Perkins' History

Perkins student touching statue of Michael Anagnos.

Perkins has been known for decades as a leader in best practices in educating children who are blind.

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 students with blindness.

Perkins was incorporated in 1829 and using rooms in his father's Boston home for classes, the first director, Samuel Gridley Howe, opened the doors of the school in 1832.

Within a few short years, Perkins became known for its effective instructional techniques. Due to its success and growing enrollment, 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.

Word of Perkins' success spreads

About the same time, Howe established a printing department in the school to produce embossed books. Howe, who had invented an embossed format called Boston Line Type, hoped to entice well-known authors to use the school to emboss their books. He successfully attracted the attention of Charles Dickens, who used Perkins' printing department – the home of what is known today as Perkins Products – to produce 250 copies of his book, The Old Curiosity Shop.

A child named Helen

Dickens was amazed at the work Howe was doing with Laura Bridgman, a girl with deafblindness who came to the school in 1837 and became the first such person to be formally educated. So impressed was Dickens that he wrote about Perkins in his book, American Notes. Years later, Kate Adams Keller, a Southern mother of a young girl named Helen who was deafblind, read the book. Those words provided a ray of hope for the couple's six-year-old daughter who had lost her sight and hearing when she was only 19 months old.

Perkins carved its permanent place in history when it sent alumna Anne Sullivan to instruct the young girl from Alabama. Thought by many to be uneducable, Helen Keller famously went on to read, write and even graduate from Radcliffe College, ultimately transforming the world’s perception of what it means to be a person with disabilities. 

The school moved in 1912 from Boston to its current 38-acre campus in Watertown, Massachusetts, and the Braille & Talking Book Library was established on campus in 1931. Known today as the Perkins Library, it provides accessible reading material such as talking books, braille and electronic formats to people unable to read traditional print.

The Brailler is developed 

The Perkins Brailler was unveiled in 1951 after years of experimentation and development by David Abraham. This Brailler remains the most popular and widely used around the world, and is the foundation for the new SMART Brailler. Released in 2012, the brailler features digital and audio feedback to promote improved learning of braille. It was developed in partnership with the American Printing House for the Blind.

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 around the world. Today, Perkins International supports partners, shares training and resources, and advocates for the rights and education of people with blindness in 67 countries. 

Continuing innovation

While Perkins has been known for decades as a leader in best practices in educating children who are blind, the last 10 years have witnessed dramatic change, resulting in a tremendous expansion of our reach through eLearning intiatives, our spectrum of services and products, and our global influence in policy and advocacy. Perkins today impacts approximately 1 million individuals around the globe annually – an increase of more than 800 percent compared to just five years ago.