Rich History of Overbrook School for the Blind

Dialogue     September-October 2008

Feature: Changing History, Changing Attitudes

By David Block

The museum at Overbrook School for the Blind not only documents the school’s 176-year history; it also demonstrates how the public’s attitude toward blind people has changed over time. In 1784, Valentin Haüy established the Institution for Blind Children in Paris, the world’s first school for the blind where Louis Braille was a student and later a teacher. Shortly afterward, other blind schools sprang up in Europe. The widespread attitude in the United States was that blind people were uneducable, so they were kept out of sight.

In the 1830s, J. Francis Fisher and Roberts Vaux brought a young German teacher, Julius Friedlander, to Philadelphia for the purpose of educating blind children. In 1832, Friedlander’s first two American students were Abraham Marsh and his sister Sarah, whom he taught in his home. When the number of his students increased, he founded the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind at 20th and Race Streets in Philadelphia. This was the third blind school opened in the United States, just on the heels of the Perkins School for the Blind and the New York Institute for the Blind. The Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind changed its name to Overbrook School for the Blind in 1946.

According to Jackie Brennan, Overbrook’s interim director from January through July 2008, the school printed the first embossed book with raised lettering in North America in 1833. That book, the GOSPEL OF MARK, is on display at the museum. The first school for the blind in the United States to teach braille was the Missouri School for the Blind in 1860, eight years after its inventor, Louis Braille, died. The precise year Overbrook began to teach braille to its students is unknown. Several braillewriters that have been used in the school are on display in the museum.

James G. Blaine was the principal teacher for the boys at Overbrook from 1852 to 1854. A display of Blaine’s office is adjacent to the museum. If you were to sit in Blaine’s wooden chair, which is included in the display, you would think that you are back in 1852. The photos of his office that cover the walls from floor to ceiling envelop you. Visitors to the museum are not permitted to sit in the chair however.

About the same time that Blaine taught at Overbrook, future president, Stephen Grover Cleveland was a teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind. In 1884, Republican presidential candidate, Blaine lost the election to Cleveland.

“There used to be a stereotype that blind people couldn’t do woodworking,” said Brennan. Uno Cygenaeus did not share that sentiment. In the late 19th century he taught the boys at Overbrook the practical use of handicrafts. First year elementary students worked with wood using basic tools such as knives, hammers and nails. As the boys grew older, the work became more technical and involved. By 1894, Overbrook boys were required to learn woodworking. In the museum, a woodworking bench and tools are on display.

According to Brennan, long before the board of education made physical education a requirement for public school students, it was part of Overbrook’s curriculum. The museum documents that around the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Edward Allen, Overbrook’s principal, believed that “Exercise of the body and that of the mind always serve as relaxation to each other.”  At around that time, the school moved to the Overbrook section of Philadelphia, because the location at 20th and Race Streets no longer met the needs of the students. At the new location, Overbrook became the first school for the blind in the United States to have an indoor swimming pool. The pool was completed in 1906, and remained in use until 2007. A new and improved pool is now under construction.

Brennan explained that over time, Overbrook’s curriculum changed to match the students’ changing interests. For example, woodworking and caning chairs are no longer taught. Instead students participate in visual or tactile art classes, such as drawing, painting, sculpting, paper making and weaving. Students used to want to play in Overbrook’s band and wear the red and yellow band uniforms. Since today’s students prefer to sing in the chorus or play in the bell choir, the band no longer exists. In the museum, a band uniform and a clarinet preserve the band’s legacy. Students attending Overbrook today also compete in a number of sports including swimming, track and field, goalball, cheerleading and wrestling.

The student population at Overbrook is diverse, and the curriculum is tailored to individual student needs. Instruction is provided in academics as well as orientation and mobility, assistive technology and daily living skills. All students have access to assistive technology, and the high school students enrolled in academic programs have workstations to meet their individual needs. Computers with screen readers and/or screen magnifiers, braille displays and scanners are provided. CCTVs are also available.

“A few other blind schools have museums,” said Brennan, “but the unique thing about ours is that you can touch a lot of the items.” The museum is very accessible. The museum even has a 3D model of the campus. Most of the exhibits have Braille and large print labels and soundsticks which provide audio descriptions. Museum tours are by appointment only, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can be scheduled by calling Kathe Archibald at 215-877-0313, ext 264.

For more information, visit the Overbrook School for the Blind online at www.obs.org .