History of Blindness

Summary of the History of the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind

by James Omvig

Beginning in primitive times, the blind were not regarded as being of much value to the societies in which they lived. They generally were not expected to be able to throw a spear accurately in times of conflict, and it was also assumed that they could not hunt or fish for food for basic sustenance. Add these assumptions to the natural "fear of the dark," and it is easy to see how the destructive, negative social attitudes about blindness developed and flourished.

It is reported that in many of the early great civilizations, blind babies were abandoned and left to die, either from exposure to the elements or to be eaten by wild animals. Later, some blind men were sold into galley slavery and some blind women were sold into prostitution. Others were used for amusement, but most lived their lives as beggars or were simply kept by families.

By the middle ages, civilized societies (particularly in Europe) began to operate in the belief that it was an obligation of society itself to care for the "less fortunate," including the blind. Alms houses (something akin to homeless shelters of today) were established to care for the poor and disadvantaged, including the blind.

1784: The first "school for the blind" was established in France in 1784. Before long, schools for the blind were also established in England and throughout Europe.

1809: Louis Braille, the inventor of the tactile reading and writing system for the blind, was born in France in 1809. He developed his tactile reading and writing system by 1820, but it was not embraced immediately as the reading medium for the blind.

1829: The first residential school for the blind was established in America in 1829. It was the New England Asylum for the Blind. The term asylum was used in the names of most of the early schools. Today, the New England Asylum is the Perkins School for the Blind located in Watertown, Mass.

1831: The New York Institution for the Blind was established in 1831.

1832: In 1832, an institution for the education of blind children, now the Overbrook School for the Blind, was established in Philadelphia, and the concept of residential schools for the blind swept rapidly to the West across America.

1850: The avowed purpose of the early residential schools for blind children was to prepare blind students for remunerative employment once they became adults. Therefore, they were taught the "blind trades" - chair caning, basket weaving, rug weaving, etc.'so that they would be able to find work. However, because this plan failed and the blind school graduates were not able to become self-supporting, the "sheltered shop" movement began in America. The first sheltered shop for blind adult workers was established in New York in 1850. The early shops simply carried on work in the "blind trades."

1858: The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) was established in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1879, APH was made the official printer of school books for blind students in America.

1871: The American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) was created in 1871. This was the first organization of blindness professionals in America and embraced those working in the residential schools.

1905: The American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) was established in 1905. It consisted primarily of the blindness professionals administering and working in the management of the sheltered shops. Eventually other blindness professionals (particularly those who became involved in the vocational rehabilitation programs) joined the AAWB.

The AAIB (the instructors) and the AAWB (the workers) joined together in 1984 to become The Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).

1918: Braille was accepted as the national standard for tactile reading for the blind. Prior to 1918, there had been several competing tactile methods, and there had been strong differences of opinion among the leading blindness professionals of the day. The blind, themselves, had always preferred the Braille reading and writing system.

1920: The Smith-Fess Act (Public Law 66-236) established the National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Program. Although a rehabilitation program for disabled veterans (returning from the First World War) had been established by Congress in 1918, the 1920 Act created the first national vocational rehabilitation program for private citizens. This was the first federal effort at investing federal dollars in a program to train the disabled to help them become self-supporting. The concept behind the rehabilitation program is that it makes sense to spend federal and state dollars to help people with disabilities become employable so that they will not need to live off of the public dole.

In the original 1920 Act, an individual had to be "feasible" for rehabilitation in order to qualify for the program. In laymen's terms, this meant that there had to be a reasonable expectation that, if the federal and state dollars were spent, the recipient would become self-supporting.

In the early days of this program, it was assumed that blind people were "not feasible": that is, the myth had grown up that no matter how many rehabilitation dollars were spent on the blind, they couldn't become self-supporting anyway. Therefore, it would be a waste to spend rehabilitation dollars on the blind, and, thus, the blind were generally excluded from the program.

By 1943, as blinded veterans were coming home from the Second World War, the blind were finally included in VR programs and assumed to have at least some kind of employment potential. The 1943 law which brought the blind into the state/federal VR programs was the Barden-LaFollette Act (Public Law 78-113).

1921: The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was created in 1921 by the American Association of Instructors of the Blind and the American Association of Workers for the Blind. These two organizations, meeting in Vinton, Iowa., believed that programs for the blind could be enhanced greatly if there were one "national" entity to represent the interests of the blind. There were four original purposes for the Foundation: to conduct research into the causes of blindness; to work to find resources to improve the lives of blind people; to improve services for the blind; and to represent the interests of the blind.

It was this forth purpose - to "represent" the interests of the blind - which ultimately led to a complete disconnect between the Foundation and the blind themselves.

1931: The Pratt-Smoot Act was passed by the Congress in 1931. It established the federal program of providing books for the blind. It created what was then known as the Division for the Blind of the Library of Congress, what is now the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

1935: The Social Security Act was passed by the Congress in 1935. In addition to developing a system of retirement benefits for seniors, it included a new welfare program, Aid to the Blind. In time, an effort was made to include the concept of rehabilitation training within the Aid to the Blind grant program so that the blind could get off of welfare and become self-supporting.

1936: The Randolph-Sheppard vending stand program was created by the Congress in 1936. This program had and has two purposes; first, to provide employment opportunities for the blind in vending facilities located on federal property; and, second, to serve as a visible demonstration to the public of the abilities of the blind to engage in normal, competitive employment.

1938: The Wagner-O'Day Act was passed by the Congress in 1938. The purpose of this Act was to require that the federal government purchase certain items - mops, brooms, mattresses, etc. - from sheltered shops for the blind. This was clearly another federal effort to create more and better employment opportunities for the blind.

1938: However, the Wagner-O'Day Act was weakened somewhat when, also in 1938, Congress passed the new federal minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which included a provision (Section 14 C) that permitted sheltered shops to pay less than the new federal minimum wage to blind sheltered shop workers. Sub-minimum wages can legally be paid to blind sheltered shop workers to this day.

1940: The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was established in 1940. The organizing convention included representatives from seven states; California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Federation was the first nationwide organization "of" blind people and is far-and-away the largest such organization today. It continues to represent the interests of all of America's blind citizens.

It was the National Federation of the Blind which came to understand that the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight itself, but rather is to be found in the wide range of public misunderstandings, misconceptions, and superstitions about blindness held by rank-and-file members of the general public - both blind and sighted. That is, it was the Federation which recognized that the blind are a minority in the same way and for the same reasons that certain racial and ethnic groups are. Many people continue to think of blind people as if we were still in the dark ages; that is, as helpless, incompetent, and unable to participate in the ordinary pursuits of life.

However, the Federation came to know the all-empowering truth that blind people are not defective sighted people but are nothing more than "normal" people who cannot see. The Federation also came to understand that, given "proper" training and opportunity, the average blind person can live and work and play on terms of absolute equality alongside the average sighted person, and that it is perfectly respectable to be blind!

(1943: As stated previously, the federal vocational rehabilitation act was amended specifically to include the blind when Congress passed the Barden-LaFollette Act in 1943.)

1971: Senator Jacob Javits of New York was successful in 1971 in amending the Wagner-O'Day Act to require that the federal government also purchase products and services from sheltered shops for people with severe disabilities. Thus the law became the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) Act.

The original Wagner-O'Day Act required that 75 percent of the production work had to be performed by people who were merely "legally blind." However, the new Javits provisions were somewhat more stringent: the 75 percent of disabled workers in these shops must be "so severely disabled that they are not able to work in normal, competitive employment."

1973: Congress took its first steps into the area of civil rights protections for people with disabilities when it enacted Title 5 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Interestingly, civil rights protections for people with disabilities were placed within the rehabilitation framework rather than in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, and national origin.

There were several important provisions in Title 5 of the 1973 Act:

Section 501 provided that the "federal government" itself could not discriminate against "otherwise handicapped individuals" on the basis of disability and that the federal government must provide "reasonable accommodations" for the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified handicapped individuals;

Section 502 created the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. This entity works nationwide on the general concept of accessibility for people with disabilities;

Section 503 required that "federal contractors" not discriminate on the basis of disability; and

Section 504 (the section which was most prominent) provided that "recipients of federal funds" not discriminate on the basis of physical or mental disability and that "reasonable accommodation" be provided to overcome the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified handicapped individual.

1974: The original Randolph-Sheppard Act had provided for the establishment of small vending facilities on federal property to create employment opportunities for the blind. A 1974 amendment to this law proposed by the National Federation of the Blind broadened the program to include full-line food service operations on certain federal property. Under this new provision, many blind persons have earned significant livings running large cafeterias.

1975: In 1975, Congress passed the first law requiring that public schools accept handicapped students in "the least restrictive environment." This law is now known as The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has led to the placement of countless blind children in the public schools. However, mere placement in the public schools, without more, was destined to fail blind students.

(1984: As noted above, AER was established in 1984.) This organization of blindness professionals became relatively powerful among the agencies and schools for the blind, but, for many years, it steadfastly refused to work "with" the blind, and there have been major controversies over best practices for training and teaching techniques. Tensions are now reducing somewhat.

1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by the Congress in 1990. This Act greatly broadened the protections offered by Title 5 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended. Generally, it took civil rights protections for people with disabilities into the private sector. The blind'speaking through the National Federation of the Blind'supported this act only after a provision was added that said that a disabled person did not have to accept a particular accommodation if he or she did not wish to do so. The blind were concerned that, for example, they might be told that all of the "handicapped rooms" in a particular hotel were taken and that, therefore, they could not stay in the facility. The blind wanted to be able to say that they did not want a "handicapped" room, since none is required by a blind person.

1990: The National Federation of the Blind established the International Braille and Technology Center to secure and evaluate all of the many rapidly developing pieces of Braille and other technology for the blind.

1990 and following: The National Federation of the Blind began passing "model state Braille bills." Blind youngsters attending the public schools were having a very difficult time getting Braille books. The Federation's model laws generally required two things: first, that text book producers wishing to sell books in a given state would be required to provide "electronic" versions so that, using Braille embossers, the schools could produce their own Braille books as needed; and second, that school districts would be required to provide Braille teachers who were "qualified" so that blind children could learn to read and write Braille competently and routinely.

1992: By the early 1990s, the three NFB centers had become highly successful, but blind people in many of the states had no apparent right to attend them for training. In 1992, the National Federation of the Blind was able to convince Congress to include "informed choice" provisions within the vocational rehabilitation (VR) system. This meant that, unlike the old days, the VR client could participate in selecting what program - training center or school, etc. - he or she might attend. This did not mean, of course, that the client could tell the service provider how to set up its programs or that the client could choose to take certain parts, but not all, of a service provider's curriculum.

1995: The National Federation of the Blind established NEWSLINE FOR THE BLIND. This is a system whereby blind people can read newspapers and magazines using touch-tone telephones.

1996: Until this point in the history of the blindness system, permission from a book's publisher had to be obtained before a book could be tape-recorded or transcribed into Braille for blind students or readers. This sometimes resulted in long delays before production could commence, and blind students might be without books for months.

In 1996, the National Federation of the Blind was able to convince the organization of textbook publishers and the Congress that the law should permit the transcription or Brailling of books for the blind without prior publisher permission. This has speeded up the production process significantly.

1997: Even though the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Federation's Model Braille Bills were in existence by this time, blind students were still experiencing difficulties in getting Braille instruction in the public schools. Quite often, the special education teachers themselves were a large part of the problem since they were not fluent in Braille and they thought it too complicated to learn handily.

Under IDEA, a team, including teachers, parents, and special education officials, must order an "assessment" of the needs of each child with a disability and then develop an "Individualized Education Plan" (IEP) which sets forth details about the services which will be provided. Even under this plan, blind students needing Braille instruction were not receiving it.

Therefore, the National Federation of the Blind was able to convince the Congress that the IDEA law should be amended to require that the IEP not begin with a blank slate but that Braille be included within the Individualized Education Plan, unless it is agreed by the entire IEP team that Braille is not needed. While certain blindness professionals opposed this provision, the Congress enacted it. The system to implement this provision is still under development.

2004: By 2004, certain blind students were still being denied Braille instruction, so the National Federation of the Blind offered yet another solution: the Federation proposed a law to the Congress which stated that every publisher wishing to copyright a proposed textbook would have to submit an "electronic" version of that book to a federal repository before the copyright would be granted. Congress passed and the President signed this legislation in the fall of 2004. Plans are being finalized as to just how the new law will be implemented. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) is being designated as the central repository for the electronic versions of the books - the National Instructional Materials Access Center. Schools are to be able to request copies as needed, and they will produce their own Braille books locally. This process has not yet been perfected.

2006: In 2006, the Federation was able to convince the Congress to mint a commemorative Louis Braille coin to recognize Braille's 200th birthday in 2009. The Federation will receive approximately four million dollars from the coin sales to use for Braille literacy projects, if it is able to raise the matching funds needed to earn the Federal dollars.