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Education of the Blind

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Although the education of the blind as a class dates back no further than the year 1784, historians and statisticians generally admit that the affliction which it tends to relieve was no less prevalent before than it has been since that date. Indeed, so far from having increased, blindness appears to have in a marked degree decreased during the last hundred years.


An exact statement of the number of blind persons in all parts of the inhabited earth is of course impossible. The estimates which publicists have formed upon the basis of census returns, as also those derived from the observation of travellers, give the ratio of blind persons to the whole population in Asia 1 to 500; in Africa 1 to 300; in Europe 1 to 1094 (the ratios for seventeen countries of the last-named division being, approximately: England, 1 to 1235; Scotland, 1 to 1118; Ireland, 1 to 870; France, 1 to 1194; Germany, 1 to 1136; European Russia, 1 to 534; Austria, 1 to 1234; Hungary, 1 to 952; Italy, 1 to 1074; Spain, 1 to 835; Denmark, 1 to 1248; Sweden, 1 to 1262; Norway, 1 to 795; Finland, 1 to 689; Belgium, 1 to 1229; Switzerland, 1 to 1325; Bulgaria, 1 to 321). For the other great geographical divisions no data are available for even a fairly satisfactory approximation. (See below Blindness in the United States .) Consistently with the foregoing ratios, and with such conjectures as may be hazarded for America, Australasia, etc., it may be estimated that the number of blind persons now living in all parts of the world is not far short of 2,500,000. A careful study of the figures shows that blindness prevails most in tropical, and least in temperate, regions; more in the Eastern than in the Western Hemisphere. In the temperate climates of the North the blind are comparatively few; nearer the Arctic Circle, the glittering snows, the alternation from the brilliant nights of the Arctic summer to the prolonged darkness of the winter, and other conditions affect the visual organs unfavourably, while in the torrid zones the glare from desert sands and the intense heat of the sun occasion many diseases, resulting in either total or partial loss of sight.

Blindness in the United States

In the Western Hemisphere a different ratio seems to obtain. The data, however, for an accurate comparison are wanting, except in the United States (lying between the 24th and 49th parallels of north latitude), where, according to the census of 1900, the ratio of the blind to the entire population is 1 to 1178. In 1890, the ratio was 1 to 1242. The number of blind persons in the United States originally returned by the enumerators of the Federal Census Bureau, 1900, was 101,123; by subsequent correspondence with individuals, this number was reduced to 64,763; but the special report on "The Blind and the Deaf" states that this should be considered only as a minimum, the correct figure being probably 80,000 and possibly over 100,000. Of the minimum 64,763 reported in the Census, 57.2 per cent were males, 42.8 per cent females; about 13 per cent were under, and about 87 per cent over, twenty years of age. Of the juvenile 13 per cent (8308), those entirely or partially blind before the age of two years numbered 8166.

Causes and Effects

In a careful study of the causes of blindness Cohn of Breslau estimates that among 1000 blind there are only 220 absolutely unavoidable cases, 449 possibly avoidable, and 326 (or nearly one-third) absolutely avoidable. Blindness may result from accident or from disease. The diseases most often productive of blindness are: ophthalmia neonatorum , or inflammation of the eyes of the new-born;. trachoma , often called "granular lids", and glaucoma , and atrophy of the optic nerve. Blindness from ophthalmia of the new-born is so widespread that, according to Magnus, out of 2528 cases of total blindness in Germany, 10.88 per cent were due to this cause. Among the blind under the age of twenty the proportion is as high as 30 per cent. In the United States, between 6000 and 7000 persons have thus become blind. Thanks to improved sanitary conditions in homes, to more intelligent care on the part of midwives and nurses, and more skilful medical treatment, ophthalmia in certain countries appears as a cause of blindness in only seven per cent of the total number of cases, as against the 41 per cent recorded fifty years ago.

The function of sight can, to a certain extent, be replaced by the use of the other senses. Stimulated by necessity and trained by education, touch, hearing, and smell take the place of vision. Having no sight to distract them, moreover, the blind cultivate their remaining senses all the more effectually. As for the exercise of their mental faculties, although wanting some of the means by which various impressions are received, and attention is aroused, the blind are as capable of reflection and reason as other human beings, while, owing to their condition, they are more frequently forced to close mental application. That blindness does not necessarily render its subjects intellectually inferior, may also be inferred from the number of famous persons who were blind from childhood or early youth. A list of such examples might with little difficulty be produced, long enough and important enough to show how erroneous is the idea that the physical darkness of the blind is necessarily associated with intellectual darkness.


That no attempt was made in ancient times to instruct the blind, or in any way to cultivate their intelligences, was mainly due to the prevalent error as to their mental capacities. The same error, generally speaking, produced the same unfortunate results in Christian civilization until as late as the end of the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the Church, from the earliest ages, at least made provision for their corporal needs, while here and there attempts were made to teach them various handicrafts. Among the most noted of the hospices for the poor and afflicted which began to appear in all parts of Christendom almost as soon as persecution ceased, was that established in the fourth century by Saint Basil at Cæsarea, where special provision was made for the blind, and guides were supplied for them. In the fifth century, Limnæus, a hermit of Syria, received, in cottages especially built for them, the blind of the surrounding country, whom he taught, among other things, to sing the praises of God. Two centuries later, towards the year 630, a refuge exclusively for the blind, such as was called in the Middle Ages a typhlocomium , was founded at Jerusalem.

In the West, the Church was animated with similar charity. Early in the seventh century, St. Bertrand, Bishop of Le Mans, founded a hospice for the blind at Pontlieu, in the north-west of France. In the eleventh century, William the Conqueror, in expiation of his sins, founded a number of institutions; among: them four hospices for the blind and other infirm persons at Cherbourg, Rouen, Bayeux and Caen respectively. Towards 1260, St. Louis, King of France, established at Paris the Hospice des Quinze-Vingts, where he housed and instructed three hundred blind persons. The inmates of the hospice, after the example of the students and the craftsmen of the day, formed among themselves a distinct brotherhood, to whom the saintly king gave special statutes and privileges. It is noteworthy that, in spite of the changes of government, the "Hospice des Quinze-Vingts" has survived to this day. A similar institution, though less extensive, was established and endowed at Chartres by King John the Good in 1350. Provision was made for 120 blind persons. For various reasons, however, the number of inmates dwindled till, in 1837, according to Dufau, there were but ten. A hospice for the blind is said to have been erected (1305) at Bruges, in Flanders, by Robert de Béthune, in gratitude for the courage displayed by the inhabitants in repelling (1300) an invasion of Philip the Fair. A similar foundation was made at Ghent by Peter Van der Leyen about 1370. Brotherhoods of the blind were formed, particularly at Chartres, Caen, Châlons, Meaux, Padua, Memming, Frankfort, and Hull. That the inmates of these institutions received other suitable instruction besides that in the Catechism and in trades there can be no doubt. So desultory, however, were these attempts to give the blind a modicum of education, and so inadequate were the means employed, that the problem of their special education remained unsolved. No one had as yet suggested the idea of providing a permanent literature for them. As early as the sixteenth century attempts were made to devise special processes, but these attempts, so far as we know, met with very little success.

Among others, Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576), an Italian mathematician, had pointed out a way of teaching the blind to read and write by the sense of touch. They were to trace with a steel bodkin or stylus the outline of each of the letters of the alphabet, engraved on metal, until they could distinguish the letters by the sense of touch and reproduce them on paper. Cardano, however, failed to suggest how to write on a straight line with uniformity of space between the lines. In 1575 Rampazetto produced at Rome prints in intaglio from letters carved in wood. His invention was dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo. In 1580, under Philip II, to whom he dedicated his invention, Francesco Lucas, at Madrid, engraved letters in wood for the instruction of the blind; but the letters being sunk in the wood, the outlines could not as readily be followed with the finger-tips. In 1640, Pierre Moreau, a notary at Paris, had movable letters cast for the use of the blind, but for lack of means was unable to follow up his undertaking. In his work, "Deliciæ mathematicæ et physicæ , published at Nuremherg in 1651, George Harsdörffer describes how the blind can recognize, and be taught to name and imitate, letters engraved in wax. Padre Francesco Lana-Terzi, the same Italian Jesuit who anticipated by more than a century the system of lip-reading for deaf mutes, also suggested, as an improvement on Cardano's invention for the blind, a guide consisting of a series of wires and strings arranged in parallel lines at equal distances from one another, to secure straight writing and uniformity of space between the lines. Besides this, Lana-Terzi describes, in his "Prodromo", an invention of his own, by which the blind may be taught to correspond with each other by a secret code. We have looked in vain in works of reference for any description of this cryptographic device. It is so simple that it can be learned in a few hours. Instead of compelling a blind person to learn how to form all the letters of the alphabet, the three methods pointed out by Lana-Terzi demand only a tactual knowledge of the letters, familiarity with their positions in their respective sections, and a little skill;

  • (1) to insert one, two, or three dots within a square or parts of a square or right angles turned in four different directions; or
  • (2) to prefix to either a comma, colon, semicolon, period, or interrogation mark any one of the first four numerals; or
  • (3) merely to form these numerals. The letters of the alphabet with the lines enclosing them, Lana-Terzi suggests, should be in relief rather than in intaglio, raised letters being far more distinguishable to the sense of touch than letters sunk in a plane surface. The following diagrams will make the matter clear.

First (Lana-Terzi) Method

Suppose the blind correspondent wishes to send the cipher message, Son prigione (I am a prisoner), he will turn to his tablet,

and ascertain by touch that the letter s is the second of those enclosed within the lines forming the figure . He will trace this figure with a pencil, and, to indicate that it is the second letter in the above figure, he will write, either above, or below, or within it, two dots, thus . The message in full is as follows: -


Second Method

The letters of the alphabet are embossed on a wooden or metallic tablet and distributed in any order whatever into five or more sections, which are indicated by lines in relief. Each section is distinguished from the others by one of the five principal punctuation marks, formed, like the letters, in relief.

The position of each letter in its own section is indicated by one of the first four numerals according to the order in the section. Thus, the message, Il re è morto (the king is dead), would be written as follows: -

Third Method

Instead of designating by punctuation marks the different sections into which the letters are distributed, they may be indicated by numerals, thus: -

By this method the blind person would have to learn how to form only the first five numerals. Thus the above message, Il re è morto , according to this method, would be written as follows: -

the first numeral indicating the position of the letter in the section, and the second numeral the section itself.

To enable the correspondent to make out for himself the answer to his message or communication, Lana-Terzi proposes the following plan: Let each of the correspondents have a table or long strip of wood on which are engraved or embossed the letters of the alphabet arranged in serial order at equal distances from each other, as in the diagram here given.

Suppose now that a person who is not blind should wish to send to his blind friend this message: Il nemico ti trama insidie (the enemy is trying to ensnare you). Let him take a piece of thread or twine, apply the end of it to the extreme point of the tablet, extend the thread over the space from a to the first letter i of the message and make a knot at that point; for the second letter, apply this first knot to point a, extend the thread over the space from a to the letter l, make, as before, a knot at that point, and so on for the rest of the letters. It will readily be understood how the blind person, to whom the roll of knotted thread or twine is sent, can make out the communication by applying the various thread lengths over the distances indicated by the knots, and thus discover each letter of the message. The blind correspondent, in his turn, can easily send by this same method whatever communication he wishes.

A few years after the publication of Lana-Terzi's "Prodromo", Jacques Bernouilli, being at Geneva in 1676, taught Elizabeth Waldkirch to read by a method not unlike that of Cardano. The young lady made such progress that after four years she was able to correspond with her friends in German, French, and Latin, all of which she spoke fluently at the age of fifteen. She knew almost all the Bible by heart, was familiar with philosophy, and was an accomplished musician.

About the year 1711 the first known attempt was made to construct a tactile ciphering-tablet or apparatus by which all the operations of arithmetic might he performed and recorded. This was the work of Nicholas Saunderson, who became blind when one year old. So distinguished was this blind mathematician that he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge. The Abbé Claude-François Deschamps (1745-91), in his treatise on the education of the deaf and dumb, is said to have also sketched the outlines of the art of teaching the blind to read and write. Diderot in his "Lettre sur les aveugles", which appeared in London in 1749, and for which he was condemned to prison, mentions his interview with Lenôtre, better known as "The Blind Man of Puisaux". Among other remarkable things related of him is the teaching of his son, though not blind, to read by means of raised letters. Between 1772 and 1784 we read of the earliest attempt to make maps in relief for the blind. This invention is ascribed to R. Weissenburg, of Mannheim, who was partially blind at five years of age, and totally at fifteen. Whether any of the credit is due to Weissenburg's teacher, Christian Niesen, cannot be ascertained. Though Diderot was among the first to call special attention to the condition and wants of the blind, and to make them generally known through his famous letter, yet neither he, nor Leibniz, nor Reid, nor Condillac, nor any of the Encyclopedists went beyond abstract psychological speculation. None of them proposed any measure of practical utility or relief nor devised any plans for the instruction and training of sightless persons.

The modern era in the history of education of the blind opened in 1784 - nearly three centuries after the desultory and apparently ineffectual attempts of Cardano and others - when Valentin Haüy (1745-1822) set himself to do for the blind what the Abbé del' Epée had done for deaf mutes. It was in June, 1784, that Haüy met, in one of the churches of Paris, a young mendicant named Lesueur, who had been blind from his birth. Having already spent many years in studying the theory, Haüy took this young waif to be the subject of his first practical essays in teaching the blind. Lesueur was promised a regular daily allowance in place of the income which he was supposed to earn by begging. Before long the number of Haüys pupils increased to twelve, then to double that number, and finally to fifty. His school was at first a day-school, to which children of both sexes were admitted. When Haüy, in 1786, exhibited the attainments of twenty-four of his best pupils at Versailles, Louis XVI and his court were in raptures at the wonderful novelty of children without sight reading, writing, ciphering, doing handicraft work, and playing orchestral music. So great was the interest which this and similar exhibitions aroused, and so generous the patronage of the king and the public which they secured for his school, that Haüy soon had sufficient means to board his pupils. From the very beginning the institution had the triple character of a school, a workshop, and an academy of music; and to this day these three departments have been maintained with such a record for efficiency that the institution founded by Haüy has served as the model for most of the many others in both hemispheres. But true intellectual culture for the blind dates only from the day when reading by touch was made possible. To Haüy is due the credit of having provided a system of tactual printing and a permanent literature for the blind. In the light of a century's progress and of better systems of printing and writing invented since his day, the shortcomings of Haüy's print in relief may lessen the value of his invention, but, in fairness to his memory, it must be remembered that Haüy alone succeeded in making practical for the blind as a class what others before him had merely foreshadowed, or had successfully applied only in individual instances. In spite, therefore, of the derogatory claims made by two or three writers, and notwithstanding that he himself admitted having seen a letter printed by Theresa von Paradis from type made for her by von Kempelen, the fact remains that no one before Haüy had ever tried seriously to make printing available for the blind; to no one before him had the idea occurred of printing books for the blind, or of establishing libraries of literature printed in relief. The movement originated by him has resulted in the establishment in all civilized countries of institutions of learning and industrial training schools for the blind. Before the close of the eighteenth century, a period of only sixteen years, four such institutions had sprung up in Great Britain, viz., in Liverpool (1791), in Edinburgh (1793), in Bristol (1793), and in London (1799). Other countries were not slow in following the example. The following table shows what the leading countries of Europe and America have done for their blind during the nineteenth century: -

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Education of the Blind'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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