Picture of Martha Hays
Martha Hays

U.S. Public School Education of the Blind
in the Early Twentieth Century:
One Pupil's Account

by Jana L. Schroeder and Martha B. Hays

The following paper was prepared for the Second International Conference on the Blind in History and the History of the Blind, which took place in Paris, June 22 to 24, 1998. Jana Schroeder was a 1984 NFB scholarship winner and a history major in college. She has worked for some years for the American Friends Service Committee, but she has never lost her interest in oral history.

In 1996 Martha Hays received the NFB of Ohio's Knall Garwood Award for steadfast and loyal service over many years in the NFB of Ohio. Martha, who was ninety at the time, charmed the entire convention as she spoke briefly about her long life of service to blind people. Among other tidbits she revealed was the fact that she was one of four blind women social workers who worked with Dr. Hoover to develop his long-cane technique for the use of World War II veterans.

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Jana Schroeder and session moderator Georges Busson, professor at the French National Museum of Natural History.

Jana, who lives in the same city as Martha, was struck with the importance of recording some of Martha's recollections. Martha had always hoped to write the story of her life but had concluded that the project was now too big for her. That is the way the collaboration came about. As this issue was going to press, we learned of the death of Martha Hays at the residential facility in which she had been living. She died quietly on Saturday morning, October 24. Here are the fruits of Jana's and Martha's labor as they were presented to conferees in Paris:


Martha Bell Miller Hays was born on August 1, 1906, near Youngstown, Ohio, in the United States. Although neither of her parents graduated from high school, they exhibited a keen interest in ensuring that their blind daughter would receive both academic and practical training. This paper provides a first-hand account of early education of the blind in public institutions in the U.S. as experienced by Martha B. Hays.

Martha's access to a quality education, which included both grounding in the special skills needed by blind individuals and traditional fields of study, was due to three factors. First, education of blind children in public schools was begun experimentally in the early years of this century. Until that time the only specialized education available to blind students was at segregated, residential schools where students usually lived far from their families and did not interact with sighted students. Robert Irwin, who later became the first executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, initiated the Cleveland public school program, which Martha attended beginning in 1912. The fact that such a program was begun in a location not too distant from where Martha's family was living just at the time she was ready to enter school was quite significant.

Second, Martha's parents provided support that was crucial to her educational achievements. Despite the lack of outside guidance and support, they combined common sense with a determination that their daughter should be exposed to a variety of experiences and opportunities for learning. Ultimately the quality and scope of Martha's education were determined by Martha herself. From an early age she asked the questions and demanded to be taught the things that she knew she needed to live as an independent person.

The bulk of this paper consists of excerpts from interviews I conducted with Martha Hays between January and May of 1998 for a planned full-length oral history or biography. These excerpts clearly show how the three factors described above interacted throughout Martha's school years. They also provide a fascinating glimpse into the education given to blind children in U.S. public schools in the early years of this century from a student's perspective. Martha's education was accomplished before there were computers, tape recorders, or even many Braille textbooks. She lived through the transition from American to English Braille. Although her immediate family was extremely supportive, she was no stranger to the almost unquestioned discrimination against blind people in what she refers to as "the tin cup generation." I have deliberately chosen to preserve Martha's own voice in the pages that follow because I know of no other way to convey her vivid recollections of incidents which not only have autobiographical significance but are also important to the preservation of the history of the education of the blind.

Getting There

When I came along in 1906, there was no help. My mother was on her own. She had nothing to go by. There was no one that she could follow. There was no support group. Someone gave her a book about Helen Keller, but you know how much good that would be. So Mother's idea was, "Well, I don't know what to do with her, so I'll try to do with her the same as I would with any other daughter."

My brother Walter was three years older. He was a lot of help. I had a lot of normal experience in running and that sort of thing because of my brother. He knew that, if he just kept a certain distance from me, I could follow him. I got a lot of normal exercise that way.

I learned early how to hear the trees and hear objects. Mother didn't realize what she was doing, but when we went walking, I would say, "What's that? What's that?"

She'd say, "That's a tree. That's a post. That's a doorway." As I noticed differences, I was curious, and she took the time to tell me what I asked. I learned an awful lot that way. She didn't understand what she was teaching me. She probably caught on after a while, but by just allowing me freedom, she was able to discover what I needed to know and how I needed to know it.

We lived on a farm that was near Girard, Ohio, near Youngstown. Grandpa had a little farm, and he built a little house for his family. We lived there. When Grandpa built a big house over on the other side of town—he was an architect—we moved into the big house on the farm. We had a cow and chickens, and Mother would sell what milk and eggs she could. Grandpa, of course, got his milk and eggs from us. My father worked in Youngstown. He was on the railroad for a while, and then he worked for the Youngstown Car Company when it was time for me to go to school.

My parents were determined they weren't going to send me to the school for the blind in Columbus. If they had sent me to Columbus, I'd have been out of the home. I suppose I'd have learned certain things, but I'm so glad they didn't. I knew the world wasn't going to be easy. So often when they come out of the school in Columbus, they're stopped because they expect certain things that aren't going to happen. I think they're doing better now, but we have to realize that we're dealing with the early part of the century.

We used to call our home the resort for schoolteachers. Some of our best friends were schoolteachers. Mother deliberately did favors for them and encouraged them because she had me in mind. We lived close to the river, and they liked to go skating in the winter particularly. I was naturally ready for school because there were always so many teachers around.

Mother insisted she was going to send me to school anyhow. Of course the superintendent of schools had fits and said, "She won't learn anything," but when school started in 1912, she sent me to school with my brother. I did learn a few little things.

I remember our little first-grade book. We'd go home to Grandma's for lunch, and Grandma would read to me. The teacher always told me what they were going to be reading. The teachers were all our friends, so she understood. I remember one thing Grandma always said was, "Now you remember this because I'm not going to be able to read it again." She put that in my mind. Of course, I've been spoiled since then because I can read for myself. Nevertheless, that made a difference. I could recite from that book that afternoon like the other children because I had read it and I would remember. But that didn't have to go on very long.

The general movement of mainstreaming began in about 1909. It began first in New York and Chicago. When Robert Irwin came to Cleveland, there was no school, so he took a job in the broom factory. All the ladies from the Cleveland Society for the Blind were proud of what he did, so they came to visit, and he gradually promoted his idea of educating blind children in the schools. They tried it experimentally in 1911. In 1912 it was made permanent.

Girard is about sixty miles from Cleveland. We had no idea that anything was happening. At that time they had publicity in the papers about the fact that they were educating blind children in the public school in Cleveland. One morning in September the lady who lived up the lane came to get her milk and eggs and gave Mother a clipping from the Cleveland Sunday paper. Not everybody got the Cleveland paper, but it just happened that that family did. That's how we learned about the school in Cleveland.

My father went immediately to Cleveland and found Mr. Irwin. He came home with a Braille alphabet that was printed on tin and a book. In three weeks we had sold the cow and the chickens. We were headed for Cleveland. I was in school there three weeks from the time we got that clipping. My grandparents had a fit about my parents' moving the family to Cleveland, but Mother and Dad didn't accept any of their arguments. Grandpa could get his milk and eggs somewhere else.

School Days

We had six hours of school instead of five. We always started when they rang the first bell. We had a shorter noon hour.

In the first eight grades we had a home room. That's where we learned our typing and Braille. We only spent part of the day with the other children. When the other children in the regular class were doing penmanship and drawing and that sort of thing, we were back in the home room. We had reading with the sighted children, but of course we had to learn the basics in the home room. The amount of time gradually increased as you learned what you needed to know and learned to read well enough to go in with the other children. I don't think I spent much time reading with the other children in the first grade. We had to gradually work into it.

All grades were together in the home room. There were probably about a dozen of us. Some of the older ones had gone to Columbus, and some hadn't gone any place to school before.

The room was arranged so that on one side were the desks and on the other side was an open area. We had a swing. There was a big pole in the middle of the room. The ceilings were high. The great thing to do was to be able to climb that pole and slap the ceiling and come back down. I was slow at it, but my friend Celia could do it. I finally did it. My mother had a fit.

Celia and I were quite active. We would skip around and play. The teacher would use us to help the younger ones who came in. Often the children who came in hadn't had the opportunity to walk very much. The families sat them in a chair and did not know what to do with them. Some of them carried the children into the classroom. Teacher used to say, "Here, Celia, you and Martha Bell take Viola and teach her to walk." So we'd get her between us, and we'd make her walk. We weren't therapists, but that was the way therapy was done then. We learned to make her walk with both of us for a while. Then one of us would walk with her, and then we'd separate and make her walk from one to the other.

We were given a lot of things to do that a kindergartner would do now because many of the students had not used their hands. We had little pegboards, and the teacher would give you a design to copy. They also had a frame that had material on it. They had one with buttons, another with hooks and eyes, and one that you laced like shoes.

When they started the classes, there was no sightsaving. Everything was Braille. Even the children who had quite a little vision still learned Braille. They used to have to put a frame on their desk and put cardboard down so they couldn't try to read Braille with their eyes. They were very strict about not being allowed to read it with their eyes. They learned their Braille with much more sight than they do now. It was in the 1920's that the schools began to think about sightsaving.

In those days a teacher had two years training after high school. That was it. All of the teachers were sighted except for our music teacher. There wasn't any special place for training teachers of the blind. I suppose they got a lot of ideas from Irwin. If the teacher was absent, sometimes he substituted.

The school on the West Side was an observation school, which was in connection with what we called the normal school, where teachers were educated. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, they moved us to an observation school. The teachers in training could come in and observe us and get some ideas.

By then they were beginning to have more centers where blind students could attend school because the city was pretty good sized. They were beginning to spread out as they discovered more blind children and learned what they should do with them.

I had the same home room teacher the first three years. Her name was Ruth Brockway. Then she went to Toledo, Ohio, to start a program for blind children in the schools there.

When we went to high school, we were separated. We went to the school in the area where we lived. I was the only blind student in the high school at the time. Once we got to high school, we didn't have any special teacher. We were expected to manage without. That's why we were given typing so early.

The Cottage Experiment

I think it was in about 1918 that they decided to try an experiment of cottage living in Cleveland where we would spend the week in a cottage and go home at the weekend. They had one group for boys, and the girls went much more successfully, I think. There were about a dozen of us in that cottage group. They did that for about five years. I was with it part of the time. I didn't go too much after I was in high school because there was too much work.

They decided to send some that were from good homes and some that were not. I think they got me to go because I did more things than some of the others. I was delighted to go because that meant other kids to play with. Mother never particularly wanted me to have blind friends for some reason, so naturally I enjoyed the companionship of the kids. We did more yard play, and that's possibly one reason my parents let me go. I had so little opportunity to do that in the city. We used to jump rope and things like that to entertain ourselves.

The purpose of the cottage was to learn a little bit about housekeeping. We did a little bit in the kitchen, but not much. It was basic living because a lot of these kids didn't have anything like that at home. I had been making my bed, but there we learned how to change the sheets and other things that we didn't necessarily do at home because Mom was too busy to show us. We had sewing classes, I think. I got so much of that at home, but I got more of it there too. It worked together.

I think Mother had a blind spot about food, but so did everyone else then. Your food was always put down in front of you ready to eat. I'm sure now, when I think about it, that Mother let me eat with a spoon a lot longer than I should have. One thing we have to realize is that a person who is totally blind doesn't see what other people do. Therefore, unless someone tells you or shows you, you don't think anything about it. I had a spoon, so I ate. Finally I realized that people were eating with forks. When the first dinner was served at the cottage, I just picked up my fork and started to eat. That was the end of spoon eating. This shows that occasionally you need to get away from home.

Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmetic

Before I went to school, I used to look at books. My brother

was reading, and I thought, "Now when I'm as big as he is, I'll be able to read that." There were some people who visited us, and they were reading on that paper with dots, but it didn't occur to me what that meant. I knew all about the alphabet. When I got the alphabet on tin and the book my father brought back from Cleveland, I began to realize that was how I was going to have to read.

I'll never forget the first four lines of the first reader I had in Braille. It was, "This is Kate. And this is Fan. Kate is a girl. Fan is a cow." Those lines have always stayed with me. It shows how deeply impressed I was at the time.

We started with American Braille. They began to spread the idea of maybe using English Braille in about 1915. Ruth went to a convention, and she copied the English Braille alphabet and brought it home. When she was at our house one night, she gave me the alphabet and said, "If you can produce that for me in an hour, I'll give you a nickel." I took the alphabet, and I came back in an hour and earned my nickel. The cute part of it is that, when she copied it, she copied the s and t wrong.

I think I was in about the fifth grade when we started to transfer over to English Braille. That was a nice picnic. Quite a few letters were different. The thing about English Braille is that it's organized. The first ten letters are in the upper four dots, and the next ten add dot 3. American Braille was not organized that way. For example, the letter c was like j. E was simply dot 2. What American Braille tried to do was make the most common letters simpler. It was quite a bit of change. I know it slowed me down on reading. By the time I reached high school, I was still taking notes in American Braille and reading English Braille. Gradually I realized that this couldn't go on, and I stopped doing it. We changed it slowly and rather reluctantly.

I never learned New York Point, but if I had gone to the state school in Columbus, I would have been given New York Point. They were slower in changing to English Braille. In Cleveland we changed as quickly as it was official. All over the country they had the debate on what they would do. In Columbus they started the new students with the new Braille, but anyone who had gone beyond the fifth grade, they kept in New York Point, which is sort of foolish.

We all started with the slate and stylus. You didn't start using the Braillewriter until you were about in the third grade. I got into it earlier because we knew the teacher. The teacher typed your spelling off on the Braillewriter. I know by third grade I was using it because, if the teacher was absent, I was the one who would write the spelling papers for the substitute teacher.

Nobody thought about owning a Braillewriter. There were some at the school. They were the old Hall Braillers. You rolled your paper in like you do in a typewriter. It made beautiful Braille. It was the same principle as the Perkins Brailler, with six keys, and in the center was the spacer. You had to turn the line up by hand, but it was a good machine. My father called it "the old stone crusher" because that's how it sounded.

I bought one in 1929. I didn't have it all the way through college. When I entered college, the only equipment I had was a good typewriter and a four-line pocket slate. A Braillewriter wouldn't have done me much good in college anyway.

I think I started typing in the fourth grade so that by the time I was ready for high school, I'd be able to type my own papers for the teacher. I didn't get my own Underwood typewriter until I was through the eighth grade. When it came to changing ribbons and things, nobody did it for me. Dad would sometimes watch, but he would always say, "You do it."

They didn't teach us any handwriting. I was determined that, whenever I had to sign anything, I wouldn't use a mark. I hated that, and I wanted to write, especially to write my own signature. Somehow I couldn't get anybody interested in helping me. I had to really teach myself as far as my signature was concerned. I sent to Boston for instructions. I was all the way through college by the time I taught myself that. When I got so that my niece, who was about third grade at the time, could tell what I wrote, I figured I was doing a pretty good job.

In the first grades of school Cleveland had its own print shop. A blind woman ran the machine that made the Braille plates. It had to be made on tin plates. Then it had to go through the press. Of course it was all done on one side of the page. We had arithmetic books and readers. As we got along in junior high, we didn't have readers. After we got into high school, we didn't have any textbooks in Braille. I never had a textbook in my hand from the time I left eighth grade. I became quite a note taker.

My first language was French, and I started that when I was in junior high. I was always good at conversational French, but I was behind with the reading because I didn't have anything much to read. We had a contest, and I went through the conversational part with flying colors. But when it came to the other, somebody had transcribed the print part of it into Braille and handed it to me, and I was way out in left field because I hadn't had a regular Braille textbook. In junior high I won the bronze medal for the best second-year French student in the Cleveland schools.

I continued my French for a little while at high school, but then I dropped it and took Latin. I don't know why. I suppose because the French was getting too complicated for me because I didn't have any book. So I took Latin. They didn't have the textbook I needed, so I copied my own Latin textbook. They read it letter by letter. I made up the signs I needed. I didn't know them in Braille, so I made them up. I got a lot of cooperation at home. I'd be writing, and, if Mother needed to go do something else, my brother would take over. Anyone who was around just took up where she left off. I sat there and copied. So we got it done. I had a year and a half of Latin.

In high school my social activity was mostly the chorus. I didn't have time to engage in extracurricular activities because everything had to be read. I just had to use my time at home. At that time the state did provide readers to some extent. I think they got twenty cents an hour. It was good money. The readers were other students. I didn't have very many. They couldn't begin to do all of it.

Arithmetic is one thing we started with in the home room. We never heard of an abacus. We had a board with square holes and little cubes that fit into the squares. The cubes had Braille markings that represented various numbers, depending on how you turned the cube. That was our arithmetic equipment. We had a lot of mental arithmetic. I think it was in seventh grade that they kept four of us, and we just did mental arithmetic. You just sat there and did it, and the only thing you wrote down was the answer. That was wonderful training.

Some of them went into high school before me, and they didn't take the math courses. I insisted on taking them. I remember they didn't like it. There was a worker from the Board of Education who used to help arrange our classes. After she'd get it arranged, if I didn't like it, I'd go to the office and rearrange it. They got used to my doing things like that. As long as I made good on it and could do it, there was nothing they could say. I wanted the courses that could get me into college. They didn't want me to necessarily worry with Latin or math, but they changed their minds rather quickly when they realized that was what we were going to do. So the Board of Education provided a tutor for algebra and geometry.

Preparing for the Future

Singing had been on my mind through my whole life to that time. I decided that I'd probably like to go to a college where I could study music. I thought maybe I would go to Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, which was quite a well-known college at the time. In 1922 or '23, a friend and I took the tram and went to Painesville to see about the school. We met Dean Lovejoy, and I told her that I was interested in going to Lake Erie College. I don't know where I was going to get the money to do it because we didn't have much. The response was, "Well, I don't know, unless you can bring somebody with you because we have girls from the better families, and they might object to their daughters walking with you to the dining room and being with you." That was a complete rejection.

We went home rather dejected. In other words, we don't want you. Your voice might be all right, as far as that's concerned, but we have the high cultured people here. I was not equal to them. She didn't know anything about my family, but just the fact that I was blind, I was not acceptable. I suppose now it would bother me, but it didn't seem to bother me too much because I knew it could happen.

When I said I wanted to go to college, my grandparents said, "We thought you'd be satisfied to stay home with a little bit of music or something like that." They didn't figure that I would ever do anything. Well, nobody knew. I didn't know at that time whether I'd be able to do anything.

When we were getting started toward college and Mother was trying to see if there was any help for readers or anything, the state people said to her, "What's she going to do? What's the use of going to college?"

Mother's answer was, "I don't know what she's going to do. She may have to sit and think, and if she's going to have to sit and think, I want her to have something to think about." I thought that was a pretty good answer. My parents were both always behind me in whatever I wanted to do. At first I'd have to convince them it needed to be done, but then that was it. That was a big help to me.

I did high school in three years. I went in the summer because I wanted to get through, get out, and get to college. I graduated from high school in 1923. It was a big class. I think there were 200. I was the only blind student. My graduation received a good deal of publicity. I was the first blind student to come through the Cleveland schools having taken all the courses that were required.

It's a struggle, but you've got to have those degrees or nobody's going to look at you. You realize that now you're not necessarily using what you got in those classes. You're using what you learned since. You got a method. You learned how to get the knowledge that you needed from around you, and that's what you work with, not necessarily what you got from books in school.

The life that I've lived would not have been lived that way had I been able to see. I would never have had education to amount to anything. My mother probably would have died because the farm work was too much for her. She was ill when we went to Cleveland. She got well when we got into a steam-heated apartment. What my life would have been, I don't know. It probably would have been very ordinary. I've always felt that there was a reason for my being blind because of the way things happened.


In 1927 Martha earned a bachelor's degree with double majors in English and psychology from the Ohio State University in Columbus. She went on to receive certificates in voice and piano from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and a master's degree in social administration from Ohio State. Each step on this path was carefully planned by Martha not only to further her education but also to increase her independence from her family.

Among her many other life accomplishments, Martha worked for several years as a social worker and helped develop the systematic approach to travel for the blind using the long white cane following World War II. Now nearly ninety-two years of age, Martha Hays lives in Dayton, Ohio, and has graciously agreed to share her life story.

Preserving the memories of Martha Hays and other blind people educated in the early decades of this century is important for at least two major reasons. First, much of the available literature was written by educators and other professionals and does not reflect the perspectives of the students themselves. It is one thing to read a paper describing what an educator hoped was being accomplished and quite another to read or hear what the students themselves experienced.

Second, much of the writing about early twentieth-century educational efforts was written at the time. Educators as well as those blind people who did write about their own educational experiences often fell into the common stereotypes and cliches associated with blind people. Asking people to reflect upon their early experiences from the vantage point of today often allows for a more candid assessment of the obstacles and advantages of a bygone era.

We must begin by recognizing the historic value of older blind persons' experiences. The next step is to get involved in sharing and preserving this history. I hope that the work Martha Hays and I have done will encourage others to undertake similar projects of oral history, autobiography, and historical survey to bring to light the hidden history of blind people in all eras and cultures.