January is National Braille Literacy Month.

Braille is a way of reading and writing that uses touch, not sight. Letters, numbers and other symbols each have a "code" of up to six dots. The dots are punched through paper and can be felt on the other side.

About 700,000 Americans younger than 21 are blind or have serious vision problems, even when wearing glasses. Braille lets them read and write on their own. Before its invention nearly 200 years ago, most blind people were illiterate, or unable to read or write. Their lives were very difficult.

At its peak, half of all blind children in this country learned Braille, also known as "finger reading." That number began dropping in the 1960s, partly due to a lack of teachers. Computers and new high-tech gadgets now have some people asking whether Braille's days are numbered.

Today, KidsPost honors two people who, as youths, embraced this life-changing advance.

Louis Braille, teen inventor

An accident left Louis Braille blind at age 3. A bright lad who taught himself to play cello and piano, in 1819 he was sent to a school for the blind in Paris, France. But its library had just 14 books. They had large raised letters and took a long time to read.

A visiting army captain told students about his code for sending written messages at night on the battlefield. Raised dots and dashes replaced sounds, so no light was needed. But a single word might need 100 dots!

Twelve-year-old Louis thought a simpler code could help the blind. He spent three years developing his six-dot system, which let blind students read and write without help. Sighted people could also use it.

Louis became a teacher and published the first Braille book in 1829, when he was 20. Other books followed, opening the world to the sightless.

Helen Keller, wonder woman

Helen Keller wasn't just blind. A childhood fever stole her hearing as well as her sight. Imagine for a moment what her early life in the 1880s was like. She couldn't see. She couldn't hear. And she couldn't talk. (Overcoming great odds, she later learned to speak.)

One thing Helen had in her favor was grit. With the tireless help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen evolved from wild child to star student.

She mastered finger-spelling and Braille. She learned several foreign languages and attended a famous college (the first deaf-and-blind person to do so), graduating with honors in 1904.

She traveled the world and wrote books and articles about her life and interests. She met kings and presidents, went on cross-country speaking tours and raised money for the blind.

Her image appears on the state quarter for Alabama, her home state, and a statue of her is at the U.S. Capitol. She and Sullivan are buried together at Washington National Cathedral.

LEARN MORE

The Helen Keller Kids Museum online has lots more about this amazing woman. There are fun facts (she loved hot dogs and real dogs!) and a list of books for readers of all ages. Check it out at braillebug.afb.org/hkmuseum.asp.

The museum is part of Braille Bug, an online site created in part to teach sighted children about Braille and related topics. There are games, puzzles, riddles and more at braillebug.afb.org. (Always ask an adult before going online.)