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A Tale In Education: The Worlds First Blind School

By Ciara Griffiths

The focus of this year’s UK Disability History Month is Children and Youth. To quote from UKDHM’s Website: 
‘This Autumn 2023 UKDHM focusses on the Experience of Disablement amongst children and young people in the past, now and what is needed for the future.’
To commemorate International Day of Education, I wrote a short post for BucksVision’s Instagram about the importance of education. I have also written extensively on my experience of studying at university as a disabled student. I began this series with Edward Rushton, the founder of the first blind school in Britain. However, while his school was the first of its kind in Britain, it was not the first of its kind in the world. That title goes to the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. So, to wrap up this year’s UKDHM, I feel it appropriate to tell the story of this school. 

The eighteenth century saw a rise in education for the disabled: Thomas Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Edinburgh, the Public Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb founded by his nephew. Edward Rushton’s Royal Blind School in Liverpool and Valentin Haüy’s Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. Braidwood and Rushton have been characters in my previous articles, so now it is time for Haüy.
In the late 1740s the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who we met in a previous article and who was also the protagonist of a short story I wrote for this blog, wrote two essays which stimulated an interest in the disabled. Letter on the Blind and Letter on the Deaf and Dumb. These texts proved disability had a place in philosophical discourse. Other philosophers such as John Locke and William Molyneux also featured blind thought experiments in their philosophies. The Enlightenment (generally dated 1660-1815) saw a separation from Church and State. The new scientific establishments, such as the Royal Society in Great Britain and the Academy of Sciences in France, stressed the importance of proven sense experience and experimentation, a key movement in the Enlightenment, which was why society was generally becoming less religious. As a result, attitudes towards disability, previously viewed as divine punishment, shifted. The Augustinian view that disability was the result of Original Sin and the Aristotelian view that the deaf lacked reason because they were unable to learn through sense experience were seen as outdated and ill-informed. Combine this with an interest in education, stemming from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, society’s attitude towards disability was on the long road of reform. 

Valentin Haüy was born in 1745, the son of a religious weaver. Young Valentin was educated in his local abbey, learning calligraphy, history, and able to speak ten languages. His extensive knowledge of languages enabled him to find work as the Royal Interpreter. In 1771, he encountered a group of blind street musicians from the poorhouse. They were made to dress in ridiculous and humiliating costumes which subjected them to mockery. Haüy was struck by how the blind were treated in this instance, but also by how well they played. How they were able to use their other senses to go about their daily lives. Were the blind to be restricted to desperate street performers and subjects for humiliation? The problem, which he vowed to solve, lay in the lack of education for the blind. 
The curriculum would include history, mathematics, languages and music. I have frequently written of music was deemed a respectable career for the blind. Haüy believed this too, prioritizing music in the curriculum. To introduce the blind to working life, the curriculum also included opportunities in bookbinding, weaving, shoemaking and printing. Printing was regarded as a tactile task which could help blind children to read. Haüy adopted a system of raised tactile letters, an expensive precursor to braille. The main problem with this, aside from the printing cost, was that the books would be huge, printed in multiple volumes, and very heavy. The letters would be so big that one word could occupy three lines. In short, not very convenient, but commended by the Academy of Sciences. Louis XVI granted his royal assent in 1786 and provided funding for more than one hundred students. It was now the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. 
Students would rise at 5am, wash and do chores around the school, attend a church service which would be followed by breakfast, lessons until lunch with an hour’s break before dinner, ending with bed at 10pm. 

It was renamed the National Institute following the outbreak of the French Revolution and the abolition of the monarchy. Haüy’s connection with the King did land him in some political trouble and he was arrested under suspicion of being an enemy of the Republic and a royalist spy, but the National Convention (the government of the French Revolution) understood the importance of blind education and addressing issues of injustice. There was also pressure from the students and alumni to keep the school running. 
Sebastien Guillié was appointed director in 1815 and insisted on tight discipline and order. He cut back on Haüy’s focus on the arts and instead insisted on a more academic curriculum. That order would be tested in 1819 at the admission of the school’s most famous pupil. 

Blinded aged three, Braille entered the school in 1819. The school would later be condemned by inspectors as unhygienic, leading to building reforms in the 1820s-30s. These were obvious problems for the school, but the problem Braille identified was with the system that taught blind students to read. Haüy’s method was expensive and inconvenient and Charles Barbier’s ‘night writing’ system was too complicated. Barbier was a former artillery officer who had designed a system for soldiers to read orders in the dark. He had previously written to the Institute about his system and was accepted a second time by Guillié. Barbier’s night writing lacked punctuation and there were no capital letters, making it difficult to read. It could not be used for music scores, which was a major setback as Haüy had wanted his students to learn music. Braille adapted the system to include punctuation, capital letters and musical notation. It was simpler and quicker to read and write, took up less space and was less confusing. However, Guillié was set in his ways and did not accept Braille’s system, even dismissing a headmaster who tried to integrate it into the curriculum. The thought of a blind boy challenging the sighted education authority did not sit well with people either. Braille would not achieve international recognition until after his death. It was not until 1878 when Paris declared it the writing system for the blind. The first braille publishing house was not founded in England until 1870. 

Further changes continued to be made to the school, such as the introduction of organ and piano-tuning classes in the 1820s, building changes to allow for more movement, the construction of a gymnasium, the introduction of physical education, and regular inspections. The school went from a weaver’s son’s experiment to a world-renowned institution. An institution that saw the birth of a system that is an everyday part of visually impaired people’s lives today. 

Why is any of this important? This year, UKDHM seeks to shed light on how disability has affected the young. Haüy’s school was founded in 1784, Braidwood’s in 1760 and Rushton’s in 1791. While that may seem fairly recent in terms of history, it is important to consider those years when no schools like these existed. In Braidwood’s case, it is also important to note that some of these institutions, or private tutors,  were only accessible to the wealthy. We must also consider the fact that some were left destitute on the streets like the musicians Haüy saw in Paris, where they might never have the chance for proper education. 
I know these are not nice thoughts, but they are the truth. They serve as a reminder of how far we have come, or if we have come far enough. I began writing historical articles in 2021 and have learnt so much. My research has given me the strength to carry on, knowing that I and people like me are not alone because people with visual impairment have lived successful, adventurous lives throughout history. While they have been fascinating, it is also important to highlight the people like Thomas Braidwood, the Enlightenment philosophers, Edward Rushton and Valentin Haüy who made the change in attitude towards disability and education possible. 


Barlow, V. (1952) The Centenary of Braille. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts Vol. 100 pp 707-718. 

Gottlieb, A. (2016) Dream of Enlightenment. Penguin Books Ltd. London, Great Britain 

Park, S. (2018) Designing for Disability in 19th-Century Paris. Log No. 42 pp 80-90. Anyone Corporation 

Weiner, D. B. (1974) The Blind Man and the French Revolution. Bulletin of History of Medicine Vol. 48 No. 1. John Hopkins University Press.