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Spring 2003 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Learning from History: Part One

by Phil Hatlen, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

I was recently interviewed by a woman who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the history of schools for the blind. The experience brought back many memories, and reminded me that these schools do, indeed, have a rich and illustrious history. I'm going to select some of what I consider turning points in the history of schools for the blind and share some thoughts with you. In the next See/Hear I'll provide an illustration of the current status of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. There is a history, a present, and a future for all persons and organizations. Knowing about history helps us understand the present and guides us into the future.


The first students are accepted at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and the New York Institution for the Blind. While there continues to be some discussion as to what school was the first in the U.S., it appears that these two schools accepted students at the same time. At Perkins, Samuel Gridley Howe is the first Director. He is very clear in his philosophy that he believes that all children should be educated in their home communities, in local schools, while living with their families. However, Dr. Howe recognizes the necessity of schools for the blind for geographic reasons, not for philosophic reasons. He knows that blind students require the special skills of highly trained teachers, and he realizes that this will not happen often in local communities due to the low prevalence of blindness.


A class for blind children is begun in an elementary school in Chicago. This early success in "integration" is widely publicized, and in subsequent years other urban cities begin their own educational programs for blind students. This small intrusion into the monopoly held by schools for the blind doesn't seem to bother them, for residential schools continue to have more applicants than they can admit.


I insert this particular year because soon the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. Almost concurrently, the Maryland School for the Blind is having its 150th birthday. I have invitations to events honoring both of these occasions on my desk right now, and they remind me of the long and honorable history of our schools for the blind.


Through the first 30 to 40 years of the 20th century, there is not much change regarding education of blind children in the U.S. By about 1915, around 15 cities have day classes for blind students. These hardly cause a ripple within schools for the blind. In the 1930s, several schools for the blind begin placing their senior high school students in local high schools. Two reasons are given for this move. First, the local high schools have the population and the resources to offer a much richer curriculum, with multiple choices for courses. Schools for the blind, with their small enrollment, cannot even come close to providing the curriculum choices of local comprehensive high schools. The second reason is that some of the leadership at schools for the blind begin to realize that, by senior high school, some of their students have mastered the use of curricular adaptations, methods, and materials so that the playing field has been leveled in most areas of academic courses. Blind students sit in classes with sighted peers and study the same curriculum, with little disadvantage. It should be emphasized that this expansion of mainstreaming is initiated by schools for the blind.

1950s - 1960s

This period, without a doubt, contains the most profound changes in education of blind children in our history. Until this time, schools for the blind carefully selected their students, and seldom admitted children with multiple disabilities or complex learning needs. They were the "only game in town", and had complete control of how they functioned and whom they served. Then, suddenly, retrolental fibroplasia (RLF) changes everything. The dramatic result of this cause of blindness is to change forever the educational systems in this country. If any of you would like a more detailed accounting of this period, I would be pleased to write it for another publication, but suffice it to say that neither local schools nor schools for the blind will ever be the same again.

Local school programs become the primary education placement for blind students who do not have additional disabilities. Schools for the blind begin to experience a reduction in enrollment as the population they are accustomed to serving are now attending their local schools. As their students decrease in number, it becomes apparent to many schools for the blind that they will have to change their admission policies and serve students with additional disabilities—such a change is a matter of survival, not necessarily choice.

Of course, the teaching staff at schools for the blind have to either adjust or leave, and in most cases, about half choose each alternative. In some cases (Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, for example), a decision is made to convert the school for the blind into a school that serves exclusively students with visual impairment and additional disabilities. Other schools for the blind diversify their enrollment, and begin serving students with other disabilities (New York Institute for Special Education). And other schools become primarily service centers (North Dakota School for the Blind). All of these are remarkable and appropriate transitions, and these schools continue to thrive in their changed roles.

Most schools for the blind accept children with multiple disabilities and continue to serve children who are visually impaired only. These schools have, over the years, struggled to provide outstanding services to two very diverse populations on one campus.

These profound changes happen quickly, and often neither service delivery system is quite prepared when the change occurs. And the transition does not always find all parties in agreement. Sometimes local schools only grudgingly open their doors to visually impaired students, and passively resist efforts to make the change healthy and successful. But even more often, residential schools resent the change and seriously question the ability of local schools to meet the needs of blind children. Unfortunately, these differences tend to make the transition a smooth, positive experience for children and parents. I can only imagine how the 1950s and 1960s might have been if schools for the blind had led the way in mainstreaming and given the movement both solid support and its expertise. Instead, local school programs develop without much help from most schools for the blind.

By the end of this period, local school programs are experiencing good success in their efforts to replicate the education of sighted children for their blind students. And, sometimes much to their amazement, schools for the blind become excellent at providing an appropriate, useful education for children with multiple disabilities.


I often refer to this decade as a time when schools for the blind begin to assertively take charge of their own destiny. Instead of viewing their role exclusively as supplementing the programs offered in local schools, and serving only those children whom local schools didn't want to serve, our residential schools begin carving out a new image for themselves. This new image says that sometimes academic students need time at schools for the blind, that a "revolving door" process, resulting in students moving back and forth between local schools and schools for the blind, can indeed work, that in some areas of academic instruction, mathematics and science, for example, schools for the blind can actually provide a better instructional program than local schools, that self-esteem and self-confidence can often grow and thrive in a residential school, that it is healthy for blind children to know and play with other blind children, that time spent in a school for the blind need not result in loosening family ties, that time spent in a residential school does not make it more difficult for a young adult to assimilate into her home community.

In other words, we begin to learn that there is no hierarchy of desirability between the two educational systems—that both have strong qualities from which students can benefit. Placement should not be based on philosophic principles, but on the individual needs of children. Staff at the school for the blind and in the local schools, together with parents, can really sit down together and discuss the individual needs of a child without having a bias for one system or the other before the meeting even begins.

My friends, we live in the most wonderful era in our profession's history. We have learned how to respect and honor the assets and liabilities of various placement options, and we can make decisions that truly represent the best interests of each individual child.

Part Two will discuss the school for the blind in the 21st century.

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Last Revision: August 21, 2003