The Perkins School for the Blind has evolved and expanded in many ways since its incorporation in 1829. To start, the school was not always located on the lush Watertown campus it calls home today. There have been several campus locations over its lengthy history, including downtown Boston, Cohasset, South Boston and Jamaica Plain.
Moreover, it wasn’t always called the Perkins School for the Blind. In 1829, when the school was incorporated, it was called The New England Asylum for the Blind. The Perkins name comes from Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a wealthy merchant on the school’s Board of Trustees. He donated his home on Pearl Street in Boston just a year after the school opened, so that it could accommodate more students. In 1839, Col. Perkins allowed his home to be sold so that the school could move to an even more spacious site in South Boston. The school has honored Col. Perkins’ generosity ever since by bearing his name.
Perkins enjoyed steady growth not only in the number of students it served, but in programs, too. Just five years after the school opened its doors, Samuel Gridley Howe, the school’s first director, was eager to take on the challenge of educating a child who was deafblind. He traveled to New Hampshire to meet seven-year-old Laura Bridgman and convinced her parents that he could educate her -- something that had never been accomplished with a person who was deafblind. Howe’s success in teaching Laura set the standard for educating other students who were deafblind. Perkins graduate Anne Sullivan used Howe’s deafblind education methods and developed others as the teacher of Perkins’ most famous student, Helen Keller.
In its earlier days, Perkins only accepted students who were between the ages of 9 and 19. Howe admitted a small number of younger children for a few years, but that practice came to an unfortunate end when the school expanded its services for upper-level students and no longer had space. Luckily, the trustees and Howe’s successor, Michael Anagnos, were dedicated to establishing a Kindergarten for young children who were blind and in 1887, Perkins opened the first kindergarten for the blind in Jamaica Plain.
The origins of library services for people who are blind can be traced back to Howe, who considered literacy an educational right. He believed that readers everywhere who are blind, not just his students, should have access to books. It took nearly 100 years, but Howe’s dream was fulfilled with the U.S. Government’s establishment of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which still thrives today. The Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library was one of the first to circulate books to patrons in New England who are blind. In addition, the Howe Press donated copies of all its publications to public libraries throughout the country so they, too, could offer services to their patrons who were blind. Today the Perkins Library serves thousands of patrons all over the region.
By the beginning of the 20th century, both the upper-level South Boston campus and the Jamaica Plain kindergarten had outgrown their facilities. In 1913, the schools, library and printing press relocated to a 38.5-acre wooded campus along the Charles River in Watertown, where the Perkins campus still stands today.
In 1920, Perkins partnered with Harvard to establish the first formal teacher training program for teachers of students with visual impairments. Perkins staff continue to offer professional courses for students preparing to become Teachers of the Visually Impaired, and all the school’s departments generously welcome student interns. In the 1950s, Perkins established a teacher training program for Deafblind Education, and continues to collaborate with Boston College in producing teachers of students who are deafblind.
More recently, Perkins has collaborated with UMass Boston in the development and execution of a pre-service teacher preparation program. Perkins staff have taught courses and students have practicum experiences at Perkins as part of their degree requirements. Perkins is a leader in providing specialized training for professionals and teachers in the field, and is committed to continuing to provide resources to this effort.
Gallery guides for the Perkins History Museum were prepared by Betsy L. McGinnity, Museum Curator, Jan Seymour-Ford, Research Librarian and Kathleen J. Andries, Volunteer.