Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School
For over 150 years, a small school in Vinton, Iowa, has helped Iowa's blind community further achieve equality through education. In 2011 it closed its doors, but the institution's impact has been far-reaching for its former students and the state of Iowa.
Narrator: In early February of 1925, the American Foundation for the Blind brought author, activist and lecturer Helen Keller to advocate on behalf of the blind community in Iowa.
Miss Keller, her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, and Charles B. Hayes, the director of the American Foundation for the Blind, appeared before the legislature on behalf of a bill introduced by Iowa Senator White of Tama County.
The bill would create a state committee to supervise in training and educating Iowa's blind.
And on April 2, 1925, the Iowa Commission for the Blind was established.
It was a continued step in helping Iowa's blind community achieve equality through employment and education.
But the establishment of the commission was just a small part of Iowa's history in providing equal education for the blind.
Julie Piper: I was born in Carroll, and they really don't know the cause of my blindness. My eyes simply didn't develop. They told my parents at the hospital, they told them about a school in Vinton for blind children. They came to our very remote farm in western Iowa and established contact. And shortly after that, when I was two and a half, my parents decided to move to Vinton.
Narrator: This was the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, originally known as the Iowa College for the Blind. The school was different from a typical institution at the time because students took up residency and lived in Vinton most of the year.
A formal school for Iowa's blind has its origins in Massachusetts. Prior to the 19th century, few efforts were made to help improve the welfare and condition of the blind in the United States. And for many people with visual impairments, the barriers often restricted educational opportunities. But starting in the early 1800s, socially progressive movements began to take hold. In March of 1829, the New England Asylum for the Blind would open. It would later be called the Perkins School, and it was the first of its kind in the country.
Soon after, institutions began to pop up all over the country and in the mid-19th century Iowa's School for the Blind would be established.
Piper: Actually, it was founded in 1852, initially in Keokuk. And a man named Samuel Bacon began the school in his home. One year later, it was moved to Iowa City, where it changed locations two or three times to different houses there as it grew. And then in 1862 this site in Vinton opened.
Narrator: Students not only learned technical and vocational skills, but also took part in a wide ranging, rigorous curriculum.
Piper: Braille literature, civil government, political economics, plane and solid geometry and botany. But the curriculum was of a very high standard. Extremely.
Narrator: Students typically came from Iowa, but blind persons from other Midwestern states attended as well, including the school's most famous resident, Mary Ingles. Mary's sister, Laura, would document her family's story in the Little House on the Prairie series of books.
Piper: I didn't realize how large the population actually was in the early 1900s. It was well over 200 students. But I know that when I was a student and even years prior to that, we had one of the largest libraries for the blind in the country. And Iowa has always been a leader.
Narrator: After the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, changes were made to laws with how blind children would be educated throughout the state. Eventually, enrollment at the school declined, and after 159 years, the school ended operation as a residential institution in 2011.
While the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School no longer operates, the institution's impact is far reaching for its former students and the state of Iowa.
Piper: I guess I would say that Iowa can be extremely proud of what the legislature allowed the school to be in its best days, which I would say were from the time it opened through the 1980s, we were right up there with the Perkins School for the Blind. Best school in the country, as far as I'm concerned.