By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Although his name is not widely known today, Samuel Gridley Howe was a bold, 19th-century activist who fought for a wide range of social causes. During his lifetime, he worked to abolish slavery, to protect the mentally ill, and to improve the American prison system. A man of great passion and conviction. Howe pursued each cause with energy and enthusiasm. But he made his biggest impact in the field of education, where he was an outspoken advocate for the rights of students who were blind and/or disabled.
As an educator and reformer, Howe’s main goal was to empower disabled students so they could lead independent, fulfilling, and productive lives. Over the years, Howe established a number of schools that were specifically designed to educate disabled students and to successfully integrate them into society. Throughout his career he insisted that his disabled students be treated not with pity, but as promising young academics who could achieve anything they put their minds to. In many ways, he was a visionary leader, whose ideas were ahead of his time.
While Howe fought for the rights of all students with disabilities, he was especially concerned about students who were blind. As he worked with these students, he struggled to find new ways to help them learn to read and write. Eventually, he invented a “raised-print” system that enabled them to read using their fingers (a precursor to the Braille method that later replaced it). This innovative technique dramatically improved their capacity for independent learning.
By all accounts, Samuel Gridley Howe was a bright, caring, and compassionate man who was eager to help all those who had been marginalized by society. Today, over one hundred years later, Howe is considered the father of the Disability Rights Movement, a worldwide social movement that fights to equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. In many ways, Howe’s ground-breaking methods are still being utilized today, and his visionary ideas about integrating disabled people into society remains both innovative and far-reaching.
WAR AND HEALING
Samuel Gridley Howe was born on November 10, 1801 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Joseph Neals Howe, was a successful ship-owner and cordage manufacturer, and his mother, Patricia Gridley Howe, was a proud homemaker. As a child, Howe was an especially good student, and he attended Boston Latin School, the oldest school in America (founded in 1635). Although he did well in his studies, he was often treated cruelly by some of the other students, leaving him with few fond memories of his early school days.
With a strong record of academic success, Howe went to Brown University in 1818. There, he turned the tables and became something of a practical joker, pulling pranks on his fellow students. Later in life, he wrote that he regretted his behavior and wished that he had applied himself more to his studies. Nevertheless, after graduating in 1821, his grades were sufficient enough that he was accepted into Harvard Medical School, where he earned a medical degree in 1824 at the age of twenty-three.
Upon graduation, however, Samuel Gridley Howe decided to leave his home state of Massachusetts. After learning about the Greek War of Independence, he was drawn to the cause and was eager to help out. In 1824, Howe left the U.S. and went overseas to help the Greek revolutionaries in their efforts to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire. As a certified physician and surgeon, his skills were welcomed and put to good use. But Howe’s involvement wasn’t confined to just a medical one; he became a respected commander whose bravery and enthusiasm were admired by his troops.
Before the war had ended, however, Samuel Gridley Howe had returned to America in 1827. His commitment to the cause didn’t end there, however. Once home, he worked hard to raise funds and gather supplies to distribute to the Greeks, so he could continue to help them in their struggle. He even wrote a well-received book about the war called “Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution” (1828).
A SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND
In 1831 Howe received an unexpected offer. He was approached by a friend, Dr. John Dix Fisher, with an offer to run a new institute to educate the blind. Although Howe knew very little about blindness or the struggles of blind students, he was quick to accept the offer. Shortly afterwards, the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind appointed him as its director. To give himself a quick education, Howe sailed back to Europe to study the issue at several schools established for the blind. There, he compared the different educational approaches that were used and examined the diverse ways that schools physically accommodated the needs of the visually impaired.
But life was never simple for Samuel Gridley Howe. While in Europe, he learned about Poland’s uprising against the Russian Empire. Always a champion for the underdog, Howe was soon helping the Polish revolutionaries in their struggle for independence. On a mission to distribute supplies and funds to important contacts, including officers, Howe was arrested and imprisoned by Russian officials. Fortunately, he managed to destroy or hide discriminating letters to Polish officers, and after five weeks, thanks to intervention from the U.S. government, he was released and returned to his original mission: studying schools for the blind.
In 1832, Howe returned to the United States, where he oversaw the official opening of the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind. Although he felt that he had learned some valuable lessons in Europe, he was determined to avoid their tendency to overprotect the blind and treat them as objects of pity. Howe felt that, with the proper education and guidance, the blind could be industrious and independent members of society. “Obstacles,” he asserted, “are things to be overcome.”
“Obstacles are things to be overcome.”
Dr. Fisher’s school, however, had no buildings associated with the institute as of yet, so Howe used his father’s home as a meeting place for the time being. Within a month, he had enrolled six students, ranging in age from six to twenty. Despite his limited experience, Howe was quite successful in teaching his students, and he began to develop a reputation for his talents. However, within a year, Howe had run out of funds. And as the student body continued to grow, he realized he needed financial backing.
The board of trustees was impressed with Howe’s progress with the students, so they increased his funding up to $30,000 a year. Not long after, Thomas H. Perkins, a wealthy member of the board stepped in and offered his mansion as a new location. The school moved to Perkins’ home in 1839 and changed its name to the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where Howe continued his pioneering work. Later, in 1877, the school would once again alter its name to become simply, “Perkins School for the Blind.”
HELPING THE BLIND
During his first few years as director of the Perkins Institute, Samuel Gridley Howe accomplished a great deal. One of his major successes was developing a new system of “raised” letters, by which the blind could learn the alphabet and, thereby, learn to read and write – simply by touching the page with their fingertips. First known as the “Howe type,” it was later changed to “Boston Line Type” and was instrumental in the development of Braille (invented by Louis Braille), which later became the modern standard for educating the blind.
In addition to running the Perkins Institute, Howe travelled to many other states, including Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, where he established additional schools. Furthermore, he opened up the first printing-office in the U.S. that printed material specifically for the blind using his “raised-letter” system. Under his guidance, the Perkins Institute became one of America’s leading centers for philanthropy. Over time, he received increasing financial support. The school soon became famous throughout the nation due to newspaper reports and magazine articles, as well as public exhibitions displaying how successful the students were at reading and music.
In 1837, Howe’s most famous student was admitted into the school. Laura Bridgman was a young girl who was not only blind, but had become deaf as well from contracting scarlet fever at the age of two. Howe’s successful experimental work with Bridgman would later bring him to the attention of the entire world. Under his direction, Bridgman learned to use her sense of touch to recognize letters of the alphabet and to effectively communicate with others. In 1842, English novelist Charles Dickens observed Bridgman, and found her progress so impressive that he later recounted his experience in one of his books, “American Notes” (1842). In fact, Howe was so successful with Bridgman that she later became a teacher at the institute.
Although the tendency in the United States had been to isolate disabled people and keep them hidden from the public, attitudes began to change rapidly, thanks to Howe and the Perkins Institute. Over time, a growing number of businesses and political leaders began to provide the disabled with new ways of participating in society and everyday life. It was the beginning of a model of treatment and transparency that still exists and thrives today.
CHAMPIONING OTHER CAUSES
Samuel Gridley Howe’s fiery passion for helping others, especially children, was not limited to working with the blind and the physically disabled. He also helped establish schools for children with cognitive disabilities, and advocated for better treatment of the mentally ill. Through newspaper articles, Howe called public attention to the inhumane conditions of mentally ill people held in the state’s local almshouses and jails. Urging Americans to draw upon their compassion, he fought for a cleaner, healthier and more civilized environment.
In addition, Howe advocated for an improved public school system, defending the belief that students would achieve greater learning if schools applied a system of patience and sympathetic guidance, rather than one of threats and corporal punishment. He also called for major prison reforms and worked hard to see a system of humaneness and civility brought about. In 1847, Howe became an active member of the Boston Society for Aiding Discharged Criminals, believing they had a right to have an opportunity to a fresh start in life once their debt to society had been payed.
A bold defender of human dignity, Howe also became involved in one of the greatest social movements of his era – the push to abolish slavery. With his dedication to human rights for all, Howe was an adamant abolitionist. In 1846, he ran for office as a U.S Representative in the hopes of influencing the government to abolish slavery once and for all. However, Samuel Gridley Howe was not a savvy politician, and his efforts to win public office were ultimately unsuccessful. Undaunted by his loss, he continued to fight for the abolitionist cause.
In 1850 he was involved in an organized attempt to free Anthony Burns, a runaway slave who had been recaptured and imprisoned. For a short time, Burns was held in a federal facility, while plans were put in place to send him back to his plantation in Virginia. While Burns awaited his fate, Howe and several abolitionists stormed the building, hoping to set him free. As they rushed in, Howe declared: “No man’s freedom is safe until all men are free.” Unfortunately, federal troops prevented Howe and his colleagues from achieving their goal, and Burns was later sent back to Virginia. Nevertheless, Howe remained undeterred and committed to the cause; and his battle to eliminate slavery in America was only beginning.
A year later, Samuel Gridley Howe started and ran an anti-slavery newspaper called the Boston Daily Commonwealth, which he edited from 1851 to 1853. During this time, he was also an important member of the Kansas Committee, an organization that fought for the freedom of slaves. Howe’s anti-slavery stance became more heated when he decided to financially support the fiery approach of John Brown, a strict abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery. When Brown was arrested for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Howe temporarily fled the country to Canada to avoid prosecution.
Samuel Gridley Howe eventually returned to the U.S., however, and continued his anti-slavery campaign. In 1863, with the Civil War fully underway, Howe was appointed to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, a government department established by the north to investigate the status of slaves and former slaves who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As part of his work, Howe travelled to the American south, as well as Canada, where he gathered all the information he needed to write an in-depth and comprehensive report on the progress of freed slaves. Eventually, his report was submitted to congress as official documentation to help make the transition from slavery to freedom as peaceful and smooth as possible.
At the end of the war (1865), Howe became a member of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency of the U.S. Department of War created to give provisions, clothing, and fuel, as well as temporary shelter to the suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children. Howe remained committed to the cause until his last days.
LEGACY AND PASSING
Although Howe was heavily engaged in anti-slavery activism during this time, he continued to fight for other causes as well. In 1863, Howe founded the State Board of Charities of Massachusetts (SBCM), a body of state legislators that oversaw institutions assisting immigrants and the poor, as well as the state’s charitable and correctional institutions. It was the first board of its kind in the U.S. Over the next nine years Howe also tirelessly lobbied Congress to pass legislation to provide more aid for the education of the blind, deaf and mentally ill. He served as SBCM chairman until 1874 before finally stepping down at the age of 73.
As Samuel Howe began to advance in years, his health began to suffer. In 1875, his health took a major turn for the worse. Then, on January 9th 1876, Samuel Gridley Howe passed away on from a brain tumor. Julia Ward, his wife of over thirty years, carried on his campaign for human rights for the disabled, freed slaves and others for another thirty years until her death.
Throughout the better part of his life, Howe remained socially and politically active right up until his passing, fighting for decades for justice, freedom and social reform in the United States and abroad. But his greatest achievement was in teaching the blind and disabled, and encouraging their inclusion in society. While others at the time felt the disabled and, especially, the mentally ill should remain in institutions, Howe insisted that the disabled had the same rights as others, and that segregating them from society would be detrimental to their health and development.
Samuel Gridley Howe has rightly been called the most significant and visionary figure in the American history of special education. His efforts to help society understand that the blind, deaf and others with disabilities were not inferior, but simply challenged in different ways, helped shape the modern, more sympathetic worldview we embrace today. Howe championed the right of all people to be welcome into society and be treated as equals, and to be accepted based on their abilities, not their disabilities.