Schools for the Blind and Deaf

Jenna Morgan

Reformers and their contributions

Through the efforts of reformers such as Thomas Gallaudet and Samuel Gridley Howe, institutions to care for and educate the deaf and blind began to appear in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1817, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) established the nation’s first school in Hartford, Connecticut, to teach deaf-mutes to read, write, read lips, and communicate through hand signals. Gallaudet traveled to England to observe how the deaf were taught there. Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc during his trip to England, and Clerc returned with him to become the first deaf teacher of deaf students in the United States. Later his son, Edward, founded the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which is now known as Gallaudet University.

Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876), the husband of Julia Ward Howe, (composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) accomplished for the blind, what Gallaudet achieved for the deaf. In August of 1832, he founded the Perkins Institution, the country’s first school for the blind in Boston. He also founded the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Howe developed an embossed letter system for the blind to read, first known as Howe Type and later as Boston Line Type. Howe received international acclaim by teaching a blind, deaf, and mute, twelve-year-old girl to communicate through sign language.

Dr. John Dix Fisher was the principal founder of The New England Asylum for the Blind which was established in 1829. While he was in medical school, Fisher studied in Paris where he visited The National Institution for Blind Youth. He was very moved by what he saw, and determined that Boston should also house such a school. With the Perkins Institution, Fisher and Howe began a venture that changed the lives of countless blind individuals.

Louis Braille was a blind, French teacher who is known for inventing the system that bears his name, which enables blind individuals to read. Braille's system used six raised dots arranged in cells of three rows of two. Dots were arranged in different combinations that blind people could feel with their fingertips. The patterns formed a code that spelled out letters and numbers and symbolized concepts. The Braille system was published in 1829, however it was not officially accepted in the United States until 1916.

History of Deaf Education

Goals, Tactics, and pre-Civil War Achievements

The reformers of the 1820s focused on social reforms directed toward crime, illiteracy, poverty, and disease. Reformers sought to solve these social problems by creating new institutions including prisons, public schools, and asylums for the deaf, the blind, and the mentally ill.

During the reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century the needs of the blind and deaf were finally being recognized and addressed. The reformers saw that these people were intelligent and should be afforded the opportunity to be educated. Also, this reform movement helped promote the education of all children with disabilities.

In 1882, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. was the only college for the deaf in the world. In 1829, there were no schools for the blind in America. Samuel Howe went to visit schools for the blind in Europe to observe their programs and to obtain educational aids and appliances. After his trip he was determined to avoid the tendencies he observed in Europe of overprotecting their students and treating them as objects of charity. Howe realized the necessity of teaching the whole child by integrating both industrial education and academic skills. The Perkins approach to education provided students both opportunities to think and the skills to support themselves with the goal of turning out independent, productive, well-educated members of society.

Gallaudet and Howe, along with others, helped teach the blind, deaf, and mute to communicate using sign language. Blind students used their sense of touch to "feel" words, and associate them with objects or words, depending whether they could hear. Braille, a series of raised bumps on paper, allowed the blind to read. The reformers took the time to work with the children so that they could learn to read, write, and/or speak. The primary impact of these schools was that they improved the student's quality of life and helped them become more integrated into their communities by teaching them to effectively communicate with others. The reformers' work in the nineteenth century set the stage for future advancements in the education of the disabled, and impacted countless children and adults. Today, there are over a hundred schools in the United States that serve deaf and/or blind students.

Learn Braille In One Lesson


Laura Dewey Bridgman, became the first deaf and blind person to learn a language. She was born in 1829, and contracted scarlet fever at the age of two. The fever eradicated both her hearing and her sight, while also damaging her senses of taste and smell. Touch was the only one of the five senses that was not impaired. She originally learned to communicate and express herself through imitation by touch. Later it was Asa Tenny, a local handyman, who taught her to begin communicating using a system of signs. Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins School for the Blind, was eager to try to teach her. She learned to write, as well as read and otherwise communicate with other people. (Her story is not well known, but she was the first "Helen Keller".)

“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”

– Helen Keller