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Perkins History

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Perkins School for the Blind is located on a 38-acre campus on the Charles River in Watertown, Massachusetts, with partner programs in 65 countries.  The school is committed to providing education and services that build productive, meaningful lives for children and adults around the world who are blind or deafblind, including those with additional disabilities.

The rich history of Perkins began with its founding over 180 years ago as the first school for the blind in the United States. Within a few short years, Perkins became known for its effective instructional techniques, including teaching Laura Bridgman, the first known deafblind person to be educated. Later, Anne Sullivan brought Helen Keller to Perkins. Keller spent her life breaking down barriers and perceptions about what people who are blind or deafblind can accomplish.

A historic painting of the Perkins campus from the Charles River.
The foundations of the future are rooted in the past.

A trip to Paris to see the world's first school for the blind in the early 1820's convinced medical student Dr. John Fisher of the dire need for such a school in America. Upon his return, Fisher and some friends applied for and received a charter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to establish a school for the education of blind students. Perkins school was incorporated in 1829 and using rooms in his father's Boston home for classes, the director, Samuel Gridley Howe, opened the doors of the school in 1832.

Just one year later, the school moved to a larger home owned by Thomas Perkins, vice president and a trustee. Within six years, student enrollment grew to 65. Perkins sold his home and donated the money to the school so it could convert a hotel in South Boston. The school still bears Perkins' name as a testament to his generosity.

About this same time, Samuel Gridley Howe began to establish a separate printing department in the school to produce embossed books. Howe hoped to entice well-known authors to use the school to emboss their books. As fate would have it, Howe attracted the attention of Charles Dickens, who used Perkins School to print and distribute 250 copies of his book, The Old Curiosity Shop.

Dickens visited Perkins in 1842 during a lecture tour of America and was amazed at the work Howe was doing with Laura Bridgman, a young deafblind girl who came to the school in 1837. So impressed was Dickens that he wrote about his visit in his book, American Notes. Years later, Kate Adams Keller, mother of a young deafblind girl named Helen, read the book. The book provided a ray of hope for the couple's six-year-old daughter, Helen Keller, who lost her sight and hearing when she was only 19 months old.

Helen was born in 1880, the same year the Samuel P. Hayes Research Library was founded at Perkins. It's considered the largest repository of its kind in the world. It contains the most recent and complete information on the non-medical aspects of blindness and deafblindness. Its vast collection includes books by and about Helen Keller.

In 1887, Perkins Director Michael Anagnos sent graduate Anne Sullivan to teach Helen Keller in Alabama. That same year, the school established the first kindergarten for the blind in the United States. After working with her pupil at home, Ms. Sullivan returned to Perkins with Helen Keller in 1888 and remained there until 1893.

The school outgrew its home in the hotel and desperately needed more space for the children to run and play, so it moved to its present 38-acre home on the Charles River in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1912.

Perkins continued to develop "firsts." For example, the Hayes-Binet test was introduced in 1920 and revealed that the intelligence of the blind population is no different from those who can see.

A popular addition to Perkins in 1931 was the creation of the Braille and Talking Book Library. For adults and children who cannot read conventional print but don't want to miss out on the latest bestseller or copy of Newsweek, more than 50,000 recorded titles and magazines and 16,000 braille books are available. The library offers a mail order service in addition to regular checkout service.

Another breakthrough came when David Abraham successfully produced the first Perkins Brailler in 1951 after years of experimentation. By 1977, about 100,000 Perkins Braillers were produced and distributed worldwide.

As the school evolved, so did the population. Perkins changed its charter in 1982 to accept students with multiple disabilities other than blindness. A major grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation in 1989 made it possible to expand Perkins' services throughout the U.S. and in 50 developing countries through Perkins' International Programs.

The School's reputation for innovation never tires. Perkins launched its Outreach: Services to Elders Program in 1991 to assist the growing population of seniors who are losing or have lost their eyesight. The school has also introduced other programs such as its Infant/Toddler Program, Diagnostic Evaluations and Satellite Programs in order to assist more people who are blind, deafblind or living with multiple disabilities, and their families and caregivers.  

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