A new exhibit at the University of Northern Iowa’s museum examines the history of teaching blind people in Iowa. The history shows the Iowa Braille and Sightsaving School was founded in 1852 based on the successful Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. The director of the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Karen Keninjer says the Iowa school was first located in Iowa City and then moved to Vinton. She says the school started out with a lot of hand work like weaving and making chairs. Keninjer says education improved, the school began academic education. Keninjer says before the boarding schools were established, little if anything was done to help visually impaired students.

Susan Spunjun of the American Foundation for the Blind says the boarding school model was painful for students and families when the child had to leave home. Spunjun says it was also seen as the most efficient system as all the children could be brought together to work on the same system under one roof. In the 1940’s the invention of the incubator led to an increase in the number of blind children.

Spunjun says at first doctors thought oxygen given in the incubator would help the lungs of premature babies, but she says they later learned it could lead to eye problems. She says it would do damage to the very immature blood vessels of the eyes, and many of the children ended up becoming blind. Spunjun says the residential schools were not prepare for the influx of blind students.

At about the same time, blind veterans were returning home from World War Two, and began to prove that proper training could help kids and adults function in society. Spunjun says those factors led to a move to send visually impaired kids to regular schools. She says that was one of the reasons why the boarding schools began to lose students as parents put them in the public schools.

Spunjun says legislation passed in 1975 upheld the concept that every child should be given a chance to receive an education in their neighborhood school. She says she supports that idea, but the resources haven’t kept up with the special needs of kids. Spunjun says that leaves a lot of kids “warehoused” in schools in the name of inclusion who are “functionally illiterate” because they don’t know Braille and don’t know how to use low vision aids.

Today a committee is studying the issue to try and determine how to best teach the students in the future. The exhibit at U-N-I called “In Touch with Knowledge: the Education History of Blind People”, runs through May 26th.