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Slovakia remembers its own pioneer on World Braille Day

As we observe World Braille day, Slovakia remembers its own important figure, whose incredible life story is closely tied with helping visually impaired people. He had a backpack full of books, a walking stick in his hand, frequently dressed in a local folk costume. That was how Matej Hrebenda in the 19th century looked to people who met him during his many travels to villages and cities, even all over Slovakia.
World Braille Day is observed at the beginning of January, celebrating the importance of Braille in the everyday life of visually impaired people and how it helps them enjoy their human rights. This is also an opportunity to remind us that Slovakia also had its own pioneer in this area concerning Matej Hrebenda.

​​​​​​​He was visually impaired, but that did not stop him from disseminating books and knowledge. The unique Library for the Blind in the city of Levoča is a testament to his significance.
Born in March 1796 in Rimavská Píla, central Slovakia, Hrebenda did not have an easy life in any meaning of the word. Hrebenda had been gradually losing his eyesight from an early age. Due to this impairment, he could not attend school and had to gain knowledge himself. When he was 15, he could not write and read even in broad daylight. He went door to door, sometimes even village to village, asking other people to read books for him.

Hrebenda earned his living by writing congratulatory verses to the melodies of traditional songs. He was also the assistant of an evangelical pastor and announcer of local news.

Inspired by how Hrebenda earned his living, the Slovak Blind and Partially Sighted Union holds Matej Hrebenda Days on alternating years, a nationwide parade of blind and partially-sighted reciters and authors. The union, a civic organization that aims to provide social services and defend the interest of visually-impaired people, also regularly holds various events such as a photography competition called the Way of Light, the Braille Olympics. The union has more than 60 cell organizations and eight counseling centers in every region of Slovakia.
Hrebenda made himself known due to his love of disseminating books as well. He travelled extensively, visiting Prague, Vienna, Budapest and some parts of the Balkans. Publishers gave him books and he used them to spread awareness and knowledge at a time many considered literature to be a useless pastime. On his travels he also saved books from burning, being torn apart or other forms of destruction, sending them to schools and other institutions.
Because of Hrebenda's efforts, he was named a UNESCO jubilant a century later after his death in 1880. Statutes and institutions named after Hrebenda can be found throughout Slovakia. The library in Levoča is intended for visually-impaired people and is the sole one in Slovakia. Actually, Levoča itself is nicknamed the “City of the Blind”. There is a kindergarten, primary and secondary school, as well as a rehabilitation center for the visually-impaired.
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​​​​​​​The inconspicuous Museum of Special Education can be found in the city's central square, hailing the tradition of a schooling system for these fellow citizens. The museum allows visitors to feel what it is like to be in the shoes of a person who neither sees nor hears.

The invention of the Braille writing system is immense. There is probably no country where the system is not used. Figures such as Braille and Hrebenda allowed visually-impaired people to gain knowledge, education and culture. It is the duty of our society to help with their integration and to make equal opportunities available for them.

​​​​​​​Photos: Museum of Special Education, Ján Zoričák, Peter Olekšák, Štefánia Petreková, POFIS