looking back

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Samuel Gridley Howe: Champion of the blind

by Kimberly French

In 1830s Boston, everyone knew Samuel Gridley Howe. Young women ran to their windows whenever the tall, ebony-haired, blue-eyed, and conspicuously handsome young man rode his black stallion through the city's cobblestone streets.

Howe wanted to be known. His life's goal was to make a great intellectual and social-reform contribution, and he succeeded beyond any measure. The founding director of the country's first school for the blind, Howe pioneered what is known today as special education and disabled rights.

In Howe's day, Boston was the heartbeat of a spiritual and intellectual awakening called the New England Renaissance. Unitarians, who effectively controlled the State House, Harvard, and the city's wealth, also led the great reform causes of the day--William Ellery Channing for relief for the poor, Theodore Parker for the abolition of slavery, Horace Mann for universal free education, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for early-childhood education.

Ironically, Howe, whose accomplishments were as great as any of these peers, today is scarcely known. His biggest fight was against public attitudes that people who were blind--or who had any disability--were worthy only of charity and pity. He made tremendous advances over blind education in Europe, where the world's first school for blind people was founded in 1784 . He developed a widely used writing system and founded a press and a workshop for the blind. He wrote textbooks and painstakingly designed relief maps. The school for blind children he founded is now Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Howe's greatest achievement was teaching language for the first time to a deafblind person, seven-year-old Laura Bridgman--an accomplishment many had thought impossible. In his 1842 American Notes, Charles Dickens largely criticized the country, but praised Howe and Bridgman at length, making them world famous. After Howe died, Perkins graduate Annie Sullivan spent months studying his reports on Bridgman before taking her first job as governess for an uncontrollable deafblind girl named Helen Keller.

As a founder of modern American special education, Howe foresaw today's debates over institutionalization and inclusion. Schools for the blind, he advised, "should receive as few [students] as possible; that is, you should reject every one who can be taught in common schools." He believed in teaching the whole child, emphasizing physical education, crafts, and music. And he believed in teaching each child according to individual ability. Children who are blind, Howe believed, must be trained to take their places in the social and economic life of their home communities. He envisioned a day when blind and disabled people would be readily accepted in the work force--a dream still not fully realized.

Opinionated and stubborn, Howe resisted the introduction of braille, and his opposition to sign language earned him condemnation from the deaf community. He remained controversial even after his death in 1876, but the bitterest irony for Howe might be that he is perhaps best known today as the husband of poet and activist Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910). That Howe could be insensitive and argumentative and that his marriage was discordant are both well documented. As ambitious as he was for himself, he was determined that his smart and talented wife should be kept at home with their six children. Julia outlived him by thirty-four years and became a prominent suffragist and peace activist.

Whatever Howe's flaws, his contributions to blind and deafblind education and to the great political and reform movements of his time earned him a place not only in Unitarian history, but in American and intellectual history.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 56

Unitarian Universalist Association | 25 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108 | 617-742-2100
Copyright © 2002-2004 Unitarian Universalist Association | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Search Our Site | Site Map