Future Reflections         Summer 2009

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The Blind Child and Its Development

by Kate M. Foley

From the Editor:  Kate M. Foley was a graduate of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, the school that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek later attended. For many years Foley worked as a rehabilitation teacher of the blind. In the summer of 1918 she delivered a series of lectures on the education and abilities of blind children and adults, published in book form the following year as Five Lectures on Blindness. The full text of this book can be found at <www.archive.org/stream/fivelecturesonb00deptgoog>. Some of the language in her lecture on the development of the blind child seems dated and may be jarring to modern ears. Yet Foley expresses many of the ideas and attitudes that we promote in the NFB. She and others like her, whose names are long forgotten, helped to lay the foundations for the work we carry forward in the Federation today.

In considering the development of the blind child, we must recognize the fact that, in mental attainment, at least, he is the peer of the child who sees. But in order to bring this about, the early years of the child must be carefully supervised, and his training calculated to fit him for the tremendous task awaiting him. Unfortunately, the parents of blind children rarely understand the importance of this early training. They are too often too absorbed in their own sorrow at having a child so afflicted, too sure that loss of eyesight means loss of mental vigor, to realize that their own attitude, their own self-pity, may prove a greater handicap to the child than blindness itself. If a child lives in a house where he is waited upon, and made to feel that mere existence and the ability to eat and sleep are all that may reasonably be expected of him, and that he must depend upon his family for everything, he will grow up helpless, selfish, and awkward, and no amount of later training will entirely counteract the pernicious effect produced in these early, formative years. When placed in school with other children, he will be very sensitive to correction, and may become morbid and unhappy, thus giving a wrong impression of the blind in general. If, on the other hand, the child is taught to be self-helpful, permitted to join in the work and play of other children, made to feel that, with greater effort, he may do just what they do, he will soon become cheerfully alert and hopefully alive to all the possibilities of his position. But in order to achieve success, let me repeat that such training must begin at the earliest possible date.

You may never have thought of it, but the blind child has no model, no pattern. It learns nothing by imitation. The normal child copies the gestures and mannerisms of its parents, and so learns many things unconsciously, and with little or no instruction. But the blind child must be taught to shake hands, to hold up its head, to walk properly, to present and receive objects, and the thousand and one details of daily living so naturally acquired under ordinary conditions. Long before it has reached school age, the blind child should be permitted to romp with other children, to take bumps and bruises as part of the game, and should be encouraged to run, jump rope, and join in all harmless sports, thus acquiring that freedom of movement, muscular co-ordination, and fearless bearing, so necessary if he is to cope successfully with the difficulties awaiting him. His toys should be chosen to instruct as well as amuse, and in this way he should be made familiar with the different forms--the square, the circle, the oblong, the triangle, and the pyramid. He should be trained to recognize the difference between smooth and rough, soft and hard, light and heavy, thick and thin. He should be given plasticine or clay with which to model, and be urged to reproduce his toys, thus assisting in the muscular development and intelligent use of his fingers--another essential equipment.

As soon as possible, the process of dressing should be taught. The child may learn this more readily if a doll is used as a model, and he is required to put on its clothes each morning, and remove them just before his own bedtime. This important process should be made as interesting as possible, and each successful effort greeted enthusiastically, each failure carefully pointed out, its cause discovered, and its repetition prevented, when possible. In this way he acquires system, learns to put his clothes away in a certain place, and to locate them again without assistance.

Newel Perry, early activist and educator of blind children.His little fingers should be kept constantly employed stringing beads, putting pegs in a wooden board, cutting paper with kindergarten scissors, and modeling with plasticine. If thus occupied, he will escape the mannerisms peculiar to the blind child whose only amusement has been to put his fingers in his eyes, shake his hand before his face to see the shadow, rock his body back and forth, and whirl around in dizzy circles. I found just such a child, a girl of eight years, who had never done anything for herself, and whose parents refused to send her to school. It took me some time to win the child's confidence, but when I did, I had no trouble to correct many of her habits, and I soon taught her to dress herself and learn to read. When I asked her what she did all day before, she answered, "Oh, I just sat in my rocker, and rocked back and forth, shaking my hands." And when I asked why she did not play and act like other children, she began to cry, and said, "Nobody never told me nothin' else to do till you came."

When six years old, a blind child should be sent to the nearest state school for the blind, or to a special class, if there is such a department in the public schools of the city in which it lives. The necessity of sending the child to school thus early can not be too strongly emphasized, and education of blind children should be made compulsory, just as in the case of ordinary children. This is a measure which should be considered by all those interested in child welfare.

A school for the blind should consist of a kindergarten, primary, intermediate and high school department, and the life of the children should conform as closely as possible to that of a large family in a well-ordered home. Those in charge of the children should be impressed with the responsibility of the task they have undertaken and should do their utmost to assist in the work of fitting the little ones for the preliminary skirmish in the battle of life. All children should have constant supervision during the formative period, but more especially does the blind child need watchful guidance in his work and at his play. Little habits must be broken, awkward movements discouraged, self confidence fostered, and every effort made to develop the child along sane and normal lines, so that, in later life, he may have the poise and bearing so often lacking in those who are blind from early childhood.

It is sometimes claimed that it is not essential that a teacher of the blind be possessed of more than an ordinary education, and this is why so many schools for the blind fail to turn out capable, cultured, self-reliant boys and girls. Dr. Illingworth, the noted English educator, gives the following qualifications for a teacher of the blind: “a sound education, self-control in a high degree, a boundless enthusiasm, a determination to succeed, should be kind and sympathetic, and at the same time firm, and should be true to his word.” I wish to add a few more qualifications to Dr. Illingworth's list, and they are these: a broad, comprehending sympathy, a sense of humor, and a heart brimming with love for all children--a heart capable of sharing the joy and grief of every child heart. And I wish to emphasize, in a special manner, one of the doctor's qualifications--namely, "a boundless enthusiasm," and to add yet another, a living, breathing faith that teaching is a divine calling, and that the opportunities for good or ill are limitless. In many schools for the blind the inspirational value of a blind teacher is overlooked or ignored. In this connection Dr. Illingworth says: “It takes a seeing teacher to become what might be called a naturalized blind person, that is, one able to see things from the blind point of view; though he is never in the favorable position of a blind teacher who can say to a child, ‘Do it so; I can do it--I am blind like you.’” In the residential schools Dr. Illingworth recommends that the ratio of blind teachers to seeing should be one to two. He says, "Their very presence is a continual inspiration and incentive to the pupils," and he adds, "The education of blind children, in those subjects in which the methods of instruction are necessarily and essentially totally different from those of the seeing, is best in the hands of a properly qualified blind teacher."

I wish now to call attention to some of the advantages to be derived from coeducation of blind and seeing children. As early as 1900 Chicago started a special class for blind children as a part of its public school system, thus inaugurating the movement in this country, if not in the world. Since that time many large cities, including Boston, New York, Jersey City, Rochester, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, have started similar classes, carrying the children from the kindergarten through elementary and high school, and preparing them for college. In the special class, the children are trained to speak intelligently of things which they do not see with the physical sight, so that they may be able to converse naturally upon ordinary topics, and need not have to plead ignorance, on the ground of never having seen this or that object. The children are taught Braille reading and writing, and a great deal of time is given to these branches. They are taught all sorts of handwork--basketry, weaving, knitting, modeling, and chair caning; and, when old enough, they are sent with the other children to sewing, cooking, and music classes. As soon as possible, they recite with the regular classes, their lessons being previously read or explained by the special teacher. This gives them the contact with normal children, so necessary to the development of the blind child. Those not in favor of special classes claim that this competition is too severe a strain, and that it is unkind and unwise to place blind children with those whose physical advantages and opportunities for study are greater. But we have found that the plan works admirably. The special teacher trains her pupils to be self-reliant and helpful, insists that they join in the games of the others, assuring them that, with greater effort, they, too, may play.

The special teacher trains the memory of her pupils to the highest possible degree, impressing upon them that their minds are vast storehouses in which to keep all sorts of knowledge tucked away for future use, and that it is disastrous to blind children to forget. In mental arithmetic, they usually lead the class. Their presence in the school is of the greatest help to the others with whom they work in class. Their success in overcoming difficulties is a stimulus to the pride and an incentive to the ambition of the seeing child. And so the presence of the blind child is sure to result in untold good, not only to the child so handicapped, but to the entire school, removing as it must, the belief, now, alas, so general, that when eyesight is lost, all is lost. Trained side by side with its sighted companions, doing the same work as well, if not better, the later success of the young blind seeker after knowledge is practically assured; for, as I have said, in mental attainment the blind child is the peer of the child with eyesight, --here, beyond cavil, the chances are equal.

To my mind, the coeducation of the blind and seeing is a step in the right direction--a very forward step, since it will ultimately bridge the gulf of misconception and skepticism now separating these two classes--a gulf which must be bridged if we hope to arrive at a sane and satisfactory solution of the problem of finding employment, not only for the returned blind soldiers, but for the thousands of intelligent blind men and women who are waiting eagerly, hungrily, for a chance to prove their ability, a chance to earn their daily bread. When blind and seeing children are trained side by side, from the kindergarten through the grades into high school, and on to college perhaps, the barriers dissolve; the blind boy and the seeing boy are comrades--they have played together, worked together, and together they have planned their future. The seeing boy knows the blind boy will succeed because he has seen him victorious in many a mental skirmish. Just this May, right here in the University at Berkeley, a blind student graduated fourth in a class of more than one thousand seeing students. It may be interesting to note, in passing, that there are seven blind students now attending the university, and that the state provides three hundred dollars a year to defray the expense of a reader for each student. New York was the first state to provide readers for blind college students, and this was brought about through the efforts of Dr. Newel Perry, a blind graduate of the University of California, now a teacher of mathematics in the California School for the Blind. Dr. Newel Perry was largely instrumental in the passage of a similar bill in this state, and so once again, the blind are indebted to a blind teacher for advancement.

But all the children in the special classes will not care to go to college, and for those who do not, other work will be provided, manual training given, and all sorts of trades encouraged. Here, too, they will have the added stimulus of studying side by side with their sighted companions. It is my earnest hope that some day this state will establish a technical school for the blind. In such a school, a deft-fingered intelligent blind boy could learn electric wiring, pipe fitting, screw fitting, bolt nutting, assembling of chandeliers and telephone parts, be trained as a plumber's helper, and taught to read gas and electric meters by passing the fingers over the dial--in short, a variety of trades and occupations could be pursued with profit to the school and to the students.

But while waiting for the establishment of such a school, there is much to be done by way of preparation. We must prove the truth of Clarence Hawkes' assertion that "Blindness is, after all, but a 25 per cent handicap in the race of life."  But it is a handicap, no matter what profession is adopted. I analyze the handicap thus: 24 per cent of it is the prejudice and unbelief of the public, and the other 1 per cent is the lack of eyesight. I believe this is not too strong. In speaking of the handicap, Clarence Hawkes continues: "A blind person, in order to succeed equally with the seeing, must put in 125 per cent of energy before he can stand abreast of his seeing competitor." In order to prove blindness to be but a 25 per cent handicap, we must train our blind children from their earliest infancy. We must not sidetrack them. We must plant their feet firmly on the highroad of life; encourage their first, faltering steps; teach them to go forward fearlessly, with head erect and shoulders squared; warn them of pitfalls and hidden thorns; show them the wisdom of making haste slowly when the path is steep or uneven; impress upon their minds the importance to others of their success; and, above all, train them to have confidence in themselves; teach them to realize that, because of their struggles and limitations, they have a mental equipment and reserve force possessed by very few of their more fortunate fellow beings. Thus trained and fortified, our young blind people will work like Trojans to prove their ability to those who doubt it, and succeed in removing one obstacle after another, until they stand ready to take equal chances with any who may be pitted against them. The hand of the sightless worker is steadier, and his courage greater, because of the years of struggle and constant effort of which his sighted competitors can form no conception.

And so those in charge of the education of the blind, whether in residential schools or public school classes, have a herculean task before them, but if their hearts are in the work, if they are alive to their wonderful opportunity for service, and if they have faith in the ability of their pupils, the future success of these handicapped young people is practically assured. As with the nation today, so with those interested in the welfare of the blind--we look to the children for the fulfillment of our highest ideals, and hope in their advancement to see our "dearest dreams come true."  I am often called visionary, and I am proud to confess that I have a vision, a wonderful vision of the future of the blind. It may not be realized during my lifetime, but if some of the children I have inspired will take up the torch, and carry it on unfalteringly, I shall be satisfied. Meantime, I walk by the light of my vision along rough roads, across strange streams, up hills that are steep and rock-strewn; and, though my courage sometimes fails and my strength seems unequal to the task, the light shines clear and steady, and I go forward in the glad assurance that one day my vision will be realized, my cherished dream for the emancipation of my people, the emancipation of the blind, must "come true."

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