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A Look Back

Editor's note: Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn. The Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), over the course of the past 100 years, germinated--initially from small embryonic seeds--into the oak pillars of our professional literature. Featured in this "Look Back" are highlights of curriculum-related articles that illustrate the transformative power of a single idea.

Carrie Levy's (1912) article entitled "The Education of the Blind in Institutions versus in Schools with the Seeing" was written at the time that residential school leaders Samuel Gridley Howe (Perkins School for the Blind) and Frank Hall (Illinois School for the Blind) were advancing the development of public school programs for children who were blind. While the educational debate would continue for many years, Levy foresaw what the field needed--that both service-delivery options should be embraced and the cooperation between residential and public schools should exist.

In "Confessions of the Founder," Charles Campbell, the originating editor of JVIB in its incarnation as Outlook, expressed major concern about the exclusive focus on "core curriculum" subjects, questioning "Is our course of training truly fitting our graduates for the battle of life?" He posed the question, "After graduation--what?" to schools for the blind to advocate for curriculum expansion from a strict liberal arts focus to preparing young men and woman to earn a living. His article still is relevant given today's high unemployment rate.

Natalie Barraga and Abraham Nemeth are both well known in our field for their respective transformative work in low vision and mathematics. Barraga challenged the validity of "sight saving." In the article that follows, she illustrates the value of a research process that questions current practices. Nemeth developed a mathematics braille code. The following article demonstrates that if blind students are provided access to subject matter they can compete with their peers. Reading the original works of these authors, published before they gained legendary status, points out that the ideas planted by at one time unknown practitioners, if cultivated, can transform our field and have a far-reaching and positive impact on our students and clients.

Michael J. Bina, Ed.D.

Chair, JVIB Editorial Advisory Board

Miss Carrie D. Levy

Supervisor, Classes for the Blind, Milwaukee Public Schools

[This article is] reprinted from the report of the Little Rock 1910 Convention of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind.

. . . You might ask why those of the day school think certain blind children should be in the institution, and those of the institution believe that certain blind children should be at home. Since this is our belief why not change the entire subject and dwell more emphatically on "Cooperation of the Institution and the Day School."

For are we not all working toward one goal? You who have spent your lives endeavoring to ameliorate the conditions of the blind, you who have seriously and earnestly striven towards the solution of that one great problem of the best means of educating the blind, know, without being apprised of the fact, that it is not the education of the blind that is the underlying principle of all our work, but the education of the public to a belief in the capabilities of the blind, so that society will give them that which they, the blind, desire--opportunity; opportunity to do and to be paid for doing some of the several things they can do as well as sighted persons.

I would not be justified in saying that the day school is superior to the institution, for I have never had any experience in an institutution. I have come in contact with many of the graduates, men and women of splendid characters, who are eager, willing and capable, but who never were given a chance. Why were they not given a chance?

The blind who are sent away at the age of eight to remain for twelve or fifteen years do not become familiar and accepted members of the community in which they must live and work, they are simply visitors when they return home on their summer vacations. Their education remains a mystery to the general public, even their parents do not believe in their capabilities, but look upon them with the greatest awe and show them all obeisance.

But if the blind child is at home continually, and brought up in the midst of seeing children, working with them in the classrooms, taking part in their lessons and pleasures, he is gradually demonstrating to the seeing boys and girls, with whom he must work in after life, that he is in every respect similar to themselves except in ability to see; and the blind themselves will finally eradicate that feeling in the community that they are objects of pity and charity. It is this public recognition and good fellowship which are most essential in the education of the blind.

This does not mean that the institution is no longer to be an important factor in the education of the blind. Why not make the day school an outgrowth of the institution? Why not build our institutions in large cities and have all the capable students attend the public schools, returning to the institutions at night, and, better still, have the institutions branch out into towns containing five or more blind children and establish day school centers there?

Above all things we must work together towards that one goal. We of the Milwaukee Day Schools for the Blind . . . want you to know that we are with you for all which tends towards the betterment of our sightless children. To those who enter into this most enigmatical question which may take years to solve, we say, "Let us work in unity."

Charles F. F. Campbell

Founder and First Editor, Outlook for the Blind; Director, Detroit League for the Handicapped

. . . One of the first concepts of my childhood must have been the fact that my father could not see. It did not disturb me in the least to have him carry me all over the sixteen acres occupied by the Royal Normal College grounds. Later in life I heard people say they wondered why I was not afraid when he used to run, with me in his arms, up and down the innumerable flights of steps which were scattered all over the place.

. . . Even as a little boy I had become impressed by the fact that my father's success in raising money for the operation of the Royal Normal College depended almost entirely upon the success of his graduates. . . . Well do I remember that one of his most potent arguments was: "After a pupil graduates from the College the chances are 86 out of 100 that he will become an independent, self-supporting citizen. In other words, a contribution to the College will help to keep blind beggars off the streets, besides creating more worth-while members of society."

. . . Having lived in the United States since my boyhood I had become accustomed to the American principle that every child is entitled to an education and also, to what is even more significant, the fact that neither public school nor college authorities then felt themselves particularly concerned about the after-success of their graduates. . . .

With this point of view thoroughly ingrained in the average American, it was only reasonable that the superintendents of American schools for the blind should be content if they could train their students to such an extent that their graduates compared favorably with the young people who graduated from schools for the seeing. The early pioneers in American schools for the blind recognized that the avenues of employment for their pupils after graduation were exceedingly limited, and made valiant efforts to introduce some trade training into their schools. But, by the close of the century, most of the leaders in educational work for the blind in this country were leaning more and more toward the conviction that, if they gave their students the finest academic training, they had adequately fulfilled their mission as educators.

With the beginning of the twentieth century some of the outstanding leaders in the work began to ask very pertinent questions and we witnessed the beginning of the creation of state commissions and privately-supported organizations devoted to the interests of the adult blind. . . .

After the late Annette P. Rogers (a wealthy Bostonian who lost her sight late in life, and . . . a member of the Massachusetts Association and the State Commission for the Blind) had generously arranged for me to visit Hampton Institute, we spent many, many hours together discussing how the training of a blind child might fit him more adequately for the battle of life. About this time several of the commissions and associations for the adult-blind, which came into being shortly after 1900, were being confronted with the unanswerable fact that a considerable proportion of the young men and almost all of the young women who had graduated were having a desperate struggle to earn a living.

I have dwelt upon this fact in an effort to give the background which impelled me to send out a questionnaire to secure statistics about every school for the blind in America. This information was printed in the Outlook in 1908. Many months of endless labor were spent upon the gathering of this material which not only gave details of the equipment and curricula of the schools, but also asked the question, "After graduation--what?" Very few schools answered that; indeed, they could not do so because they did not have the facts. The editor hoped the questionnaire would serve as a mirror into which those directly responsible would look carefully. Unfortunately the belief of the layman that all was being done that could be done for the "poor blind children" was too strong, and very little if anything happened. . . .

. . . One of the most startling facts brought out by the questionnaire to which I have just referred, was the revelation which came from many of the superintendents with regard to the hopeless outlook of the young women graduates. When I summarized the answers, I was amazed to find they admitted that over 95 percent of all the young women who passed through their schools returned to their homes. Of course we had heard about the brilliant and exceptional young women who had risen to prominence in one field or another, but I felt keenly that it was most unfair to ignore the fact that nearly all remember what a bitter contest rather poorly equipped to take their places even as active members of the household. With this in mind I strove through the magazine to stimulate educators to strengthen their courses in domestic science. . . .

In 1917, when Robert B. Irwin and I were working in Ohio, the opportunity came to open a residential cottage in Cleveland for some of the blind children who were attending the public schools. While the primary purpose of such a cottage was to teach the children "how to be blind," and how to comport themselves instinctively, I hoped it would also serve as a practical training-station in domestic science for the older girls. . . .

In the light of the many advances which have been made in behalf of the blind, in the prevention of blindness, in reading material, etc., during the past twenty-five years, it is perhaps the more striking that so little progress has been made in vocational training and placement of the blind which is certainly no less important.

. . . Time, with its inevitable changes, has neither dampened my ardor nor dimmed my faith in the possibility of making the training of the blind more practical and consequently their ultimate placement more certain. The need of a quarter of a century ago remains as vital as ever and the solution of that need rests, as it did then, in the hands of those to whom is entrusted the education of our blind youth. Thus I close these reminiscences as I closed the first editorial--"Come, let us reason together."

Abraham Nemeth

Instructor of Mathematics, University of Detroit; Creator of the Nemeth code

Before one attempts to specify the principles of conveying meaningful mathematics to blind or partially sighted children, it is well to consider the factors which accomplish the same result for normal children. As teachers, we all know that even a carefully prepared presentation, quite clear to some pupils, leaves others as much in the dark as ever. The reason, as we all know, lies in the fact that the material impinges upon a varied background of experience. For pupils with rich experience, the material takes its proper place in the over-all pattern; but for those with limited experience, there is no place in the pattern where the material can be incorporated, and, as a consequence, it passes him by without registering significantly.

Exactly the same observations apply to blind or partially sighted children, but in their case, we may no longer take for granted the same experiences as we generally expect in sighted children of the same age level. A few concrete examples will, perhaps, clarify what I have in mind.

The number concept in normal children develops as the result of his play activities, and in quite a natural way. On the street, for example, he may learn to count the number of trees or the number of cracks in the sidewalk. On the school playground, he may learn to count the number of pickets on the surrounding fence. All of this is the result of visual experiences, and, as teachers, we ordinarily assume that almost every normal child has had this kind of number experience.

For the blind or partially sighted child, on the other hand, matters are quite different. The opportunities for gaining number experience are much more limited--to a very considerable extent in blind children, and only somewhat less in children with partial sight. It is, therefore, not uncommon to find a child with a visual disability in the second, third, or even the fourth grade who possesses only the most rudimentary number concept, or one which is far less developed than it is in normal children in the same grade.

It would be fatal to make the a priori assumption that such a child is lacking in native intelligence. The maturation process is quite as intimately dependent upon environmental factors as it is upon physical growth; and in the absence of environmental stimulation occasioned by the loss or the impairment of sight, it can be retarded for a very long time.

The lack of environmental stimulation is not due altogether to impaired vision. Any of you who have worked with blind or partially sighted children are certainly aware of the degree of overprotection inflicted on many of them by their parents. For fear of physical injury, justified or not, such children are often denied many of the experiences which they ordinarily would enjoy despite their disability. . . .

Therefore, when a child with a visual disability comes under our care, one of the first things we must do is to see to it that he has the requisite kind of experience with numbers upon which to base any further mathematical abstractions. As I have already indicated, this type of experience cannot be taken for granted but, on the contrary, must be very carefully cultivated when necessary.

The remarks I have just made concerning the development of the number concept apply equally well to other types of experiences which play a vital part in the learning of mathematics. I refer to the experiences from which the concepts of size, shape, and proportion are developed. The blind child is carefully steered away from contact with such objects as fire hydrants, mail boxes, and parking meters. Unless a perceptive and understanding adult takes the time and patience to bring these objects to the attention of the blind child and permits him to examine them, the child is likely to have no conception of their relative sizes and shapes. Taking such concepts for granted, as we do in the case of normal children, would be unjustified in the case of blind or partially seeing children. Any mathematical presentation based on such allegedly familiar objects is foredoomed to failure when the child has no such concept; or, in the case of the partially sighted child, only a vague concept.

Mechanics of writing

Even when the child has had adequate contact with his environment and has thereby developed the number concept as well as the concepts of size, shape, and proportion, there still remains the mechanical process of translating these concepts into written form. In the case of the partially sighted child who uses boldface letters, large type and good illumination, this part of the problem is relatively uncomplicated. But in the case of the blind child, who must use braille or some other device for the execution of mathematical computations, the situation is far from simple. . . .

Language problems

Occasionally, the language commonly used in arithmetic may be confusing to blind children. For example, if we are dealing with the fraction 5/13, we often say "five over thirteen." To the normal child with sight, this use of language causes no difficulty because he actually writes the 5 above the 13 with a fraction line between them. For the blind child, on the other hand, such a fraction is written on a single braille line. The 5 and the 13 are separated by a braille symbol which the blind child has learned to interpret as the separation between the numerator and the denominator of a fraction, but in no sense is the 5 over the 13 to the blind child. Such usages of language, unless properly explained, can easily lead to confusion.


What may be deduced from all I have said thus far? Foremost is the conclusion that nothing must be taken for granted. We must be certain that the blind child has had the experience to understand what we are trying to convey to him. We may not assume that objects or concepts familiar to us or even to his classmates of the same age and grade level are also familiar to him. We must make sure that the mechanical devices which he uses are suitable, and that their use does not create more problems than are solved. If you find a child who prefers to do his computations mentally rather than using the device which is intended for him, this is often an indication that the device is too difficult for him to operate. Especially is this true if his mental arithmetic is performed only imperfectly and inefficiently. We must even be careful in the use of language to be sure that the child is not being confused. We all know that there are approved methods for teaching arithmetic which are set forth in standard courses which even bear this title. In modifying any of these methods to meet the requirements of the blind child or the child with seriously impaired vision, all of the observations which I have made should be borne in mind.

Natalie Carter Barraga

Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Texas-Austin

The partially sighted children who took part in this experiment had, up to this point, been educated as though they had no vision. This experiment indicated that in a specialized, short-term setting, such children could be helped to more fully utilize their remaining vision than they are in the usual setting for blind children. The paper published here was one which Dr. Barraga presented at the Council for Exceptional Children convention held in Chicago in April 1964.

Special educational provisions first made for children with low degrees of vision had the basic purpose to "save sight," and materials and methods provided required minimal use of vision. Only recently have changes in this philosophy been reflected in educational practice. Eye specialists have increasingly encouraged the use of the eyes and have suggested that even in most cases of pathological conditions, the use of the eyes will not cause damage nor decrease the degree of remaining vision. With this medical release, educators are increasingly focusing their attention on the effective use of any remaining vision.

When young children are diagnosed as "blind" in terms of standard distance acuity measurements, there is a tendency to accept this as a valid basis for educational prognoses, even though the children may have potentially useful but undeveloped near point vision. By repeated observations of visual materials brought very close to the eyes or by use of enlarged materials, some children may develop considerable visual efficiency, even though the eye examination reveals no numerical in­dex or a very low measurement of acuity. . . . If little encouragement and no planned opportunities for the development and use of near vision are offered such children, they may encounter few experiences which stimulate the desire or the need for endeavoring to develop whatever vision they may possess.

A review of the developmental, psychological, and educational literature related to visual functioning provided the following theoretical and empirical conclusions:

  1. The development of the visual process apparently follows a sequential pattern; however, the need for stimulation and training is evident if maximum visual efficiency is to be acquired.
  2. Physiological abnormalities may restrict the activation of sensory processes and impede the maturation of visual functioning. Nevertheless, the literature suggests that increased skill in the muscular actions of fixation and fusion, plus the acquisition of interpretative cues for perceptual organization will promote continued development.
  3. Visual recognition involves progressive skill in discrimination, cognitive interpretation, and subsequent conceptual integration of environmental stimuli.
  4. Reported research findings of the relation of visual defects to reading ability in normally seeing or visually impaired children lack consistency in evidence and clarity in designation of appropriate techniques of remediation. Confusion exists as to: whether distributed or massed practice is more effective; the kind and type of reinforcement for motivation; and the degree of development necessary for acquisition of greater visual efficiency.
  5. Educators and eye specialists suggest that individual functioning (rather than clinical diagnostic findings or degree of visual acuity) are the true determinants of ability to improve visual functioning. However, studies relating to the behavioral functioning of children with remaining vision are unreported in the literature.
  6. No instruments of procedure are known for the appraisal of visual functioning of blind children with remaining vision. There is need for a technique designed especially to measure the present visual functioning and the potential future visual behavior of these children for educational purposes.
  7. The need is acute for experimental investigation of the relevance of visual stimulation programs. A recent conference on research related to the education of visually impaired children gave highest priority to testing the hypothesis that children with all degrees of remaining vision could enhance their visual efficiency.
  8. A controlled teaching experiment using pairs of subjects matched on present visual and cognitive abilities appeared to be a logical approach to a study of the effects of visual stimulation on performance.
  9. The development of hypotheses for this study should be based on the theory that the group of experimental subjects receiving visual stimulation would be able to approach the level of visual efficiency demonstrated by subjects who had been using their remaining vision for educational activities.
  10. Any program being researched should have as an integral part the complete outlined series of experiences the children would receive. Specific plans and techniques designed to change visual functioning and/or efficiency of blind children with remaining vision have not been published previously.


The purpose of this teaching experiment was to study the effects of specialized instruction with appropriate materials on the visual behavior of children educated as though they had no vision. The investigator sought to determine if the visual functioning of young children could be significantly increased in a short eight-week period as a result of intensive individualized teaching with appropriate materials. The changes in visual efficiency were measured by the Visual Discrimination Test, designed specifically for the study because of the lack of a suitable standardized instrument.


The Visual Discrimination Test purports to measure the subject's ability to discriminate and recognize readiness items which had been appropriately adapted and enlarged for children with low degrees of remaining vision. . . .


. . . The experimental children were taken from their classrooms in pairs for daily forty-five-minute periods over the two-month treatment period. An enriching program in visual stimulation for development and improvement of functional use of low vision was planned and taught by the investigator. An effort was made to induce each child to "learn to see" by offering discriminatory clues to be associated with previously experienced stimuli to enhance visual recognitions. Review of the previous lesson preceded the introduction of new material each day, and when necessary, lessons were repeated in full two or three times. The entire program was aimed at an over-all development of readiness for educational learning by initial use of enlarged materials with high visual appeal prior to the presentation of readiness and primary materials in smaller size and type.

The lessons were planned to evoke maximum proficiency in attention to communication and interpretation of visual observations. Specific activities and lesson plans for the program were developed to follow the four sequential stages for discrimination and recognition of visual stimuli: geometric forms in solid black and in outline shapes; single object forms in solid black and in outline shapes; grouped objects in color and in outline with full inner details; and letter and word symbols. All materials decreased gradually from two inches to one-fourth inch in size, down to large typewriter type.


[The] . . . data confirmed the investigator's first hypothesis that a planned program of visual stimulation would enhance the visual functioning of individual experimental subjects, and of the experimental group over that of the control and print comparison (criterion) groups, as measured by the Visual Discrimination Test. The increased visual efficiency was maintained by the experimental group when they were tested five months after the conclusion of the visual stimulation lessons. . . .

On the basis of [the] findings, it was concluded that this study:

  1. Presents evidence which provides objective verification of the value of visual stimulation programs for blind children with remaining vision.
  2. Demonstrates that a short-term intensive teaching procedure would increase significantly the visual efficiency of low vision children in the first five grades.
  3. Indicates that the increase in visual functioning could be maintained over a period of five months, and suggests the possibility of the stability of the increased visual efficiency.
  4. Contributes to the literature a detailed set of lesson plans and suggested materials which might be used in future educational programming or research.
  5. Provides a reliable instrument for evaluation of the visual functioning ability of blind children with remaining vision by use of enlarged and adapted educational materials.
  6. Reveals a need for continuous comprehensive appraisal of each child and his efficiency in all learning media before deciding that visual materials are unsuitable for his use in the classroom.
  7. Suggests the possibility of the enhancement of educational opportunities for low vision children by presentation of appropriate visual materials to supplement tactual and auditory media in present use.

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