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Archive for August, 2011

Musée Valentin Haüy (5, rue Duroc, 1e étage, metro Duroc) contains a wealth of knowledge that is largely hidden to all but the blind.  Located on the 2nd floor of the Valentin Haüy Institute for the Blind, the museum is a real treat, even for people like me who know next to nothing about the blind community. You are guaranteed to learn many things from a brief Wednesday afternoon visit (it is only open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 2:30 to 5:00, free entry for all.) To arrive at the museum, you enter through the institute, where you will pass by many a seeing eye dog and red and white cane.

The woman at the front desk instructed me to go down a hallway, where I passed open doors behind which classes and meetings were going on. I then went up the stairs and was buzzed into a room that was decorated with depictions of famous blind historical figures from Oedipus to Helen Keller. Along one wall is a progression of braille type writers (see above photo), while early books written for the blind before the advent of braille grace another. They used to make book with raised Roman letters, which took far longer for blind people to read than the dot system. This is not the kind of museum where it is forbidden to touch anything; on the contrary, your visit is enhanced when you feel what it is like to read through touch.

I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who looked a bit like a tenured professor with a gray beard and glasses. He later told me that he became involved with the blind because when he retired at 60, he needed something to do. His knowledge and engaging explanations really made the visit a valuable learning experience. He explained how braille was developed. The above photo shows the early “night writing” system that was created by Charles Barbier (1767-1841), a captain in the French army. Barbier invented the system so that soldiers could communicate silently at night, without any light. Barbier introduced the concept to a school for blind youth, where Louis Braille was a student. Braille went on to simplify the system to make it faster to read and write, yielding what we now know as universal braille. As for the Institute’s namesake, Valentin Haüy (1745-1822) was the first person to create a school for blind children in France.

Sculpture of a man's head by blind artist Giuseppe Bertolino

This museum got me thinking about life as a blind person in Paris, which has obvious challenges. On many metro lines, for example, the stops are not announced, meaning that blind people must memorize their route in advance. I noticed that in Madrid, all walk signals are accompanied by a sound so that blind people will know when it is safe to cross. This is certainly not the norm in Paris. I asked the volunteer guide if the institute has advocacy groups that are working towards more equality measures for the blind. He said that change is a slow process, but that there are people organizing for a more equal society.

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