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.


Where is the Line between Inspiration and Inspiration Porn?

Image caption: Black background with white words reading “Where is the line between” and the word “inspiration” in green and “inspiration porn” in red. Below left is a photo of the Capitol Crawl. Lower right is a photo of Oscar Pistorius and a little girl with prostheses, with overlaying text that reads, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

I post a lot of disability-related content on my personal facebook page. In fact, if I’m not posting cute photos of my pets–they’re just so darn adorable!–then I’m probably posting about disability. I rarely get any “likes” for these posts, but I continue to post this content on the off chance that someone will read it and learn something, in addition to the obvious fact that I find it interesting myself.

Recently, I spoke with a good friend of ours who likes to give me a hard time, but has a genuinely good soul. Out of the blue, he brought up “inspiration porn” and recalled a post I had shared a while ago defining the term in relation to some news story. At first, I was a little shocked that he read the post, much less remembered it and the definition of “inspiration porn.” On one hand, this reinforced my belief that social media and advocacy can have an impact, even in a small way.

But, he did have a concern, one I believe he shares with many other nondisabled people. “Where is the line between ‘inspiring’ and ‘inspiration porn’?” he asked. He said he wanted to treat people with disabilities the right way, and have the right attitude about disability, but he was sometimes unsure of the difference between the two.

I told him that, generally, inspiration porn consists of nondisabled people showcasing or exhibiting a disabled person doing something mundane or otherwise unexceptional for the purpose of “inspiring” other nondisabled people and making them feel better about themselves and their lives.

For example:

These examples, in addition to the photo of the little girl above, are pretty much self-explanatory. People eat all the time–why should a person with a disability ingesting nutrients be inspiring? The boy in the Super Bowl ad was playing and having a good time…like any other boy his age would be doing. There are thousands of blind parents in this country who have successfully raised children. Millions of people are parents, but you don’t see their stories make it to USA Today. People with disabilities doing everyday activities should not be inspiring. And then there’s the little girl in the yellow dress. She’s definitely cute, there’s no arguing that. Nondisabled people see this and think, “She’s still smiling and she has no legs. If I had no legs, I’d wish to be dead, or at least stay in my house for the rest of my miserable life. She’s so inspiring!” In actuality, she’s just being a happy little girl. And the quote. As Stella Young pointed out, the cliche “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” is such bologna. To paraphrase her, smiling at stairs never made a ramp appear. This image appropriates the girl’s personality and experiences solely to make us pity her and feel better about ourselves.

The photo to the left of the little girl shows people with disabilities crawling up the Capitol steps as part of a protest for accessibility. To me, this image is inspiring because these people went above and beyond for a cause they felt strongly about. These activists helped create real, meaningful change that has enhanced the lives of countless people.

Not all images or news stories about disability are this straightforward. Sometimes, the line between a genuinely inspiring story and inspiration porn can get pretty fuzzy.

Erik Weihenmayer is an athlete and adventurer who has climbed to the peak of Mt. Everest, among other accomplishments. For me, his climbing one of the tallest mountains in the world is inspiring–if a little nuts. The fact that he is blind has little to do with it. On the other hand, some would argue that his schtick of overcoming adversity, combined with the fact that he is by no means the only person to ever climb Everest and only gets attention because he’s blind, makes him and his adventures inspiration porn.

A teenage boy who is going blind recently appeared on America’s Got Talent to showcase his dancing skills, which were pretty sweet, I might add. It is fairly easy to discern that the show objectified him, focusing as much, if not more, on his disability than on his dancing. But how should the average viewer react to this? I thought his dancing was pretty cool, and it was admittedly inspiring. I mean, for a teenager to receive life-altering news and keep doing what he loves is admirable. Not everyone would react the same way. Yet, I could easily be accused of being ableist for this view.

As a disability advocate, I am aware of my own internalized ableism. I’m also sensitive to the dos and don’ts of portraying disability. I could sit here all day and philosophize about what makes something truly inspiring versus faux inspiration.

But what about my nondisabled friend and others like him, who mean well but aren’t entirely sure where that line is? I usually hate the phrase “S/he means well” as it generally is given as an excuse when a disabled person takes offense after an ableist action. “Don’t be so sensitive. He meant well.” As if that makes it OK to treat people with disabilities as inferiors. However, some people really do mean well and they honestly want to have the right perspective and act in the right ways.

If a disabled person is being displayed, exhibited really, for doing an everyday activity–parenting, eating, or even graduating high school–then this is most assuredly inspiration porn.

As for those less outrageously egregious, less obvious instances, I don’t have all the answers. And if I, a person with a disability, am unsure about some things, imagine how unsure a nondisabled person can be when it comes to this issue. Let’s keep that in mind when we advocate.

Do you have any examples or thoughts on less obvious instances of inspiration or inspiration porn? Share in the comments!

A Brief History of Marriage (in)Equality for People with Disabilities

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court passed down a ruling which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Celebrations erupted everywhere, and everyone changed their Facebook profile pictures to rainbows. The decision was heralded as finally bringing full marriage equality to the U.S. Although overjoyed for the LGBT community, many people with disabilities know that it is not full marriage equality until people with disabilities can marry without restrictions or penalties.

It is important to put the current discussion of marriage equality, and especially marriage equality for people with disabilities, in historical context. Continue reading A Brief History of Marriage (in)Equality for People with Disabilities