Testimony to the Uniform Type Committee
Caption: Helen Keller wrote a letter to the NYC Board of Education to advocate for braille to be the standard raised point type for all published materials for the blind, rather than New York Point, which didn’t include punctuation or capital letters.Read plain text of document
Raised type was first invented in France in 1824, by Louis Braille. He became blind after an injury as a young child, after he learned of a cryptography system developed by an army officer for communication at night. He used that knowledge to develop a raised type system for blind readers. His system later became the official standard for publishing for the blind in France, and was also adopted and modified for English by British educators.
In the 1860s, a similar system called New York Point was invented by a sighted man, William Bell Wait. He was an instructor and superintendent at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. Wait’s design was motivated by efficiency. He argued that braille took up too much space and was less economical for printing.
New York Point was difficult for blind people to read, but the system was endorsed in 1871 by the American Association of Instructors of the Blind, who were mostly sighted people. Books printed in New York and in many other cities were produced in New York Point.
Debates over how blind people would read continued throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Public figures like Helen Keller protested that lack of a single standard meant that she had to learn four systems to read. While the New York City Board of Education was debating what type it would use for its new classes for the blind, they held a hearing. Braille proponents showed how the lack of punctuation and capital letters made printed text unreadable. Keller’s letter, shown here, was read aloud.1
It wasn’t until the founding of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) in 1921, that blind people were finally able to have a say in the point system that worked best for them. The AFB, whose members were mostly blind people, gained decision-making power over this issue. The AFB voted to make braille the standard, though it would still take many years before a final standard was adopted.2
“The Blind Dispute Rival Book Systems,” The New York Times, March 25, 1909, https://www.nytimes.com/1909/03/25/archives/the-blind-dispute-rival-booksy-systems-professor-reads-his-speech.html. ↩︎
The American Foundation for the Blind. “War of the Dots | American Foundation for the Blind.” https://www.afb.org/about-afb/history/online-library/war-dots, Accessed July 25, 2023. ↩︎
Date: Mar 25, 1909
Creator: Helen Keller Archives
Source: Helen Keller Archives
Copyright: Public domain
How to cite: “Testimony to the Uniform Type Committee” in New York City Civil Rights History Project, Accessed: [Month Day, Year], https://nyccivilrightshistory.org/gallery/keller-ny-point."
- Why do you think that debates over a font for blind readers took so many years before people could agree on a standard? Whose interests were at play?
- Why was it important for blind people to have a say in how they read books? What insights did they have?
- This debate over font systems for the blind was a debate about self-determination. Would blind people be able to choose what system worked best for them, or would others choose? What other examples of struggles over self-determination have you seen in history? Where do these struggles continue in the present?