Blindness affected whole families with hereditary conditions untreated down the generations. For children born today, more is known about early treatments which can prevent sight loss or minimise its effect. Some of the people we spoke to mentioned that their parents, grandparents and even great grandparents had been blind. They knew little of their lives other than that they were hard.
Medical or surgical interventions for blindness were crude and often weakened people who were already vulnerable. However, from 1891, improved living conditions, including clean water, better sanitation, and slum clearance improved life expectancy, together with the efforts of organisations such as Visibility.
Ethel found out she had the same condition as her father.
Jamie B thinks he will be the last in his family to inherit his condition.
Kerrie had a very different experience to her son.
‘How will you manage?’
Sighted people struggle to understand how someone without sight can manage pregnancy and birth, care for a baby or keep track of a lively toddler. Because of this, blind parents are scrutinised far more closely and judged to be unfit more frequently than sighted parents in similar circumstances. This has been true throughout history. The reality is that blind parents use the same strategies any parent uses to help their children grow up safely into healthy, confident adults.
Hazel says that professionals questioned her ability to be a mother.
Kerrie says that the doubts began after her child was born.
Kerrie and Kelly on the challenges of parenthood.
Jamie C recalls his daughter’s new shoes.
The Glasgow Blind Asylum Annual Report of 1913 provided the following ‘Hints to Parents of Blind Children’:
Remember that your child is just an ordinary child – deprived of sight – and treat him accordingly.
Do not make the mistake of imagining that because your child is blind it is necessary or kind to do almost everything for him.
It is positively unkind to bring him up in a helpless manner. Let him learn to wash and dress himself, and to attend to his other personal requirements.
Do not let him feel that his blindness makes him different to other children; but help him to realise that he is just the same they and ‘as good as anybody else’
Do not discuss his blindness in his presence.
Kerrie went through a phase of not wanting to use her white cane.
Annie used to go for high tea at Reid’s beside Buchanan Bus Station.
Margaret and Neil used to meet at Waterloo Bus Station using a special sign.
Eileen says that parents need to encourage blind children to be independent.
Margaret and Neil discuss the importance of encouraging independence.
In 1859, when Visibility set up, women were unequal members of society with limited political and legal rights. They could not vote; they could not own property in their own right; if they had a job, they had to leave it when they got married. This inequality was aggravated by the challenges of visual impairment. It seems that while men who lost their sight were helped to find work to support their families, women in the same circumstances were expected to stay at home with no role in the community.
Segregated from the world (either in their own homes or inside the Blind Asylum), blind women were prevented from forming relationships with men; getting married; having children; or being useful members of society.
Hazel describes women’s treatment in the Blind Asylum.
Find out more about the position of disabled women in this extract from Hazel McFarlane’s 2005 PhD dissertation paper entitled ‘Disabled Women and Socio-spatial Barriers to Motherhood’ [link to PDF]
Margaret R explains that blind women were often hidden away.
Ann recalls that her mother felt she was ‘of no use to anybody’.
From the outset, Visibility employed home teachers to teach blind people to read the bible in order to ‘save souls for Christ’. But the role of home teacher evolved over the next century becoming the forerunner of today’s social worker.
Only men were employed as home teachers until 1864 when Miss Emma Clough was taken on as an ‘experiment’ to see if women could also do the job.
By 1927 there were 12 certified home teachers with five covering Glasgow. By 1942, both blind and sighted people were applying to train and, in that year, 18 students enrolled.
Pictured here is Jimmy Peat, the home teacher for Dumfries and the surrounding areas, walking with his guide dog. Jimmy is looking very smart in shirt and tie, wool overcoat, polished shoes and hat. It must be a cold day as he has his gloves on. His dog is a German Shepherd. Pencil writing on the bottom of the photo says ‘Jimmy Peat, (dog unknown!).
For the early home teacher, ‘there was no school, no classroom and few aids to teaching: simply an invitation to enter the blind person’s home. This liberty enabled the teacher to listen, to observe the home conditions, to offer advice and, where possible, material help to relieve urgent need.’ You can read more about home teachers in this document: The History of the Society for the Blind 1859 – 1989. [link to PDF]
Pictured above is Joan Robertson, the home teacher for Argyllshire. She is about to board the steamer in Oban to visit people living on the islands in the Inner Hebrides. Pencil writing on the top left of the photo says “The wonderful Joan Robertson finally ferried into retirement by the ‘streamlined’ SW dept in 1993″.
Some of the people we spoke to described the value of having home teachers whose role grew from teaching the bible to teaching mobility; advising about household aids; helping with welfare payments: all aspects which improved family circumstances and individual independence.
David M explains the changing role of the home teachers.