A Look Back

100 Years of Education

As I leafed through one of our professional journals recently, I considered the wide variety of topics that were included in a single issue. Features addressed the importance of daily living skills, the advantages and disadvantages of public and specialized schools for visually impaired students, orientation and mobility, and innovative technology. To regular readers of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), this variety should not be surprising--at least, not until I explain that the journal I was reviewing was a 1911 issue of Outlook for the Blind.

As a vehicle for discussion of issues related to blindness, the publication of Outlook in 1907 initiated an interchange among people who were concerned about education and rehabilitation of blind people. Initially the journal was supported by individual donations; however, in 1915 founder and editor Charles Campbell declared that "the time has come when Outlook for the Blind must be placed upon a firmer financial basis in order to fulfill its mission of stimulating greater and more effective interest in helping the blind to be self-helpful and also in spreading the gospel of preventing unnecessary blindness" (p. 2). Shortly thereafter, publication responsibilities were assumed by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), which provided a firmer foundation for the publication process. The questions and problems explored in the earliest issues of the journal were very similar to those that continue to challenge us a century later, but the answers to the questions are now very different.

The most astonishing realization of a journey through Outlook, New Outlook for the Blind, and JVIB is that similar themes in education have been revisited over time. Although educational concerns are similar, they have been reframed in new contexts over the decades. Initially, the purpose of the journal was to inform and communicate, usually through opinions and experiences. This practice evolved into a more careful examination of methodology, and eventually the journals began to include more high-quality research. These changes are apparent in three selected topics that have received attention in the journals throughout the 100 years of publication: disability-specific curriculum, educational settings, and inclusion of students with multiple disabilities.

Disability-specific curriculum

Even though the term "expanded core curriculum" has not been used until recently, the contents of a disability-specific curriculum has been present in the literature of the field from its inception. Examples of every component of the expanded core curriculum are plentiful:

Recreation and leisure

The early issues of the journal were filled with articles and short reports about physical activities and formal sports events. Gregory (1907) states, "If a blind boy can be taught to dive into a scrimmage in a football game, or to plunge with the ball into an opposing rush line of sturdy opponents. . .he is sure to develop a physical as well as a mental self-reliance that will make a true man of him and tend to put him on a basis of equality with his normal fellowman that will make him a good citizen in his community" (p. 38). Many of the articles convey a cheerful energy that motivates the reader to involve students in activities, although they offer little insight into the adaptive or conceptual aspects of physical activity.


Discussions of tactile reading methods were common in earlier journal articles and perhaps were even more controversial than they are in recent issues. The War of the Dots is reported in detail in a 1909 issue of Outlook, which provides a transcript of addresses to the New York Board of Education by such notables as William Bell Wait of the New York Institution for the Blind and John Bledsoe of the Maryland School for the Blind. The editors preface the issue by stating, "We do not take sides with the relative merits of various tactile systems. . . . Our only limitation in the presentation of such a difficult subject is that of the number of pages available" ("New York Point or American Braille," p. 2).

Although precise measurement of braille reading variables was attempted as far back as 1913, substantial larger group research with refined techniques of measurement was not noted in the journal until the 1960s and 1970s (Foulke, 1979). The 1979 issue of JVIB is one of my most prized and dog-eared issues; entitled "Braille Then, Now & What Next," it was one of the earliest special issues that were initiated in the mid-1970s to highlight current topics that needed in-depth coverage.

Low vision

Attention to low vision existed in every era of the journal's publication, although it was much less frequent in early issues. Some terminology sounds old-fashioned: students with vision are referred to as "half-blind" or "semi-blind." The term "low vision" does not appear regularly until the 1950s, at which point the journal was incorporating features such as Charles Ritter's questions and answers on low vision (1957).

I was surprised to note that the benefits of low vision devices were described as early as 1925 in Outlook for the Blind. The authors described cases in which people improved reading efficiency with the use of both spectacle-mounted and handheld magnification. Authors Gradle and Stein reminded readers in 1925 that a team of professionals and regular practice are necessary for successful use of these devices. Given that this knowledge has been around for 80 years, one wonders why it has taken so long to make low vision devices a routine part of work with students with low vision.

The importance of environmental adaptations for students with low vision has also long been recognized. In the 1940s, Elizabeth Lennon, a teacher at the Indiana School for the Blind, debated whether partially seeing children should be educated in a school for the blind. She stated, "Attention by the teacher to seat him by the blackboard or in good light, the use of large type books and suitable writing materials, the elimination of non-essentials in reading and written work, and the alternation of short periods of eye work with times for eye rest would do much to enable the pupil with impaired vision to stay in his own home and obtain his education in his own community" (1946, p. 42).


Although most of us envision technology as machines with plugs or batteries, the early issues of Outlook and New Outlook included a variety of mechanical or optical technologies. A 1925 issue of the New Outlook reports on a new audible reading machine, and in 1931 the new braille typewriter marketed by AFB was introduced. The Visagraph, a device that converted printed material into tactile form, was presented in the early 1930s. The explosion of modern technology began in the 1970s following the development of the Optacon, a device that translated print into tactile vibrating letters. This set the stage for the journal to move beyond information about devices to reflections on technology as a social trend. In a memorable article in the November 1984 special issue on microcomputers, Larry Scadden reminded us, "If blind and visually impaired people are to fully benefit from the opportunities afforded by technology, it is imperative that economic and cultural changes be recognized, understood, accepted, and harnessed by professionals working within the rehabilitation and special education service delivery systems" (p. 394).

Orientation and mobility

Many early authors expressed a strong belief in the importance of independent travel by blind people, but prescriptive techniques for traveling without assistance did not appear in the pages of the journal until the mid-1940s. In 1917, Philip Layton, treasurer of the Montreal Association for the Blind, wrote an article entitled, "The inability to travel alone: One of the chief causes of failure among the blind," in which he commented, "The chances of success in life are far greater to a blind young man or woman who can travel alone and mix with the world, although possessing no literary attainments, than one particularly talented, but wholly dependent upon a guide" (p. 68). Later in the same article he states, "I am a strong believer in the blind carrying a cane or umbrella. I maintain it takes away awkwardness and makes a blind person look more natural," but he cautions, "It should not be used for tapping the ground and attracting attention" (p. 70). In the absence of a foundation of technical knowledge of cane use, appropriate technique seemed to be based on a combination of personal preference and politeness, with little evidence from research until the inception of university programs in the 1960s.

Daily living skills

The importance of daily living skills is embedded in many articles across the 100 years of Outlook, New Outlook, and JVIB. In a 1907 issue of Outlook, a reprint of an article from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind reminds parents, "As soon as possible, teach the child to dress and undress, to wash itself, to comb its hair, to take care of its clothes, and, when at table, to use properly a spoon, fork, and knife" (p. 45). In the 1940s the journal briefly added a short segment called The Suggestion Box, which described adaptations for accomplishing tasks, such as measuring hems on skirts. However, descriptions of techniques for teaching daily living skills were uncommon, and substantial research articles on the topic are even scarcer, even in the JVIB of today. Although there is frequent mention of instruction of daily living skills at schools for the blind, there is limited attention to how best to teach them.


Preparation for careers was an early focus of the journals, with emphasis on practical occupations. Early issues carry photographs or descriptions of blind people operating drill presses, working as masseurs, weaving, and taking classes in business and sales. A 1918 article by Superintendent Bramlette on the school curriculum at Texas School for the Blind describes academic preparation as well as vocational courses such as agriculture, chair-caning, domestic arts, typing, and telegraphy. The emphasis in earlier journals is on developing job skills, but the literature does not describe how aptitude and ability were assessed, nor does it describe how students were taught the skills to seek and retain a job.

Social skills

In earlier issues of the journal, social skills are described as essential, although not part of the curriculum. A 1912 article by Lady Campbell of the Royal Normal College for the Blind cautioned readers, "As a rule, the Blind are anxious to become familiar with all the amenities of social life, but parents, friends, and teachers set too low a standard, and overlook many breaches of good manners" (p. 1). In that era, social skills were synonymous with manners. There was no mention of assertiveness or self-determination, often included in current discussions of social skills. Anecdotal descriptions of blind students with good manners are plentiful, and discouraging mannerisms through physical activity is often mentioned. In early journals, however, the reader received little information about how to accomplish these goals.

Educational placement

From the beginning, specialized schools received prominent coverage in the journal, with regular informational articles describing the programs and activities of these schools as well as the success of their graduates. In the early 1900s, only a few articles addressed the innovative concept of public school education, which was often presented from a platform of advocacy to encourage readers to consider this new option for education of students with visual impairments. Chicago was one of the first public schools to include blind children with sighted peers; this arrangement, referred to as the "Chicago experiment," established separate classrooms for blind students, who spent some time in classrooms with sighted peers. Often, authors noted grave concerns with public school education: "One serious objection to this plan [the "Chicago experiment" in public schools] is the difficulty of securing for the blind child in the public schools that special care for his physical development of which he stands in need, and which the best schools for the blind today take pains for give him" (Campbell, 1907, p. 30).

The gradual acceptance of education in public schools emerges in parallel with the changing roles of specialized schools to include students with more diverse needs. Most of the educational programs described in the early 1900s were at specialized schools; public school education was featured more frequently and affirmatively over time. In a 1940 issue, Berthold Lowenfeld states, in a paper on the education of the blind in public schools, "Up to the present time, the education of blind children has been left almost entirely to special institutions" (p. 169). He notes that the challenges of case finding and enrollment, coordination of the educational team, distribution of instructional aids, student records, selection and training of teachers, braille training, and support of day school classes must all be addressed for public school education of visually impaired students to succeed. By the 1980s, authors rarely debated the merits of one educational setting as compared with another, but instead advocated for an array of options to be accessed flexibly as the needs of a child change.

Multiple disabilities

Perhaps the greatest change in position across the 100 years of the journal is responsiveness to education of students with multiple disabilities. They are rarely mentioned in the earlier issues of the journal. The articles that do consider students with multiple disabilities often have the intent of segregating them from students who can benefit from a traditional education. One sobering example is an article authored by Samuel Hayes entitled, "Are we getting poorer mental material in schools for the blind?" which appeared in the December 1935 issue. Hayes states that many administrators at schools for the blind fear that "ultimately their educational institutions for capable blind children will degenerate into custodial homes for the blind feeble-minded" (p. 181). Hayes provided data on intelligence quotient distribution to support his conclusion that there had not been a change in the mental abilities of pupils, but his article is replete with biases that would never be permitted in a professional journal of today. At one point, Hayes quotes from a statistical report whose author suggests that students with Slavic and Italian surnames might have inferior mentality!

In part, this bias against educating children with mental disabilities may have been held because the greater proportion of visually impaired students in the early 1900s did not have other disabilities. Conditions affecting the eyeball, cornea, and lens caused visual impairment in two-thirds of the children in schools for the blind. Nearly half of the causes were hereditary, and a third of visually impaired children were affected by diseases such as ophthalmia neonatorum, syphilis, or trachoma (Kerby & McKay, 1935).

A more enlightened attitude evident toward children with multiple disabilities emerges in the 1950s, perhaps because of the onset of retrolental fibroplasia (now known as retinopathy of prematurity) and other conditions related to multiple disabilities. In a 1974 article in JVIB, Joan Chase's analysis of 263 children with retinopathy of prematurity found that 51% of the students had significant developmental disabilities in addition to blindness. By this time, educators were realizing the potential of children with multiple disabilities and were also recognizing the important role that educators of visually impaired children should play in their education.


For the last 100 years, the history of a maturing profession has been recorded in the pages of the journal. In 1907, it was enough for New Outlook to disseminate information that connected people who were interested in the education of visually impaired children; these innovators could learn from one another's experiences and build on one another's successes. The early issues presented philosophies and values, reported on programs and activities, and described medical data, with occasional ventures into technology or braille code standards.

Not until the 1960s did substantial research about educational approaches and adaptations begin to appear, and today's journal provides high-quality research and writing as the standard. As I enjoyed a literary journey through the life of our profession, our current journal was a worthwhile destination. However, I could not resist frequent glances back to acknowledge the writing of teachers, people who are blind or who have low vision, physicians, and administrators, for they have mapped the route of the journey. JVIB has given us the written legacy of a profession, by allowing us not only to measure how far we have come but also to plan where the road leads from here.


Bramlette, E. E. (1918). Relation of our courses to courses maintained in classes for seeing pupils in the public schools. Outlook for the Blind, 12(3), pp. 6-8. (Reprinted from the Twenty-Fourth Biennial Report of the 1918 A.A.I.B.)

Chase, J. (1974). A retrospective study of retrolental fibroplasia. New Outlook for the Blind, 68, 61-71.

Campbell, C. (1907). Editorial comments. Outlook for the Blind, 1, 29-33.

Campbell, L. (Lady). (1912). Training in the requirements of social life at home and in society: And the best methods of securing it. Outlook for the Blind, 6(2), pp. 1-31. Paper presented at the Third Triennial International Conference on the Blind, Exeter, United Kingdom, July 1911.

Campbell, C. (1915). The future of the Outlook for the Blind. Outlook for the Blind, 9, 1.

Foulke, E. (1979). Investigative approaches to the study of Braille reading. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 73, 298-308.

Gradle, H., & Stein, J. (1925). Telescopic spectacles and magnifiers as aids to poor vision. Outlook for the Blind, 19, 28-33.

Gregory, J. (1907). Athletic sports for the blind. Outlook for the Blind, 1, 37-43.

Hayes, S. (1935). Are we getting poorer mental material in schools for the blind? Outlook for the Blind, 29, 181-186.

Kerby, C. E., & McKay, E. (1935). Eye conditions among pupils in schools for the blind, 1934-1935. Outlook for the Blind, 29, 113-118.

Layton, P. (1917). The inability to travel alone: One of the chief causes of failure among the blind. Outlook for the Blind, 11, 68-72.

Lennon, E. (1946). The partially seeing child in a school for the blind. Outlook for the Blind, 40, 40-45.

Lowenfeld, B. (1940). The education of the blind in public schools. Originally presented at the 75th convention of the American Association of School Administrators. Outlook for the Blind, 34, 169-172.

New York Point or American Braille? (1909). Outlook for the Blind, 3, 2.

Ritter, C. (1957). Questions and answers on low vision. New Outlook for the Blind, 51, 446-453.

Scadden, L. (1984). Blindness in the information age: Equality or irony? Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 78, 394-400.

To the parents of blind children. (1907). Leaflet No. 1: Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Reprinted in Outlook for the Blind, 1, 44-46.

Jane N. Erin, Ph.D., professor, Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology, University of Arizona, P.O. Box 210069, Tucson, AZ 85721; e-mail: <jerin@u.arizona.edu>.

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