Hauy, Braille and Gandhi: Lessons for World Changers
Louis Braille born January 4, 1809 and died January 6, 1852
Louis Braille, was the inventor of what we now refer to as Braille, a system of reading and writing for the blind. He changed the world for the blind. Louis was a remarkable boy, but he never aspired to change the world. He just focused on living the fullest life possible and encouraging those around him to do the same. Louis did change the world and in the process left us three astounding life lessons for those of us in the community development and philanthropic fields. First, we all benefit from the foundations laid by others. Second, we will not always see the fruits of our labor. Third, it took a blind man to solve a blind person problem. We’ll come back to the lessons, but first the story of Louis Braille.
Braille was born in Coupvray, France, 20 miles east of Paris. He had three older siblings and his father was an ordinary craftsman. At the age of three, working with his father, Louis damaged an eye with a sharp tool which eventually led to an infection in both eyes and then total blindness by the age of five.
Amazingly, especially for his time, Louis was able to keep up in a regular school until the age of ten. He was clearly intelligent, creative, and most of all diligent and strong willed. At the age of ten, in 1819, he was allowed to attend the National Institute for Blind Youth founded by Valentin Hauy. Hauy was not blind but had a calling to work with the blind. He had dedicated his life to helping educate the blind in hopes that they could realize a more normal life. Hauy’s passion ignited in 1771, 48 yrs. earlier, when he observed a gang of people mock and humiliate a group of blind people. He was by every definition a truly compassionate man with a charitable soul.
Hauy recognized that a key to helping the blind lead normal lives was teaching them to read and write. He began to develop a system that consisted of embossing heavy paper with raised imprints of letters, basically allowing the students to recognize the shape of the letter with their hands. Though a revolutionary progression, the method was expensive, time consuming and very bulky. The students, including Louis, were able to learn the letters and read, but there were few books written in this system. It was also impossible for students to use this system to write.
Two years into Louis’ time at the school in 1821, Captain Charles Barbier visited the school to demonstrate his system of “night writing”. The code was developed in response to a demand by Napoleon to create a way for soldiers to silently communicate at night without using light. Barbier’s night writing consisted of a series of dots and dashes. While the code was not successfully integrated into the military, Barbier was encouraged by the Royal Academy of the Sciences to introduce his code to Hauy’s school.
Barbier’s demonstration was well received by the students and many saw immediate advantages over Hauy’s system, but young Louis also saw a number of modifications that could be made. Barbier left the school without much thought ever given to Louis’s suggestions. At this point, Louis, now 12, obsessively worked to improve on Barbier’s code and after three years of work had made great strides. Louis’ code was much more efficient and even intuitive. Also, he was able to reduce the framework from 12 dots to six. The system would be revised and tweaked over the years but it is mostly the same today as it was 192 years ago.
Starting in 1825, many of the students in the school learned the code and began using it amongst themselves, but the administrators failed to see the immeasurable value of the code and even punished or dismissed those that advocated for adoption. It was not until 1854, two years after Louis’s death, did the school begin formally teaching the code. It only reluctantly did so then because of the overwhelming insistence of the students. Use of the code grew and ultimately was adopted in the U.S. in 1916 and an English version was approved in 1932, 108 years after Louis first revealed his code, and 80 years after his death. The rest is just history.
As I read the story, three themes jumped out at me. First, without the work of Hauy and Barbier, Braille may have never been able to develop the system. The code is named after Braille, but credit should also be given to Hauy and Barbier. We all benefit from those that have gone before us. Every generation is built on top of the generation that come before. Very little, for better or worse, changes over night. True change happens over generations, but it has to start somewhere.
The second lesson can be extension of the first. Braille never saw his work adopted or appreciated. He may not have ever even considered how many lives his work would impact. Think for a second how many lives have been changed for the better by Braille’s work as a 12 year old boy. There is no way to know what impact our actions have on those around us or those that are going to come after us. Make it count. Don’t ever judge your successes by the number of people that say thank you or pat you on the back. Change, trues societal, cultural change is a generational process.
And third, as compassionate and well-intentioned as Hauy was and as badly as he wanted to help, he could not fully understand those he was trying to help. He wasn’t blind. He did his best to solve a problem, but he could only see the problem through his perspective, and that wasn’t enough. Even the most well intentioned people often try to help others and fail because they don’t truly understand the real core of a problem. Even worse, very often those that step into another person’s life to help can very easily cross a line where they appear elitist or condescending. Hauy tried to create a solution to someone else’s problem based on his world view, not theirs. Gandhi is attributed with the quote “Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me”.
Until we really know one another, until we live our lives together, until we really try to see life through someone else’s eyes, we cannot understand their problems and we surely can’t help them find solutions. As a society of mostly well-intentioned people, we have tried to develop solutions for poverty, education, equality etc. without ever trying to really understand how the people we are trying to help see the world. It’s patronizing to tell someone how to fix their problem when you never really ask them what the problem is.
We all have to keep fighting the good fight, even when we don’t see the results we expect. We have to be intentional about living life together. We are all more similar that we are different. And we have to do a better job of including those that we want to help in the process of creating solutions.