10 surprising connections between Veterans Day and blindness

From braille to guide dogs, veterans have been front and center in many life-changing innovations in the blindness field

Helen Keller and Polly Thomson visiting a veteran in a hospital bed

Helen Keller and her traveling companion Polly Thomson visited more than 70 Army hospitals at the end of World War II to bring encouragement to hundreds of blinded war veterans. Photo from the Perkins Archives.

November 11, 2015

Every year, on November 11, we honor veterans for the sacrifices they have made for our country. At Perkins School for the Blind, Veterans Day is also a time to reflect on the many contributions made to the field of blindness by people in the military. Here are 10 interesting connections between Perkins, blindness and our nation’s veterans:

  1. Students at Perkins School for the Blind compete in goalball, a sport in which players who are blind (or blindfolded) try to roll a large rubber ball with a jangling bell inside into their opponent’s goal. Goalball was invented in 1946 as a form of rehabilitation for veterans who lost their sight in World War II.
  2. Braille, a tactile reading and writing system used by people who are blind, was actually based on a tactile military code created by the French Army called “night writing.” The raised-dot code allowed soldiers to communicate silently at night without light.
  3. World War II veteran rehabilitation specialist Richard E. Hoover is credited with developing the standard technique for using a white cane in 1944. Orientation and mobility specialists still teach the “Hoover Method” of holding a long cane in the center of the body and swinging it back and forth to detect obstacles.
  4. The Perkins Library serves 950 Massachusetts veterans who are blind or visually impaired (or have another disability that prevents them from reading traditional print). The Library mails books in audio, large-print and braille formats at no cost to veterans and other patrons. Digital audio books can also be downloaded online.
  5. Helen Keller, a student at Perkins School for the Blind from 1888-1892, was a strong advocate for veterans’ rights.  At the end of World War II she and a traveling companion visited more than 70 Army hospitals around the United States offering solace and hope to wounded soldiers.
  6. According to the Blinded Veterans Association, 136,636 service members suffered eye injuries in the 18 months following the 9/11 attacks. About 2,000 soldiers were left with low vision and 200 were blinded. Amazingly, three soldiers returned to active duty despite losing their vision in combat.
  7. Julie Ward Howe, wife of Perkins’ founding director Samuel Gridley Howe, wrote the lyrics to the iconic “Battle Hymn of the Republic” after hearing a member of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry singing the original version in Upton Hill, Virginia, in 1861.
  8. Assistive technology developed and sold by Perkins Solutions is used by veterans who have become blind or disabled. For some, voice recognition software allows them to use a computer and hold full-time jobs.
  9. Many veterans who are blind went on to make remarkable contributions to their country. For example, Criss Cole was blinded by a grenade while serving in World War II. After earning a law degree, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives and later served as president of the Texas Senate.
  10. The first school for guide dogs in the United States, The Seeing Eye, was inspired by a similar program in Germany where blinded World War I veterans were taught to use guide dogs to travel independently. The Seeing Eye still exists today.