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Our Duties to the Blind

January 5, 1904 — First Annual Meeting, Massachusetts Association for Promoting the Interests of the Adult Blind, Perkins Hall, Boston, MA


The annual meeting of this association gives us another opportunity to discuss among ourselves and to present to the public the needs and interests of the adult blind, and I am glad to avail myself of the opportunity. This question of helping the blind to support themselves has been near to my heart for many years, since long before the formation of this society. All I have learned on the subject in the books I have read I have stored up in my mind against the day when I should be able to turn it to the use of my blind fellows. That day has come.

I have heard that some people think the views I am expressing on this subject, and indeed on all subjects, are not my own, but Miss Sullivan‘s. If you please, I do very often express Miss Sullivan’s ideas, just as to the best of my ability I express ideas which I have been fortunate enough to gather from other wise sources — from the books I have read, from the friends with whom I talk, even from the poets, the prophets, and the sages. It is not strange that some of my ideas come from the wise one with whom I am most inti mate and to whom I owe all that I am. I rejoice for myself and for you if Miss Sullivan’s ideas are comingled with mine. The more on that account ought what I say to receive your respectful consideration; for Miss Sulliivan is acquainted with the work of the blind and the work for the blind. She was blind once herself, and she spent six years in the Perkins Institution. She has since proved a successful teacher of the blind. Other teachers from all over the world have sought her out and exchanged views with her. Miss Sullivan’s ideas on the matter we have to con sider are those of an expert. But may I venture to protest I have some ideas of my own? It is true I am still an undergraduate and I have not had time to study the problems of the blind so deeply as I shall some day. I have, however, thought about these problems, and I know that the time is ripe, nay, it has long been ripe, to provide for the adult blind the means of self-support.

The blind are in three classes: first, blind children, who need a common school education; second, the aged and the infirm who need to be tenderly cared-for; third, the able-bodied blind, who ought to work. For the first class, blind children, this state has splendidly provided in that great two-million dollar school, the Perkins Institution. The second class, like all other people who are in valid and infirm, must be sheltered in the embrace of many public and private charities. For the third class, healthy adult blind, nothing adequate has been done in this state. They do not want to go to school and read books.  They do not want to be fed and clothed and housed by other people. They want to work and support themselves. The betterment of this class is the object of our association. We ask that the state give the adult blind opportunity to earn their own living. We do not approve any system to pauperize them. We are not asking for them a degrading pension or the abstract glories of a higher education. We want them apprenticed to trades, and we want some organized method of helping them to positions after they have learned these trades.

Consider the condition of the idle adult blind from the point of view of their fellow citizens, and from their own point of view. What sort of citizens are they now? They are a public or a private burden, a bad debt, an object of pitying charity, an economic loss. What we ask for them in the name of Christian philanthropy, we ask equally on the ground of economic good sense. If there are three thousand adult blind in this commonwealth who could be taught to work and who are not work ng, to keep them alive means a burden of ten or twelve thousand dollars every seven days. If each of the three thousand could be taught to work and earn three dollars a week — surely a low figure — the state would obviously be twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars a week richer. At present the adult blind form a large class who are unremunerative and unprofitable.

Such are they from the point of view of the thoughtful citizen. What are they from their point of view?

Not merely are they blind — that can be borne — but they live in idleness, which is the cruelest, least bearable misery that can be laid upon the human heart. No anguish is keener than the sense of helplessness and self-condemnation which overwhelms them when they find every avenue to activity and usefulness closed to them. If they have been to school, their very education makes their sorrow keener, because they know all the more deeply what they have lost. They sit with folded hands as the weary days drag by. They remember the faces they used to see, and the objects of delight which made life good to live, and above all they dream of work that is more satisfying than all the learning, all the pleasures gained by man, work that unites the world in friendly association, cheers solitude and is the ‘balm of hurt minds.’ They sit in darkness, thinking with pain of the past, and with dread of the future that promises no alleviation of their suffering. They think until they can think no more, and some of  them become morbid. The monotony and loneliness of their lives is conceivable only to those who have similar deprivations. I have enjoyed the advantages of the blind who are taught. Yet I used to feel unhappy many times, because it seemed as if my limitation would prevent me from taking an active part in the work of the world. Never did my heart ache more than when I thought I was not to be a useful member of society. Now I have found abundant work, and I ask for no other blessedness.

I have talked with blind students at the institutions for the blind, and I remember the distress and perplexity with which they considered how they should shift for themselves when they graduated. Many of them left school only to go back to poor, bare homes where theycould find no means of self-support. For seven, ten, or fourteen years they live in the midst of refined surroundings; enjoy good books, good music, and the society of cultivated people. When their school days are over, they return to homes and conditions which they have outgrown. The institution that has educated them forgets them, unless perchance they have sufficient ability to fight their life-battle single-handed and come out victorious. Institutions are proud of successful graduates. Let us not forget the failures. What benefit do the graduates who fail in the struggle of adult life derive from an education which has not been of a kind that could be turned to practical account? From an eco nomic point of view has the money invested in that education been invested wisely? To teach Latin and Greek and higher mathematics to blind pupils, and not to teach them to earn their bread, is to build a house entirely of stucco, without stones to the walls or rafters to the roof. I have received letters from educated blind people, who repeat the cry, “Give us work, or we perish,” and their despair lies heavy on my heart.

lt is difficult to get satisfactory statistics about the blind after they graduate from the institutions where they receive a book education, because little or no interest is shown in them after they leave school. It is still harder to get information about the blind who have lost their sight when they are too old to go to the existing institutions. But it is evident that only a small proportion of the blind now support themselves. Mr. William B. Wait, of the New York Institution for the Blind, says that less than eight per cent of the entire blind population of the United States, even those who have been to schools for the blind, are self-supporting, and the percentage for the whole country will be higher than the per centage for this state of Massachusetts is behind some states in industrial education for the blind. Others will give you the exact figures. But whether there are in Massachusetts one thousand or five thousand adult blind who might be taught to work, they are too many for us to have neglected so long.

It is difficult to understand how a state which was a pioneer in the education of the blind, and which boasts the Perkins Institution, could have so conspicuously failed to turn their education to account. Surely it is only an accidental division which has left one side of the education of the blind in the sunlight where Dr. Howe placed and has left the other side in the dark. In spirit, all aspects of the education of the blind are one, and we can be sure that Dr. Howe, had he lived, would ha e been the leader of this movement, in which we are doing our little best. Indeed, I believe that he would long ago have rendered our labors unnecessary. Let us gratefully and lovingly render, in company with those who survive him, the honor that is his due. But since he is dead and cannot lead us, let us push forward, guided by what light we have. Wisdom did not die with Solomon. All knowledge about the needs and capabilities of the blind did not die with Dr. Howe. There is much to do which he did not live to achieve, or, it may even be, which he had not thought of.

The important fact remains that nothing of consequence has been done for the adult blind in Massachusetts since Dr. Howe‘s day. It was he who established the workshop for the adult blind in South Boston, in connection with the Perkins Institution, and that remains much as he left it. Two or three years ago, the state appropriated a small sum of money — five thousand dollars, I think — for traveling teachers, who visit the homes of blind persons who are too old to go to the Perkins Institution. This was a step in the right direction, but it was inadequate, and it is not altogether practical. I have known old ladies who have told me how glad they were to learn to read the Lord’s Prayer with their fingers. They looked forward to the weekly lesson with joy; it was a bright spot in the monotony of their  life. But, after all, this is not so important as it is to teach younger and stronger men and women to earn their living. The needs of the adult blind cannot be covered by an extension of this appropriation or by a development of this kind of teaching. Something new is necessary. Either the scope of the workshop at South Boston must be greatly enlarged, or new ones, independent of must be established. It would have been no argument against founding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to say that there was already good college across the Charles. He who content with what has been done an obstacle in the path of progress.

Up! Up! Something must be done. We have delayed too long. If you want to know how long we have delayed, listen to what the Bishop of Ripon said recently at the Institution for the Blind in Bradford, England. Speaking of time thirty years ago, he said: “The work house and the charity of the passer-by in the street were the only hope of the blind. All that has been changed. The blind have been taught useful occupations,” he says, “and have been enabled in many cases to earn sufficient to maintain themselves in comfort, so that has come to be reproach that blind man or woman should beg in the streets.” This the change in England in thirty years. There has been no such change in Massachusetts. Something must be done, that clear. What shall we do?

There are two things to do which work together and become one. First, let the state establish by an adequate appropriation an agency for the employment of the blind. This agency should be in Boston. At the head of it should be a competent man, whose sole duty should be to study all occupations in which the blind can engage, to exhibit the work of the blind, to advise and encourage them, and to bring employers and blind employees together without expense to either. This bureau should do for the blind of Massachusetts what is done by the employment bureau of the British and Foreign Blind Association in England, namely, provide a place in the busiest part of the city, where blind workers and their patrons can be brought together and where articles made by the blind can be advantageously exhibited. The agent should advertise to the public that they can get blind piano tuners, notepaper embossers, shampooers, masseurs, chairmakers, brushmakers, tutors, singers, church organists, tea tasters, and other useful blind people.

Then there is the second part of the work — to increase the variety and efficiency of those other useful blind workers. This means industrial schools; that is, workshops, with all possible machinery and appliances which the blind can profitably handle. To every blind person should be given opportunity to serve an industrial apprenticeship. After he has learned this trade, or that mechanical process. he would go to the agent at the employment bureau, or the agent would go to him, and the agent would then offer to employers the serv ices of a blind workman. In each of the large manufacturing towns — Brockton, Lowell, Taunton, Lawrence, Worcester — there should be a branch of the agency. The head of each branch bureau should know all the industries peculiar to his locality, and should know the employers of the neighborhood.

Suppose at the age of thirty a man loses his sight, and that means that he must give up his work, let us say, as salesman in a dry goods house. He goes to the nearest agent of the Massachusetts Industrial Bureau for the Blind. The agent knows every occupation in the state which it is profitable for a blind man to engage in, and he tells this man that the best occupation near his home is running a machine of a certain kind. The man then goes to the Industrial School for the Blind and learns to run that machine; in other words he serves an apprenticeship in a free state school, and incidentally learns the other things which a blind man must learn in order to adapt himself to the new conditions of his life; that is, he gets the experience of being blind. At the end of the apprenticeship the agent, knowing what the man can do, goes to a manufacturer and asks that he give the man a chance. The agent stands behind the man during his period of probation, until the employer is is convinced that his blind workman understands his business.

Am I dreaming dreams? It is no untried experiment. It is being done in Great Britain. Remember that to educate a blind man so that he becomes a competent workman is no magical and mysterious process. A blind man can do nothing less and nothing more than what a person with five senses can do, minus what can be done only with the eye. Remember, too, that when a man loses his sight he dues not know himself what he can do. He needs some one of experience to advise him. The other day the commission listened to a blind man forty years old, who lost his sight at the age of thirty-six, four years ago. Before he became blind, he had been a lithographer, and was for eight years a foreman. He testified that he was determined not to be a “quitter,” and that he had tried one and another kind of work, only to fail in each. “What,” asked one of the commissioners, “do you think you can learn to do?” “I do not know,” replied the man. Do we need a stronger argument than this answer for an industrial agency? Although intelligent and industrious, this man had struggled wildly in the dark for four years, trying in vain to discover what kind of work he had best apply himself to. Think of it! In four years he had had no one to tell him what it was best for him to try to learn to do.

Now who shall change all this? Who shall establish the Massachusetts Industrial Bureau for the Blind? Surely the state — Massachusetts, in whose watchtowers burn continuously the beacons of sympathy and love; Massachusetts, to whom every state in our country turns for example and guidance in education and philanthropy; Massachusetts, in whose beneficent institutions the deaf have learned to speak, the blind to read the printed page, the idiot clay to think. Surely Massachusetts will not now turn a deaf ear to the cry of the helpless adult blind. Has she not lovingly nurtured and abundantly provided for the Perkins Institution and the Kindergarten for the Blind? Once the people learn what should be done, we need not fear that those whose authority is law and those whose authority is loving charity will neglect the sacred duty to raise the adult blind from dependence to self-respecting citizenship. Therefore I have complete faith in the ultimate triumph of our cause.



Source: Our Duties to the Blind, by Helen Keller (Boston: Thomas Todd), 1904, pp. 5-16.