1830s, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind [now Overbrook School] published an entire book in a tactile type. The Gospel of St. Mark was painstakingly hand-embossed by well- intentioned sighted people, but their efforts proved to be in vain. In a foretaste of attitudes among sighted people that persisted for generations, no one had bothered to find out if blind people could actually read this embossed print, which turned out to be illegible!
It was perhaps the most trivial of circumstances that delayed the introduction of Louis Braille's system into the United States. The redoubtable Samuel Gridley Howe, upon his appointment as first superintendent of the New England Asylum for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts (now the Perkins School), traveled to Europe to examine educational practices there. Among the places he visited in 1832 was the National Institute for the Young Blind in Paris. Evidently, he was not cordially received (he had a rather forceful personality), and no one told him about the young, blind instructor who was even then experimenting with a new reading and writing system for the blind. That young man was, of course, Louis Braille, who was adapting Charles Barbier's criture nocturne, night writing intended for the military, for use by blind people. Braille had found that Barbier's cell of 2x6 dots was too complex, too clumsy, and too spread out to be easily interpreted by the probing finger.
All this was unknown to Howe. On his return to Boston, he devised a system of embossed type based on the shapes of upper and lower case letters of the Roman alphabet. Curved shapes in print were made more angular in the embossed type in the hope that this would make them easier to interpret by blind readers. Boston Line Type (which I will refer to as Line Type, although it was also known as Line Letter and Roman Line) was easy for sighted people to read, less easy for those who were blind! Helen Keller has described her experience when reading Milton's Paradise Lost in Line Type: "A streak of blood followed my finger over the rough type, marking my path through Paradise."
As in Philadelphia, the first work to be embossed in Line Type was Christian: the Acts of the Apostles, completed in 1835. Not long thereafter, both the Old and New Testaments were published in Line Type. It was a few more years before secular work was embossed, the first being Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. The cost, $1,700, was covered by the author
himself. Dickens had visited the Perkins Institution in 1842,
and was especially impressed by the success Dr. Howe had had in teaching the deaf and blind girl Laura Bridgman how to read and communicate.
Embossed-type systems derived from print had a fatal flaw that was not at first recognized, especially by sighted people. The blind French philosopher Pierre Villey perhaps expressed this flaw most clearly by pointing out that such systems fell into the logical error of "talking to the fingers in the language of the eye." To be readable with any speed, a tactually based reading system had to make sure that characters could be recognized quickly and accurately by the finger.
While Line Type was dominant in the United States for some 50 years, Braille's dot system was not entirely absent. It was introduced to St. Louis not long after it was officially accepted in Paris in 1854. Dr. Pollak, a founder of the Missouri School for the Blind, happened to be in Europe at that time, and he brought Braille's new code back with him. The students at the Missouri School were at once delighted with the system--not least because their sighted teachers could not read it. The students could pass notes to one another, love letters included, without the teachers being able to penetrate their secrets. In those sexually segregated Victorian schools, this was quite a plus for braille! Sighted teachers probably also resisted braille because they could not read it without special training, and because blind people, who could teach this code, might take away the sighted teachers' jobs.
By the 1860s it was clear that raised-dot systems were the easiest to read with the fingers. William Bell Wait, the sighted superintendent of the New York Institution for the Blind, had been working on a raised-dot system that he believed was more grounded in science than Braille's system was. But before publishing his system, Wait conferred with Dr. Howe at the Boston school and with Mr. Chapin of the Philadelphia school, offering to abandon further efforts with his new system, provided they would unite with him in adopting and improving Louis Braille's system. Neither superintendent accepted Wait's proposal. He therefore felt that as a service to his students, he was obliged to perfect a system that would be better than any form of braille could ever be.
Wait's code, known as New York Point, consisted of embossed dots positioned in cells that were only two dots high, but which had a variable base that could be four (or, in theory, more) dots wide. To save space compared with braille, Wait made sure that the most frequently used letters in English used the smallest number of dots. For example, "e" and "t" each had one dot, "a," "n," "o" and "s" had two dots, while "q" had four dots and "x" and "z" had five.
Wait published his system in 1868. Three years later, New York Point was recommended for use in schools for the blind at the meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB). Despite this boost to New York Point, not everyone was convinced. Its way of indicating capital letters was so cumbersome that publishers almost never included capitals in books. A method of capitalization said to be easier to interpret consisted of heavy dots. In reality, these proved hard to detect. One man who had read the entire Bible in New York Point laid a bet that it contained not one capital letter. He lost: His finger had simply not detected the heavy dots. Wait also claimed that his system allowed greater powers of expression than braille did because in theory Point yielded 400 signs, whereas braille could produce only 63. The problem was that many of the Point characters were difficult to read by touch.
Undoubtedly aware of New York Point's drawbacks, Joel W. Smith at the Perkins Institution began to modify Braille's system. What he did in the main was represent the most frequently occurring letters with the least number of dots. A blind instructor of piano tuning at Perkins, Smith was a very clever man who had invented many ingenious devices for his blind pupils. Among these was a braille writer. (He is credited, by the way, with inventing the touch-typing technique, now universally accepted by those using a typewriter or computer
keyboard.) But he was a mild-mannered, gentle man, and when he presented his modified braille system at the 1878 AAIB meeting he was harshly treated by the aggressive, antagonistic (and sighted) Wait and his supporters. Thus was modified braille shot down, and for the next decade only the Perkins Institution used it.
A further complication in reading systems for the blind arrived in the United States in 1882, when Dr. William Moon and his daughter crossed the Atlantic to promote the Moon system. Dr. Moon had invented his reading system in 1847, having become totally blind at age 21. He himself was able to read in any of the embossed systems then available in Great Britain, but he knew that most blind people could not master them. His embossed alphabet was relatively easy to learn. His alphabet consisted of the simplified shapes of eight Roman letters, 13 other letters based in part on Roman letters and five new forms--mainly sharp angles, half circles, right angles and straight lines whose meaning changed according to readily detectible changes in their orientation, e.g., point of an angle on top, bottom, to the left, or to the right. Moon Type was unique in that it was read in boustrophedon--from left to right then right to left in alternate lines. [Because Moon is now produced by computers, which cannot handle boustrophedon, contemporary Moon lines are all read from left to right.]
Moon's system did not interest the people in New England, where Line Type was still dominant. But in Philadelphia, Dr. Moon was well received by John P. Rhoads, head of the local branch of the American Bible Society. Together, they set up the Pennsylvania Home Teaching and Free Circulating Library for the Blind. Although Moon Type was used mainly for embossing Christian materials, it later appealed to the editor of the Ziegler because it was easy for newly blinded adults to learn. The Ziegler introduced a Moon version in 1934, though it was an abridged edition because Moon required so much space. The Moon type edition was discontinued in 1965.
The American tactile tower of Babel was accurately summarized in 1905 by Charles W. Holmes, president of the Alumni Association of the Perkins Institution for the Blind: "We have at present five distinct codes of embossed print, and virtual subdivisions of some of them--since some books are printed with, and some without contractions. In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which is at best 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 type?" [To summarize: these five types were Line Type, New York Point, American Braille, British Braille, and Moon Type.] Charles Holmes made a plea for an "international universal code of embossed type for all English speaking countries." It took almost 30 more years for that wish to be fulfilled.
Curiously enough, the correct method for determining the single best code had been spelled out 25 years before Charles Holmes made this plea. In the 1880 Annual Report of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, KY, the deaf- blind genius James Morrison Heady politely gave his opinions of the embossed types of his day. "I have been a reader of blind- print for more than 30 years; yet to this day I cannot but view the art with wonder and admiration that within so short a time after its conception it could have been brought to such a degree of perfection.... But it is an art still in its incipiency, and hence, open to improvement...." He proceeded to give very practical and detailed suggestions for improving existing systems. Heady's lucid, incisive, thorough exposition inspired one APH Board member, Mr. Chapin, to comment, "It struck me that it would be a very good subject for consideration ... to get expressions of opinion from all the institutions of the country. That is, for these institutions to select their best readers, and let them indicate what letters in their opinion are the most difficult, or on which they make the most mistakes." In other words, he was saying that blind people, and they alone, should decide the direction in which embossed type should evolve. No one was listening.
Close to 30 years later, in 1909, there was a public hearing before a New York Board of Education committee charged with determining whether braille or New York Point should be used to teach those blind children who would be educated in the public schools. At this hearing, B. Bernstein, a graduate of the New York State School for the Blind and a student at Columbia University, had to point out that the only people competent to make a decision between New York Point and braille were those familiar with both systems. Those who knew only one system were not competent to speak, he claimed. Perhaps because we know that braille was subsequently chosen for use in New York public schools, it became apparent at this hearing that New York Point was already losing ground. Blind readers were making their preferences clear in what was, in effect, a market in tactile codes. When Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Education of the Blind, demonstrated his braillewriter at the 1892 convention of the AAIB, the audience was dumbfounded: his daughter used the machine to emboss braille at 100 words per minute. To be effective, this device had to use the same fundamental principle as the typewriter: all characters had to be the same width, which meant that the print letter "i" was allotted the same width as the letter "m." The cell of the braille system already met this condition, while the variable base of New York Point would required a much more complex machine.
Rising to the challenge, William Wait constructed a machine to write Point. It was called a Kleidograph, and its design and merit were recognized by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, which conferred its John Scott Medal upon Wait. Supporters of Point used this award to buttress their case, but an engineering triumph had no relevance to the adequacy of Point as a reading and writing system for blind people. In fairness, it must be said that one merit of the Kleidograph was that it could be operated by the left hand only, leaving the right hand free to read. Even so, there was no way of avoiding the fact that corrections were difficult to make in Point. The correction of one misplaced dot might change the length of a cell, and so change the length of an entire line or even paragraph. In braille, an incorrect dot could be simply flattened, and a correct dot or dots inserted without changing the width of the cell. The invention of the braillewriter gave braille a great boost. Not only was it easy to use, but it could also write braille in any language. The Kleidograph could produce only the parochial New York Point.
This is an appropriate point to give some indication of the virulence with which the "War of the Dots" was fought. No less a personage than the president of the Board of Trustees of the New York Institution for the Blind, a Point advocate, accused Frank Hall of favoring braille because it would allow him to profit from increased sales of his braillewriter. In fact, Hall had never patented his device and never earned a cent from its sale or use.
By the last decade of the 19th century, change in the schools' preferences for reading systems was becoming evident. Between 1894 and 1907, 10 out of 34 schools for the blind that had adopted Point as their preferred embossed code changed to braille. In that same period, not one school that had adopted braille discarded it in favor of Point. During those years, the number of students using Point increased by only 7 percent, while the number of those using braille increased by 70 percent, and the number of schools using braille grew from seven to 20.
This continuous growth in the popularity of braille is all the more remarkable, given the fact that since March 1879 New York Point had been subsidized by the federal government. In that year "An Act to Promote the Education of the Blind" came into force. Under its terms, the American Printing House for the Blind was to receive an annual subsidy of $10,000 to provide schools for the blind with embossed textbooks. At first the funds were split 50/50 between Line Type and Point. No new Line Type books were produced after 1892 (though some were re-issued) and funds not used to produce Line Type were transferred to Point. Not until 1894 was part of the government subsidy made available to produce braille texts.
What we are witnessing here is a phenomenon with which we are more familiar today--the counter-productive consequences of government subsidy. In this case, government support for New York Point prolonged its life, and instead of improving the education of blind children, it actually deprived them of the best means of access to print. This perverse effect of the subsidy was made explicit at the 1909 New York hearing. Charles Holmes, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind (who had tracked the patterns of New York Point and braille use described above), pointed out that "without the $10,000 annual subsidy at its back, revolt would have been inevitable and complete, and braille would now [1909] be the universal system of America. But some states have not held back at expense nor [been] bribed by the government subsidy, to accept anything but the best."
While the direction was now mainly in the favor of braille, the establishment of one standard embossed code was still distant. So much time, thought, money and emotion had been invested in Point that its abandonment would represent a great sacrifice. Still, the advantages of braille were manifest, as summed up by Eben P. Morford, the blind superintendent of the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn, NY: "I am a New York Pointer from education and from habit and an American brailleite from study and convention. I am unqualifiedly in favor of American braille ... for the following reasons: Comprehensive capitalization, full and effective punctuation, uncontracted spelling and the ease with which erasures can be made." Helen Keller said she was almost embarrassed to read Point. "The educated blind person who reads a page of New York Point, as it is usually printed, feels like apologizing for it, and is glad that his cultivated seeing friends cannot see how it looks."
Given the unshakable convictions held by the supporters of particular systems, it was obvious that only objective data would be able to overcome resistance to change. A Uniform Type Committee had been set up by The American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) to establish the relative merits of American braille, New York Point and British braille. Funds to conduct the necessary research throughout this large nation were hard to find, and it is here that the Ziegler Magazine, played a small part in the struggle. The Ziegler's policy was to avoid controversy, never take sides, and simply to publish its magazine month after month in two embossed types. Major M. C. Migel, who was later to establish the American Foundation for the Blind, was a wealthy retired silk manufacturer in New York who had developed an interest in the Uniform Type Committee. A charitable man, he had for years volunteered to read to blind residents at the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Blind in New York City. He was astounded that an embossed book he had brought back from England could not be read by the woman to whom he gave it; she read only New York Point. He wondered if it would be worthwhile to help the Uniform Type Committee to pursue its research. Among those from whom he sought advice was the man responsible for more embossed type than anyone else in the country, and the man who had direct contact with more blind people than any other individual in the United States: Walter G. Holmes, editor of the Ziegler. Holmes told Major Migel that he was distressed at having to put out two editions of the magazine each month. Although the Ziegler was privately funded, he begrudged the waste of precious money. Having witnessed the intense fights by proponents of each embossed system, he was not optimistic that the problem could ever be solved. When Major Migel asked Mr. Holmes if it would be worthwhile to give $1,000 to the Uniform Type Committee, Mr. Holmes hinted at how skeptical he was: "It depends on how much $1,000 means to you," he replied cautiously. (This sum represented a good part of Mr. Holmes's annual salary!) "That is a minor point," answered Migel. "Something really ought to be done to straighten things out." And he did give $1,000 to the cause. His donation, along with funds raised elsewhere, enabled two meagerly paid, intrepid women to travel through 36 states to conduct tests with blind readers. What had been asserted over and over again was at last confirmed by actual tests on many, many readers: characters three dots high and two wide were more easily and accurately read than were characters two dots high and three wide. The committee also felt it should do a test in schools where British braille was preferred. The only school that qualified was in Halifax, Canada. To their great surprise, the testers found that British braille proved superior to both Point and American braille.
How was the researchers' quandary to be resolved? The facts were clear, but the Uniform Type Committee could hardly, on the basis of tests with only 100 readers in Canada, recommend the scrapping of both New York Point and American braille in favor of British braille. In view of the history of embossed types in the United States, the recommendation issued at the 1913 meeting of the AAWB was stupefying: an entirely new system--Standard Dot-- superior to both braille and New York Point--should be introduced! Standard Dot would incorporate the three-dots-high cell of braille and the variable base of Point. Members of the Uniform Type Committee were evidently unaware of an impassioned plea made at a national convention years earlier: "If anyone invents a new system of printing for the blind, shoot him on the spot!"
In any case, a universal code for the English-speaking world required the cooperation of the British; they were not about to cooperate. The British were not at all impressed by Standard Dot, which they unkindly dubbed "Standard Rot!" On December 15th, 1915, W. M. Stone, headmaster of Craigmillar School for the Blind in Edinburgh wrote to what was now called the American Commission on Uniform Type for the Blind: "We don't doubt for a minute that [Standard Dot] is a very good system, but then so is British braille, and why should we change to gain so little?" The British resistance is understandable, because they had had their own difficulties in standardizing embossed codes. Only in 1905 had they been able to agree to adopt a uniform code with two
grades: Grade 1 would be alphabetic and Grade 2 would have space- saving contractions.
Standard Dot had no chance of success, but it took four more years before a system part way between the British grades 1 and 2 was adopted by American schools and agencies. It was known as Grade 1-1/2. The Ziegler Magazine, in its fortunate independent situation, could move at its own pace in modifying the braille it used. In fact, since 1908, the Ziegler had been introducing braille contractions piecemeal. This practice allowed readers gradually to become familiar with them, and it also meant that both the Point and braille editions now included space-saving contractions. Nevertheless, Walter Holmes, the editor, was chided by the "braille establishment" in the person of Edward E. Allen of the Perkins school, for allowing this non-standard practice.
Rationality cannot be held at bay forever, and attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic evolved. When he was in London in 1929, Robert Irwin, then executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, detected a more-receptive mood among the British. Just three years later, in 1932 a system of uniform braille for the English-speaking world was at last achieved. While the elaborate, complex and expensive system of producing embossed reading matter for the blind did provide educational materials for young people, it did not serve adult blind people at all well. A universal complaint was that not enough reading matter was produced. Worse, what was produced was not necessarily what blind people wanted to read, but what they were willing to read in the absence of any real choice. There is no doubt that the culture of 19th century America was very different from the secular culture that now prevails. Still, the question must be asked: Were most blind people really demanding all those embossed religious books in order to have access to the supposed consolation religion would bring to them in their afflicted state? Or was it sighted people who felt--no doubt from the best of intentions--that religious subjects would provide the most appropriate reading matter? In its wisdom, the American Bible Society paid most of the cost of producing the Bible in Line Type under Dr. Howe in Boston. The American Bible Society also spent a large sum to put the Bible in New York Point and, later, into Moon Type. By 1909 some 12,000 Bibles had been issued, and evidently were read with great satisfaction by blind people. The Society for Providing Evangelical Religious Literature for the Blind was for 35 years active in the production and distribution of religious literature in New York Point. Both organizations claimed they were meeting a demand for this kind of reading matter, and that their efforts were well received by blind people. Understandably, neither organization wanted its investment nullified if braille were to become the standard embossed type. The lack of reading materials for blind adults was concisely described by the Ziegler Magazine's first editor, Walter G. Holmes, in a letter published in the May 31st, 1905, issue of the New York Herald. Holmes's letter read in part: "The raised type has given [blind people] a great power to entertain themselves and brighten their hours, but these books are so expensive that only a few of the blind can afford them. For instance Ben Hur in type for the blind costs $10.50. A few cities have libraries for the blind, but very few of the 100,000 blind in the United States have access to them. We are able to buy these books for my [blind] brother, and knowing the great pleasure they give, my heart sighs for the many who do not have these books." In this letter, Mr. Holmes described how children were educated at taxpayer expense at schools for the blind, where they learned to read, but had little access to reading matter when they returned home. In theory, they could borrow books from one of the libraries, but even this service was expensive until the federal government exempted books for the blind from postage. This was a great benefit because the postage could cost as much as the book itself.
The accuracy of Holmes's picture was uncannily reflected in a letter to Mrs. Ziegler soon after the Ziegler Magazine was founded. A young woman wrote: "When I came back from my state school for the blind to my little home in this little village, I realized that my family did no reading, and I gradually drifted into a distressing state, and I rarely went out in my little community, feeling that I knew nothing of what was going on in the world and I was ashamed to let my neighbors see how little I did know. Later your magazine came and kept me informed on the things that were going on in the world. I then began to go out among our neighbors, and I soon felt that I could hold my own among them, and it will interest you to know that I soon joined a literary society, and when my turn comes to conduct the meeting I feel no hesitation to do so, feeling that I am now capable of doing so, and all this has come through your magazine." Whenever Walter Holmes asked blind people what kind of reading matter they wanted, they invariably told him that they wanted what seeing people read. He listened, and set out to make this unique magazine as nearly as possible like a magazine for those who could read ink print. This policy is still followed.

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