Louis Braille and Paris (2000)
Between 27 May - July 1 2000 the Teiresias Centre organized an excursion for employees with visual impairment who worked for the Museum for the Blind in Brno (nowadays the Section of the Blind of the Technical Museum in Brno) to the Braille institution in Paris. The participants of this excursion were in the first place PhDr. Josef Smykal (former director of Elementary School for Blind and Visually Impaired Children in Brno and the founder of the Museum of Blind and its long-time head) and Ms. Eliska Hlusi (current director of the Section) and her husband Zdenek Hlusi, an employee of the Section. The programme of the two groups (the Museum for the Blind and Masaryk University) was not absolutely identical. From the point of view of the museum group, the visit to the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray was a very important part of the journey (see the English commentary on the exhibition here). On the contrary Masaryk University was concerned with talks at the Ministry of Education and Research in Paris related to the particularity of study programmes and examinations of the blind at universities and organization of services for students with visual impairments. The common interest of both groups was the negotiations with the delegates of the Valentin Hšuy Association (which is similar to the Czech SONS (Czech Blind United) - it consists of its own museum as well as its own library and printing office) - and with the representatives of the National Institute for Young Blind People, which has no similar institution in the Czech Republic. It is an educational institution, which can be imagined as an aggregate of the Prague Special Elementary School, Jan Deyl Conservatory and Secondary School of the Visually Impaired and K.E. Macan Library and Printing Office.
Association Valentin HaŁy pour le bien des aveugles (The Valentin HaŁy Association for helping to the Blind) is far from being the oldest French institution providing help to the blind, although it is named after the oldest French pedagogue of the blind (Valentin HaŁy lived in the years 1745-1822). Whereas the founding deed of the National Institute for Young Blind People (which is the real product of Valentin HaŁy) dates back to the year 1791 and its building was built in 1839, the Association was founded only in 1889 by Maurice de la Sizeranne, a professor of the National Institute. This association received at the beginning of its foundation a gift from the former director of the National Institute - a museum collection of subjects related to the history of the blind - which is the best proof that at the time of its formation both institutions were not fighting against each other and that the Association served as a tool for helping those blind who could not benefit from the National Institute because they did not need formal education but practical integration into social and professional life. Besides the cooperation of both institutes, they are also physically close. Both are located on the southwest edge of the Latin Quarter between the Luxembourg Garden and Les Invalides on the corner of Boulevard des Invalides (from which you enter the National Institution) and Rue Duroc (where the entrance into the buildings of the Association in located). The National Institute has a seat in a historic building surrounded by gardens and separated from the neighbourhood by a high wall. The Association owns several modern buildings, which were gradually adapted and form a labyrinth, which can be at times confusing.
Nowadays the Valentin HaŁy Association is in a way more dynamic than the National Institute because the range of its activities is very large and it serves a much broader audience. It organises courses of traditional jobs (masseur and rehabilitation assistant, telecommunication assistant, typist and secretary, basket-maker, refinisher, etc.) all over France, and it offers IT training (Informatics Club) as well as sport and cultural events (Maurice de la Sizeranne Club). It deals with work procurement, arranges accommodations for the blind, and has an imposing shop of practical tools for the blind (the price list of writing tables has about 30 different items, the pricelist of canes over 100 items). It offers audiovisual projections (e.g., film projections acoustically supplemented in a way that a blind person can understand it) and it systematically engages in book digitalization and printing. As far as recent activities are concerned we should mention that the Association's library contains 3100 titles in enlarged black print, 27000 haptic items to sell and 93000 haptic titles to lend in a library with a total capacity of 12.5 million pages (annual increase 500 titles), 6700 acoustic titles for sale and 72000 acoustic titles to lend in the central library as well as in the provincial branches (annual increase 130 titles). The dramatic capacity difference compared to the Czech situation should be noted, but we have to be careful: the official numbers may be deceptive and there is no doubt that the Association chooses titles that are printed and recorded, that are simpler, purely belletrists and popular, so the task progresses quite quickly. The intentional selection of easier tasks can be illustrated by an example that of 12.5 million of Braille pages, there are only 7000 pages of musical notation. It is worth consideration that the capacity of Braille production is three times larger than acoustical production and there is little call for the simple digitalization of tests distributed in the form of text files on diskettes or online. Thanks to this focus on haptic reading France has a better chance of facing the illiteracy of modern times, which is caused amongst many youngsters by information technology.
It is no wonder that the museum, whose collection the Association originally took over from the National Institute and made an important part of the Associations initial cultural offering, is not at the centre of the many interests that the Association has. Ms. Roy, who is the head of the museum, is not a musicologist by her profession but a psychologist and she could not compete with the professional erudition of Dr. Smykal as a historiographer of the Braille print and of the blind movement. After all, it is typical that the most valuable exhibits are from the beginnings of blind literature, such as HaŁy's publications Notice historique sur l'institution des enfants aveugles (Historic Notes of Education of Blind children, from the year 1781) and Essai sur l'ťducation des aveugles (Essay on Education of the Blind, from 1786), a catechism printed by HaŁy's method (in raised Roman alphabet), selections of texts by Barbier de la Serre (so-called night writing, the first point-writing, drawn up for the needs of the French army) and finally the oldest titles by Louis Braille, inspired by Barbier's work. Later writing and printing techniques from the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century are less represented or not at all. The Czech museum delegation and its gifts were welcome contributions to the Association's museum and the whole visit was a mutually pleasant experience.
The Valentin HaŁy Association employs around 200 visually impaired people in about 80 institutions all over France. This institution's budget is over 0.5 billion French francs (in conversion about 3 billion Czech crowns). President Patrick Champetier de Ribes is its head and Jean Dťsormeaux is the general secretary. The Czech delegation was not competent to judge what the Association contributed to the French blind. The insurmountable rift between the Association and the National although their seats are only 200 meters apart was a strong warning to us. During unofficial interviews representatives of the Association accused the National Institute of showing conservative attitudes toward education, close-mindedness, aristocratic arrogance, and a lack of effort towards integration. The National Institute tends to unintentionally rate the Association as inferior because it is much younger rival with a lack of tradition and to reprove it for a superficial populist attitude and a lack of interest in professional education and literature. An unbiased observer will not agree with any of these statements, but will realize that they fit with each other and that they illustrate the differences between the institutions. We were able to visit both institutions in one day thanks to the mediating position of a third party.
The Teiresias Centre received from the Association a catalogue of tools for the blind, which can be ordered in the Association's shop, as well as complete documentation related to the French norm of point-writing for literature, mathematics, physics and chemistry texts, both standard Braille as well as for contracted forms. This gives Masaryk University employees the opportunity to print French publications according to the norm and to provide the necessary training for applicants with visual impairment who are interested in French. The catalogue of acoustic books available from the Association's library is among the publications that will be available in the Brno University Centre shortly.
Institut national des jeunes aveugles (The National Institute for Young Blind People) is the oldest educational institute for the blind in France as well as worldwide. The National Institute's founding is connected with the name of HaŁy which is the name born by its main rival. The founder of the Association, Valentin HaŁy, was born on 13 November, 1745 in a comfortably situated family and studied while at the Sorbonne, classic philology (Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew) supplemented with some modern languages (e.g., Russian). In 1771 he was deeply affected by witnessing advertising at the Paris's market at Saint-Ovide (contemporary Concorde Square), in which a cafe owner had ridiculously dressed up blind performers from Quinzer-Vingts church to attract the attention of the public. After witnessing the scene, Hšuy wanted to provide a means for people with visual impairments to gain dignity and personal independence. He found this means with systematic education: he took charge of the education of the blind FranÁoise Lesueur and started to print simple school texts (e.g., catechism) in a raised Roman alphabet. This method was demanding because of the complicated black-print Roman shapes of that time, which were difficult to distinguish by blind readers. This style of print also required more space than the later Braille writing. The social status of HaŁy's family (his brother was a highly respected member of the Academy of Sciences; HaŁy himself was, thanks to his philosophical knowledge, present amongst the highest social circles, in the circles of the Paris town hall, admiralty and court) helped him a lot as well as the intelligence of his chosen pupil: Lesueur's skills were really exceptional. In 1795 Hšuy became (with authorization of the Philanthropic Society) an official tutor of about ten blind individuals and his activities were generously subsidized by private and royal donations. The French Revolution moved the initiative in an unexpected direction. Although the aristocratic source of resources was lost (many donators immigrated), the revolutionary state considered HaŁy's effort a good representation of its humane endeavours. In 1791 the former protťgť of the royal court received a foundation certificate from the revolutionary state by which the National Institute for Young Blind was officially founded. In 1806 difficult political and personal circumstances led HaŁy away from the institute to Prussia and Russia where he helped organize education of the blind so that he could come back to Paris in 1817. He was (thanks again to the support of his well situated family) witness to seeing that the renewed kingdom acknowledged his Institute - not only was its name changed to the Royal Institute for Young Blind People, but most importantly the subsidies were renewed.
In 1821 a key change in the focus of the school occurred. Nicolas-Charles Barbier de la Serre, a French officer, who created night writing (in fact a point-writing in two columns with six points in each, which enabled transcribing verbal instructions in the dark), gained the authority to teach at the Royal Institute. The twelve-year old Louis Braille became one of his students (he studied at the Institute beginning in 1819). When a big celebration on behalf of HaŁy took place in 1821, three key personalities of the history of blind writing met there: HaŁy, Barbier and Braille. None of them could guess then that, in a few years, small Braille would create an adaptation of Barbier's point writing that would eventually replace the technique of printing that had been promoted by HaŁy. Valentin HaŁy died on 18 March, 1822. He is buried at the P?re Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The National Institute for Young Blind People has never completely lost the favour of the powerful of this world that HaŁy was able to secure for it.
When the Institute, due to a government order (the law of 1938), gained its current building in 1843 - a representative palace in the middle of gardens with an entrance from the Boulevard des Invalides it was the first building in the world to have been planned and constructed specifically for the needs of the blind. Louis Braille (a professor of this institute) died in this building in 1854. He was buried first in his hometown Coupvray and then in 1952 his remains were laid to rest at the Pantheon in Paris. In 1886 the first blind museum by Edgard Guilbeau's initiative was created in the building of the Institute. In addition, on Maurice de la Sizeranne's initiative the Valentin Hšuy Association was founded in 1889 with the goal of taking care of blind people who were not part of the Institute. Even at the present time, there is a notable aristocratic character about the Institute. Since 1974 the Institute has been operated under the authority of the Ministry for Employment and Solidarity and as the current director Gťrard Ganzalez said, "The Ministry has always wanted us to be an example in the middle of all French educational institutes for the blind that would show what is possible to achieve and it has been supporting us in every possible way."
Strictly speaking, the National Institute is a residential school with activity all over France. It provides education for the blind from the first grade of elementary school (starting at 6 years of age) till the school-leaving exam (at the age of 18), while the main focus of education is similar to the Czech conservatory. Among the compulsory subjects are singing and the piano, the students can choose saxophone, trumpet, guitar, percussion or organ as their second musical instrument. At least a year before the school leaving exam, it is decided whether the students will sit for the exam. For those who will not take the exam more practically oriented courses are arranged that enable the student to get a certificate of apprenticeship for piano tuning and repair of pianos. It is worth mentioning that the applicants for this certificate have to take an exam in Maths, French, English, playing the instrument and Music History as well. From this it is clear that the subjects in the school-leaving exams are more similar to Czech high schools gymnŠzium than to our conservatory. Maths is obligatory; students can choose a foreign language according to French school regulations from English, Spanish, German, Italian and Arabic. Knowledge of the full and contracted forms of Braille in the chosen language is taken for granted.
The anticipated intellectual level of the student is very high and the National Institute has no intention of becoming merely a popular institution. Compared to the Czech system, it is very important to note that this aristocratic Institute has a very restrained attitude to informatics - it does not consider it a key solution or a cure all. Informatics is, in accord with the French secondary-school curriculum, taught as a subject, but the main method of getting information is haptic reading. For this purpose the Institute established a stand-alone Section of the Braille textbook transcription and publishing. The goal of this section is to assure that all the compulsory subjects of elementary and secondary education are provided by haptic textbooks for Biology, Physics and Chemistry and atlases for Geography. Following the order of the Ministry of National Education and Research the National Institute carries out this editing task for all French schools. Another section of the Institute's - the Informatics and Research section - is meant to guarantee the knowledge of information technologies and Internet access. However the director of the Institute explicitly reminds us that the internal rule is to deny access to information technology to a student who is unable to cope with traditional technologies, i.e. who lacks the ability to fluently read and write Braille text. The National Institute protects Louis Braille's heritage in a very possessive way (maybe even more zealously because the Braille writing system was pushed forward during the 19th century at a very slow pace). This way of thinking obviously expects that a student will have all necessary information at his disposal in the Braille format. The Documentary and Information Section is quite confident about the matter. They say that in principle the task is resolved, in other words that students during their elementary and secondary studies should not come across the situation that any necessary didactic text or obligatory literature would not be available in haptic print in the Institute's library. A technician from the print office and bindery confirmed that the Braille textbooks are not treated differently. Most of them are bound in a laminated paperback form, which does not differ from the common black-print textbooks or paperbacks. If this binding disintegrates by proper (or improper) manipulation a student calls the print office during a break and has the book printed again while he waits. Concerning arts education, the school has a tradition of public concerts: they take place in the former school chapel (in the Andrť Marchal hall) every Tuesday at 12.30 and admission is free. Apart from that the students can engage in theatre, sculpture and painting. Among possible sports are yoga, judo, swimming, basketball, horseback riding, archery, climbing and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Hereunto it seems that Czech students of the Jan Deyl Conservatory and Secondary School for Visually Impaired would envy their French colleagues. In practice, this envy might be confirmed especially as the number of available Braille prints is incomparable, but at the same time with more scrutiny, the conditions might appear to be similar. For example, regarding the technique of transcription, typesetting and printing of textbooks, you cannot find any significant differences between the methods used by the K.E. Macan Library and Printing Office and the ones used by the National Institute in Paris. In comparison with the practice at the MU Teiresias Centre there is a volume and speed difference (caused by using a Braillo printing machine instead of an Index Everest) and every text is corrected by a blind person. It was important for us to find out that even in France the automatic conversion of some black-print printing materials is not used and so typesetting proceeds rather slowly. So we can say about the codification manuals of haptic prints that they are comparable or even of a lower quality than the Czech codification manual by Dr. Gonzurova. The total volume of texts in the Institute's library (counted by hundreds or at most by thousands) cannot be compared to the number of prints at the library of the Valentin Hšuy Association. For that matter the entire Institute serves only a small number of the blind. The number of students ranges between 150 and 170 and so the Institute has fewer students than the Association has permanent employees with visual impairments.
As you can see from the description, the National Institute is a typical special school for the blind. In spite of the fact that a part of the school is a boarding school, there is not any pressure on parents to commend their children to it if they are able to assure accommodations and private teaching themselves. The relation of the Institute to an integration policy could be called supervisory (that means that it considers itself to be a guarantor and controller that will assure that integrated education will not lead to neglecting specific techniques for the blind). The Institute has both its own preschool advisory centre and an integrative centre. The task of the integrative centre is to complete contracts with common schools that are willing to educate the blind. These contracts establish the distribution of educational duties between the accepting school and the National Institute for Young Blind. So a combination is possible when a student attends one of the common schools in Paris but is accommodated at the Institute, the student can spend time at the Institute and take advantage of its library and similar special services. Personally, I consider the existence of such a contract to be a useful guarantee that, e.g., the knowledge of Braille orthographic rules for the individual languages will not become the personal responsibility of the student during the integrated studies. During adolescence students are prone to the illusion that this knowledge is not important if the school does not supervise them. Only specialized staff can properly supervise the students. The aristocratic approach of the school is also obvious from its loftiness and from its conscionable respect of social rules. We managed to arrange the visit of the Czech delegation on a third party's recommendation. It was necessary to define the topic of the visit in advance. During the visit at the Institute we punctually rotated in audiences with the school's representatives (director Gťrard Gonzales and educational consultant to the director Michel Tessier) and visits to the school's individual departments (the head of the Documentation Section ZoubeÔda Moulfi etc.). Considering the character of the school, the difference between the National Institute and Valentin HaŁy Association is striking. The wall between originally partner institutions is surmountable only with difficulty and asking an employee of one of them to characterize their work by comparing it with the work of the other institute is difficult. The National Institute, which once gave its museum collection to the Association, is gradually building its own museum again. However we did not manage to visit it despite having the recommendation of the Institute's director.
During discussions, the determination of competences to universities was a painful topic for the school's representatives. The National Institute, as it was mentioned before, is not directly under the Ministry of National Education and Research and therefore does not have the same authority with universities as that which guarantees its control over integrated studies at secondary schools. Thus tertiary education is entirely integrative. The situation can hardly be different and the National Institute loses its control over the student once that person enters university. It is not surprising that this fact is viewed from the Institute's director as problematic whereas common secondary schools do not demand this kind of authority for its graduates or universities. From this it is obvious that the monitory and supervisory role seems to be natural for the National Institute's representatives.
During the talks with the Department of Universities of the Ministry of National Education and Research (with participation of the assistant principal of the Section Patrick Levy and regional university school inspector Michelle Palauqui for the French part) it was confirmed that France has no centrally defined conditions for studies of visually impaired students at universities. There is a network of university service centres in France similar to the other countries of Western Europe and North America. The Teiresias Centre got a complete up-to-date address book of these centres as well as of the individuals at the Ministry of Education who are responsible for the overall studies of university students. However, these centres are charged with the care of the students with disabilities in general and so the central recommendations of the Ministry are also formulated in a very general way.
In spite of that, the existing Ministry regulations that state what type of exam adaptation the minister considers legitimate or not would be a big step for the Czech system where the only valid principle is: you have what you arrange. Amended French university regulations are at the disposal of the Teiresias Centre and one result of its adaptation on the Czech tertiary education condition is the MU Students with Special Needs Study Regulations.