Helen Keller’s extraordinary educational journey featured in Lansing exhibit

Apr 6, 2016

Braille writers -- one old, one new -- on display at the Library of Michigan.
Credit Mark Bashore, WKAR

Anne Sullivan, renowned teacher to Helen Keller, described her as “a child in a strange country.”

A new Library of Michigan exhibit of the same name explores the innovative tools and techniques that enabled Helen Keller to learn, not just how to communicate, but later about subjects including science, math and geography. 

Current State host Mark Bashore visited the exhibit with Mike Hudson, Director of the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind. Hudson says education hasn’t always been accessible to people who were blind.  

“Now, we’re glutted with information,” he says. “Before 1786, if you were blind or visually impaired there was really no way for you to read a book.”

“So all of the incredible things in a library – you had no access to.”

A Frenchman named Valentin Hauy sought to change this in the late 18th century.

“He’s the one who came up with the idea of embossing the letters onto the page,” says Hudson.

“That way he could then teach the students to trace the letters with their fingers, and eventually learn how to read.”

In 1786, Huay established the world’s first school for the blind. One of his students, Louis Braille, enrolled at the Institute of Blind Youth in 1818. He would go on to be one of the most influential figures in the visually impaired community.

“[Braille] met a soldier named Charles Barbier who had come up with this idea of writing with dots,” says Hudson.

Barbier needed a messaging system that would allow him to communicate secret military attacks at night – but Braille had bigger ideas in mind.

“Louis took that system and turned into a dot code that he used to read and write by using simple tools that you can put in your pocket,” says Hudson.

Further innovations helped the visually impaired with simple tasks that we may take for granted. One example is the relative difficulty of travel. A map of Africa with raised landmarks and braille markings is on display at the exhibit. This is called a relief map, according to Hudson.

“Think about the last time you pulled a road map out in the car or used a GPS – it’s a very visual topic,” says Hudson.

“It’s a great example of how you can take something in a very visual medium and turn it into something you can read by touch.”

The "Child in a Strange Country" exhibit will be on display at the Michigan Library and Historical Center from April 6 through May 22. 

Article by Ethan Merrill, Current State intern