February 25th, 2010
By Alessandra Retico
They are letters you can touch: six little dots you brush with your fingers, 64 combinations to encode the world. But now Braille, the blind person’s Esperanto, is set to become a dead language.
New technologies mean the tactile alphabet is being used less and less, as sound takes its place: technologies such as telephone services with synthetic voices to read newspapers; talking computers and audio-books. Many young blind people no longer learn the physical grammar that would allow them to communicate with any other user in any language, preferring to put on their headphones. These days, only 25% of Italian people who are blind (362,000) and 10% of blind Americans (1,300,000) know Braille (compared with a figure in the US of more than half of all blind children in the 1950s, according to a recent issue of the New York Times). Invented in 1829 by Louis Braille, who became blind at the age of six and inspired by a military code for the transmission of messages at night, the system still survives, but faces strong competition from information technology.