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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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For “Children Who Vary from the Normal Type”: Special Education in Boston, 1838-1930
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During the nineteenth century, the controversy over methods of instruction and communication effectively underscored the by-then accepted view that deaf individuals were not only entitled to an education but also fully capable of acquiring a sophisticated and extensive one. All issues regarding deaf education were widely discussed through periodicals such as the American Annals of the Deaf and the Little Paper Family, a collection of publications from many of the institutions for the deaf, as well as through regional and national organizations such as the New England Gallaudet Association, various state organizations, and the National Association of the Deaf. To punctuate these developments, the National Deaf-Mute College (later Gallaudet University) was established in 1864 to educate a leadership elite that could advance the interests and position of the deaf community in American society. By 1900 any doubts regarding the advisability or plausibility of providing high-quality education to deaf individuals of all ages had been dramatically reduced.4

A similar pattern of development evolved in the education of blind persons. As with deaf education, the origins of progress in the education of blind individuals were found in Europe. Denis Diderot, who had written philosophically oriented tracts on deafness, did so on blindness as well; his work informed that of Valentin Hauy, whose efforts in the eighteenth century drew attention from royalty and the public. Hauy is credited with establishing in 1784 the first formal school in the world for blind individuals. In 1832 Louis Braille developed his system of raised symbols to make reading possible for blind individuals, the first of many such systems created in the nineteenth century. In that same year the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, which soon came to be known as the Perkins Institution in honor of an early benefactor, was established with Samuel Gridley Howe as its director.

Howe, like Gallaudet, traveled to Europe to research educational methods and to recruit teachers for his institution. The school had received a charter as well as six thousand dollars from the state in 1829 to assist its efforts to educate indigent children; it opened with six students. The New York School for the Blind also opened in 1832, with another in Pennsylvania commencing the following year. By 1900 thirty-seven schools for the blind existed; some of these also taught deaf individuals. Typically these schools combined academic study with work in manual and vocational training and in music. Reading and writing of course required specialized instructional methods, usually utilizing tactile devices such as three-dimensional maps, manipulatives, and raised type. Howe believed strongly in the importance of physical exercise and music, especially singing. Various types of raised type existed in addition to Braille, some of which used the regular alphabet or a modified version. Braille, with its system of six-dot symbols, eventually became dominant by 1900. Efforts were made to normalize the education of the blind as Howe and others believed that “we should endeavor to make them, in their habits and temperament, as like the seeing as possible. . . .” Institutions for the blind throughout the United States followed Howe’s lead and employed similar approaches in their educational programs. As with deaf education, the education of the blind received boosts from national associations such as the American Association of Instructors of the Blind as well as from the work and products of the American Printing House for the Blind. However, a national institution of higher education for blind students was never established; instead, postschool efforts focused on developing work or trade skills.5

Of special note was the instruction of those who were both deaf and blind. Howe was instrumental in the education of Laura Bridgman, who became a well-known figure in the early nineteenth century. Of even greater fame was Helen Keller, another deaf-blind individual who was referred to the Perkins Institution by Alexander Graham Bell and who made great strides under the tutelage of Anne Sullivan. Their personal educational struggles and accomplishments generated great interest as Howe and Sullivan worked exhaustively to develop methodological approaches that would address the sensory impairments of their students. Thus, beliefs in the educability of blind individuals and the wherewithal to conduct that education grew strong as well, although these advances took place somewhat later than those regarding the education of the deaf.6

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