“The easiest thing is to teach deafblind children, teaching merely deaf ones is a bit harder, teaching merely blind ones is even harder, but the hardest thing is to teach the ordinary, “normal” ones”, Ivan Sokolyansky (1889-1960), originator of the Russian pedagogy of the deafblind, used to say. However, for centuries teaching the deafblind anything was believed to be impossible. Even in the late 18th century, at the Age of Enlightenment, a deafblind English boy James Mitchell was declared incapable of learning anything by a board consisting of the best scientists and doctors of England.
The first successful cases of educating deafblind children became known only in the 19th century. The first person to prove the possibility of teaching the deafblind was American doctor and educator Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876). He founded a school for the blind in Boston that later became known as the Perkins Institution. In 1837 at the age of about eight a deafblind girl Laura Bridgman (1829-1889) began her education under Howe’s direction. Howe attached signs with names to various objects, and the signs were made using the embossed font of his own invention. He was trying to establish the link between an object and the word denoting it in the mind of his student based on tactile perception. He combined the embossed alphabet for the blind with the finger-spelling alphabet for the deaf-mute, thus creating the tools for teaching the deafblind. Laura Bridgman learned how to read and write; her vocabulary in the form of the hand alphabet was, of course, limited, but this first experience broke the prevailing conviction of that period concerning the impossibility of educating the deafblind.
But then a more significant success followed. A teacher from the same Perkins School, Dr. Howe’s student, Anne Sullivan, trained a deafblind girl named Helen Keller (1880-1968). She devoted all her life to working with Helen. While Keller, in her turn, became not only the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor degree, but also a prolific author and a social activist who raised awareness for education and socialization of the disabled and protection of their civil rights. Keller was given one of the two highest civilian awards of the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mark Twain compared her to Joan of Arc and called her one of the most interesting people of her time alongside Napoleon Bonaparte.
But at first it seemed that Helen was completely learning-disabled. She acted up, bit and kicked her teachers and once even knocked out two of her teacher’s teeth. In spite of all the difficulties, her teacher was able to get on Helen’s right side. Sullivan relied on the understanding that normal children learn to speak by imitation, and they usually understand what other people say to them before they begin to talk themselves. “I will speak into her hand just as a mother would speak in her baby’s ear. I will rely on the assumption that she has the same capability to perceive, absorb and imitate as a normal child”, Sullivan thought.
New England Historic Genealogical Society / wikimedia
Helen Adams Keller, American author, lecturer and political activist who lost her hearing and vision at an early age. She became the first ever deafblind person to obtain a higher education and a bachelor degree. In the US Capitol Building there is a bronze statue of Helen Keller, and her childhood home is included in the National Register of Historic Places of the United States. Every year this home hosts the Helen Keller Festival, with a traditional performance of William Gibson’s play “The Miracle Worker” based on Keller’s autobiography. Pictured: young Helen with her teacher Anne Sullivan.
shot from the film The Miracle Worker, 1962
The eponymous film based on “The Miracle Worker” came out in 1962, directed by Arthur Penn. The leading parts were played by the same actresses who were involved in the Broadway production of the play. Both of them won Academy Awards for their performances. Pictured: Helen struggling with her teacher.
In the second half of the 19th century groups for teaching the deafblind started to emerge in various countries: Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, France, England, etc. A rare and interesting case happened in France and was described by teacher of the deafblind Professor Louis Arnould in his book “A Soul in Prison”. Marie Heurtin (1885-1921) became the first deafblind child to be successfully educated in France. Contrary to Bridgman and Keller, both of whom lost their eyesight at an early age, Marie was born deafblind. Marie’s father refused to send his daughter to a mental institution despite being advised so by doctors who thought the girl was intellectually challenged. In 1895 Marie began her education in a special learning group for the deafblind in the Larnay Institution, where she mastered the finger language and the manual speech.
The first successful attempts to teach the deafblind in the Soviet Union are associated with the name of the founder of the deafblind pedagogy Ivan Sokolyansky. In 1923 in Kharkiv a group of deafblind children began their learning. It was here that Olga Skorokhodova (1912-1982), the “Soviet Helen Keller”, appeared. Under Sokolyansky’s supervision she regained speech, and the Professor advised the young girl to make notes about how she was perceiving the world around her. Many years later these notes grew into a voluminous book called “How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the Surrounding World”. The book became widely known. Olga Skorokhodova earned the Candidate of Sciences (Ph.D.) degree and became the only deafblind research fellow in the world (she worked in the Research and Development Institute of Defectology of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR, today called the Institute of Special Needs Education of the Russian Academy of Education).
In 1963 a school for deafblind children was opened in Zagorsk (today called Sergiyev Posad), and its first academic supervisor was Sokolyansky’s apprentice and successor Alexander Mescheryakov. Another person who played an important role in the theoretical conceptualization of the deafblind children’s education system was Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. The key concept in Sokolyansky’s and Mescheryakov’s educational theory was the notion of collaborative-separate controlled activity. Mescheryakov and Ilyenkov illustrated the essence of this activity on an example of spoon-feeding a baby, when the feeder at first has to completely guide the child’s hand. Gradually, whenever it seems that the child is beginning to manage by himself, the educator is supposed to reduce his participation. Mescheryakov demanded that educators and teachers of the Zagorsk school strictly follow this principle.
Psychologist Daniil Elkonin, making a presentation as the reviewer of Mescheryakov’s doctorate thesis, said: «For psychologists and educators the Zagorsk school and orphanage is of the same importance as a proton synchrotron accelerator is for physicists!»
Charles George Herbermann / wikimedia; Nature magazine, 1970, №1
One of the founders of the Soviet theory of educating deafblind children Alexander Mescheryakov with his fosterlings.
Four children from the Zagorsk orphanage participated in an experiment whose goal was to confirm that deafblind people are capable of getting university degrees and do academic research. In 1971 they started their studies at the Faculty of Psychology of Lomonosov Moscow State University.
Yelena Goncharova (head of the Laboratory for Psychological Research of Children and Diagnostics at the Research and Development Institute of Special Needs Education of the Russian Academy of Education) said that “in the beginning laboratory workers had to sit beside every deafblind student during the lectures and finger-spell the lecturer’s words to the palm of their fosterling’s hand. By the end of the day the teachers’ hands would go numb. Then they tried to handle the situation differently. They brought tape recorders to the lectures and then gave the recordings to non-sighted secretaries who transcribed the text in Braille. In such a form the deafblind students were able to read the lecture. Then it got even easier. They began using a teletactor that transformed written texts into Braille. And vice versa: students’ speeches printed in Braille would appear on the teacher’s screen as written texts. Teachers now had an opportunity to communicate with these students directly and even to have seminars and discussions with them. One teletactor could be used by several people at once.”
The experiment was complete. The four deafblind students received their higher education diplomas. Sergei Sirotkin presented his candidate thesis in philosophy and later became the president of the European Deafblind Union and created ‘Elvira’, the society of social assistance to the deafblind. Alexander Suvorov presented his doctoral thesis in psychology, continued his research and teaching career and became the first ever deafblind full professor in the world. Natalia Korneyeva graduated and married a person with normal eyesight and hearing; she then gave birth to two healthy daughters. Yuri Lerner, the oldest of the experiment participants, is no longer alive. He was very passionate about sculpture: at Vostryakovo Cemetery in Moscow there is a statue of Mescheryakov cast after a portrait sculpture made by Yuri.
In 1980 Sokolyansky and Mescheryakov were posthumously awarded the USSR State Prize for the creation of the theoretical system of educating deafblind children.
Sergey Lavrentev / 123rf
The first school for blind children in the world was founded by French educator Valentin Haüy. He funded the school himself and opened it in his own home. The learning was based on a system of embossed linear characters that he had created himself. He taught his very first student using raised wooden characters. Haüy also proposed using a special board which could be used by the blind to write with raised characters on a sheet of paper placed between stretched wires. He was also the first to publish books for the blind. Haüy’s books with embossed linear characters were used by the blind before the emergence and widespread of the Braille system. Haüy’s followers invented a writing system using the same basic principles, more or less copying the letters of the alphabet. For some reason everyone assumed that a writing system for the blind should resemble the writing system for the sighted. Besides, it was easier for sighted teachers that way. This is why at first Braille’s system, that looked nothing like normal characters, was not approved. Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight in childhood, learned using books written with Haüy’s method. “Reading” every letter took several seconds, so by the end of the sentence the reader would often forget what was in the beginning of it. Louis found a faster and easier way of reading. Here is what helped Braille to create his famous system. At that time the French army used the special “night writing” system invented by artillery captain Charles Barbier so that he could read military reports in the dark. The letters were basically holes punched out in a piece of cardboard. This Army code was an impulse that helped Braille to create his system that proved absolutely invaluable. As it turned out, nobody was better at inventing a writing system for the blind than a person with no eyesight.
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