Educating the Blind

  • Prosperity
  • 1829

America’s first school for the disabled sprang from a cocktail combining a Boston Brahmin with two quite different visionaries. John Fisher first envisioned a school for the blind after visiting Paris, where the National Institution for Blind Youth inspired him. Having helped found Massachusetts General Hospital, he was able to persuade the state legislature in 1829 to incorporate the New England Asylum for the Blind and award it $6,000. As headmaster, Dr. Fisher chose fellow visionary and Harvard Medical School alum Samuel Gridley Howe, who was as fiery as Fisher was quiet. Howe studied European schools for the blind and returned convinced they were wrong to separate students into two different tracks—to receive either industrial training or academic education. He combined curricula so students could gain “both the ability to think and the skills to support themselves.” He also stressed physical exercise and manners.

The school quickly showed progress but outran its funds and outgrew its rooms in the house of Howe’s father. Enter trustee Thomas Perkins—an aristocratic millionaire trader whose own eyes were failing. Perkins donated his mansion to be used by students on condition the school raise matching funds. Six years later, continued expansion required even more space, and Perkins let his mansion be sold to purchase new facilities. In tribute, the school became the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Its most famous alumnae are Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Dr. Howe went on to pioneer the Braille system, and helped replicate across the nation many schools similar to the Boston original. Today Perkins is active in 67 countries, thanks in part to tens of millions in Hilton Foundation support.

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