Samuel Gridley Howe’s Thoughts on Blind Marriages

Nineteenth century reformer Samuel Gridley Howe is one of the world’s most famous educators of people who are blind. He was one of the first men in the United States to publicly advocate for the education of people who were blind. He also devised a way to communicate with Laura Bridgman, who was deaf-blind. The Perkins School for the Blind, the residential school that Howe pioneered in 1832, blazed a path for dozens of other educational institutions for people who were blind in the United States. In many ways, Howe’s ideas about blind people were revolutionary. In other ways, his beliefs placed him squarely in his own time. Although he lived and died before the heyday of eugenics in America,  his discussions of the marriage and intermarriage of people who were blind illuminate these proto-eugenic ideas.

Early on in Howe’s tenure as director, his views on the marriage of blind people became known. His first student, Thomas Takes, married a sighted woman. Howe believed this kind of marriage was acceptable because it would dilute the hereditary blindness in the next generation. Furthermore, Howe was more amenable to the idea of a blind man marrying than he was to a blind woman marrying. Soon thereafter, Sarah Clough and Charles Morrill, both students, wished to wed. Howe strongly opposed this union, fearing that the couple would pass on their blindness to their offspring and successive generations. He eventually gave up after numerous attempts at blocking the nuptials failed.[1]

Howe’s views on preventing the transmission of blindness to the next generation through the separation of the sexes foreshadowed later eugenic concerns about the intermingling and reproduction of “defectives.” He, like blindness professionals for generations after him, believed that separation of the sexes was an integral duty of schools as a means to prevent intermarriages and therefore to prevent more children born blind. In 1849, he set forth his opinion on the separation of the sexes:

There must be a separation of the sexes.  Surely, little need be said to prove this. In view of the present condition of society, and in view of the various objections to intermarriage among blind persons, it seems to be an imperative necessity.  I am aware that there is a difference of opinion among intelligent managers of similar public establishments with respect to the necessity of a separation of the sexes.  Waiving, however, all arguments respecting the best mode of preserving a healthy state of feeling among the inmates, whether by entire separation or moderate indulgence in each other’s society, I maintain, that, in the case of the blind, and all those who have a marked hereditary tendency to a physical infirmity, there is a stern moral duty to use every precaution against a perpetuation of such tendency through successive generations. Marriage in cases where one of the parties has such hereditary predisposition is generally unwise, often wrong: intermarriage between two persons so predisposed is always wrong, very wrong. . . This is a most unpopular doctrine to preach; it is an odious one to enforce in practice; but no one fully impressed with respect for the immutable will of God, as manifested in his natural laws, can hesitate between incurring the odium and doing the wrong.[2]

He argued that blind people themselves disapproved of intermarriage. As will be shown, there is some truth to this statement. However, two sentences later, Howe notes that other professionals do not agree with this policy, and he wished to waive all arguments concerning the contentedness of the students. This seems to be in direct contrast to his assertion that blind people themselves did not favor intermarriage. If they did not favor intermarriage as completely as Howe seems to say, then blindness professionals and students would not argue that separation of the sexes is not good for the happiness of the students. He even went so far as to say that two blind people who married each other were “authors” of their child’s blindness as if they had “gouged eyes out after they were born.”[3]

Around 1858, Howe began showing less confidence in the success of his attempts to prevent the marriages of blind people. In that year’s Annual Report, Howe noted that, despite his efforts, his students still married anyway. He wrote that, like “common marriages,” blind marriages result from “propinquity in time and space.”[4]  Along these lines, Howe recommended separation from each other, but integration with the community, in his address to the New York State Institution for the Blind on the opening of their new school in Batavia, New York. He told the audience that congregating blind people together was unwise, and that the best course of action was to let blind students interact with the broader community, but still keep a separation of the sexes within the school.[5] Two years later, in 1868, he stated that the sexes should be in two entirely separate buildings, “out of ear shot of each other.”[6] Although it is a myth that all people who are blind have exceedingly good hearing, many people who are blind, though they may not have medically better hearing, are more aware of sounds around them. Howe wished to keep blind boys and blind girls completely unaware of each other’s presence.

In 1874, two years before Howe’s death, his belief in the separation of the sexes still held firm, but his opinions on the marriages of blind people to sighted people had shifted. Howe formerly thought that people who were blind should “crucify themselves, and abstain from marriage.” However, due to “reflection and experience,” he understood that, although some people are “heroes,” most are not and would marry.[7] The sexes should still be separated, he maintained, but students should be allowed to make acquaintance with “ordinary” youth to promote “favorable marriages.”[8]

Howe’s contributions to blindness education cannot be denied. However, as with any famous historical figure, to understand the person, you must understand all aspects of that person’s thinking–the good, the bad, and the ugly.  His belief in the harmful consequences of blind marriages were not uncommon in his day. In fact, this belief was common into the middle of the 20th century. The sad part is that some people today still believe that blind people should not get married at all, or should at least not have children.


Taken from pages 18-23 of “Love is Not Blind: Eugenics, Blindness, and Marriage in the United States, 1840-1940” by Marissa Stalvey (me), ©2014, University of Toledo.

[1] James W. Trent, The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 62-63.

[2] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 17 (1849), 20. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[3] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 16 (1848), 50. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[4] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, 1858, 15.

[5] Samuel G. Howe, “Address to the New York State Institution for the Blind,” September 6, 1866. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[6] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 37 (1868), 9-10. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[7] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 43 (1874), 106. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[8] Ibid., 111.

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8 Awesome Museums with “Touch Tours” for Visitors who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Many people who are blind and visually impaired are not fans of museums because the experience is very dependent on vision. Recently though, museums have begun to realize the benefits of increasing accessibility for people who are blind and visually impaired and other people with disabilities. “Touch Tours” are one way museums can enhance the experience for blind visitors. These tours are usually led by trained staff members who give extensive audio descriptions of the exhibits, and allow visitors to touch original pieces and representative models. Spain’s Museo del Prado has been making headlines for its new tours for visually impaired visitors.

Here are 8 cool US museums with “touch tours”:

1. Birmingham Museum of Art

two visitors touching art Credit: Birmingham Museum of Art

The Birmingham Museum of Art features over 26,000 works of art dating from ancient to modern times, and includes a 30,000 sq. ft. sculpture garden. The Museum offers a “Visually Impaired Program” featuring audio description, touchable original pieces and models, related music, and art-making for a full, multi-sensory experience. Drop-in tours focus on a specific aspect of the exhibits and topics change each month.

Price: Free
Times: 2nd Saturday each month at 10am, the 4th Wednesday each month at 1pm, and by reservation with 3 weeks notice
Contact: 205.254.2964

2. American Museum of Natural History

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Founded in 1869, “the Museum is renowned for its exhibitions and scientific collections, which serve as a field guide to the entire planet and present a panorama of the world’s cultures.” Permanent exhibits feature dinosaur fossils like the one pictured above, rare gems and minerals, ocean life, and much more. The museum offers “Science Sense Tours” for visitors who are blind. Visitors will explore specific exhibit themes through touch and verbal descriptions.

Cost: Regular admission
Times: Monthly (upcoming dates listed on tour page), by appointment with 2 weeks advance notice
Contact: (212)313-7565 or email accessibility@amnh.org

3. San Antonio Museum of Art

Street view of San Antonio Museum of Art Credit: TripAdvisor

The San Antonio Art Museum holds a vast collection of art from the Americas, including pre-Colombian art and a collection of Latin American Folk Art. It also has a huge collection of Chinese ceramics and art from the ancient Mediterranean world. The Museum offers guided tours of the galleries, and includes touch, verbal descriptions, sounds, and even smells!

Cost: regular admission
Times: 10 am the first Saturday of each month, or by appointment
Contact: (210) 978-8138 or email tours@samuseum.org

4. The Walters Art Museum

Inside the Walters Art Museum Credit: TripAdvisor

According to its website, “The Walters Art Museum is one of only a few museums in the world to present a panorama of art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century. The thousands of treasures range from mummies to arms and armor, from old master paintings to Art Nouveau jewelry…Renaissance and Asian art and a spectacular reserve of illuminated manuscripts and rare books.” Located in Baltimore, MD, the museum offers Touch Tours to groups of 5 to 15 blind or visually impaired people. Tours focus on sculptures, but may also incorporate verbal descriptions of various related paintings and other art.

Price: Free
Times: By appointment only, must give 3 weeks advanced notice
Contact: John Shields, Manager of Docent Programs, at 410-547-9000, ext 235 or register online

5. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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Known worldwide for its collection of Asian, European, and American art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, located in Kansas City, offers a tactile tour exploring contemporary art.

Price: Free
Times: Only by appointment to organizations or groups with blind members, maximum size of 9
Contact: Sign-up Online for an Adult Tour or call 816.751.1278

6. The Columbus Museum

Inside of Columbus Museum Credit: visitcolumbusga.com

The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia is a regional art and history museum, one of the largest in the Southeast. The museum offers a Touch Tour, which explores areas of the permanent collection, including the tactile exploration of 3D models based on 2D paintings. Music is also incorporated in these tours.

Price: Free
Times:
By appointment only
Contact:
 edu@columbusmuseum.com

7. Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum

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The Intrepid Museum is comprised of the World War II-era Intrepid aircraft carrier, the space shuttle Enterprise, the Growler submarine, and the British Airways Concorde plane. Definitely a place to visit for science and history nerds! The museum offers guided touch tours of aircraft, models, and tactile images.

Price: regular admission
Times: By appointment only, with 2 weeks notice
Contact: access@intrepidmuseum.org or 646-381-5182

8. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

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The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum collects and exhibits the history of the Holocaust, from the Nazis’ rise to power, through World War II, and its aftermath. The Guided Highlights Tour, 2 to 3 hours long, features “visually descriptive language, touchable reproductions of several key artifacts, and a model of the Museum. It also provides visitors with a variety of visual aids, including a monocular, flashlights, and high-contrast black-and-white photographs.”

Cost: Free
Times:
By appointment, recommended to start between 9:30am and 1pm
Contact:
GHT@ushmm.org, Online form, 202. 488.6100

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Have you been on any Touch Tours that you recommend?

The New $10 Bill: Will It Be Accessible?

Front face of US $10 billThe U.S. Treasury announced last week that the new $10 bill, to be released  in 2020, will feature a woman. This is fantastic news! The other great thing about the bill is its potential accessibility to people who are blind and visually impaired. Continue reading The New $10 Bill: Will It Be Accessible?