...in 1829, the New England Asylum for the Blind was incorporated in Boston. Begun with six students, within six years, the institution had ten times that number. For the first time, blind and deafblind American children could attend a school that would teach them reading, writing, and mathematics. Students were taught to use their sense of touch to compensate for their lack of sight. Re-named the Perkins Institute for the Blind, in honor of an early benefactor, the school grew steadily through the nineteenth century until it became the world-renowned institution it is today. The school's most famous graduate is Helen Keller, who arrived there with her teacher Annie Sullivan in 1888.
Antebellum Boston was a cauldron of social, intellectual, and spiritual reform. Hundreds of Bostonians were involved in one or more causes abolition, child labor, prison reform, care for the mentally ill, temperance, education, diet, and health. So when Dr. John Dix Fisher visited the world's first school for blind children during a trip to Paris, he felt confident that his native Boston was the place to introduce such a novel idea to America.
The new nation had old ideas about what blind and deafblind children could learn perhaps a few hand skills, like broommaking, that might keep them busy and earn them a pittance. Even basic reading and arithmetic were considered to be beyond the reach of most people without sight.
In Paris, Fisher saw blind students reading from raised-type books and learning mathematics, geography, languages, and music in addition to the manual arts. Inspired, he returned to Boston and spent the next three years persuading men of means and conscience to help fund an American version of the Paris school.
On an icy day in February of 1829, a number of prominent Boston men gathered in the Boston Exchange Coffee House to sign papers of incorporation for the New England Asylum for the Blind. When the legislature approved the incorporation three weeks later, it also appropriated $6,000. This early public-private partnership proved to be critical to the growth of the new institution.
And grow it did. In 1831, Fisher recruited the dynamic and charismatic Samuel Gridley Howe to run the school. Trained as a physician, Howe was a hero of the Greek War for Independence. He was ideally suited to his new mission. He began by touring Europe, observingand often rejecting many approaches to teaching the blind.
In 1832 he came home convinced that blind children should be given the same opportunities, experiences and hopes as sighted children. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, later remarked, "He assumed that the State owed to the blind an education. . . . And he had faith that this education, if properly given, would make the same return to the State that its common education makes, by enabling an important class of citizens to aspire to the rewards of industry and the dignity of independence."
Howe was idealistic, resourceful, and ambitious. He opened the first school in his father's house in 1832 with only six students. By 1838, the school had more than 60 students and had moved to a mansion owned by one of its trustees, Thomas Perkins. In 1839 the Perkins home was sold. The proceeds allowed the school to move to a larger building in South Boston. In honor of its benefactor, it was renamed the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
Samuel Howe trained teachers to use raised-type books he brought from Europe, and texts, maps, and diagrams that he created himself out of pasteboard, gummed twine, and pins. He devised ways students could use their sense of touch to compensate for their lack of sight. Blocks of different sizes helped communicate mathematical proportions; pasted string allowed students to trace out and learn geometric figures. Geography was taught using a large globe with raised features.
Howe even developed a special printing department to produce books with embossed Roman letters, which soon became known as Boston Line Type. His efforts attracted the attention of Charles Dickens, who visited the school and wrote about it in his book, American Notes. Dickens had the school print and distribute 250 copies of his book The Old Curiosity Shop in Boston Line Type.
Howe's greatest personal challenge and greatest triumph came in the form of a petite and delicate seven-year-old girl named Laura Bridgman. A life-threatening case of scarlet fever had left her both deaf and blind. Like other deafblind children, she was generally considered ineducable. Samuel Howe was determined to reach the girl and brought her to Perkins.
Howe believed that he could penetrate Laura's world by using her tactile senses to teach her individual letters. He gradually connected letters to words and words to objects. The child was eager to master the new puzzle; she was relied on rote learning of the patterns to spell out the words for objects such as fork, spoon, key, and book.
After about two months of work, Laura suddenly realized the significance of what she was doing. Howe had broken through her isolation. The little girl proved to have an insatiable desire to learn and to communicate; she was soon reading books in raised type, fingerspelling words, and eventually writing with a board on grooved paper.
Howe's success with Laura Bridgman made the educator and the school famous around the world. The Perkins Institute (later renamed the Perkins School) was one of the few places in the world that offered hope to deafblind students.
The most famous was Helen Keller. Keller had been rendered deaf, blind and mute by a severe fever at the age of 19 months. When her mother read about Perkins in Dickens' Notes on America, she contacted the school. Howe's son-in-law had taken over following Howe's death in 1876. He sent a recent Perkins graduate, the formerly blind Annie Sullivan, to work with Helen at her home in Alabama.
After Annie's famous breakthrough in teaching Helen fingerspelling, the pair moved to Perkins and lived there for the next six years. Keller eventually went on to graduate from Radcliffe College and to become one of the world's most eloquent advocates for the disabled.
The Perkins School has a long tradition of embracing innovation. In 1880, it created a library that became the largest in the world on non-medical aspects of blindness and deaf-blindness. Seven years later it opened the first kindergarten for blind students in the U.S..
In 1912, with demand for its programs growing, Perkins moved to a 38-acre campus on the banks of the Charles River in Watertown. There, in 1951, the school introduced the first Perkins Brailler, which allowed student to type in Braille text; over the next 30 years, over 100,000 Brailler machines were produced and distributed across the country.
As the number of blind students educated in public schools has grown, the number of students in residence at Perkins has declined. Always evolving, Perkins expanded its mission to serve sighted children with other disabilities, including deafness, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy. In the 1990s, Perkins began to offer services for visually impaired elders the fastest-growing blind population. The Braille and Talking Book Library circulates 50,000 recorded titles and 16,000 Braille books.
In 2004, to commemorate its 175th anniversary, the school opened the Perkins Museum, "a multi-sensory journey through the history of blind and deafblind education over the last 200 years."
Perkins School for the Blind, by Kimberly French (Arcadia, 2004)
Perkins Institution and it Deaf-Blind Pupils, 1837-1937, by Anna Gardner Fish. (Perkins Publications, 1934).