May 28, 1930
THE HALIFAX SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND
Its History, Present Activities, and Destiny.
(E. Chesley Allen, Superintendent)
The attitudes of mind assumed by a well-meaning, and unusually sympathetic public towards those of our fellow-citizens who are deprived of vision are varied, often impractical, and sometimes even amusing.
There is the attitude which looks upon the blind as unfortunate, helpless individuals who are pure objects of charity and pity, and for whom little can be done except to see that they are generously supplied with the necessities and comforts of home, and then let their careers and circumstances take care of themselves. This attitude is recognized by the blind themselves as being illogical and as such is quite justly resented.
Then, there is the idea, still all too prevalent, that, by some special provision of a kind Providence, those who are denied the possession of physical vision are endowed with mental alertness and manual dexterity above the level of their sighted fellows; in other words that they are on a plane by themselves, morally and mentally higher than their fellows, and compensated for their loss of sight by magical, though somewhat obscure capabilities. Those who are intimately associated with the blind, will readily understand why they, the blind, are both amused and annoyed by this fantastic idea.
Somewhere between these two extremes lies the truth.
Blindness has been defined by one of the most intellectual blind men the writer ever knew as "a first-class nuisance." That sums up the matter very completely. If you do not think so, when you wake up tomorrow morning keep your eyes shut, get up and dress, eat your breakfast, find your way to work, wherever it may be, and start your daily programme. You will be convinced of the truth of my friends definition of blindness as a "a first-class nuisance." It is a physical disability of a very serious nature, and he who posses it must find ways and means to overcome it so that it will handicap him as little as possible, and so that he will be able to take a normal place in the community.
It is for the supplying of these ways and means for training that the schools for the blind were established.
The Halifax School for the Blind was incorporated May 7th, 1867, and first opened its doors to pupils in August, 1871.
Two years later there was appointed as superintendent of the school a young man, Mr. C. F. Fraser, who had been training in the Perkins institution for the Blind. Under the careful guidance, energetic spirit and indomitable will of this young man, who later became Sir Frederick Fraser, the school grew rapidly in influence and efficiency. Sir Frederick retained the position of superintendent, which he so honorably filled, for a half-century.
In 1874 children from the Provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were admitted to the school, and in 1887 pupils from Newfoundland were accorded the same privilege.
In 1882 a great step forward was made through the enactment of the Nova Scotia Legislature of an Act "Relating to the Education of the Blind." This act made free education possible for every child in Nova Scotia who by reason of blindness or insufficient sight was unable to make proper use of the public schools. This act was followed in 1892 by similar legislation in New Brunswick.
While in Newfoundland, no formal legislation concerning the education of the blind exists upon the statutes, the attitude of the government is all that can be desire toward the blind youth from that colony, and her pupils are admitted on the same basis as those from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
In Prince Edward Island each applicant is taken up with the government as a special case.
In 1893 the Canadian Parliament authorized the free transmission through the mails of embossed literature for the blind, and, considering the size of most of the Braille volumes sent out from our free circulating library, this concession is a boon to the blind which it would be difficult to overestimate.
These are only the more outstanding sign-posts on the long journey of development from that little school of four to the present school registering one hundred and sixty-five pupils, comfortably housed and cared for and given every advantage of mental and manual training.
Our instruction is divided into three distinct departments, - Literary, Musical and Manuel.
In the Literary Department all grades are taught, from Kindergarden to Grade XI, on University Matriculation.
The prescribed courses of the public school are pretty closely followed, including English, French, Latin, the sciences, mathematics, geography and history.
And do our pupils matriculate into the University? Indeed, yes. A goodly list could be given of those who, after graduation from our school have had creditable university careers; three totally blind young men are now attending Dalhousie, and more ambitious and hardworking pupils are coming along to take their places when they shall have obtained their degrees.
No more interesting place could be found than in our literary class rooms. Here the pupils of a class in geography under the guidance of a teacher are tracing out on embossed maps the physical features, political divisions or cities of the country under consideration. In the next classroom a high school class is struggling with the theorems of Euclid, perhaps with the aid of raised figures, or, if the class is well grounded in geometry, distaining such childish contrivances as figures, and carrying the construction "in their heads." Across the corridor Grade Eight is holding a debate upon some question which has demanded considerable reading in history, geography, and knowledge of our dustries. The chairman, one of the pupils, introduces the speaker in due and proper form, and these boys and girls rise to the occasion in a manner which indicates at least, community leadership some day. A younger grade is taking down spelling from the dictation of the teacher, not with pencils, but with stilettos, punching rapidly the dots on heavy paper held firmly in a pitted frame. Afterward these dots will indicate to the sensitive finger tips what ink-print letters indicate to your eye and mine.
One is frequently asked, "How long does it takes a normal blind child to learn to read Braille?" Just about as long as it takes the normal sighted child to learn to read ink-print. Or, "How fast can one read Braille?" At about the same rate that the average sighted person reads if reading aloud.
Let us take a glance at the Musical Department.
Here we have instruction in piano, pipe organ, and vocal music. By a system of embossed characters corresponding to, but not in the least resembling, the inkprint characters of staff music our blind pupils receive their musical instruction.
But, remember, please, that the blind pianist or organist cannot place his music before him on the music-rack, watch it with his eyes and practice with both hands. He must follow with his right hand the raised dots which indicate the left hand part of his music, while practicing that left hand part; then, reversing the process, learn his right hand part. Obviously he must then memorize his two parts and combine them. When you next listen to a blind pianist or organist you will appreciate the fact that it is not compensation but concentration that enables him to produce the music for your entertainment.
Older pupils who show a special aptitude for music, are trained as teachers of music, and in the course of their training are given ample practice in teaching younger pupils. Before being recommended as music teachers they are given, by means of raised figures, a thorough understanding of all ink-print musical symbols. This assures the ability of blind teachers to instruct sighted pupils.
Down in our manual training departments, (using the term, manual training, in its broadest sense), youthful fingers are being trained to act as messengers to the brain in place of the defective eyes. For the girls, we have chair-caning, reed basketry, weaving, knitting, and sewing, both by hand and machine. Here you will find straight, even seams that would put to shame many attempts by sighted operators. For the boys, woodwork, cane seating, shoe-repairing, mattress-making and broom making are carried on.
Closely allied to our manual training is a course in household science covering two years. This course is much more practical than theoretical, and during the first year pupils are responsible for a certain definite amount of sweeping, dusting, dish-washing, service in dining-rooms, patching and darning. The second years work involves instruction in home, cooking and home nursing.
The Halifax School for the Blind is positively non-sectarian. Pupils are required to attend, in organized groups, the services of city churches representing the denomination stated in their original application forms, and no deviation is allowed from this policy except on written request of parents or guardians. Religious instructions in Sunday School classes is carried on in the school by volunteer workers who come in from the pupils own churches and every effort is made to facilitate the performance of religious duties of all pupils in their chosen creeds.
The school. Was first established as a semi-private institution and, like a number of the earlier-established schools, its affairs are still under the direction of a board of managers. This is well, for two reasons. Our school serves pupils who are under four separate governments, and while largely supported by the per capita grants from these governments it is free from the influence of such possible petty politics as are the curse of certain purely state schools for the blind.
Representation of these governments is, however, assured by the fact that the Provincial secretary of Nova Scotia and the Premiers of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland are all exofficio members of the Board of Management.
Like any individual or organization engaged in a worth-while enterprise, we have our problems. Our greatest is one in which readers of this page could probably be of material assistance. There is a tendency on the part of many parents of blind or partially blind children to keep then at home until, to use their own expression, "they are old enough to leave home." This too often means that boys or girls do not begin their training until twelve or even fifteen years of age.
While we can do much for such children, It is obvious to anyone familiar with pedagogical principles that the best years have been lost, and that the pupil, in addition to his physical handicap of defective vision, has now been burdened with the handicap of a late start in the race for training. During the past two summers the writer, with Mrs. Allen, has visited many homes of blind or partially blind children, and these visits have had a marked effect in reducing the average age at which children enter the school. A secondary, though scarcely less important, effect of these personal contacts with the homes is the establishment of that feeling between home and school which is so helpful in what are often problem cases.
Then, there is the problem of discovering these children who need our help. There are still parents who have a tendency to conceal the fact that they have a child who is in any way "different." This is where doctors, nurses, teachers, clergymen, and social workers, official or unofficial, can be of invaluable assistance in reporting such children, wherever known, to proper authorities.