Notes on a history of England’s first school for the blind


This is part of the Open University Masters in Open and Distance Education (MAODE)  module H810 (Access to online learning for students with a disability) Activity 12.1 History

Braille provided a way to read material that could be reused by blind people and reduced the pressure on readers.

Worcester College

The attitude to blindness pioneered by those who founded Worcester College is, I think, best exemplified by Samuel Forster when he asserted that ‘the blind boy of healthy body and sound brain is, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than a seeing boy, whose lot is cast in the dark…blind boys are boys first, then boys in the dark…’, an attitude which much later became embodied in the school’s motto, “Possunt quia posse videntur”, They can, because they think they can.

Is preparedness for employment of greater value than an ‘education’?

  • The debate rumbles on in relation to all secondary and tertiary education, whether ‘academic’ or vocational.
  • Thomas Anderson, manager of the Edinburgh Asylum before he went to York, was a great advocate of the utilitarian approach, and censured the English organisations for concentrating on schooling rather than employment.
  • Why educate the blind student if they have no gainful employment or means of supporting themselves afterwards? What indeed is the point in education if nothing follows for anyone? In developing the frustration takes young people onto the streets to protest.

As Ritchie says, ‘education was the attainment of a certain degree of factual awareness and the acquisition of a quantum of information—the names of the kings of Israel, the lengths of the chief rivers of the globe and several other categories of facts all equally unconnected with the growing and developing nature of the young’.

Of what use is this to the young blind student? Or should it be in addition to the practicalities of living beyond their school?

  • The prevalent view a century ago was that knowing stuff equated to intelligence. In 1918 on applying to join the fledgling RAF my late grandfather told me how he was asked to name the six most northern counties of England.
  • A challenge the blind could do without and that was met most readily by those families with the means.

Higher education for blind children was confined to those fortunate enough to be born into families with the means and the will to provide this privately.

  • Something that across provision for disabled students hasn’t changed, for example, the specialist Northease School charges annual fees of £25,000 p.a. which, usually after a tribunal, local authorities may pay – while of course the well off have no such hoops to go through.
  • Inspiration from those who make it:

Blind Jack of Knaresborough, the road-builder, Nicholas Saunderson, the Cambridge mathematician, Thomas Blacklock, writer, teacher and philosopher,
James Gale, inventor, and Elizabeth Gilbert, a major figure in nineteenth-century blind welfare.

It would be wrong to suppose that blindness, like other handicaps, necessarily acts as a stimulating challenge.

Blindness may act as a challenge, but only under favourable circumstances. The exceptions emphasize how grim were the prospects of blind children before education for the blind became an accepted fact of life: conditions were too bad for the handicap to stimulate.

Discriminatory:

They were (says its 1872 report) ‘to bestow a sound and liberal education upon persons of the male sex afflicted with total or partial blindness, and belonging, by birth or kinship, to the upper, the professional, or the middle classes of society.

These unctuous and somewhat naive sentiments were, fortunately for his pupils, not characteristic of Forster. His attitude towards the education of the blind was unusually realistic and forward-looking. In 1883 he read a paper at the York Conference entitled “A plea for the higher culture of the blind”.

‘The blind boy of healthy body and sound brain is, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than a seeing boy, whose lot is cast in the dark. The mysterious effects of this constant living in the dark have always exercised the imagination and sentiment of tender-hearted persons; but teachers of the blind prefer to disregard it, and come in time to forget it. To them blind boys are boys first, then boys in the dark…. needing the special aids and ingenious contrivances required by the circumstances.’

Presume nothing, ask the end user:

  • Forster wisely consulted some of his older pupils, and they advised adapting braille for the purpose.
  • Flexible, adaptable, accommodating and building on past experience and successes – so motivational and supportive rather than prescriptive.
  • Since braille was the only system which could feasibly be written, the boys learnt to write braille.

‘Teaching to write with a pen and pencil is now generally abandoned as a waste of time’: but those boys who could write before they went blind were encouraged to keep it up. Forster admitted that much teaching was still oral, but not to the extent it was ten years before.

Can’t start young enough, so perhaps schools can introduce tools and software.

Forster was very keen to get his pupils at as early an age as possible, preferably seven or eight, for no kindergarten was then in existence, and the later the pupils arrived, the harder it was to teach them.

Ingenious and inventive:

Mr Marston has been ingeniously endeavouring to apply these games to the use of “our” boys, by means of the principle of localisation of sound.

The difficulties of those boys (roughly one in five) who went on to university are worth elaborating. The student’s main need was for an intelligent sighted reader, for he had few textbooks with which to follow lectures.

‘Daily shewing how the same visitation is robbed of its severity, and overruled to practical good.’

Vincent work station:

The software which accompanies the workstation makes it a versatile aid, but its uses might be grouped roughly into three main areas. First, and most obvious, it is a method of communication with non-braillists. Second, it is a valuable teaching aid. Third – it’s fun!

(Bignall and Brown, 1985)

Bell, D. (ed.) (1967) The History of Worcester College for the Blind 1866–1966, London, Hutchinson & Co.
Bignall, R. and Brown, E. (1985) ‘Vincent Workstation’, The British Journal of Visual Impairment, vol. 3, pp. 17–19.

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Posted in Accessibility, Communications, H810: Accessible Online Learning, Innovations, Leadership, Learning, Learning Design, Life, MA in Open & Distance Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Team Building, Tertiary Education, Training, Words, Writing

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