How blind Victorians campaigned for inclusive education

A coloured engraving of a "school for the indigent blind" from 1813. Image copyright Wellcome Images
Image caption The School for the Indigent Blind at St George's Fields, London in 1813

Disabled people's voices are often missing from mainstream history, but texts reveal that a group of forgotten blind activists fought for inclusive education during the Victorian times.

Historically, education for children with disabilities, in so far as it has existed at all, has tended to be based on segregation.

Over the past 30 years there has been a greater effort, backed up by law, to integrate disabled children into mainstream education. But in the Victorian era they often attended educational institutions supported through philanthropic fundraising.

To encourage donations, schools emphasised the "miseries" of sensory deprivation. Unhappy about these negative representations of disabled people, an un-named "intellectual blind man" of the era said: "I assure you it is not blindness, but its consequences, which we feel most painfully, and those consequences are often laid on us most heavily by the people who are loudest in their expressions of pity."

His words cut through the Victorian representations of blindness as something to be pitied and were quoted by a group of blind campaigners who emerged to challenge the paucity of available education. They sought to reform the institutionalised approach to disability that was prominent at the time.

The names of these early activists are all but forgotten today. However, their views on the importance of including, rather than segregating, blind and deaf children, and their powerful advocacy that they should be heard and given appropriate rights, make their views seem strikingly modern.

'Shut away'

"Special education" emerged in Britain and Europe during the second half of the 18th Century. Thomas Braidwood established a school for deaf pupils in Edinburgh in 1764, which moved to Hackney in London in 1783 due to increased demand for places.

The first school for blind pupils opened in Liverpool in 1791 and London's School for the Indigent Blind, founded at St George's Fields Southwark in 1799, was by the 1860s educating 160 boys and girls in reading, writing and "useful" trades, intended to provide for their future employment.

After the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the state subsidised school fees for some pupils so that attendance did not push families into poverty - education was neither free nor compulsory until later in the century.

Image copyright Wellcome Images
Image caption Blind basket makers, 1871

Charitable schools were founded primarily as residential institutions intended to provide protection, board, lodging and education to their pupils. Yet the practice of shutting away "blind, deaf and dumb" children in so-called "exile schools" was opposed by an increasingly vocal group of activists in the mid 19th Century.

Prominent authors included James Gray, who wrote the self-published What is Doing for the Blind? in 1862 from the Edinburgh Blind Asylum where he lived, and John Bird, a surgeon who had become blind in adult life.

For these writers, institutions "immured" their pupils, treating them like prisoners. They were degrading and they perpetuated "pauperism". Bird said segregation encouraged a "selfish indifference towards the suffering four-sensed, whether Blind or Deaf and Dumb" on the part of the "five-sensed members of society" leading them to consider themselves "exempt from the responsibility of giving either time or thought to the subject".

The campaigners noted that inclusion promised to benefit all society, not just the deaf and blind themselves.

'Blind trades'

One area of debate concerned the so-called "blind trades" of basket weaving or brush making that were taught in these institutions. James Gray argued that the paltry sums paid for these products only added to the poverty of blind workers. Organisations such as the Association for Promoting the General Welfare of the Blind, founded by Elizabeth Gilbert in 1854, established workshops for blind handicraftsmen so that workers received better prices for their products than for those produced in institutions.

Whilst the association encouraged basket making, some campaigners claimed that these traditional trades were symbolic of a system that failed to recognise people's potential or range of talents.

Image copyright Wellcome Images
Image caption A blind man using a dog and stick

In an early attempt to use historical evidence as a tool of activism, several writers gave examples of notable scientists, mathematicians, writers and musicians to illustrate the achievements of blind people in the past. Their inspiration was the Biography of the Blind, written in 1820 by James Wilson, a self-taught blind man who wrote the book "with a view of rescuing my fellow sufferers from the neglect and obscurity in which many of them are involved."

Charities were not always appreciated. Activists claimed that too much of the money donated to the dedicated charities went on buildings and non-disabled staff, rather than on the welfare of the blind pupils themselves. Many of them imposed social and moral restrictions on who could apply for assistance. Some campaigners argued that it would be better if the donated money was paid directly to blind people themselves, to enable them to live in their own homes and support their families.

John Bird and others passionately advocated a "home and social" system which encouraged education in the community. In France and Belgium, blind and deaf children had begun to be educated in "common primary schools" alongside "five-sensed" children. They said it fostered better understanding and was good for the health of people with sensory impairments. Isolation in institutions, argued Bird, led to problems in both mental and physical health caused by lack of stimulation and enforced indolence.

The education of blind and deaf children in specialist institutions remained the norm until recent years.

Far greater effort now goes into integrating disabled children into mainstream schools, and has been backed up by new laws. But integration is not the same as inclusion, and even in 2014 campaigners are still arguing that there is further to go before disabled children are fully included in schools. They say there needs to be greater recognition that they have a right to an education and should be given support in ordinary classes, not in special units.

Dr David Turner is a historian at Swansea University. He was advisor on BBC Radio 4's Disability: A New History.

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