The Touch of Genius Prize: Recognizing Braille Innovation

By Hannah Ransom Canning, Executive Assistant

When I first started in September 2016, I received a full breakdown of tasks that I would be fulfilling in my new position as Executive Assistant to the President. One of these tasks was taking on the role of the Program Administrator of the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. It seemed a little intimidating that I would be managing all of the coordination for submitters and calls and meetings for our Adjudication Committee.

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However, having now worked with the team to bring this competition to its fruition, I couldn’t imagine a more understanding and helpful group of people who are dedicated to fulfilling the meaning behind this prize. The Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize was developed to inspire innovators to support tactile literacy. After putting out a call for applications, we received 18 submissions from around the world that displayed their best efforts and ideas to continue supporting braille or other tactile literacy innovations. After careful deliberation, the Adjudication Committee decided our winner was John Hudelson, for his submission of BELLA. BELLA is the Braille Early Learning and Literacy Arcade, a programmable, educational software and hardware gaming platform using audio, visual, and tactile feedback to teach pre-braille skills, braille reading, and braille writing. By inserting a card with a barcode on it programmed for one of the four games or story option, you can interact with the device to use BELLA in a variety of teaching methods. The games KeyCrush, Whack-A-Dot. Cell Spotter, and Alphabet Cards are used to teach the chords of the braille alphabet, finger dexterity, and letter association between letters, braille cells, phenomes, and words by following prompts on the brailed barcode cards. The committee tested all of these features and were impressed by BELLA’s responsiveness and ability to program different cards for some of the games.

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The committee also selected Mandy Lau’s Reach and Match Learning Kit and Inclusive Learning Program for an honorable mention. This kit and its accompanying curriculum is designed for children with vision impairment as well as those with multiple needs to develop braille literacy and communication & social skills through tactile strategies and play-based activities. The kit contains mats that are differentiated in a variety of ways. On one side, they have a color: red, blue, green, or yellow, with a corresponding raised-line pattern. On the opposite side, there is a large brailled and large print block and an indented line to follow this “Braille Trail” to learn the braille alphabet. The Reach and Match Kit’s curriculum includes many programs to help preschool and kindergarten teachers.

From this competition, I have discovered how many creative individuals there are who are researching and developing new ideas. The submissions we received showed much promise and ingenuity, and the committee encouraged many of the submitters to improve their designs and consider submitting an application next year. Administering the Touch of Genius Prize gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet in the world of braille literacy, and I am looking forward to learning even more.

Did Louis Braille Realize His Impact on the World?

As author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, I spent the last week of June in Paris, where I participated in an international colloquium, “The History of Blindness and the Blind.” My assignment was to discuss Louis Braille as a worldwide benefactor, and incidentally to show that Helen Keller was correct in claiming, “we the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.”

Mike Mellor and French translator in Coupvray, France.

Mike Mellor discusses last minute details of his talk with the translator, Dr. Hannah Thompson, Royal Holloway, University of London, England.

Evidence of Braille’s broad reach was amply provided during the 2009 celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth. Many countries issued postage stamps featuring Braille (and sometimes braille dots), and the United States minted a silver dollar coin in his honor—an honor rarely granted to non-U.S. citizens. His worldwide achievement is suggested by the fact that my biography has been translated into seven languages: Afrikaans, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Polish.

Louis Braille could not possibly have known that the ingenious code he had developed by the age of 15 would be adapted to non-alphabetic languages, and he would surely have been aghast at the thought that braille messages could be sent thousands of miles through the air. Yet, there are clues that he had some sense of how great his achievement was. For example, in the 1840’s his reputation as a teacher was such that he was invited to become the tutor of a blind prince in the Austrian royal family. With an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, he declined, stating that he was the tutor of ALL blind people not just one blind individual.

Just a few years later, terminally ill in the infirmary of the National Institute for Young Blind in Paris, Louis again showed he was aware of his extraordinary achievement. Perhaps in some kind of delirium, he told those in the room that he had experienced the majesty of religion and felt that his mission on earth had been accomplished. Indeed it had. Though he died January 6th 1852 his benefaction continues.

A completely unexpected bonus of attending this conference was the experience of accommodation in a convent. Some of us guests were housed in the spotless, spartan rooms of the Sisters of the Assumption. No TV, no radio, but with wi-fi connection to the web. For me, a long-time New Yorker, it was a delight to wallow in the simplicity, grace and tranquility of the convent, to escape from the ever-present cacophony of the modern world. The sisters had made a vow of silence between 07:00 and 08:00, and guests were asked to honor this practice. The only sound at our simple breakfast of bread, butter, jam, yoghurt and tea or coffee, was of teeth crunching the scrumptious French bread.