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The Braille Monitor – December, 2000 Edition


A Historian's Look at the Problem at the Turn of the Century

by Catherine Kudlick, Ph.D.


From the Editor: The ideas underlying the Braille Monitor and much of the philosophy that today defines the National Federation of the Blind are a lot older than many of us usually assume. In the following article Catherine J. Kudlick, a historian at the University of California, Davis, shares her lucky discovery of a magazine much like the Monitor published in 1900. Kudlick happens to be legally blind, and this fact, together with her familiarity with the literature of the NFB, enabled her to recognize the significance of what she had discovered.

For those of you who want to know more, a full version of this article (with citations) appears in The New Disability History: American Perspectives by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, just published by New York University Press. With a colleague in France, Professor Kudlick is also translating and editing a memoir by a twenty-two-year-old blind girl in 1825 who left her family of carpenters to go alone to Paris to make a living as a novelist. This book will also be published by NYU Press sometime in 2001.

"The specific difficulties that have depressed the Blind for centuries are to be lifted by an enlightened public sentiment and that strong arm of Congress," a new journal proclaimed in January, 1900. "It is an age of great individuals and great achievements, and the Race is dwelling in the consciousness of an all-pervading intellectual and spiritual revolution." Called The Problem, the upbeat and passionate publication out of Leavenworth, Kansas, was the official voice of the American Blind People's Higher Education and General Improvement Association (ABPHEGIA), a movement of blind intellectuals founded in the mid-1890's.

D. Wallace McGill, its publisher-editor and the ABPHEGIA's Recording Secretary, had graduated from the Missouri School for the Blind in the late 1880's and become professor of Musical Theory and Psychology at the Kansas Conservatory of Music. He hoped his quarterly would spawn a movement "broadly national and ready for practical work." "The subscription list should contain a million names," he told readers, for "no one can have knowledge while ignorant of the facts, and the facts about the blind have never been circulated." Besides, he noted with characteristic verve,"Who will remain in ignorance when Knowledge costs but a dime?"

Though The Problem ceased publication just three years later in 1903, in some ways McGill's dream of an organized movement working on behalf of blind people came true. By 1906 the ABPHEGIA became the basis of the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB). In 1907 this highly organized and respected national group of professionals launched a new periodical, Outlook for the Blind. That publication would eventually become the organ of the American Foundation for the Blind, founded in 1921 and one of the leading blindness organizations to the present day. Like McGill, Outlook's eclectic and passionate founder, Charles F. F. Campbell, had, according to one historian, "an unspeakable faith in the capacity of blind people to live dignified and useful lives."

Outlook's inaugural issue promised "a forum for the free and open discussion of all topics concerned with work for the blind," declaring, "we have no theories of our own to advocate, no projects to exploit. Our only desire is to be of service to the great cause of helpfulness to the blind." The new publication continued The Problem's custom of relaying practical information such as reports from institutions and organizations, proceedings from conventions and congresses, and a smattering of articles that showed blind people engaging in routine activities such as sports, cooking, and learning mathematics. Outlook even added a helpful feature: a listing of all recent publications available in various tactile formats. (Not until 1917 did Braille become the dominant system. This fact, and the enormous expense of producing embossed text, accounts for the ink print format of nearly every magazine dealing with blindness at the time.) Thus Outlook, like The Problem, believed itself to be working for the great cause of improving the lives of blind Americans.

But in other ways McGill's dream died with his quirky, spirited publication. Tellingly, Outlook's first issue devoted several paragraphs to its origins without mentioning McGill or The Problem. Further underscoring the deliberateness of the omission, several writers--including the esteemed blind lawyer Edward J. Nolan from Chicago, who had served as the ABPHEGIA's president in 1900 and who wrote one of the pieces describing Outlook's birth--contributed to both publications. For reasons that remain obscure, the blind leaders of the ABPHEGIA ceded their authority to the new AAWB, dominated by sighted professionals and a handful of blind fellow travelers like Nolan. The advent of the AAWB would create a rift in approaches to blindness that persists to the present day.

Clearly the role of sighted members in the ABPHEGIA had been an issue. Until 1905 it had been dominated by blind people, who, after finding themselves excluded from professional organizations such as the American Association of Instructors of the Blind, had needed a forum for exchanging ideas. "The consequence was just what might have been expected," Nolan told the mixed audience of blind and sighted members of the AAWB in 1911; "the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, and a society was formed which was intended to be, in effect, exclusively for the blind." Fortunately, he continued, good sense soon had won out because, "after some experience and deliberation," blind members came to realize that "we must call upon the assistance of our seeing friends; no matter what work might be undertaken, seeing people must bear a large share of the burden, and among the seeing people are many who are sincerely interested in the cause of the blind. It was, therefore, unfair to exclude them from our conferences."

Nolan believed it also made sound political sense, for membership increased from barely thirty in the ABPHEGIA in 1905 to over three hundred in the AAWB by 1911. Thus, by the time of Outlook's birth in 1907, a movement of blind people such as that depicted in The Problem no longer existed. Nothing comparable to it would reappear until formation of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940.

The Problem's demise did not result simply from sighted professionals' taking over from blindness activists. The story is far more complex and interesting. Although we can identify a blind perspective more often in The Problem and a sighted one in Outlook, blind and sighted people contributed eagerly to both publications and did not always take predictable stands. McGill duly rewarded sighted fellow travelers by naming them in "Our List of Honor." And contrary to Nolan's implication that the ABPHEGIA excluded sighted people, membership consisted "of two classes, regnant and honorary, each class being equally open to both the Sighted and the Blind."

Meanwhile Outlook used Helen Keller as one of its principal spokespersons and relied on blind men like Nolan as valuable contributors. Thus the differences between The Problem and Outlook reflected a struggle over how to define an identity for blind people. The presence of blind and sighted individuals on both sides of the debate indicates that we must explain the conflict as taking place, not just between opposing groups, but also within individuals themselves.

The Problem and the American Blind People's Higher Education and General Improvement Association marked a dramatic departure from the past. A journal run by and for blind people was a long way from the pathetic, groping heroines of sentimental literature or the dreary beggars of the popular imagination, who sat like lumps on street corners. The publication's wide mix of articles ranged from mini-autobiographical sketches by a blind bank president, a medical student, and a farmer, to the texts of Congressional bills to guarantee blind adults higher education.

McGill printed the ABPHEGIA's annual convention proceedings, the blind schools' alumni association reports, and debates on subjects such as the advantages and disadvantages of attending schools with sighted children (a precursor to today's mainstreaming), or whether Braille or New York Point offered a more efficient tactile reading system. And pieces occasionally took up topics animating American popular culture, such as "Astrology" or "Oriental Psychology and Philosophy Among Western Peoples."

Some articles aimed to raise blind people's self-esteem. In a typical piece entitled "How Shall the Blind Succeed?" Charles W. Gillilan of Shawnee, Oklahoma, described his experiences as one of the first blind students to graduate from a college alongside sighted peers. He offered many practical tips and kind words for the friends who helped along the way. "I found that it is necessary for one who is handicapped to exercise the creative side of nature," he explained. "One finds many difficulties which can be successfully met only by the genius of invention." But he also candidly warned: "Reader, you must not conclude from what I have said of my experience . . . that the blind person who enters college will find a bed of roses. If your ideal is high, you will experience moments of doubt and even despair, but if there is that in you which makes it impossible for you to yield even when the will is defeated and the heart is sick, then, I am ready to wager my life on your success . . . . Success is in store for the one who isn't afraid to suffer and work and wait." Such articles reflected The Problem's general philosophy of portraying blindness realistically, allowing a blind person to address other blind people frankly while using this realism to improve the image of the blind.

To promote the ABPHEGIA and the cause of blind Americans, The Problem's inaugural issue carried a "Personal Letter Addressed to the People of the United States." It invited readers to send in any information they might have, particularly the names and addresses of any blind people. "If you have ever known a blind person, or if any live in your community, will you not please investigate and give us all the information you can secure?" McGill pleaded. He also urged readers to make themselves known by writing "a personal letter either to me or to some other officer of the Association expressing interest in our work." Now and then the journal reprinted these letters or responded to them in columns with titles such as "Suggested Problems."

McGill's appeal coincided with a growing interest in the lives of blind people that would culminate in the Federal Government's publication of The Blind in the United States, 1910. Since 1830 the U.S. Census had privileged blind Americans as a survey category. The introduction to the 1910 census marveled at how this population "has formed a regular feature of Federal census activities for a longer continuous period of time than any other inquiry except the decennial enumeration of the population." Only "the fundamental facts of sex, color, and age" extended further back in time in an unbroken series.

By 1880 and 1890 census takers received additional compensation for including supplementary information about members of "special classes" (soon to be known as the "defective, dependent, and delinquent classes"). The nature of the information changed when the 1900 census sought to include noninstitutionalized people with disabilities and asked blind people located by census takers to mail in (free of charge) follow-up questionnaires about the probable causes of their blindness, family relations, schooling, and employment. Rather than relying on data from asylum directors and medical professionals as in the past, the Census Bureau turned to private individuals. Even if the lack of blind census takers and data interpreters still placed blind people in the passive role of subjects, the changes showed that government officials saw the need for more sophisticated information about blind people.

This climate of greater interest no doubt influenced McGill's new philosophy of blindness and blind people. While quantitative data could serve a useful purpose, The Problem explored qualitative ways blind Americans might have a real say in what society thought about them. The editors had to manage a tricky balance between welcoming sighted fellow travelers who contributed valuable articles and a tone that left no doubt about blind leadership. In 1896 the ABPHEGIA's second convention had resolved that no commissioner "shall serve who is not a thoroughly educated blind person of some experience."

Without making such a bald declaration, The Problem made its privileging-of-the-blind perspective apparent by relying on the expressed interests of blind people themselves to determine the journal's content. For example, an important early article called for a variety of embossed-type periodicals devoted to "the non-partisan presentation of the most important facts of current news and current popular discussion" for blind readers. Articles such as these, and The Problem's very existence, empowered blind people both individually and collectively.

In general The Problem conveyed an optimistic, inclusive picture of blind Americans. McGill and his comrades envisioned a world in which the sightless functioned on a par with the seeing, accordingly earning their rewards and punishments as human beings, not as blind human beings. Together, all labored to solve humanity's universal problems. As one editorial put it, "The difficulties of the blind in particular are the difficulties of humanity in general, and by solving the problem of the one, we solve the problem of the other." The Problem frequently referred to "the Great Human Family," "all thinking people," "all humanity," "all classes of people which taken together constitute the Race," "Humanity rather than a particular class."

Even its title, The Problem, reflected, not a negative view of blindness, but the Progressive-Era vogue for conveying a sense of optimistic urgency much like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's magazine The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. DuBois would seek to motivate black Americans. According to The Problem's philosophy then, blind and sighted had much to teach one another, and all of humanity would gain as a result. As one contributor asserted: "The public is beginning to see that being blind no longer means being an imbecile or idiot, and eventually we hope our worthy instructors will come to know that all our average sightless boys and girls ask is an equal chance with the sighted, and this being given, ability and merit will surely speak for itself."

While Charles Campbell's Outlook for the Blind also presented a philosophy of helping Americans better understand the blindness world, it spoke about and to blind people more often than considering them as having voices in their own right. Whereas The Problem tended to refer to "blind people," Outlook spoke about "the Blind," with even Helen Keller conveying this sense. At a time when blind people were just beginning to find a voice, Outlook's first issue reprinted one of Keller's speeches, "The Heaviest Burden on the Blind." Like so much of Outlook's content, it presented a contradictory message about blindness. Keller simultaneously used images of weakness and strength, noting: "The men and women for whom I speak are poor and weak in that they lack one of the chief weapons with which the human being fights the battle. But they must not on that account be sent to the rear . . . . They must be kept in the fight for their own sake, and for the sake of the strong. It is a blessing to the strong to give help to the weak." Through Keller Outlook presented an image of blindness that suggested dependence before independence and weakness over strength.

While McGill sought to create a forum for blind people to talk to each other and gain confidence in themselves as valuable contributors to solving humanity's problems, Campbell worked to change their public image. He highlighted the abilities of the blind by putting on display blind people and the accomplishments they learned from professional experts. Outlook sang the praises of state-of-the-art special education institutions and industrial homes for the blind, the experts' answer to the outdated nineteenth-century asylums. Whereas McGill believed a positive image of blindness had to come from blind people themselves, Campbell assumed public perceptions must change before the blind could gain this self-confidence. Such differences between the two editors' approaches and the resulting tone of their publications had important implications for the image of blind people and their sense of identity.

Campbell came to Outlook as the sighted son of Sir Francis Campbell, the celebrated blind head of Britain's Royal Normal College. He traveled widely in Europe and the U.S. with the idea of becoming a teacher of the blind but quickly decided that bigger things could and must be done. Settling in the east, he eventually became director of several institutions for the blind and editor of Outlook.

Unlike McGill, the intellectual Campbell, the entrepreneur, saw a dual opportunity in publicizing blindness. Not only would publicity change the pathetic public image, but examples of experts teaching them to triumph over adversity could raise money for the cause. He experimented with various new media, touring North America with a series of lantern slide shows and cinematographs (early films) about blindness. Outlook was another foray into a modern medium, the slick professional journal pitched to interested experts and to possible lay donors.

But this modern approach could have consequences at odds with the interests that blind people had asserted in The Problem. The same financial realities that most likely helped bring down its predecessor forced Outlook to draw in money few blind people had. In order to make a case to professionals and a public that might willingly pay, Outlook sacrificed some of the independence it championed for the blind. After all, if blind people came off as competent and self-sufficient, why give the organizations helping them money? Thus, Outlook faced the challenge of simultaneously showing that blindness was pathetic and that blind people could be advanced.

Further contributing to this tension was its complicated relationship to turn-of-the-century modernity. To keep its reputation as a voice for experts and draw in philanthropic dollars, it needed to showcase its modernity through what teachers did for the blind rather than what blind people ended up doing for themselves. These complex tensions appeared, not only in the content of articles, but in their tone. Surely Outlook's ability to walk this fine line accounts in large part for the publication's success and longevity1.

Catering primarily to sighted professionals and potential donors, Outlook came across as a glitzy magazine on the forefront of visual representations in print. Its photos of people and places, reproductions of Helen Keller's signature at the end of her letters, and advertisements for everything from carpentry tools to flour to women's furs made The Problem look dour by comparison. Intended to be read by eye and not by ear like The Problem, the AAWB's journal relied on visual cues and played with vision to create a sense of modernity in the blindness field.

It also delivered news directed toward the (mostly sighted2) superintendents of schools for the blind and offered articles by physicians and ophthalmologists who wrote of blindness as a horror that might be cured through timely medical intervention or prevented by family planning to avoid the dangers of heredity. One of Outlook's causes célèbres was a vociferous campaign against ophthalmia neonatorum, "babies' sore eyes," a campaign that resulted in the formation of the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness. Seen as a worthy cause by sighted donors, such an energetic crusade against blindness underscored Outlook's complicated role as a vaunted champion of blind people.

Still, for the most part Outlook's articles dealt with issues of interest to anyone concerned with blindness rather than its prevention. Campbell had a hard-edged appreciation for the possibilities and pitfalls blind people faced in modern America. In one early report, "Life Among the Seeing," he laid down some of the ideas basic to his philosophy. "The more one has to do with finding employment for the blind," he wrote, "the more evident it becomes that it is impossible to treat [them] as a class. The possibilities and qualifications of each person are so diverse that no sweeping generalization can be made."

Even as his publication spoke for the interests and ideals of institutions for the blind, he championed situations in which such institutions would be unnecessary. "Probably we all agree that a blind person earning a living wage side by side with seeing workers is enjoying a more normal life than if he were earning more in a subsidized institution for the blind," he asserted. Working under institutional supervision might be good for some, particularly those who became blind later in life and "possessed but little initiative when they had their sight." But for the others he advocated government help in securing regular jobs. "If every state would make a systematic search and find even twenty or thirty such opportunities," he exclaimed, "how great would be the gain to the present limited number of occupations open to the blind." He thus argued for recognition of blind people in all their complexity while calling on government to take the lead in aiding their employment.

For all its attempts to appeal to professionals and donors, Outlook did not shy away from controversial issues. In April, 1909, for example, it presented a debate about establishing a blind national college. With the founding of special colleges for women, black people, and even deaf students in the decades since the Civil War, the idea of creating such a school for blind Americans resonated with broader national trends. But the issue also had special significance for blind people because, as one participant noted, "it is fully recognized that it is by the brain rather than by the hand that the blind are most sure to succeed, and to none does a successfully pursued college course promise more than to the blind."

Those in favor of a national college cited financial advantages. Some argued that the federal government would support an institution of higher learning for the blind just as it had with Gallaudet College, founded for the deaf in the 1860's. James J. Dow, Superintendent of the Minnesota School for the Blind and Outlook's most vocal advocate for a special college, believed the Gallaudet example set a precedent for federal support. Moreover, it "would be an enormous stimulus to the state institutions [like his] and would undoubtedly greatly enhance their efficiency and scope." Others, like the Superintendent of the North Carolina School for the Blind and Deaf, believed a special college would better suit blind people's unique temperament. "There are advantages to be derived from pursuing one's studies in colleges for the seeing," he admitted, "but there are exceedingly few blind students who have the pluck and the cash to succeed thus."

For many proponents money appeared as the big stumbling block to the ultimate goal of assimilation. "Many of the best students among the blind, as among seeing, are those in the poorest financial circumstances," the Iowa School's Superintendent explained. "Many of these students would be glad to pursue a higher course of training, had they the opportunity to do so, but owing to their financial condition they are not able to provide means of support at a seeing college, nor are they able to secure the services of a reader." As with calls for opening special colleges for other groups outside the mainstream, those seeking such institutions for the blind hoped a protected environment would offer the support that would enable their graduates to enter the world with greater confidence and competence.

But by far the greater number of participants in the debate attacked the idea of a special college. Both sighted experts and blind graduates feared that blind people might become isolated as a class. S.M. Greene, Superintendent of the Missouri School for the Blind, argued, "It is necessary for the blind student to mingle with the sighted in order to obtain true proportions for life adjustment."

Putting it more bluntly, the Superintendent of Colorado's School for the Deaf and the Blind said, "Our folks are [already] blind enough and peculiar enough after twelve or fifteen years of association in a school for the blind." He echoed one blind graduate's assertion that "every educator of the blind knows the deleterious effect of collecting the blind together in isolated groups." Albert B. Irwin, a blind man who had earned an M.A. at Harvard, explained that "a College for the Blind would but deepen the ruts out of which its students must be got before they can hope to succeed in the world with the seeing."

The debate over higher education was one of the few times blind people had a real voice in Outlook. Averaging about four times longer than those submitted by blindness professionals, their letters contained some of the journal's most eloquent and passionate words. All of the blind contributors had earned degrees from universities and given the matter serious thought based on those experiences. For example, with his Harvard degree Irwin was in a particularly good position to point out that if the public is slow to recognize a new college at best, how much slower would this recognition come to a special institution? . . . . "Unless a college degree carries with it a large measure of public confidence," he argued, "it is going to lack much of its value to the blind person who needs something to offset the burden of proof which invariably rests upon him."

Newel Perry made an especially well documented case against special institutions. After attending the University of California at Berkeley and earning a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Munich, he drafted the blueprint for New York State's 1907 law providing blind college students with scholarships to hire readers. In the debate over a blind college, he cited detailed census figures and financial data, outlining economic, political, and social reasons for his opposition. Since no top-rank scholars would choose to teach in such a place, "a national college for the blind would at best be a second-rate school." Perry, like the other blind contributors, defended their experiences of attending college along with sighted students. Blind people's passionate and eloquent participation in the debate showed that without The Problem they still had much to say on their own behalf.

The debate over a special blind college printed in a professional journal provided surprising possibilities for fostering a sense of collective identity among blind Americans. Outlook seemed open to presenting views from a variety of sighted and blind perspectives that did not always adhere to its philosophy. In addition, by representing disagreements among sighted professionals, the AAWB organ inadvertently created a wedge for blind people to participate as equals in an ongoing debate. When the experts had not yet agreed on an issue, they seemed more willing to listen to first-hand experiences.

Moreover, at a time when no other widely circulating periodical touted itself as expressing the views of blind people themselves, Outlook unintentionally provided a valuable service of putting them in touch with one another and conveying a sense that a critical mass of potential leaders did exist. Articulate responses from men such as Perry, Irwin, and Nolan provided a positive image of blind Americans to sighted and blind alike at the same time that they made blind people aware that they were not alone. But while Outlook had clearly involved them in certain discussions, it would never fulfill The Problem's mission to speak of and for blind people. It is revealing, for example, that the journal grouped their responses together at the end of the discussion, only after sighted professionals had weighed in with their opinions.

Despite the blind contributors' criticism of separate schools, they in fact owed their own activism to their experiences in such places because, more than any other factor, the special schools fostered a sense of community among blind people. Before the universal use of Braille; efficient public transportation; and inexpensive, widely-available, reliable telephone service, those schools provided otherwise rare opportunities for blind people to meet and connect. They not only learned the occupational and living skills in the official curriculum but also developed their perspectives regarding blindness and the social situation of blind people. In such environments it was only a matter of time before blind men began to form a sense of community that often continued after graduation. Correspondence among the alumni of one such school had led to the founding of the ABPHEGIA and The Problem.

Debates such as the ones over a special college notwithstanding, blind people contributed infrequently to Outlook, with the one conspicuous exception of Helen Keller. The blind-deaf superstar has long been a sore point with some blind people, partly because she created an unattainable ideal, and partly because, like Outlook itself, she cloyingly evoked pity. Even more disturbing for some, she depoliticized disability, avoided promoting collective action by blind people, yielded power to condescending sighted professionals, and failed to challenge prejudice and discrimination as her socialist leanings might have promised--all while playing the part of the saintly blind virgin.

As her biographers have observed, it is nearly impossible to separate her own motives and ideas from those of the people around her. Not only did she always learn and communicate through intermediaries, she faced difficult financial circumstances that required her to temper her views about everything from politics to blindness so as not to alienate her benefactors. At the root of all discussions about Keller is the question of whether she was a thinking person in her own right, an issue that also haunts nearly all discussions of disability both past and present.

Not surprisingly then, Keller conveyed a contradictory message about blind people and her own role as a spokeswoman. After describing weakness as one of "The Heaviest Burdens of the Blind," she explained, "The help we give the unfortunate must be intelligent. . . . Pity and tears make great poetry but they do not make model tenement houses, or keep children out of factories, or save the manhood of blind men." For Keller, as for many Americans, the real problem lay in idleness, the solution in jobs. Even if the state provided the capital and basic job training, the local community must "meet him with a sympathy that conforms to the dignity of his manhood and his capacity for service." Predictably, she favored special institutions: "The true value of a school for the sightless is not merely to enlighten intellectual darkness but to lend a hand to every movement in the interests of the blind."

Yet she also saw no need for the blind to be segregated from the seeing throughout life, for "the city of the blind is everywhere." Just like sighted people, blind ones suffered their defeats and savored their victories, contrary to the wild success and hopeless failure assigned them by popular imagination. "Like the seeing man, the blind man may be a philosopher, a mathematician, a linguist, a seer, a poet, a prophet," due to his individual capacity, not some mythic insight born of blindness. "If the light of genius burns within him, it will burn despite his infirmity, and not because of it." Yet after so carefully affirming blind people's diversity, she ended by resorting to stereotypical pity. "I appeal to you, give the blind man the assistance that shall secure for him complete or partial independence. He is blind and falters. Therefore go a little more than half way to meet him. Remember, however brave and self-reliant he is, he will always need a guiding hand in his."

Thus Keller's view of blind people--the one Outlook placed before the American public in its first issue--was full of contradictions. The sightless were strong, ambitious, and diverse, but also weak, lazy, and likely to play the few roles society had assigned to them for centuries. Their personal strength should garner respect, but society should come to them "more than half way" and extend that ubiquitous "guiding hand." Even her sympathy with blind people and her role as their spokeswoman cut both ways as she simultaneously presented herself as a fellow blind person and as one who looked down upon them.

Keller's article would never have appeared in The Problem because at bottom she denied action to the blind people she championed. Help, according to Outlook's most prominent blind spokeswoman, must come from outside before it could come from within. Further, the idea of a single blind individual speaking for all blind people would have been unthinkable for a journal run by and for blind people, even if it was one man's brainchild. McGill had made The Problem a forum for blind people to speak in a variety of voices on many topics, some not even about blindness. The Problem demonstrated how many different kinds of blind people existed in America without someone like Keller having to announce it.

One of the places where the differences between The Problem and Outlook emerged most interestingly was the way in which they discussed women's roles. Writing in The Problem in Fall, 1900, Lillian M. Hinkle attempted to answer the question she was most frequently asked: "How is a sightless woman practically useful?" She responded enthusiastically with the optimistic though cautious "in most every womanly line." Condemning the state schools for the blind for giving children "a common education without any practical sensibility," she argued for the value of home teaching.

But this could succeed only if parents played an active part, which led her to the focus of her story, Mrs. Blanche Elmaker Logan of Kansas City, Kansas, the very model of a modern blind homemaker. Hinkle found her to be "a self-poised womanly woman, ready for all emergencies, keen in all perceptions, alive to all business ventures, and yet purely emotional and aesthetic . . . one of the most perfect home-makers I ever knew." She kept a clean house, raised several children (being "a wonderful mother . . . strict yet kind, and ever patient"), and proved "fully competent to converse intelligently on any subject from science or poetry to the humor of a Dickens character." Her sighted husband, Professor W. J. Logan, principal of the Kansas School for the Blind, "has ever been proud to introduce her to people in any station in life, no matter how lofty that station may be, because of her great womanly self-possession."

A decade later, in Outlook, Miss Elizabeth C. Cory, a teacher of domestic science at the Missouri School for the Blind, gave her answers to the questions: "Can a blind girl learn to cook? If so, how is she taught?" In some respects her description of her domestic science course seemed more helpful than Hinkle's pep talk in The Problem. Step by step she took the high-school-age girls through the two-year course aimed at creating a meal, from learning about food and nutrition to lighting the gas stove. "At first they do it with fear and trembling," she explained, "but they soon gain confidence and learn to regulate the gas burner, putting the hand above the blaze and turning it up or down."

They also learned to label and measure ingredients "by using the cup, spoon, and knife in much the same way that the seeing girl would, with the exception that the blind girl must get used to lifting the cup to feel how heavy it is, learn that half a cup of sugar will not be as heavy as a whole cup, and learn that one-fourth of a cup of milk will weigh less than a third of a cup, etc." In the second year they mastered canning, pickling, and jelly-making, organizing a kitchen, setting a table, and cleaning up. After they learned "to use up left-overs so that nothing will be wasted," the grand finale had the girls serve a four-course meal to invited guests. "Great care is taken to make the work practical," Cory concluded, "that it may be of lasting use."

Though both articles dealt with blindness and domesticity, and both were written by sighted women who explained how blind women could fulfill social expectations, their tone and presentation reveal two very distinct underlying philosophies. By celebrating the values of home teaching, Hinkle suggested that not everyone looked to schools staffed by experts as the best means of educating blind students, especially in matters of daily life. The Problem approached domesticity from the standpoint of a blind woman's having achieved the ideals of the sighted world. She won respect not as a blind person but as a woman who did things well. Hinkle noted, "That [friends] come to her with a sense of extreme pleasure rather than curiosity is an appreciated compliment to Mrs. Logan."

In contrast Outlook focused on the accomplishments of the teacher, the expert without whom the students' achievements would have been impossible. Cory made clear that she devoted much energy to this class, with comments such as: "we spend considerable time in practice of that kind." The article even included girls' testimonies about how much they had learned. While Cory did not overtly brag, the article promoted her accomplishments anyway by showing the value of a trained teacher in an institutional setting. Her invitation to visit the school, the staged dinner at the end of the course: the entire article celebrated visibility and display, even a kind of showmanship that used the pupils to demonstrate their teacher's success. Photos of the pupils proudly posing in the kitchen and in front of the set dining room table presented the blind girls as spectacle for the sighted world. Outlook's use of display again illustrated what was being done for the blind rather than by them.

The distinction between "by" and "for" the blind basic to the philosophical differences between the two advocacy journals yielded different ideas of womanhood. Though Hinkle's article never showed Mrs. Logan leaving home, it conveyed her sense of independence and assertiveness as she went about her daily chores. Her determination and interest in manly things such as business never eclipsed her femininity. Moreover, while Logan's domesticity was chaste like that of any good turn-of-the-century housewife, she did have a husband and children. Not only did Mrs. Logan come off as a competent and independent blind woman comfortable with herself, she spurned contemporary moralizing literature that urged blind girls never to marry and certainly never to raise children. Mrs. Logan contrasted sharply with images of Helen Keller or the prim girls in Cory's cooking class, none of whom was ever expected to marry.

As the two articles about homemaking show, The Problem and Outlook for the Blind differed dramatically in their underlying philosophy, approach, and tone. The Problem urged blind people to help themselves and each other; Outlook celebrated seeing experts who provided help because they knew best. McGill's journal sought to create a sense of community of blind people; Campbell's asked the sighted community to provide help for them.

That Wallace McGill was blind while Charles Campbell was sighted surely played an important part in establishing this difference from the beginning. Just as men and women or white and black people understood their options differently based on their experiences, sighted and blind people inhabited distinct worlds. Growing up blind, attending special schools, and living with the constant need to prove himself to skeptical sighted people, Professor McGill no doubt learned lessons that Campbell could only imagine. As much understanding and concern as Campbell had for blind people, he oriented himself toward the sighted world. Everything he did, including editing Outlook, passed through this filter. And even if either man had been intellectually or temperamentally so inclined, the social and political climate would not have allowed a blind man to publish a journal for experts, nor would it listen to a sighted one who spoke radically about options for blind people.

Yet the two approaches to blindness did not neatly divide between good modern blind people and reactionary sighted professionals who made the blind dependent. Neither blind nor sighted individuals automatically adopted either view of blind identity. Representatives stood on both sides, all earnestly believing themselves to be acting for a better world. Moreover, both McGill and Campbell were modern men who brought new ideas about blind people and blindness into an emerging modern culture in turn-of-the-century America. The substantial differences in their approaches reflected the fact that each seized on a different aspect of this modernity to further the cause of improving blind people's lives.

McGill drew on the powerful current of shared group interest promoted by a journal dedicated to political and social change. Like African Americans and women, he sought a new way to empower citizens who had not before dared to claim power. Campbell used modern media such as photography and the journal itself to solicit the good will and financial support that would help keep the cause (and the publication) alive, thus revealing his understanding of public opinion as a new resource. Both approaches would have unintended and sometimes negative consequences: The Problem failed to garner sufficient political or monetary support, while Outlook gained these things at the expense of a movement organic to blind people themselves. Yet each journal contributed much to changing the landscape upon which the identity of blind Americans would be created.

By dominating the blindness field over the next generation, Outlook associated blindness with professionals keen on making an impression on mainstream American society. But it did not destroy a movement of blind people. Instead it showed them that not everyone who claimed to be acting in their best interests came with the same spirit and assumptions. Outlook put an end to the naivete evident in The Problem to such an extent that when the founders of the National Federation of the Blind launched a new movement a generation later in 1940, they brought a mistrust of sighted blindness professionals with them. The Problem had shown what was possible; Outlook demonstrated that such dreams could never be taken for granted.


1. Outlook for the Blind became The New Outlook for the Blind in 1951 and since 1977 lives on as the American Foundation for the Blind's Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness.

2. Unfortunately, no statistical information exists regarding the number of blind men who found themselves in such leadership positions. Even today, anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers of blind directors of institutions and service organizations remains very small.

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