How a teacher shaped the first school for the blind in Lebanon

In a country where kids with disabilities were left out of education in the 1950s, one teacher would spend the next 50 years establishing quality programs for students with multiple, complex disabilities and visual impairments.

Portrait of Mrs. Lahoud at age 87. She has thick brown short hair and friendly smile. She sits on a padded white recliner, close to a floor lamp, a bench, and a piano.

Meet Mrs. Wadad Lahoud, a graduate of the 1956 Perkins Teacher Training class, and the first principal of the Lebanese School for the Blind and the Deaf (LSBD). In her 50 years, Mrs. Lahoud helped nearly 700 students, and instructed 170 teachers, caregivers, and employees.

The Perkins Teacher Training class, which is now known as the Educational Leadership Program, has been a core component of Perkins School for the Blind for generations. Marianne Riggio, Perkins’ previous Educational Leadership Director, shares a recent conversation with Mrs. Wadad Lahoud, the first Lebanese teacher accepted to the program and the impact she was able to make in her home country afterwards.

I am so indebted to Perkins for this. Perkins equipped me beautifully with all of the tools I needed. I thank them from the depth of my heart. What a wonderful life I have had.

Mrs. Wadad Lahoud
Staged class photo of Perkins' 1956 Teacher Training Class
Perkins’ Teacher Training Class 1956. Wadad Lahoud (then Baroody) on first row, far right.
Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

Mrs. Lahoud’s career and impact

Mrs. Lahoud graduated from the Teacher Training Class of 1956 and went on an educational journey, visiting colleagues in the US west coast, Asia, and finally settling back in Lebanon.

A life changing encounter

Mrs. Lahoud told me that, as a young schoolgirl, a man who was blind came and spoke to her class. Being a very curious learner, she approached him and asked: “Why is the page you are holding empty?” He said, “Can’t you see the dots on the page?” As she looked closer, she saw this mysterious form of writing—she would later know as braille—that more than piqued her curiosity.

This experience led Mrs. Lahoud to read as much as she could about blindness. In her reading, she kept seeing references to Perkins as a world leader in this field. She knew that she had to get there. When she finished her BA degree, she went to the USIS (United States Information Service) office in Beirut because she heard they were accepting applications for students to study in America. 

In her application, Mrs. Lahoud wrote a long essay about blindness and how important it would be to start a new school in Beirut. She told them that she wanted to come to Boston to study at Perkins. Mrs. Lahoud’s request was turned down, but she was given instead a scholarship to do graduate work in her field at the University of Buffalo, NY. She politely said, “No thank you. I only want to go to Boston.” 

The woman at the USIS office advised Mrs. Lahoud to accept the scholarship offered by the Rotary Club and from there, she could more easily get to Boston. This advice turned out to be life changing for this young teacher.

Finding her way to Perkins

While studying in Buffalo, she began to correspond with Dr. Waterhouse, the Director of Perkins who had a keen interest in the international role of the school. He asked for her references and the next year she came to the Perkins Teacher Training program, now known as the Educational Leadership Program.

It was a dream come true. I had met my goal and the program was excellent!

Mrs. Lahoud

Being a very religious person, Mrs. Lahoud said, “I thank the Lord that I got to the place where I always wanted to be. I knew nothing until I got to Perkins. It was a very good experience.” She said that there were 15 teachers from around the world in her class who were from Latin American and other countries that were similar to her own.

Photo of Perkins campus. Three people walk in the distance on the pathway to Fisher Cottage.
Fisher cottage stands on the right of the east close walkway on Perkins’ campus

Mrs. Lahoud lived in Fisher cottage and had fond memories of the houseparent Mrs. Theyer. It was there that she got to learn from the students and staff who were blind about how they perceive the world. She learned very practical skills, from the people who do this work every day, on how to teach children who are blind. She enjoyed “comparing notes” with her classmates at the end of each day. She regretted that she didn’t keep a diary but corresponded with her classmates for several years.

Back in Lebanon, word got around that Mrs. Lahoud was studying at Perkins and a Lebanese ophthalmologist who lived in Boston came to meet her. He told her that the country’s first lady wanted to start a modern national school for the blind and she had read about her in the USIS magazine. The first lady wanted her back in the country in order to be the school’s first principal. Although a big task, she accepted the challenge without hesitation.

From learning in Boston to leading change in Lebanon

As Mrs. Lahoud’s studies at Perkins were nearing the end she said, “I wanted to see the West coast of America before returning home.” Dr. Waterhouse, who admired her sense of adventure and her thirst for knowledge, arranged for her to continue her learning adventure through the United States then on to Japan, China, Thailand, and India through his contacts abroad. Her first stop was Los Angeles, where she worked at a camp for children who were blind.

Two women hover over a sewing machine that is on a wooden desk. Photo is from the 1950s so it it is in black and white.
Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives

Mrs. Lahoud then traveled by boat to Asia where she met other school leaders and saw how education was provided to children who are blind. It was both an adventure in learning about the work but also a study in culture. At the end of her two-year journey, Mrs. Lahoud returned home to her beloved Lebanon. 

As she prepared to start her new school, she knew that she couldn’t just bring US practices to Lebanon. “I had to adapt them to the culture.” She explained that children who are blind in Lebanon are brought up differently than children in America, so she had to modify what she learned. She always knew that “people who are blind are the specialists, not us.” So it was her business to get to know her students very well in order to understand what they needed to learn. 

Starting a school for the blind with staff that were not from this field was a challenge, but Mrs. Lahoud took it up in her thoughtful, committed, and very practical style. “Nobody questioned what I was doing.” She began with some basic training in braille and orientation and mobility. She was also clear that she knew that she couldn’t do it all herself, so she found other training opportunities for her staff that broadened their knowledge and skills. 

Always ready to evolve 

As are so many leaders in our field, Mrs. Lahoud never became complacent with the success of her school. She believed that once her students had learned some of the most essential knowledge and skills at her school that they should be given the opportunity to learn with their sighted friends. 

I begged him to make a decree to allow people who are blind to attend regular schools.

Mrs. Lahoud to the Lebanese Minister of Education

So, in the early 1980s, Mrs. Lahoud went to the office of the Lebanese Minister of Education and “begged him to make a decree to allow people who are blind to attend regular schools.” She was so confident that she could provide the needed support, that he agreed. So began inclusive, main-streaming education services with the support of her teachers of the visually impaired. 

Mrs. Lahoud strongly believes that every person has their own life path and that we should not limit their opportunities. Again, she set out to make sure that there were opportunities for her students. Her first stop was a meeting with the administrator of the AUH (American University Hospital) in Beirut where she asked about jobs that blind people could do there. He readily offered opportunities in the dark room of the x-ray department and in the CSSR department where they prepare and sterilize equipment for the operating rooms. 

First, her students were trained in the job with the support of their teachers and then when they mastered the job, they were employed. The opportunities grew from there. She spoke proudly of her graduates holding a wider range of jobs such as professionals, translators, piano tuners, IT workers, factory workers, masseuses, and switchboard operators, to name a few. 

Entrusting a legacy to future generations

Fifty years after graduating from Perkins, Mrs. Lahoud, who still doesn’t believe in keeping things as they are, opened the first class for students who are deafblind in her country. She knew that she had to send the teacher of that class to Perkins so she could learn from her own alma mater. Lina Sabbah was a member of the Perkins Educational Leadership Program class of 2008 and went home to continue to teach this program where she still works today. 

Mrs. Lahoud received two prestigious medals, one from the Ministry of Education and another “Order of the Knights” offered to her by the President of the Republic of Lebanon. Even though recognition was clearly not what motivated her, she was very honored to receive these awards. 

After 56 years in her role as principal, although never losing her passions for her work, Mrs. Lahoud decided that it was time to pass the torch to someone she trained and trusted. 

At 87 years old, retirement has not removed her from the people she cares so deeply about. “I am in contact with my students all of the time.” She has organized alumni chapters throughout Lebanon and is so proud of their achievements. Some went on to become professionals, some own businesses and some are working in workshops and some in Banks and Ministries. Understanding the importance of community, Mrs. Lahoud makes sure that she has regional reunions with them every year. “I will always care for them until I pass.” 

Portrait of Mrs. Lahoud at 87 years old. She stands outside in front of a brick pillar and smiled brightly. Her hair is short yet full of volume. She wears a blue cardigan over a blue dress.

“I am so indebted to Perkins for this. Perkins equipped me beautifully with all of the tools I needed. I thank them from the depth of my heart. What a wonderful life I have had,” she said.

Indeed, a remarkable woman with a remarkable life story.

If you believe in the multiplying effect of teachers like Mrs. Lahoud and want to help create real global change, apply to the Educational Leadership Program today!