Historically, blind education has referred to those facilities, programs, techniques, and practices designed to maximize formal learning for persons with significant to total loss of vision. Such education has taken place in a variety of formal and informal instructional settings, including the home, private tutoring sessions, segregated and integrated classrooms in public schools, public and private day schools, and public as well as private residential institutions. As a modality impairment, blindness has existed throughout history and in all societies. The bulk of practices in the United States, however, have evolved from origins and developments specific to the Western world. As this entry considers the education of blind persons, information on its historical development in Europe, Canada, and the United States complements descriptions and discussion of current education theory and practice regarding ways to compensate for a loss of vision through specific technologies, materials, subject matter, and instructional practices.
The key European figure in developing teaching methods for the blind was Valentin Hauy (1745–1822), a French aristocrat who championed more humane treatment for all disabled persons but focused on developing instructional techniques for blind persons. He played a leading role in developing raised print for use by blind readers. He also encouraged vocational training for the blind, arguing that gainful employment would permit more authentic and effective participation in a mostly sighted society.
Hauy’s methods and priorities underscored a growing belief among those working with the disabled that blind persons were certainly capable of formal academic instruction and deserved more humane treatment from their fellow human beings. Education of blind persons, which typically occurred in private tutorials or in institutions, spread from France to England by 1800, where the emphasis again fell on vocational or trade training. In addition, music instruction was often featured to enhance learning through senses other than sight.
European beliefs about and approaches to the education of the blind migrated to the United States primarily via the efforts of two individuals: Dr. John Fischer and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, both from the Boston area. Fischer’s visits to the school for the blind in Paris prompted him to work to establish a similar school in the United States. His efforts led to the 1832 opening of what became known as the Perkins Institution and the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, located in Boston and headed by Howe. The school quickly assumed a national leadership role and enrolled students from all regions of the country by the late 1800s.
Perkins not only educated blind students but also trained many of the teachers for other institutions and schools for the blind. Such settings increased steadily in number throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, with over three dozen institutions providing educational services to blind students by the early 1900s. Many of these combined educational services with those for deaf students, while others were segregated by race. High profile cases such as Laura Bridgman (Howe’s first prominent deaf-blind student) and Annie Sullivan (Helen Keller’s famous teacher) drew attention to Perkins in particular and efforts to educate the blind in general.
By the early 1900s public schools had joined residential institutions as providers of formal education for the blind. In 1900 Chicago opened the first class designated specifically for children with total blindness. Most large urban school systems, however, established classes for children whose vision loss was significant but not complete. Often called “sight-saving” or “semiblind” classes, these settings created an environment considered optimal for students with significant vision loss, including specialized lighting, raised print (usually Braille) texts, and other instructional accommodations. Most of these classes were segregated from the regular classes but held in the local public school according to demand. These classes combined academic content with an emphasis on music instruction and vocational training. Meanwhile, the residential institutions continued with their educational mission of basic academic instruction and solid vocational training that could lead to employment upon leaving the institution.
With large-scale, segregated, residential institutions as well as numerous public school systems around the country providing formal, specialized instruction for students with all levels of significant—including total—vision loss, discussion intensified over certain assumptions and practices that defined approaches to educating the blind. Such discussions continue to this day. Issues have included the propriety of segregated instruction, whether in schools or institutions; the appropriate balance of academic, vocational, and functional instruction; and the effective integration of technology into specially adapted curricula.
The debate over integrating or segregating for instructional purposes students who are blind from their nondisabled peers has played out heatedly for generations. Advocates for residential institutions for the blind argue that the specialized settings allow more opportunities for appropriate, individualized instruction in a supportive, caring environment. Such facilities permit more effective and efficient use of what can be very expensive resources, such as large print or raised-text books, optical enhancement equipment, and audio technology. They offer comfortable environments where the teachers are trained in specific, appropriate methodology and where students share needs, abilities, and interests that may be quite limited or even nonexistent in a public school classroom.
In short, it has been argued, residential institutions for students who are blind offer the best opportunities for providing the education such children need and deserve. Separate classes in public school buildings for children who suffer severe vision loss also offer such nurturing and specialized environments and have the advantage of closer proximity to the students’ nondisabled peers for events at which they can fully participate, such as lunch, festivals, or other appropriate events.
On the other hand, according to critics of segregation, the practice of intentionally separating children who are blind cannot help but contribute to long-held prejudices and misunderstandings that have confronted the blind literally for centuries. Critics contend that no amount of fiscal or instructional efficiency can justify the purposeful exclusion of any child from the mainstream of society. Too, the notion that segregated instruction provides a more comfortable and supportive environment may well be applicable in the short term but arguably makes it much more difficult for children—indeed all persons—with blindness to become socially integrated and functionally independent, given their intense isolation for years and society’s relative absence of familiarity with the conditions and ramifications of the condition. Clearly, the relative merits and drawbacks of inclusion and segregation in the education of all children on the margins certainly apply to children who are blind.
Discussions regarding the appropriate content and balance of formal instruction for the blind also have captured much interest among those involved in the process. For the most part, the blind long ago overcame very early prejudices that most were incapable of learning standard and advanced academic content. Nevertheless, curriculum development for blind children must consider several features unique to blindness and adapt instruction accordingly. For example, many have argued for instruction that theoretically enhances the blind child’s ability to use her or his four other senses to compensate for the lack of sight. A strong emphasis on oral instruction and the use of itinerant teachers who could work with a blind child individually in her or his regular classroom have become common features of teaching children who are blind.
Moreover, a discussion as to the “best” form of text reading continues to this day. The development of practical social and vocational skills remains central to this specialized curriculum: cooking, personal hygiene, mobility, and interpersonal interactions often accompany specific training in a particular trade or skill of the child’s choice. In recent decades technology designed to assist children who are blind has become increasingly sophisticated, requiring more specialized training for teachers of the blind and additional “reasonable and appropriate” expenditures for residential institutions and for school districts. As with other disabilities that can be effectively addressed through the use of highly expensive equipment or other technology, blindness raises issues as to just how much a public school district should be expected to spend on a child with the condition.
Today families, friends, and advocates of and for the blind join with educators and the general public to assure a “free and appropriate” education for the blind in a variety of settings. Nevertheless, issues of curriculum, policy, and school practice continue to raise important questions, ideas, and debates designed to address—and assure—the most effective education for children who live daily with severe or total vision loss but who also have much to contribute to their peers and to society if given sufficient opportunity and support.
- Barraga, N. C., & Erin, J. N. (1992). Visual handicaps and learning (3rd ed.). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
- Best, H. (1934). Blindness and the blind in the United States. New York: MacMillan.
- Castellano, C. (2005). Making it work: Educating the blind/visually impaired student in the regular school. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.
- Osgood, R. L. (2008). The history of special education: A struggle for equality in American public schools. Westport, CT: Praeger.
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