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LOOKING BACK TO THE FUTURE

By Dr Siva Moodley

Member of the Optima College Board

19 June 2020

“We live in the present, we dream of the future, and we learn eternal truths from the past” (Mark Twain).

INTRODUCTION

A review of relevant literature demonstrates that radical changes for a better quality of life for blind persons came from blind persons themselves. One has only to consider the achievements of the following selected examples of blind men and women during very challenging years to underscore this: John Milton, a famous poet and author; Maria Theresa Von Paradis, an Austrian music performer and composer; Louis Braille, the inventor of braille; Thomas Rhodes Armitage, the founder of the Royal National Institute of the Blind; Tilly Aston, a blind writer and teacher, who established the Association for the Advancement of the Blind; Helen Keller, the world-famous deafblind author and activist; Robert Walter Bowen, the first chairperson of the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB); Harry January Tharipane Mohale, an activist and a member of the National Executive Committee of the SANCB; Ruth Machobane, an activist and the CEO of the National Organisation of the Blind of South Africa (NOBSA), and Friday Mavuso, a leader and an activist.

Let me hasten to add that the literature is replete with numerous examples of other pioneering blind men and women, too numerous to mention here. But the point, I believe, has been made that many blind persons, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, have made their indelible mark in history, paving the way for others to follow.

Regrettably, the situation was very bleak a few centuries ago when blind persons were relegated to being outcasts, as though their lives were no more than flickering candles to be snuffed out at a whim. It may therefore be necessary to briefly turn back the clock to consider the deplorable plight of blind persons a few centuries ago. This article, drawing on selected examples from different countries, therefore attempts to provide a brief insight into the typical attitudes to blindness and blind persons over the centuries.

 

ATTITUDES TO BLINDNESS AND BLIND PERSONS

A glimpse into history reveals that blind persons were rejected and isolated from their communities, resulting in their negative and low social status. To illustrate this, in ancient civilisations, the widespread perception was that blind persons were incapable of doing anything for themselves, or of being productive members of society. They were therefore permanently dependent on the generosity of others for their survival. What is equally disturbing is that blind persons were also considered an economic burden, and not worth the time and effort required to provide for them. Forced to accept their dismal situation, most blind persons did not challenge this assumption, but simply accepted the handouts they received. Their status in society was so low that they were invariably ostracised from their communities.

In some cultures, the prevailing belief was that blindness was regarded as a punishment from the Gods and ancestors for the sins committed by parents. To add insult to injury, blindness was often not only viewed as a bad omen, but was also linked to witchcraft and evil spirits. Predictably, this belief was so widespread that parents themselves often rejected their blind children, keeping them isolated from the community.

The notion that blindness was a form of punishment for sins can also be found in Greek mythology. An example of this is the famous story of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, one of the most famous and celebrated Ancient Greek tragedians. According to this tragic story, after solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus became the King of Thebes, while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, King Laius, and marry his mother, Jocasta, whom he unknowingly accepted as his queen. However, after discovering that he had committed incest, and as retribution for his heinous sin, he blinds himself.

That an impairment was the direct result of some form of punishment was also espoused by Saint Augustine, the person who is credited with bringing Christianity to Mainland Britain at the end of the sixth century A.D. Saint Augustine maintained that an impairment was a punishment not only for the fall of Adam, but also for other sins emanating from that, a claim that seemed to have gained traction at the time. Furthermore, during the 16th century, prominent Christians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin stated that those who were disabled were possessed by evil spirits. Consequently, together with other religious leaders, these eminent individuals often inflicted mental or physical pain on blind persons, ostensibly to exorcise the spirits.

Influenced largely by the misguided belief that blindness was a bad omen, and that blind persons possessed supernatural powers, the killing and abandonment of blind children and adults became commonplace. Coupled with this was the perception that blind persons were testimony to Satan’s existence, and of his power over humans.

But what was the basis for such negative attitudes to blind persons? Why were blind persons treated so harshly? How could society’s egregious acts of cruelty have been perpetrated for centuries with nothing being done to prevent them? And why did religious leaders not intervene in order to prevent infanticide or ostracism? These are typical questions that would most likely have been posed several times, with answers to them raising yet further queries.

But what is generally held is that contemporary attitudes toward blind persons have their roots in the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans. This may become evident from the following brief explanation of the way of life of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

As military service for Ancient Greek males was compulsory, physical and intellectual fitness was paramount and therefore promoted. To ensure strict discipline in this regard, Greek males were expected to compete at an individual and group level in the Olympic Games. Moreover, since the Greeks were obsessed with the pursuit of physical and intellectual excellence, having children with any form of impairment in their communities was detested. Consequently, if children were found to have any form of impairment, the Ancient Greeks would resort to infanticide by exposing them to the natural elements. In the city of Thebes in Central Greece, for example, many infants were killed, and those whose lives were spared, were frequently sold into slavery. What is perhaps lamentable is that Plato and Aristotle, the two most influential Greek philosophers who wielded much influence through their teachings, reportedly also supported the killing of infants who were found to have impairments.

Like Greece, military service for Ancient Roman males was also compulsory. But the similarity did not end there. The Romans also practised infanticide, evident from the fact that infants who were blind or feeble were placed in small reed baskets before being drowned in the Tiber river. Moreover, in the infamous Roman Games, blind men were compelled to fight women and animals for the amusement of Roman spectators.

As in many other countries, the presence of blind beggars was also widespread in Greece and Rome, suggesting that people were willing to give food and other gifts to them, based, no doubt, on pity. But blind beggars were restricted to specific areas, such as the gates of the cities, the steps of the temples, and around civic buildings. However, Roman citizens, in particular, were dissuaded from providing blind beggars with food and drink to prevent their life of misery from being prolonged. The underlying intention was that by being denied food and drink, blind persons would die of starvation.

Fortunately, blind persons proved over time to be far more resilient than was expected of them. Faced with a bleak future, they had to resort to practical measures to survive, one of which was to participate in public performances in the hope of evoking pity in their audiences. But their efforts did not always produce the desired results. To illustrate this, Valentin Haüy, a 26-year-old French gentleman, and the founder of the first school for blind children in Paris in 1784, once observed a group of nine blind men in grotesque costumes of long red robes, pointed dunce caps and opaque glasses, performing discordant music at a popular street fair of Saint Ovide in 1771. Predictably, their bizarre performance elicited a mixture of pity and ridicule from the audience.

Far from merely causing general revulsion, this incident served as a catalyst to introduce measures that ultimately contributed to the improvement of the lives of blind persons. In fact, Valentin Haüy’s disappointment in witnessing the bizarre performance in the restaurant served to strengthen his resolve to teach blind persons to read and write so that they could earn their living in more dignified ways.

Although the isolation of blind persons was something that had now been firmly entrenched in most societies, it was inevitable that the status quo could not be maintained. This was evident from the fact that toward the end of the 19th century, and well into the twentieth century, there was a gradual change in the treatment of blind persons, resulting in an observable shift from rejection to protection. Consequently, as highlighted by the following examples, blind persons were viewed more favourably.

While blind beggars were still found in many parts of India, Buddhism encouraged compassion for persons with impairments. Furthermore, during the third century B.C., Asoka the Great, in addition to establishing hospitals, also encouraged citizens to accept persons with disabilities into their communities. The result of this was that many blind persons, after memorising the stories of past events, recited them as they travelled through the countryside. In this way, they were gainfully occupied as transmitters of religious and secular oral tradition.

In early China, blindness was regarded as an advantage, as it was perceived that blind persons could not be distracted by the events of everyday life. Adopting a philosophical approach, the Chinese were convinced that since blind persons would be freed from the physical distractions in their immediate environment, they would be able to give serious attention to the mysteries of the world.

Egypt was perhaps one of the first countries to produce blind scholars who would be able to provide for their own needs. To illustrate this, during the eleventh century, blind students were offered instruction at a University in Cairo. Their education, which extended over a twelve-year period, focused on memorisation skills. Consequently, while some blind persons became teachers or preached in the Mosques, many sang or recited the Koran in public and holy places.

With the spread of Christianity in Europe in the Middle Ages, blind persons received material assistance in the form of food and shelter. In the early Christian communities, wealthy Christians invited blind persons into their homes as their special wards.

In 1254, King Louis IX established the Hospital des Quinze Vingts in Paris. This special residential facility, which was staffed by priests, was the home for 300 blind persons drawn from the streets of Paris and elsewhere in France.

However, despite some level of protection being afforded to them, and in reality, stifling their independence, what soon became evident was that the subjugation of blind persons, like the oppression of persons with disabilities in general, could not continue indefinitely, for human beings have the tenacity and resilience to counteract oppressive forces.

Like other members of society, blind persons realised that they needed education as a starting point for the improvement of the quality of their lives. But, rather than wait for educational opportunities to present themselves, they created them by actively initiating their own modes of reading and writing. In addition, as will be evident from the following, specific individuals and events prompted the provision of education for blind persons.

In 1784, motivated by his interest in educating blind children, Valentin Haüy, who began his career as King Louis XVI’s Royal Interpreter, established the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles (Institution for youth who were blind) in Paris. As a French professor of calligraphy, Valentin Haüy was affectionately referred to as “The father and apostle of the blind.”

Determined to engender admiration for the capabilities of his students at the Institution, rather than evoking pity for their blindness, Valentin Haüy explored every opportunity to expose audiences to the abilities of his students to read and write, to perform music, and to carry out everyday activities. Largely as a result of this, the enrolment at the Institution increased markedly within a short period of time.

Louis Braille was one of the students who attended Valentin Haüy’s school, which, as a former seminary and temporary prison during the French Revolution, was more than 200 years old. Inspired by Charles Barbierr, a French Artillery Officer who created “night writing”, a method consisting of raised dots and dashes on thick paper used by French soldiers to communicate at night, Louis Braille invented braille, the system of reading and writing that is still used by many blind persons throughout the world.

The invention of braille was a significant contribution to the advancement of education for blind persons. In fact, without a system of effective communication through reading and writing, the education of blind persons would undoubtedly have remained as it had been through the Middle Ages. Perhaps one of the most memorable comments in praise of braille was made by Helen Keller when she said “The beauty of braille is that you can touch it and be touched by it.”

Following the establishment of The Institution des Jeunes Aveugles in France, a school for blind students was established in Liverpool, England, in 1790. This was succeeded by the establishment of other schools, which focused primarily on music and career-oriented education. However, although schools for blind students were well established in Britain by the 1860’s, they were independent institutions that catered for only a small number. The establishment of schools for blind students in France and Britain therefore blazed the trail for the emergence of schools in other parts of the world.

In 1804, motivated by the desire to remove blind persons from beggary, Johann Wilhelm Klein established the first school for blind students in Austria. Focusing on developing the sense of touch in his students, he designed a type of linear writing that was impressed on paper with a sharp-pointed stylus.

Under the Directorship of August Zeune, the first school for blind students in Berlin, Germany, was established in 1806. With specific reference to reading, Zeune made use of what was referred to as “a reading box”, whose lid consisted of carved grooves into which wooden symbols fitted exactly. In this way, a blind student could read words, sentences and number combinations.

The first school for blind students in Holland was established in 1808. As with the school in Berlin, students at the school in Holland used solid wooden letters to read.

In the United States, three schools for blind students were established within short intervals of one another.

In 1829, the New England Asylum for the Blind, later renamed the Perkins School for the Blind, was established in Boston. However, the first group of students were only admitted to the School in July 1832 under the direction of Samuel Gridley Howe, who had visited several European schools a year earlier.

With Dr John Dennison Russ as its Director, the New York Institution for the Blind, later renamed the New York Institute for the Blind, opened in March 1832. A year later, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind was opened in Philadelphia, with Julius R. Friedlander as the Principal. However, when the school moved to Overbrook in 1899, it was renamed the Overbrook School for the Blind.

Predictably, motivated by already-established schools, schools for blind students were also established in other countries, including: The Benjamin Constant School in Brazil in 1854; The School for the Blind in Zagreb in 1859; The National School for the Blind in Mexico in 1870; The Panama School for the Blind in Panama in 1961; The Iran Institute for the Blind in 1964; The Light and Hope Society for Blind Girls in Cairo, Egypt, in 1973; The School for the Blind in Thessaloniki in Greece in 1977; and the Salvation Army School for the Blind in Jamaica in 1987.

This is not an exhaustive list of schools for the blind, as additional schools had subsequently also been established, with others again most likely being planned for the future.

With specific reference to South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape established the first School for the deaf and the blind in Worcester in 1881. The School was officially opened on 15 June 1881, and  was renamed The Pioneer School in 1981.

Because of the increasing number of blind students who needed to be educated, and largely through the efforts of philanthropists and public-spirited organisations, schools were also later established in the various provinces in South Africa. The following is a list of these schools in the respective provinces:

 

PROVINCESCHOOLS
Eastern CapeEfata School for the Blind and Deaf, Khanyisa School for the Blind, and Zamokuhle Senior Secondary School.

 

Free StateBartimea School for the Blind and Deaf, and Thiboloha School for the Blind and Deaf.

 

GautengFiladelfia Secondary School, Prinshof School, Sibonile School, and Johannesburg School for the Blind.

 

KwaZulu-NatalArthur Blaxall School for the Blind, Ethembeni School, Open Air School, and Maison School.

 

LimpopoBosele School for the Deaf and Blind, Letaba School for the Handicapped, Setotolwane LSEN School, Siloe School, Rivoni School for the Blind, and Tshilidzini Special School.

 

MpumalangaSilindokuhle School.

 

North-WestChristiana School for the Blind.

 

Northern CapeRe-Tlamaleng School.

 

Western CapeAthlone School for the Blind, and The Pioneer School, reference to which has already been made.

 

 

Each of the schools in South Africa would no doubt have a rich history, a history that would certainly make for interesting reading. Hopefully, brief descriptions of these schools would be made available to the SANCB to be included on its website as a valuable knowledge base. Let the stories be told, for they are rich accounts and need to be shared.

CONCLUSION

What I have attempted to do in this article is to trace the shift in the attitudes to and the treatment of blind persons over a few centuries. Clearly, based on the information provided, much has changed, but much more needs to be done, including the provision of quality education and training, access to greater employment opportunities, and the provision of affordable assistive devices. In essence, as articulated in the vision statement of the SANCB, to achieve “a world in which blind and partially sighted persons enjoy the same rights, freedom, responsibilities and quality of life as persons who are fully sighted.”