Los Angeles Almanac Logo
Home | All Almanac Topics | Social Welfare

Braille Institute of America

J. Robert Atkinson with Braille Books in Los Angeles, 1929

J. Robert Atkinson with Braille Books in Los Angeles, 1929. Photo from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

In 1912, while visiting relatives in Los Angeles, J. Robert Atkinson, a cowboy from Montana, lost his vision in a gun accident. The incident sent him into a spiral of depression and despair and he even attempted suicide. Yet, he struggled through it and turned to improving his education and learned to read Braille. He ended up transcribing 250 books by hand into Braille that were dictated to him by family members.

In 1919, Atkinson met Mary Beecher Longyear, a wealthy philanthropist seeking to make religious materials available for the blind. She was so impressed by Atkinson’s work with Braille that she and husband John offered him a $25,000 donation towards a Braille printing press and publication of a Braille Bible. Atkinson turned that gift into Universal Braille Press in Los Angeles and, by 1924, completed and published his 21 volumes of The Braille King James Bible.

Braille Bible in 21 Volumes Next to Inkprint Bible, Circa 1928

Braille Bible, published by Universal Braille Press, in 21 volumes next to an inkprint Bible, Circa 1928. Photo from the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library.

Besides a publisher, Atkinson also became an inventor, creating new machines and processes for creating printed and audio material for the visually-impaired.

In 1926, Atkinson began publishing The Braille Mirror. The Braille magazine, like Readers Digest, featured articles from other publications.

In 1929, Universal Braille Press incorporated as Braille Institute of America.

Atkinson lobbied congress for passage of the Pratt-Smoot Act that would provide $100,000, through the Library of Congress, for publishing and making books available for the Blind. The act was passed and signed into law in 1931.

In 1934, the Braille Institute Library became the Southern California branch of the National Library Service of the Library of Congress. It now makes available more than 1.2 million free Braille texts, periodicals, and audio recordings to the public.

Printer Works on Braille Copy of Mutiny on the Bounty, 1936

Braille Institute printer, R.T. Allen, works on Braille copy of Mutiny on the Bounty, 1936. Photo from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

In 1938, Braille Institute of America printed the first Braille Webster's dictionary.

In 1948, the first edition of a brailled children’s anthology, Expectations, was published and offered as a free gift to blind children.

Atkinson died in 1964 at the age of 76.

During the early 1970s, Arthur Yohannan and Sergio Miranda, architects with William Pereira & Associates, took on the assignment of designing a new headquarters building for the Braille Institute of America on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. They started by wearing blindfolds for two weeks in order to begin understanding the challenges for the vision-impaired. The new building had to be designed for people who would experience it without ever actually seeing it.

Braille Institute on Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles

Braille Institute headquarters at 741 Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles. Photo from Google Maps, Copyright 2020 Google

In 2000, Braille Institute of America held its first annual Braille Challenge. The competition encourages visually-impaired young people to practice their braille skills. It now engages hundreds of young people from throughout the United States and Canada.

Braille Institute of America continues its service to visually-impaired people, serving more than 37,000 students across Southern California.

Braile Institute of America
741 N. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90000

Braille Institute History
Hall of Fame - Leader and Legends of the Blindness Field
J. Robert Atkinson: Benefactor of the Blind