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The Hadley School for the Blind: A Pioneer in Providing Distance Education

Abstract: This article discusses the distance education program of the Hadley School for the Blind. The school provides correspondence courses free of charge to people with visual impairments and their families, as well as to professionals and paraprofessionals in the field of visual impairment. The article describes the school's programs and services, as well as strategies that the school uses to reach out to students.

Special thanks go to Bob Winn, Dawn Turco, and Julie Lee Kay of the Hadley School for the Blind, who provided feedback and support to the author in the development of this article.

Distance education has existed in the United States for over a century, according to the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC, 2000), and an estimated 2.5 million Americans currently pursue their studies through distance education. Approximately 300 private training facilities and over 2,000 colleges or institutions offer distance education programs to these students (DETC, 2000). A pioneer in the effort to bring educational materials to students in their homes via a distance education model is the Hadley School for the Blind-the only accredited distance education institution that caters exclusively to the needs of people with visual impairments (those who are blind or have low vision).

The Hadley School for the Blind has been fully accredited by both the Accrediting Commission of the DETC (since 1958) and the Commission on Schools of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (since 1978). Its mission is to enable people of all ages who are visually impaired to acquire the specialized skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed to participate fully in life by providing lifelong learning opportunities through distance education.

Since 1920, the school has offered correspondence courses to people with visual impairments and their families throughout the world. William A. Hadley, an educator who lost his vision at age 55, founded the school. The idea for teaching adults with visual impairments via correspondence courses came from a neighborhood visitor, and Hadley seized on it. His wife, Jessie, and their neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. E. V. L. Brown, helped him follow the idea to fruition. Brown, Hadley's ophthalmologist, initially encouraged Hadley to pursue the idea as a means of rehabilitation. Eventually, both men and their wives became firm believers in the concept of teaching people who are visually impaired via a distance education model, and they devoted countless hours and money to the school to make the dream a reality (Hathaway, 1977).

From his home, Hadley taught the school's first course, Learning to Read Braille, to a farmer's wife in Kansas, who had been an enthusiastic reader before she lost her vision and was anxious to learn to read again. Her success in learning braille through the correspondence course was the proof Hadley needed to market his idea, and he promptly placed announcements in a widely circulated braille periodical. Within a year, about 90 students were enrolled in his school. By 1922, the Hadley School for the Blind was a legally organized nonprofit corporation, and the offices were moved out of the Hadley home and into the community of Winnetka, Illinois (Hathaway, 1977).

Programs and courses

At present, 7,299 students are enrolled in 11,158 courses, including students from over 90 countries, among them 1,026 students who are enrolled at Hadley's only overseas location, in China (D. Turco, personal communication, October 12, 2000 and May 23, 2001). In addition to serving people with visual impairments and their families, the school now serves professionals and paraprofessionals who work with people with visual impairments (for a complete breakdown of students' enrollments by program area, see Table 1).

More than 90 courses are offered in four major program areas: the General Education Program, the Parent/Child Program, the Parent/Family Program, and the Professional Program. Prospective general education students must be at least 14 years old and legally blind or have a prognosis of legal blindness and be able to read and understand courses written in English at the high school level. Parents, grandparents, and other family members of children or adults who are visually impaired may enroll in courses through the Parent/Child or Parent/Family Program. Finally, professionals and paraprofessionals who serve clients with visual impairments or students may enroll in the Professional Program.

Courses range from academic and high school studies to independent living and life adjustment courses. However, Hadley may be best known for its braille courses. If a prospective student is familiar with braille, he or she is encouraged to take a short braille placement test and is then enrolled in an appropriate braille course. Braille readiness courses; beginning and intermediate courses that cover Grade 1 and Grade 2 braille; and advanced courses, such as braille music notation, are offered (for a representative list of these courses, see Sidebar 1).

Academic students may earn high school diplomas, receive transfer credit to supplement their high school credits, or continue their studies in a subject area after graduation from high school (for a partial list of these courses, see Sidebar 2). In addition to the purely academic courses, the school has a special program, called Transition to the American University, that includes a series of college preparation courses and a course for parents who want to assist their college-bound youngsters.

Students who do not want to participate in academic courses may take a variety of other courses through the General Education Program (for examples, see Sidebar 3). These courses focus on technology, independent living and life adjustment, and recreational and leisure activities.

Parents and other family members may enroll in courses through either the Parent/Child Program (designed for parents of children under age 14) or the Parent/Family Program. The Parent/Child Program includes courses, which are recommended for parents of children aged 6 or younger, that focus on how to create a home environment that fosters independence and age-appropriate developmental gains. There are courses to help parents choose toys that encourage their children to explore the environment, interact with others, and generally become more self-sufficient, and a course on parents' rights and responsibilities in the educational process.

The Parent/Family Program provides courses for family members of older children or adults. These courses are designed to help families with communication skills, independent living skills, and adjustment-to-blindness issues that are relevant to blind family members, regardless of their chronological age. As with all Hadley's courses, these courses are designed to facilitate self-growth and are completed at the students' own pace.

All Hadley's services and materials are available to people with visual impairments and their families free of charge. The school does not receive state or federal funding, but relies exclusively on individual and corporate donations. Because all course work is completed by correspondence, there are no students in attendance at Hadley's headquarters in Winnetka, which includes offices for a core staff, administrative and support staff, and some faculty members. To meet the needs of so many students in such diverse courses, Hadley maintains satellite faculty throughout the country. Currently, 31 faculty members are located in 12 states (Hadley School for the Blind, 2001). Although faculty are chosen for their functional expertise in content areas, many have teaching credentials in special education, education of students with visual impairments, or academic areas, and two thirds of the faculty have advanced degrees.

Although the majority of Hadley students are people who are visually impaired and their families, there is an ever-increasing emphasis on professional development. At present, about 600 students are enrolled in the Professional Program, which offers the following courses: Abacus I and II; Braille Reading for Family Members; Essentials of the Nemeth Code; the Human Eye; Independent Living; Introduction to Personal Computers; Self-esteem and Adjusting with Blindness; and You, Your Eyes, and Your Diabetes. Students in the Professional Program enroll using the same process as do students in the other Hadley programs by requesting an application by telephone (800-323-4238) or online

Students in the Professional Program are teachers, counselors, and instructional assistants who are unable to acquire the specialized skills they need to work with students and clients with visual impairments in local training programs. Although the program is not intended to take the place of university-based training programs, it is a logical supplement to such programs. The University of Northern Colorado and other universities that offer specialized training in the unique needs of people with visual impairments use Hadley's materials, with permission, to augment their courses. A number of state rehabilitation agencies, such as those in Texas and North Carolina, also recognize the merit in enrolling staff members in Hadley courses and have established cooperative training agreements with the school.


Throughout its existence, the Hadley School for the Blind has met many of the training and educational needs of people who are visually impaired, their families, and the professionals and paraprofessionals who serve them, via a distance education model. In the early 20th century, the school was particularly important to adults with visual impairments in rural areas of the United States who had limited access to trained personnel. Throughout the 20th century, Hadley's student population expanded in the United States and other countries and came to include families of and professionals who work with people with visual impairments. However, the 21st century holds even greater promise for learning in the lives of visually impaired people as distance education expands its sphere of influence, thanks, in large part, to expanded Internet access and other technological advances. The Hadley School for the Blind anticipates an ever-increasing need for its services, and fully expects to grow and evolve with the changing needs of the population it serves.


Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council. (2000). DETC accreditation overview. Washington, DC: Author.

Hadley School for the Blind. (2001). Faculty bios. [Online.] Available:

Hathaway, D. W. (1977). University of courage: History of Hadley School for the Blind. Shawnee Mission, KS: Inter-Collegiate Press.

Karen E. Wolffe, Ph.D., career counseling and consultation, 2109 Rabb Glen Street, Austin, TX 78704; e-mail

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