Awakening to Life. Alexander Meshcheryakov 1974
The teaching of deaf-blind children constitutes something in the way of an experiment in the field of psychology and specialised pedagogy. The aim of this experiment is to determine and exploit in practice, by means of special instruction, the potential for developing cognitive functions in children bereft of both sight and hearing and, as a result of their deafness, of speech as well.
Deaf-blindness is, as a rule, the result of an illness, entailing the loss of both sight and hearing. The diseases vary from one child to another, as also does the course the disease takes. In addition, the way of life provided for the child after such an illness varies as well, depending on the attitude adopted to the child’s handicap by the adults in its family: in some families the child is cosseted to an inordinate degree, which serves to hold back its development even more, in others children are trained to become somewhat self-sufficient. This means that no two deaf-blind children are identical in their rate or level of development.
At the same time a certain pattern of development does emerge common to all deaf-blind children.
The main approach used in our work has been clinical study, with the development of an individual child followed over a long period. This method involves charting special features of the activity of the child and describing its relationships with the people around it. Broadly speaking, it should take account of all factors responsible for the fundamental changes taking place in a child’s mind at each new stage of its development.
The investigation embraces three major stages: the conditions obtaining in the period immediately preceding that being studied; analysis of mental changes during the period under investigation; and definition of newly emergent prerequisites for those mental changes, which are to be fundamental to the next period in the child’s development.
The pupils discussed in this book were studied over periods of varying duration. Observation of the development of Julia V., Seryozha S., Yura L., Natasha K., Natalia Sh. began long before a special school for deaf-blind children was opened. The majority of the children referred to have, however, only been studied since they entered the special children’s home in Zagorsk which opened in 1963.
This book does not contain all the data collected, but only such material as is relevant to the overall theme. There is for instance no mention of the problems involved in pursuing the normal school curriculum (it is worthwhile pointing out here that a group of older pupils from the Zagorsk school, after completing their secondary education, went on to graduate from the Psychology Department of Moscow State University).
Here we are dealing mainly with the study of deaf-blind children’s mental development at the initial stage of the formation of human behaviour.
During this initial period of deaf-blind children’s rearing and instruction mental systems are evolved. One is the system of basic human needs motivating behaviour, needs which develop as practical day-to-day skills are acquired; also the first images which regulate actions in regard to objects and which later form a system of thought through image and action, understood as the internalised reflection of the child’s practical functioning. The next important system is thought with the use of signs (gestures and words), understood as the internalised reflection of the child’s practical intercourse with the people around it in conjunction with objects and actions involving the latter.
This mental evolution occurs in the case of deaf-blind children through the appropriate activities performed jointly by pupil and teacher. Thought through image and action ensues as purely physical needs are restructured into human needs, as actions are mastered, which constitute a child’s day-to-day behaviour in a tangible object-environment. This means that the main objective at this stage of a child’s rearing is the moulding of his domestic behaviour and the fostering of self-care skills.
Thought with the use of gestures and words takes shape as children come to master means of communication. The main objective for the teacher at this stage is the fostering of communication activity, which makes the child a part of human society and allows him to assimilate social experience on the basis of sign systems.
In the writing of this book, it became clear that little would be gained from describing the whole course of some one child’s development, since some children attained one new mental capacity most clearly and vividly, and others another. So, in describing one or another stage of development we would take as our example the child in whom the activity in question was most fully developed and in whose behaviour the patterns underlying the activity were manifested most clearly of all.
This book represents a summarisation of the results recorded during the teaching of fifty pupils at the Zagorsk children’s home for the deaf-blind and of an experimental group trained at the Institute for Research into Physical and Mental Handicaps.
However, prior to launching wide-scale research into the development of these children in the course of instruction, a number of practical problems had to be resolved: firstly, deaf-blind children who were educable had to be singled out; secondly, an educational establishment had to be set up to provide special facilities for the care and teaching of the deaf-blind. The third organisational task was the training of teachers and the preparation of teaching material – programmes and aids that would enable the teachers to start teaching deaf-blind children. Information was available about 340 deaf-dumb-and-blind and deaf-blind people, of whom 120 were under the age of twenty. Later it emerged that this number included individuals who were not only deaf and sightless, but also suffered from varying degrees of mental retardation.
It soon became clear that the information we had received concerning the number of deaf-blind subjects was incomplete, however, it allowed us to urge the need of the organisation of a special home, where they could receive specialised tuition. After permission had been obtained, it then became necessary to train teachers for the new school as quickly as possible. Special classes for these teachers were held at the Institute for Research into Physical and Mental Handicaps from August 1962 to May 1963. The lectures for these courses were given by the senior research staff at the Institute.
The Institute’s department for the study and instruction of deaf-blind children prepared essential teaching materials by the beginning of the academic year (Sept. 1, 1963) when studies were due to begin. O.I. Skorokhodova, R.A. Mareyeva, G.V. Vasina and V.A. Vakhtel all played an active part in this preliminary work.
Each day the results obtained in instructing the children were recorded in special registers, and at the end of each school term a detailed progress report was drawn up which was thoroughly analysed. In order to carry out certain parts of the research programme, the pupils were set special subjects for essays, forms were filled in and specially arranged conversations were conducted. Laboratory experiments were set up for more detailed study of certain matters; for example, the building-up of communication by means of word language was investigated in the course of a laboratory experiment involving cyclographic methods evolved by our research team, which enabled us to analyse the perception of language elements both in its “conversational” (or dactylic for the deaf-blind) and written (Braille) forms.
The specific nature of instruction of the deaf-blind, which involves the moulding of the human mind in the course of a specially designed educational programme, makes it possible to formulate and discuss from a novel point of view certain major problems, which go beyond the narrow confines of deaf-blindness, such as the formation of the human personality in ontogenesis, the definition of what the personality entails, the correlation between social and biological factors in the formation of the human mind.
Research into the progress of the deaf-blind is important not only for our understanding of the children under investigation and the proper organisation of their care and instruction, but it also helps us to understand certain patterns of development found in children with normal sight and hearing. The emergence and development of behaviour and mentality in the normal child is not confined to the framework of a specially designed educational programme. The range of factors which influence a child in one way or another and mould its personality is enormous and therefore most difficult for assessment. A child learns a great deal in the context of its everyday life, i.e. without any specially designed process of instruction. A child is not given special instruction in the skills of speech or thought, imagination or perception, but masters them nevertheless.
It is of course impossible to take into account and follow up all the diverse factors in a child’s environment which exert an influence upon him. In order to investigate the significance of any one particular factor it would be necessary to isolate it artificially from the others and keep track of its effect thus isolated. In the usual development of a normal child it is virtually impossible to separate him from the diversity of his environment – such isolation would be technically impossible to provide and impermissible from the educational angle. Indeed, this is why it is so difficult to pinpoint the true significance of one or another particular factor in the usual process of a normal child’s development. The achievement of the fundamental mental milestones, in particular at the initial stage, under ordinary condition proceeds so imperceptibly, that all we are able to see is the end result of the development while the actual process leading up to it escapes us. On the other hand, objective results in the study of behaviour and mentality can only be obtained if the various environmental influences affecting a child have been taken into account.
Highly complex mental functions and processes which emerge in the course of a child’s development, appear simple and ordinary, because they are so familiar and can be observed every day. Not until a particular function is impaired or delayed in its development do we realise how complex it really is.
For a child bereft of sight, hearing and speech, sensitivity to the impact of diverse factors in its environment is curtailed to a catastrophic degree. In the case of the deaf-blind the opportunities offered the researcher for assessing and controlling external influences are so much greater than in normal circumstances, that this control can be extended to virtually all significant factors affecting development. Apart from opportunities to control the external influences the researcher also has the chance to make a most detailed assessment (particularly during the initial stages of development) of all results obtained, i.e. new knowledge and the level of child’s general development. Deaf-blind children develop differently not only from children with normal sight or hearing, but also from children who have one handicap, being deaf or blind.
If a child is born with defective hearing or loses its hearing in early childhood, then he will not learn to speak the natural way, i.e. via imitation. Yet such a child can see. He apprehends gestures visually, he learns to imitate gesticulations. By means of gestures he expresses his desires. His eyes enable him to apprehend the behaviour of the people around him and he begins to imitate them. Then with the help of special methods he can be taught to speak.
If a child is born sightless or loses his sight as a result of an illness in early childhood, then he will of course be robbed of all visual impressions. Yet he is rescued by his hearing: he can hear his mother’s steps as she walks up to him and hear the words she utters. Through his imitation of speech sounds he learns to talk. Speech enables him to extend his opportunities for contact with the people around him. Through this contact a child bereft of sight is able to develop human behaviour patterns and mental capacities.
The situation is quite different for the deaf-blind child. There are two main factors which set apart the deaf-blind child from his normal counterparts.
The first and most obvious is that the deaf-blind child forms all his ideas of the external world by means of touch.
The second less obvious but more important point is that these children are bereft of the usual means of contact with people around them and unless special arrangements for that contact are organised, these children are condemned to a life of complete isolation. This means that their minds cannot develop. Therefore the main difficulty in teaching a deaf-blind child lies in the need for the teacher to take into account the whole wealth and complexity of human behaviour and mentality, and to be able to mould and develop the child’s behaviour and mind using specially elaborated methods.
Professor Sokolyansky summed up the predicament of the deaf-blind child in the following words: “The deaf-blind child possesses a normal brain and the potential for normal mental development. However, while possessing that potential he can never achieve even the most insignificant degree of mental development relying on his own efforts. Without special instruction such a child remains a complete mental cripple for the whole of his life”.
While in the case of normal children much development takes place without special educational intervention or control, for the deaf-blind each mental step forward has to be the specific objective of a specially devised educational process.
While mistakes or oversights committed in the education of an ordinary child can be corrected or compensated for outside school, or in the course of practical experience, such corrections are impossible in the case of deaf-blind children. If a teacher overlooks something in the complex arsenal of the human mind and does not make it the subject of a special teaching task to be achieved through a specific didactic strategy, this means that an aspect of a pupil’s mental potential remains neglected and denied the chance of development. Such omissions cannot but disrupt the harmony of a child’s whole development.
The deaf-blind child is shut off from normal human contact, and this isolation is the reason for his mental under-development or degradation. This means that the deaf-blind child is a being as yet bereft of a human mind, while possessing the capacity for full mental development.
Thus the unique task arises of a deliberate moulding of a child’s human behaviour and mind, keeping in view all factors influencing a child.
This deliberate and specially organised training and instruction provide opportunities for examining the human mind as such. In this connection the works of Olga Skorokhodova are of tremendous value (66-73). In a review of her book How I Form a Picture of the World Around Me the prominent Soviet psychologist, Alexei Leontiev wrote: “The leitmotif of this work is the idea that the deaf-blind are people capable of learning a good deal and finding a place in life for themselves, if only they receive the necessary instruction: while nature has robbed them of sight and hearing they still have other ways of discovering the world open to them – touch, vibrations etc., of which maximum use should be made by those investigating mental and physical handicaps and ways of compensating them. This is without doubt a correct and important consideration, important in the sense that it compels us to approach in a more sensitive, concerned way those who at first glance seem condemned beyond hope to the most miserable existence, and to have more faith in their chances of success.
“Yet there is another side to the education of deaf-blind children which must be singled out and emphasised, namely, the tremendous philosophical and psychological significance of work with the deaf-blind, to which the attention of all our scientific community should be drawn. In one of his letters to Skorokhodova Maxim Gorky wrote that the study of man cannot be furthered through experiments on dogs, rabbits, guinea-pigs and that ‘we must have experiment on man himself.’
“Deaf-blindness is the most extreme experiment on man, an experiment devised by Nature herself, and one which enables us to probe one of the most complex and awe-inspiring phenomena – the inner mechanism of the emergent human consciousness in the objective relationships which mould that consciousness” (55, p. 108).
Traditional or empirical psychology, which first came forward with the idea of the “awakening” of a child’s mind in general, and that of deaf-blind child in particular, was theoretically inconsistent from the outset. The theoretical inconsistency of empirical psychology stemmed from the fact that its proponents examined man as a being that feels, perceives, memorises, etc., but not one that acts. Marx put forward an idea, which has had fundamental significance for truly scientific psychology, to the effect that man shapes his mind as, together with other people, he transforms the world.
“He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature” (MECW v. 35, p. 187).
From the Marxist point of view it is above all man in action who should be investigated and only then man who feels, perceives and discovers. In the twenties and thirties of this century an attempt to apply the theory of historical materialism to phenomena of the development of the human mind was made by Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s research paved the way for a new approach to the study of the mind not only viewed from the historical angle, but also in the context of man’s development as an individual. Research in the sphere of genetic psychology by Soviet psychologists Alexei Leontiev, Alexander Luriya, Alexander Zaporozhets, Pyotr Galperin and Daniil Elconin and others carried forward the ideas formulated by Vygotsky, who sought to reveal the significance of objects and norms of human culture, and also of intercourse between adult and child for the development of the latter’s mind. This research provides theoretical justification for regarding the moulding of a child’s mind as his assimilation (appropriation, in Karl Marx’s words) of social experience. This trend in psychology, in which an active approach is combined with an understanding of the individual mind as an essentially social formation, is now predominant in Soviet psychology. Among Soviet educationists and philosophers ideas concerning the role of practical activity in man’s mental development are elaborated by Evald Ilyenkov, Felix Mikhailov and Vassili Davydov.
The main theoretical propositions advocated by this school of psychology are corroborated and further elaborated in the practical work of rearing and instructing the deaf-blind, and in the theory underlying that practical work. The whole of the human mind is the fruit of active, practical interaction between the individual and other individuals in an environment created by means of human labour: such is the fundamental principle on which we have attempted to build up both our practical methods for developing the minds of deaf-blind children and also a theoretical analysis of this work.
Now let us turn our attention back to the past again. Specialists of many different professions have taken an interest in the problems of deaf-blindness. In the Soviet Union and elsewhere the subject has been treated by psychologists, philosophers, educationalists, specialists in physical and mental handicaps, writers and public figures, not to mention the deaf-blind themselves. The names of many of these writers and the titles of their works are to be found in the bibliography at the end of this book.
It may at first seem surprising that deaf-blindness has attracted the attention of such a wide circle of writers, including those not connected in any, even remote, way with the study of mental and physical handicaps, this very narrow and specialised branch of pedagogy. Naturally, specialists from various fields have shown varying degrees of interest in the question of deaf-blindness and for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless the question still remains as to why so much interest has been shown in what might appear a narrow, specialist subject. The explanation lies in the unusualness of the very nature of deaf-blindness. The very existence of a person bereft simultaneously of such important senses as sight and hearing and also the power of speech cannot fail to astonish. At first glance it seems that the loss of the main distance-senses and the power of speech would completely cut off such a being from his environment and rob him of all opportunity to make contact with other people. Such a person can after all neither see nor hear; he cannot be shown or told anything. He, for his part, can never say anything. If such a person has been deaf from birth or has lost his hearing in infancy, then he has never heard human speech and does not know that language and words denoting objects and ideas exist. He does not know that there exists a vast object world of infinite variety. Can such a being be moulded into a real person, be taught to work and to think? If so, by what means?
The development of a human being cut off from the world around him, and isolated from society by a wall of silence and darkness cannot but be highly specific in nature: this specific character has attracted the attention of all those who have come into contact with the deaf-blind, seen them, or at least read about them.
When a means of making contact with the deaf-blind had been invented and it was established that it was possible to keep a full register of all information imparted to a deaf-blind child, scientists received an opportunity of investigating through experiment whether there is something innate in man’s mind that develops immanently or whether everything is acquired through the individual’s life experience.
In this phenomenon of the emergence of a human being before our very eyes everyone who has taken an interest in deaf-blindness has tried to find confirmation of his own ideas on this subject, to resolve the enigma of the human mind.
Some scholars see in the development of the deaf-blind child the corroboration of the existence of man’s innate mental capacities which develop immanently, regardless of the external world. Others see the need for special instruction via the remaining sense organs and the impossibility of progress for the deaf-blind without using this channel of influence as an indication of the absence of any immanently developing mind.
In the beginning attempts to work with the deaf-blind were closely linked with religion both as regards the organisational side (the children. were given instruction in monasteries) and also as regards the content of the instruction they received (predominantly religious). This close bias was natural and logical, for the deaf-blind were held to be marked out by God and thus automatically seen as worthy recipients of church charity.
Religious press wrote a lot, for instance, about a group of deaf-blind brought together at the French convent of the “Daughters of Wisdom” (“Filles de la sagesse”) in Larnay, in the second half of the nineteenth century. According to Louis Arnould, of one hundred and thirty articles devoted to one of the deaf-blind charges of that convent, a certain Marie Heurtin, fifty-eight were published by religious publishing enterprises. Among these were articles such as Senter’s “study” entitled The Inequality of Spirits According to St. Thomas or the publication by Cannoness Saldern under the title Three Bricks (Drei Bausteine).
Records of achievements in instructing the deaf-blind at religious foundations in Montreal and Brussels, for example, were also used as religious propaganda. The instruction was given by nuns, both at convents and at schools provided for the deaf-blind outside. The principles behind the religious education for the deaf-blind were expounded most fully and forthrightly by the German Pastor Gustaw Riemann who himself worked in this field in Germany. The aim of this education was, in his opinion, to teach the deaf-blind to “bear their cross” and to look forward with an easy conscience and with hopefulness to bliss in the other world. In the American press and in the press of a number of other countries it was widely proclaimed that a deaf-blind pupil by the name of Madeleine Wallace from the New York School for the Deaf entered a religious order, thus “presenting the world with the example of the first deaf-dumb and blind nun,” wrote William Wade in 1905.
The teaching of academic subjects to all these groups of deaf-blind pupils was made subordinate to the overall religious purpose of the education provided for them. If these pupils were taught to speak using words this was not in order that they might communicate with other people, but rather to enable them to “communicate with God,” in other words to learn prayers: if they were taught any history it was of the ecclesiastical variety. The deeply religious French professor, Louis Arnould, author of the well-known book about the deaf-blind Imprisoned Souls (Ames en prison), which has run into dozens of editions, wrote that the purpose of teaching the deaf-blind was to transmit to them the concept of God and that speech using words was only necessary for these children because the language of gesture was inadequate to convey the abstract idea of God.
Echoes of religious teaching are also to be found in assertions made by many bourgeois scholars studying deaf-blindness, who claim to approach the facts with scientific objectivity. Wilhelm Jerusalem wrote in his study of Laura Bridgman of a force awakening the soul through the body, a force that bestows wisdom on a deaf-blind child from above. William James maintained that the progress achieved by the deaf, dumb and blind child Helen Keller demonstrated the existence of a force superior to man’s reason. In these and other publications treating the deaf-blind there is always an underlying belief in the primacy and immortality of the soul dormant in the deaf-blind that only needs to be awakened by the impact of outside influences.
As early as 1843, the famous English writer Charles Dickens noted, during a visit to America, the tendentious interest shown by certain Americans in the deaf-blind girl Laura Bridgman. Her teacher Samuel Howe decided from the outset to give his pupil a nonreligious education. However, teachers from the Perkins Institution for the Blind made use of his absence, in order to “awaken” in the pupil the idea of God and the need to turn to him. Afterwards Howe’s “unsuccessful” attempt to educate Laura Bridgman outside religion was declared to demonstrate that man has an innate need of God.
Revealing in this context is the story of the education of the famous deaf, dumb and blind American woman, Helen Keller. When at the age of ten attempts were first made to inculcate religious concepts in her, no results were forthcoming. Her teacher Anne Sullivan describes the episode as follows: “At that time a dear relative who was also an earnest Christian, tried to tell her about God. ... When I subsequently talked with her she said: ‘I have something very funny to tell you. A. says God made me and everyone out of sand; but it must be a joke. I am made of flesh and blood and bone, am I not?’ After a moment she went on: ‘A. says God is everywhere, and that He is all love but I do not think a person can be made out of love. Love is only something in our hearts. Then A. said another very comical thing. She says He (meaning God) is my dear father. It made me laugh quite hard, for I know my father is Arthur Keller.’”
The resistance of a ten-year-old child to any form of mysticism is both natural and understandable. However, the struggle was an unequal one, soon the “earnest Christian” relative was joined by other members of the child’s entourage. Yet the would-be teachers were in their turn stumped by the small girl’s questions: “Who made God?” “What did God make the new worlds out of?̶ “Where did he get the soil, and the water, and the seeds, and the first animals?̶ “Where is God? “ “Did you ever see God?” “When friends have told her of the great happiness, which awaits her in another life,” wrote Sullivan, “she instantly asked: ‘How do you know, if you have not been dead?’” Perhaps the various friends and relatives would have failed in getting the better of the child’s common sense if the celebrated theologian of that period, the eloquent preacher Bishop Phillips Brooks from Boston had not intervened.
The authority of this prominent representative of the Episcopalian church in America and the influence of other adults around her undermined the instinctive materialist concepts of the ten-year-old girl and gradually made of her a believer. Bishop Brooks’ admonitions provided guidance for Helen Keller for the rest of her life, and it was under his influence that her subsequent spiritual experience and her attitudes to the world and other people took shape. All lectures which she gave, both in the United States and far further afield contained references to God, and religious ideas permeate all Helen Keller’s works. She herself wrote that her religion was “Christian socialism.” Two of her books, Optimismus and My Religion, deal specifically with this subject. Helen Keller’s ideas concerning the world around her were typical of those advocated by the idealist philosophers of her times. In her book Optimismus she wrote: “The things which you see, hear and feel are not reality itself but merely imperfect manifestations of the Idea, the Principle, the Spirit ...” She saw the history of mankind as the march of the spirit of goodness and humility. Clearly statements such as these were bound to be widely exploited in religious and other idealist publications.
In almost every newspaper or magazine article about Helen Keller she was declared to be a woman of genius, outstanding and possessed of knowledge purely on account of her extraordinary gifts. It was thus implied that other deaf-blind people, lacking such unique genius, could not hope for any significant success in their studies.
The Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who took an interest in deaf-blindness and had a profound understanding of it, wrote in a letter to Ivan Sokolyansky (25.8.1933): “I saw Helen Keller in 1906 in New York, it was none other that William James, in Harvard, Boston, who advised me to ‘acquaint myself with this ‘wonder’.... Helen Keller made an unpleasant, even grim impression on me: she appeared to be an affected, very temperamental and extremely spoilt girl. She talked about God and how God disapproved of revolution. In general she reminded me of those ‘blessed’ and ‘holy’ nuns and ‘pilgrim women’ whom I have seen in our villages and convents. She was surrounded by a collection of old maids, who flustered round her as if she was some kind of parrot, whom they had taught to talk.... It was quite obvious, that Keller was a business proposition for her retinue” (49, pp. 318, 319).
This aura of the miraculous and the halo of the superwoman remained with Helen Keller to the end of her days (she died in 1968). Photos were published in journals and newspapers showing her in the company of film stars and statesmen. She was invited to receptions given by presidents and kings. She was and indeed still is written about as some extraordinary phenomenon. F.N. Doubleday, the editor of the magazine Outlook for the Blind, wrote in the June 1955 number, that to stand in the presence of Helen Keller was like standing before some superwoman possessing six sense organs denied to ordinary mortals and using them to penetrate more deeply the riddle of human existence.
All this fuss and publicity did of course place Helen Keller in a unique position and to a large extent impeded efforts to reach a correct understanding of the problems connected with deaf-blindness and to make adequate arrangements for the instruction and care of the deaf-blind.
Literature on deaf-blindness published outside the Soviet Union, consisting of articles, chapters in textbooks on psychology and special pedagogy, and whole special monographs, gives accounts of actual experiments in the teaching of deaf-blind children, which are of considerable interest.
There exist several big monographs describing a large number of individual experiments in instructing the deaf-blind and developing their potential. The works of Wilhelm Jerusalem published in German gave psychological analysis of material relating to the development recorded in the case of the first deaf-blind child to receive special instruction, namely Laura Bridgman, who had lost both sight and hearing at the age of two. A book by another German psychologist, William Stern, treats the history of Helen Keller’s instruction. The American William Wade published a monograph entitled The Deaf-blind, which describes the cases of 83 deaf-blind children. Some of them were pupils of the Perkins Institution for the Blind (Boston, USA). Records of instruction for deaf-blind pupils at Larnay (France) are to be found in the book Imprisoned Souls by Louis Arnould. It was in Larnay that success was first achieved in instructing a pupil blind and deaf from birth, namely Marie Heurtin. A detailed record of her progress was compiled by Arnould.
In his monograph on the deaf-blind the Dutch scholar H.S. Lenderink cites data drawn from eighty programmes for instructing the deaf-blind from a number of countries.
In Germany, in the 1890s a special group of teachers for deaf-blind children was formed on the initiative of Pastor Gustaw Riemann at a home for cripples in Nowawes near Potsdam. Riemann himself taught the children. Later he made public his religious and pedagogical views in a monograph entitled Deaf-blindness (Tanlstum und blind zugleich) and a number of articles.
An institution specially devised for the deaf-blind was set up in Venesborg (Sweden), which incorporated school rooms and a workshop. Detailed accounts of the teaching and care of the deaf-blind in that institution were published in Collected Reports from the Institution for the Deaf-blind in Swedish.
The many other authors who have at various times written on the subject of deaf-blindness include M. Anagnos, abbé Carton, I. Hall, S. Howe. The majority of these authors did not make a special study or show interest in the condition of the deaf-blind child before any specialised instruction was provided. They concentrated their attention on the period during which a pupil or pupils received instruction and on describing the development of such children while they were being taught to use language. Those authors who commented on the state of the deaf-blind child before he received instruction, were unanimous in describing him as an extremely undeveloped and primitive being. In Helen Keller’s book The Story of My Life which provided the main source with regard to the psychology of the deaf-blind for most authors; the small deaf-blind girl is described as a wild little monster hardly resembling a human being at all. Arnould writes of deaf-blind children before instruction as animals of a low order, or inert masses which it would be difficult to term as anything more precise than creature.
The American William Wade refers to them as mobile vegetables, whose whole life is confined to vegetable needs and responses to delays in the satisfaction of those needs. Before receiving any instruction, deaf-blind children not only were unable to speak using words but used no signs either.
All authors who had observed deaf-blind children prior to instruction were aware that these children would not develop mentally without deliberate intervention from outside. Moreover, references are made to a number of cases, when children who had been developing normally and could speak in words and behave rationally after losing their hearing and sight suffered a relapse and reverted to creatures leading a semi-vegetable life.
Nevertheless, all this did not prevent these same authors from reducing the whole process of the deaf-blind child’s instruction and development to the spontaneous evolvement of some innate essence or, to use William Stern’s phrase, the spontaneous unfolding of the human potential.
The sad condition of the deaf-blind who are not receiving any instruction, which can remain unchanged for years, sometimes even decades, led people to believe that “ordinary” deaf-blind people could not develop or be taught. Prejudice, claiming the impossibility or limited scope for mental development of the deaf-blind, persists to this day.
The first case of a deaf-blind child recorded in writing was that of an English boy by the name of James Mitchel, who lived in the eighteenth century. The Dutch teacher and psychologist Lenderink described how at the end of the eighteenth century several prominent British scholars and doctors met together to discuss Mitchel’s condition. They came to the conclusion that nothing could be done for him and that no invalid was more crippled and deprived than a deaf-blind person.
While some thinkers in the past recognised the theoretical possibility of teaching deaf-blind children (this opinion was voiced by Diderot (12) as early as 1749 in his famous Letters on the Blind for Those Who Can See) no practical attempts were made to exploit these opportunities. The idea that the deaf-blind cannot be taught and have no potential for development still persisted even after it had become known that initial attempts had been made to teach children bereft of hearing and sight and that some of these attempts had been successful. In 1913, for example, the French scholar Henri Lemoine (29) wrote in his doctoral thesis that the deaf-blind were freaks from birth, little more than idiots, whose normal development was out of the question; he also maintained that regardless of efforts made to educate them, they remained profoundly underdeveloped and could only be the object of charity.
It was held that children robbed of their hearing and sight were condemned to complete isolation by the nature of their handicaps: the impossibility of communicating with these children kept them at the level of inarticulate idiots.
Laura Bridgman, an inmate of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston (USA) was the first deaf-blind person whose successful instruction destroyed the prevalent belief that the deaf-blind were unteachable. Laura Bridgman learnt to read, write, express simple ideas; she learnt to carry out certain manual tasks and was thus able to earn her daily bread.
Despite certain exaggerations of Laura Bridgman’s successes, the author of the book describing her case, William Wade, was basically justified in his assessment of the considerable influence which this first experiment in teaching a deaf-blind person had on contemporary attitudes to this question.
Helen Keller was to become far more famous than her predecessor, Laura Bridgman. Robbed of sight and hearing at the age of two, she progressed far enough not only to master the art of speech using ordinary words, and reading and writing, but also to become a writer and public figure. Her success demonstrated beyond question that it was possible not only to “humanise” a deaf-blind child, but also to achieve significant success in his or her development.
Yet despite the achievements in teaching Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller’s success, the prejudiced view of the deaf-blind as unteachable still persisted. Successes in teaching individual deaf-blind subjects were seen as chance exceptions attributable to the outstanding abilities of the deaf-blind pupils in question. The pupils who responded to teaching were seen as prodigies. The education of the deaf-blind did not become established as a specialised branch of pedagogy for the mentally and physically handicapped outside the Soviet Union. Various correct, sometimes ingenious discoveries stemming from the practical experience of those engaged in the teaching of the deaf-blind have remained isolated finds and never been put together in any kind of system.
In all monographs by Western authors on the subject of deaf-blindness self-development is held to be the fundamental principle underlying the emergence and development of the mind. External influences to which the child is exposed are regarded as no more than a push or stimulus towards spontaneous development, “setting free the inner potential.” In many cases the role of this stimulus promoting self-development was attributed to speech. William Stern, for example (43), held that the need to speak represented a force that set free man’s speech potential planted in a child’s soul. He was not convinced even by cases of a secondary collapse of speech in children struck by deaf-blindness brought to his attention by the German psychologist Meumann. Jerusalem and other authors held similar opinions on the development of the deaf-blind.
German specialists (Stern, Jerusalem and others) wrote of oral speech as illumination of man’s “immortal soul”; other authors associated the “awakening of the soul” with words in general, regardless of whether they were used in oral speech or, say, written.
Words and speech were thus ascribed the special role of stimulus – stimulus which called to life man’s inborn but hitherto dormant consciousness. This effect of speech was not described as a gradual process of language instruction preceded with immediate acquaintance with the external world but as a split-second act of instant revelation. Anne Sullivan linked the mental awakening of her pupil Helen Keller with the well publicised sudden illumination following Helen’s mastering of the word “water.” The “fact” of Helen Keller’s sudden mental awakening at the water pump was always viewed as something vitally important for an understanding of her mental development.
This view was reflected in the play by American playwright William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, a dramatisation of the early stage of Helen Keller’s teaching. One of the episodes in the play is most revealing in relation to this particular question. In the first act Doctor Anagnos, the principal of the Perkins Institution and mentor of the young teacher Anne Sullivan, to whom he entrusts the care of Helen Keller, compares a deaf-blind child with a locked safe. In his opinion the right key must be selected for such a safe, which should then be opened, perhaps to reveal treasures of the human soul within. So, the aim should not be to fill the safe with “treasures,” but merely to find them there. Just such a key, as emerges later, is provided by the word “water.” At the end of the play the girl utters this word, and the “miracle” of the soul’s awakening has taken place.
Detailed study of Anne Sullivan’s notes regarding Helen Keller’s teaching and day-to-day life make it clear that in actual fact Helen Keller’s mental development was of a different kind. Sudden awakening was merely a tribute to ideas widely popular among psychologists and educationists of that time. Similarly, contrary to findings drawn from his practical work, Doctor Howe, who taught Laura Bridgman constantly and consistently, when in the presence of other people, talked of his pupil’s “sudden illumination” that allegedly took place after she mastered her first few words, when her immortal soul awoke, aspiring, as it were, to establish contact with other vessels of the immortal spirit.
In order to demonstrate in concrete terms that the idea of the human mind’s immanent development is incorrect, that the human mind is not something that need only be awakened in the deaf-blind through words, let us now turn to the main points to emerge from the story of Laura Bridgman’s and Helen Keller’s teaching. It was on the results obtained in teaching these deaf-blind girls that the theories regarding the spontaneous nature of the development of the human mind were based, theories propagating the sudden mystical awakening of consciousness through the word, through Logos, to use Helen Keller’s phrase. These theories determined the subsequent psychological and philosophical interpretations of deaf-blindness. It would therefore seem particularly important, with reference to these particular cases, to point out flaws in this traditional approach to the subject.
The first man who demonstrated in practical terms the possibility of teaching the deaf-blind was Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), the American doctor and educationist, who, though well known in the 1840s, has now been almost completely forgotten. Howe was an active advocate of specialised instruction for handicapped children in the United States, and his views were progressive for those times. He had spent some time in Europe and fought with Garibaldi’s troops. Back in the United States, Howe energetically opposed slavery. He undoubtedly played a significant part in the organisation of specialised education for handicapped children: he was the founder and first principal of the school for blind children in Boston (which later came to be known as the Perkins Institution) and at a somewhat later date he also founded the first school in the United States for mentally retarded children.
It was the period when systematic methods for the teaching of the blind were first being devised after centuries of neglect, during which it had been the commonly held view that they were impossible to teach. At the end of the eighteenth century articles started appearing in the press telling of isolated instances of success in instructing the blind. In 1786, Valentin Häuy, a man far ahead of his times, who worked first in Paris and later in St. Petersburg, published the first book for the blind using raised script. It was also he who first put forward the idea of special boards on which blind people could write on paper using raised letters arranged between taut strings.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century special schools for the blind began to appear. Initially, the blind were only taught simple trades at these schools, but later attempts were made to teach them to read and write.
In 1832, a competition was announced in Britain for the best method of printing for the blind using raised letters. More than twenty variations of such an alphabet were submitted over the next few years, and the first prize of a gold medal was presented to Edmond Fry for an alphabet consisting of the printed capitals of the Latin alphabet. Fry himself was unable to receive the prize since he died before the competition was closed, but his alphabet, as propagated in a somewhat modified form by Alston, soon spread to many countries.
In North America Fry’s alphabet with a few changes introduced by Friedlander came to be known as the Philadelphia alphabet.
When Doctor Howe first made plans for setting up a specialised institution for the blind in Boston he decided to go to Europe to study findings made in this field. In 1834, he encountered the then virtually unknown alphabet using raised points devised by Braille. In 1829, the twenty-year-old blind Frenchman Louis Braille had made public his invention but found no support among his contemporaries. At the time many people assumed that Braille’s system, which bore no resemblance to ordinary letters, would isolate the blind from the sighted completely and make written communication between the two groups still more difficult. It was not until much later, the 1870s in fact, that Braille’s alphabet began its triumphal progress across the world, when at last the blind themselves and their teachers came to appreciate its advantages over other alphabets. In the 1830s, only linear alphabets were believed acceptable and these were to a greater or lesser extent copies of alphabets used by the sighted.
However, Howe appreciated the advantages of Braille’s alphabet, and in 1836 he even attempted to introduce it in America. The experiment was, however, unsuccessful.
A year earlier, Howe had begun to publish textbooks for the pupils at his school in an embossed linear print which he had himself devised. It was with the help of this particular alphabet, which came to be known as the Boston alphabet, that the first success in teaching a deaf-blind pupil was achieved. The alphabet propagated by Howe differs from Fry’s in many respects. In an attempt to make this print for the blind more compact and cheaper Howe dropped capitals from his alphabet altogether, removed all ornament and flourishes and reduced differences in the height and depth of letters to the minimum permissible in letters that had to be perceived by touch. In order to make these letters easy to distinguish one from another, he introduced special characteristics for the individual letters. For instance, the letters a, h, n, o, r were presented in angular shapes, while b, c, j, p, q, and s retained rounded contours. All these details were designed by Howe to make it easier for the blind to distinguish between the various letters of the alphabet by touch. In order to economise on space not one of the letters in his alphabet came below the line. Howe’s alphabet was to become very popular in America.
On October 4, 1837, a deaf-blind girl aged about eight was admitted to the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Her name was Laura Bridgman, and prior to that date no blind deaf-mute from birth had ever been given specialised instruction. The first teacher of this deaf-blind girl was faced by a formidable task: to decide how to start teaching and what methods to use in the work.
At this stage a short digression is called for. Four years after work on teaching Laura Bridgman had begun the famous English author Charles Dickens visited America. While in the country, he visited Boston and the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where this deaf-blind girl was being taught. In his American Notes Dickens left us a vivid and authentic account of the work being carried out with Laura Bridgman. This description, free of any embroidery or theoretical speculations, is probably the most interesting of all the accounts of Laura Bridgman and her teacher to have been published at the time or subsequently. Later in this book when dealing with the story of the teaching of this first deaf-blind pupil we shall frequently refer back to Dickens’ account.
What indeed was Laura Bridgman’s condition before she received any tuition? Dickens quotes extracts from her case history compiled by Doctor Howe as follows: “She was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, on the twenty-first day of December, 1829. She is described as having been a very sprightly and pretty infant with bright blue eyes. She was, however, so puny and feeble until she was a year and a half old, that her parents hardly hoped to rear her. She was subject to severe fits, which seemed to rack her frame almost beyond her powers of endurance, and life was held by the feeblest tenure; but when a year and a half old, she seemed to rally, the dangerous symptoms subsided, and at twenty months old she was perfectly well.
“Then her mental powers, hitherto stinted in their growth, rapidly developed themselves; and during the four months of health which she enjoyed, she appears (making due allowance for a fond mother’s account) to have displayed a considerable degree of intelligence.
“But suddenly she sickened again; her disease raged with great violence during five weeks, when her eyes and ears were inflamed, suppurated, and their contents were discharged. But though sight and hearing were gone forever, the poor child’s sufferings were not ended. The fever raged during seven weeks; for five months she was kept in bed in a darkened room; it was a year before she could walk unsupported, and two years before she could sit up all day. It was now observed that her sense of smell was almost entirely destroyed; and, consequently, that her taste was much blunted.
“It was not until four years ago that the poor child’s bodily health seemed restored, and she was able to enter upon her apprenticeship of life and the world.
“But what a situation was hers! The darkness and the silence of the tomb were around her: no mother’s smile called forth her answering smile, no father’s voice taught her to imitate his sounds: – they, brothers and sisters, were but forms of matter which resisted her touch, but which differed not from the furniture of the house save in warmth, and in the power of locomotion; and not even in these respects from the dog and the cat.
“... As soon as she could walk, she began to explore the room, and then the house; she became familiar with the form, density, weight, and heat, of every article she could lay her hands upon. She followed her mother, and felt her hands and arms, as she was occupied about the house; and her disposition to imitate led her to repeat everything herself. She even learned to sew, and to knit.
“... At this time, I was so fortunate as to hear of the child, and immediately hastened to Hanover to see her. I found her with a well-formed figure; a strongly-marked, nervous-sanguine temperament; a large and beautifully-shaped head; and the whole system in healthy action. The parents were easily induced to consent to her coming to Boston, and on the 14th of October, 1837, they brought her to the Institution.
“For a while she was much bewildered; and after waiting about two weeks, until she became acquainted with her new locality, and somewhat familiar with the inmates, the attempt was made to give her knowledge of arbitrary signs by which she could interchange thoughts with others.
“There was one of two ways to be adopted: either to go on to build up a language of signs on the basis of natural language which she had already commenced herself, or to teach her the purely arbitrary language then in common use: that is, to give her a sign for every individual thing, or to give her a knowledge of letters by combination of which she might express her idea of the existence, and the mode and condition of existence, of any thing. The former would have been easy, but very ineffectual; the latter seemed very difficult, but, if accomplished, very effectual. I determined therefore to try the latter” (11, pp. 46-48).
Howe held that the system of signs denoting letters could be devised quite arbitrarily provided that it corresponded to the alphabet and that the combinations of these signs constituted words. These “signs” could consist of movements of the fingers. However, in the early stages Howe did not regard such movements of the fingers as adequate for the purpose, for they were difficult to link with the object denoted. Since Howe was already working in a school for the blind and had devised his own alphabet of raised letters for them shortly before embarking on work with his deaf-blind pupil, he now decided to use it in his new task.
From the outset Howe realised that instruction should not start out from individual letters, for signs representing letters could not denote anything for the deaf-blind. They should denote only objects and complete words. This was an important discovery which made possible further progress in instruction. Unfortunately due importance is not always attached to this method by some teachers of the deaf-blind, who, when teaching their charges language, strive above all to teach them letters by linking together signs made with the fingers with written shapes on the one hand and vocalisation on the other. This system cannot provide the pupil with an adequate understanding of the designating function of the word, nor can the actual idea of letters be assimilated as a limited number of elements, from which can be formed a limitless quantity of words, or designations of objects.
When teaching Laura Bridgman, Howe concentrated his attention on ordinary everyday objects, such as a key, a spoon or a knife. To these were attached labels with their names marked out in raised letters and they were then given to his pupil for her thorough inspection by means of touch. The words on the labels attached to the objects were of course for Laura Bridgman nothing but wavy lines with no meaning. However, she soon began to notice that the wavy lines on the label of one object would be different from those on the label of another. Sometimes the combinations of wavy lines differed the one from the other in the number of elements, and sometimes the number of signs would be one and the same while their shapes were different. Some signs on the labels were identical. Gradually thanks to a carefully selected group of objects and their labels the pupil began to understand the principle of denoting objects by specific combinations of small numbers of signs.
Initially the wavy lines on the labels stuck on to the objects were for Laura part of the objects she was touching, as it were. Then she discovered they were a special part, which could be separated from the object. However, even when separated from the objects on to which they had been stuck, these elements retained a link with these objects.
In the course of subsequent lessons with the teacher, when presented with objects and labels separately, the little girl gradually came to realise that specific labels could only be stuck on to specific objects. One specific label, depending upon the lines displayed upon it, could be placed only on one of the objects used, and if it were placed on any other object the teacher would make it clear that this was a mistake.
Later Laura came to learn that each label could be divided up into separate signs and there were not all that many of these different signs – only twenty-six. She discovered that the various labels used for distinguishing the objects could be compiled from these signs. Of course, at first the teacher’s hands carried out this task. Later, however, Laura was gradually trained to repeat the same process independently, putting the labels together piece by piece. Soon Howe’s pupil learned how to put together the names of objects which were not actually to hand, but which were either given to her immediately after she had pieced together the label, or which she found herself as a follow-up exercise. Gradually therefore Laura came to understand that these signs could be used to denote the idea of an object or to convey her wish to have a particular object. Later she was taught to write the signs in letters. She was shown how familiar letters and words could be conveyed in another way as well – via various movements of the fingers. She came eventually to master finger-spelling, which made it much simpler to communicate with her than before. The range of objects Laura could recognise and name gradually widened.
“Her teacher gives her a new object, for instance, a pencil, first lets her examine it, and get an idea of its use, then teaches her how to spell it by making the signs for the letters with her own fingers: the child grasps her hand, and feels her fingers, as the different letters are formed....
“She then holds up her tiny fingers, and spells the word in the manual alphabet; next she takes her types and arranges her letters, and last, to make sure that she is right, she takes the whole of the types composing the word, and places them upon or in contact with the pencil or whatever the object may be” (11, pp. 50-51).
This was a lengthy, exhausting and extremely slow process, yet progress made was obvious. Howe wrote at the time: “The result thus far, is quickly related, and easily conceived; but not so was the process; for many weeks of apparently unprofitable labour were passed before it was effected” (11, p. 50).
Gradually Laura Bridgman learnt to use words so as to communicate with other people and to express through the language of words her concepts, desires and thoughts. This long process of instruction and gradual mastering of language was not marked by any awakening of a “dormant, immortal soul” and no sudden revelation was involved. Yet, trapped by the then traditional conception of the immortal human soul that might be awakened through words, Howe attempted to “find” such a moment of the soul’s awakening, linking this with his pupil’s grasping of the fact that objects have names. This attempt led him to write the following: “Hitherto, the process had been mechanical, and the success about as great as teaching a very knowing dog a variety of tricks. The poor child had sat in mute amazement, and patiently imitated everything her teacher did; but now the truth began to flash upon her: her intellect began to work; she perceived that here was a way by which she could herself make up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and show it to another mind; and at once her countenance lighted up with a human expression; it was no longer a dog, or parrot: it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits! I could almost fix upon the moment when this truth dawned upon her mind, and spread its light to her countenance; I saw that the great obstacle was overcome; and that henceforward nothing but patient and persevering, but plain and straightforward, efforts were to be used” (11, pp. 49-50).
The development of a deaf-blind child does not of course constitute a process of straightforward quantitative changes; on the contrary it is an almost uninterrupted flow of qualitative changes and leaps forward, involving the emergence of highly complex mental advances that have a decisive effect upon the nature and rate of subsequent development. The child’s gradual realisation that objects can be denoted by words and these can be used to tell another human being about the former is one of those leaps forward after which a child usually becomes anxious to know the names of all objects that he encounters and begins to ask his teachers about them. Yet this does not mean that at such a moment any awakening of the “immortal soul” takes place. Incidentally, just as significant for the subsequent development of the deaf-blind child is the appearance of mental advances connected with the training of the first active elements of self-care, with its first independent actions as regards objects, and with the learning of its first gestures.
With reference once again to Howe’s work it should be pointed out that one of his most important pedagogical discoveries was his teaching Laura Bridgman to make daily entries in a diary. This meant not only that she was able to record her thoughts, but also to turn back to them later with the help of her teachers, amend them where necessary and in this way steadily perfect her mastery of language.
It goes without saying that Laura’s ideas and conceptions were elementary ones and corresponded to her monotonous, sheltered life, the larger part of which was taken up with simple handicrafts. Nevertheless the enormous patient labour of her teachers and above all the creative work of Doctor Howe had transformed what had once seemed a creature beyond all hope, bereft of the capacity for human thought and helplessly isolated from the world at large by a virtually impenetrable wall of silence and darkness, into a human being possessed of word language and of the ability to both think and express thoughts.
The success achieved in teaching Laura Bridgman was, in the context of those times, so astonishing that news of it soon spread right across the world. Journals and whole books were written on the subject. Large numbers of people came to visit the Perkins Institution to behold the wonder.
Charles Dickens showed an extremely keen interest in the girl and was so fascinated by her case that, as Howe wrote, he did not deign to turn his attention to anything or anyone else other than Laura. In his American Notes Dickens devoted eighteen of the forty pages on Boston to a description of the school for the blind and in particular to Laura Bridgman’s training. At the beginning of that description the great writer has given us a vivid picture of the deaf, mute and blind girl in these few lines: “There she was, before me; built up, as it were, in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help.” (11, p. 46).
After describing Laura’s teaching programme in detail and reproducing several pages from her teacher’s report, Dickens went on to write: “The name of her great benefactor and friend, who writes it, is Doctor Howe. There are not many persons, I hope and believe, who, after reading these passages, can ever hear that name with indifference” (11, p. 55).
This book of Dickens’ was destined to play an important part in the history of the training of the deaf-blind. More than forty years later it was none other than this book which gave Helen Keller’s parents hope that their daughter might be teachable; this book also informed them where they might turn to seek help for their deaf-blind child. The remainder of that story will however follow in a later chapter.
Another charge of Doctor Howe’s was a deaf-blind boy by the name of Oliver Caswell. Until the age of three years and four months the boy was developing perfectly normally. Then he fell ill with scarlet fever and a month later lost his hearing: a few weeks after that he lost his sight and six months after that the power of speech. He used gestures to make himself understood by those around him, a wavy movement of his hand, for instance, to denote the movement of a ship, and a circular movement to indicate the turning of a wheel, etc. In the early stages of his instruction Oliver’s teacher attempted to substitute these natural signs with the purely conventional represented by manual words.
“Profiting by the experience I had gained in the other cases, I omitted several steps of the process before employed, and commenced at once with the finger language. Taking therefore, several articles having short names, such as key, cup, mug, and with Laura for an auxiliary, I sat down, and taking his hand, placed it upon one of them, and then with my own, made the letters for key.
“He felt my hands eagerly with both of his, and on my repeating the process, he evidently tried to imitate the motions of my fingers. In a few minutes he contrived to feel the motions of my fingers with one hand, and holding out the other he tried to imitate them, laughing most heartily when he succeeded. Laura was by, interested even to agitation; and the two presented a singular sight: her face was flushed and anxious, and her fingers twined in among ours so closely as to follow every motion, but so lightly as not to embarrass them; while Oliver stood attentive, his head a little aside, his face turned up, his left hand grasping mine, and his right held out; at every motion of my fingers his countenance betokened keen attention; there was an expression of anxiety as he tried to imitate the motions; then a smile came stealing out as he thought he could do so, and spread into a joyous laugh the moment he succeeded, and felt me pat his head, and Laura clap him heartily upon the back, and jump up and down in her joy.
“He learned more than a half-dozen letters in half an hour, and seemed delighted with his success, at least in gaining approbation. His attention then began to flag and I commenced playing with him. It was evident that in all this he had merely been imitating the motions of my fingers, and placing his hand upon the key, cup, etc., as part of the process, without any perception of the relation between the sign and the object.
“He soon learned to make the letters for key, pen, pin; and by having the object repeatedly placed in his hand, he at last perceived the relation I wished to establish between them. This was evident, because, when I made the letters pin, pen, or cup, he would select the article” (11, pp. 58-59).
Unfortunately, the work with this boy did not reap real success: perhaps this was due to the fact that Howe himself was not able to work with the boy and entrusted him to another teacher, or perhaps it was because the method used for denoting objects with letters introduced at the very beginning of tuition was premature. In Laura’s case speech through signs had been fairly well developed before she was given instruction, while Oliver, going by the limited data available, had only had a few gestures at his command. Moreover the method used at the beginning of Laura’s instruction (the sticking of labels on to objects) was that most auspicious pedagogical device which made it possible to establish a firm link between a word and the object denoted by it. Dactylic words followed by the showing to the pupil of the objects concerned are more difficult to link with objects, particularly if speech through signs is not incorporated in the overall framework of the instruction programme. In Oliver’s case not only was speech through gesture ignored, but, as Howe’s notes showed, its use was deliberately excluded. Such a step is an unforgivable mistake in teaching the deaf-blind.
Howe is usually presented as the man who invented the method of instructing the deaf-blind. Indeed, it was he who first brought together in a common programme of instruction the embossed alphabet used by the blind and the dactylic alphabet used by deaf-mutes, thus putting together the essential arsenal, as it were, for teaching the deaf-blind to read and write. Whereas nowadays we take for granted the necessity of using both alphabets for teaching the deaf-blind, at that period when the deaf-blind were considered absolutely unteachable, Howe’s findings represented a spectacular discovery in the teaching of handicapped children.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the first attempts were made to teach the deaf-blind in other countries. To name but one case, at almost the same time as Laura Bridgman was taught at the Perkins Institution, instruction of another deaf-blind pupil, Anna Temmermann, was undertaken at the Brussels Institute for Deaf-mutes. This particular experiment was brought to the attention of the public by the abbé Carton in 1843. In 1847, M. Hirzel published the first reports on the teaching of a group of deaf-blind pupils in Switzerland. Reports of work with a unique class of deaf-blind pupils were published in Britain by J. Brodie.
Small groups of deaf-blind pupils for the purpose of specialised instruction were set up in various schools for deaf-mutes in France and Germany.
The first special boarding school for the deaf-blind was opened in Sweden at about this time. On learning that there were several cases of deaf-blindness in the villages of her country the Swedish woman Elisabeth Anrep-Nordin (7) took an interest in their condition. There is no doubt that she was acquainted with the work of Doctor Howe. Moreover, she went on a visit to America, where she made a detailed study of the experiments in teaching a group of deaf-blind pupils at the Perkins Institution. Back home again, she succeeded in interesting the royal family in the position of the deaf-blind and in securing legal measures providing for their care. In 1886, Elisabeth Anrep-Nordin succeeded in opening a school for the deaf-blind (initially for five pupils) in the Swedish town of Skara, where her husband was principal of an institution for the deaf-mutes.
A second separate institution for the deaf-blind was set up by Pastor Riemann in Nowawes (Germany), known as the Home for the Deaf-blind. Thus, special tuition for the deaf-blind was gradually coming into its own and gaining recognition.
However, the most famous of all experiments with deaf-blind pupils was the work of Anne Sullivan (later Anne Sullivan-Macy) with Helen Keller.
As mentioned earlier, Helen Keller’s mother came across Charles Dickens’ rapturous account of the success scored in the teaching of Laura Bridgman in his American Notes some forty years after they had been written. At the time Helen was six and completely deaf, dumb and blind. Dickens’ account of the methods used by Doctor Howe filled the mother with hope. She contacted the Perkins Institution only to learn that Doctor Howe had died about four years before Helen’s birth. His successor as principal of the Perkins Institution, Michael Anagnos promised to send a teacher to the Kellers’ home specially trained to work according to Doctor Howe’s methods.
On March 3, 1887, this teacher arrived at the Kellers’ home. It was a young woman of only twenty who had just graduated from the Perkins school, by the name of Anne Sullivan. She had herself been blind when she had first arrived at the institution but later an operation had restored her sight in part.
In the course of six months Anne Sullivan had made a detailed study of Doctor Howe’s notes. For six years she had been in regular contact with Laura Bridgman since they had both been living at the Perkins Institution. This means that Anne Sullivan was by no means unprepared for her task. She had a predecessor, a sensitive and ingenious teacher, Dr. Howe. Nevertheless, the young teacher found herself faced by incredibly difficult methodological problems. She was unable to glean any help from the teaching experts of that time in the problems that faced her as she set about teaching and caring for Helen. She found that the writings in the field of education had little bearing on reality as it affected the deaf-blind. This led her to reject outright the official pedagogical line of that time, and from this rejection of existing educational theories Anne Sullivan moved on to believe that there could be no teaching system at all for the deaf-blind. She held that the teacher should start out from common sense, inventing a special solution for every individual case without linking up such solutions with any overall principles.
It therefore clearly follows that Miss Sullivan was not in a position to evolve any theoretical systems for teachers of the deaf-blind. The elaboration of a scientific system for the rearing and teaching of the deaf-blind has only become possible on the basis of achievements made since then in a number of fields of learning, in particular on the basis of a materialist conception of man’s mind as the product of real human relations. It would have been too much to expect from a religious woman like Miss Sullivan an understanding of, let alone conscious adherence to, materialist principles, since she was convinced that the development of a human being was none other than the unfolding of an inner spiritual essence dormant within since birth. Without elaborating any system and indeed while rejecting the idea that such a system was possible or even expedient, practical necessity dictated by circumstances led Anne Sullivan to solutions for a number of crucial questions connected with the teaching of the deaf-blind. Thanks to her creative and unprejudiced approach to her work, Anne Sullivan coped brilliantly with problems that the teaching theory of that period had found no answers to. In her solutions to many of the tasks involved in the teaching of a deaf-blind child she used bold, truly innovatory methods, manifesting enormous patience and flexible ingenuity; in a word, Anne Sullivan was a teacher of true talent.
Helen Keller was born on July 27, 1880, in the American town of Tuscumbia. Her father Arthur Keller was a retired captain. Helen was Kate Keller’s first child. The baby girl developed well at first and grew fast. At the age of eighteen months she fell ill and lost both her sight and hearing. Because of her deafness Helen was unable to learn to speak. Immediately after her illness Helen could not find her bearings at all and was unable to walk. However, the environment in which Helen found herself was extremely propitious for the development of a deaf-blind child. Helen was not cut off from the outside world as is so often the case with deaf-blind children when their parents shield them from “unpleasantness” of encounters with objects and people. After recovering from her illness and learning to walk again, the little girl would cling to her mother’s skirts when the latter was going about her housework (Mrs. Keller did not object because although Helen got in her way at least she was in view and safe). The child used to grope at and feel every object that her mother used and follow all the movements of her mother’s hands. In this way the deaf-blind girl became acquainted with a large number of household objects, learnt the use of each object she could understand and learnt to operate a large number of such objects correctly. Helen’s first gestures of communication developed in these concrete, one might almost say businesslike contacts with the people around her: a nod of her head denoted agreement, a shake of the head from side to side signified disagreement, a movement of the hand to push away an “interlocutor” meant “Go away!” – and pulling him over in her own direction meant “Come here!” The little girl knew how bread was cut and how sugar was stirred in a cup of coffee. Imitations of such actions were also among her early gestures. None of the people around her (with one exception to be mentioned later) attached any importance to these first gestures of the deaf-blind child, which no one saw as manifestations of a need and desire for contact with other human beings. Moreover, the child’s gesticulations appeared ridiculous, even unpleasant to her family, serving to emphasise the abnormality of a child who instead of uttering simple familiar words was trying to make some hardly comprehensible signs. The one exception referred to earlier was a small black girl by the name of Martha Washington, the daughter of the Kellers’ cook, who was only three years older than Helen. Gestures were indispensable in communication between Helen and Martha. The life of those children unheeded by adults was diverse and complex. It was a mixture of play and work (the little black girl was obliged to work). The two small girls spent busy days together in the kitchen, the yard, the stables, the cowshed and the barns. Martha taught the deaf-blind girl to help her in her work. She appears to have had considerable patience. There were even times when she had to put up with Helen’s blows. Helen Keller recalls this period in her life in her book The Story of My Life (28). She tells how her constant companions at the time were a small black girl by the name of Martha Washington, the cook’s daughter, and Bella, an extremely old setter, who had at one time been an outstanding hunting dog. Martha understood Helen well and Helen enjoyed giving orders to Martha, who usually complied, because Helen always knew perfectly well what she wanted and in order to insist was not loath even to use teeth and fingernails. The little girls used to spend a good deal of time in the kitchen, where they kneaded out rolls from dough, ground coffee, whipped ice-cream mixture, and fed the chickens and turkeys that used to cluster round the kitchen porch. These diverse activities would have been quite impossible without a language of gesture. Unfortunately, there is no detailed record of the language of gesture that Helen Keller used at that period, but certain references would seem to indicate that it was extremely versatile. In The Story of My Life Helen describes how she conveyed to Martha that she wanted to go out with her to look for guinea-fowls’ eggs in the grass: Helen after finding an egg made it clear to her friend that she must not drop it for otherwise it would break. One person to talk to, however, was not enough for Helen. The little deaf-blind girl tried to teach her language of gestures to others. She started with the dog: “I tried hard to teach her my sign language, but she was dull and inattentive.” Martha, however, was more than patient, and by contrast communicating with adults was much more difficult: “I had noticed that my mother and my friends did not use signs as I did when they wanted anything done, but talked with their mouths. Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips. I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted.” Adults did not understand the little girl, and her need to communicate with other people was growing all the time. “Fits of madness” as Helen Keller herself referred to her protests against lack of understanding, when she used to kick out, scratch and bite, started becoming more and more frequent until they used to recur several times a day.
It was at this time that her teacher Anne Sullivan arrived. By the time her teacher appeared on the scene Helen could find her way about in the house easily, also in the orchard, vegetable garden and the whole of the immediate vicinity of the house. She was familiar with many household objects, kitchen utensils and garden implements, she knew what many of the objects around her were used for and was able to use them properly. She used a well-developed language of gestures which she made wide and systematic use of when communicating with her young friend and also on occasions with adults in the household. All this means that circumstances were favourable for the promotion of Helen Keller’s development and accounts to a large extent for the success achieved in teaching this pupil. Indeed, there are definite grounds for maintaining that Helen Keller’s first teacher was the little black girl Martha Washington. It was she who first began to break down the wall isolating the little deaf-blind girl, and it was thanks to her contact with Martha that Helen started evolving her language of gestures. It should be pointed out that neither Anne Sullivan, nor those specialists who later attempted to analyse Helen’s instruction from the psychological angle, attached any particular, let alone decisive importance to this period of Helen’s life.
Anne Sullivan began at once to teach Helen Keller words using the dactylic alphabet. It should be remembered that due to the favourable circumstances of her environment prior to Miss Sullivan’s arrival the pupil had reached the stage when she was ready to start learning to use words: she already had a clearly established conception of the objects in her immediate environment and had already mastered gestures to convey many of these. It was now a question of “verbalising” these images and the girl’s gestures that were already established. However, Miss Sullivan did not succeed in making this step at once. The first task before her was to normalise the little girl’s behaviour.
In the book The Helen Keller Story Catherine Owens Peare thus describes the first meeting between teacher and pupil: “‘Phantom’ – Helen Keller’s own name for herself as a child – stood in the doorway sensing the excitement of a new arrival. She felt the vibration of a strange footstep on the porch, then another footstep, coming closer. Strangers were often enemies. She bent her head down and charged into the newcomer, and the newcomer fell back. Again the footsteps came toward her, and the stranger tried to put arms around her. Helen drove off Miss Sullivan’s embrace with kicks and punches.
“She discovered that the stranger had a bag, and she grabbed the bag and darted into the house. When her mother caught up with her and tried to take the bag away she fought, because she knew her mother would give in. Mother always gave in.
“But Anne Sullivan encouraged her to keep the bag and carry it up the stairs. Soon a trunk was brought into the room, and Helen flung herself against it, exploring the lid with her fingers until she found the lock. Miss Sullivan gave her the key and allowed her to unlock it and lift the lid. Helen plunged her hands down into the contents, feeling everything.
“The newcomer lifted a doll out of the trunk and laid it in Helen’s arms, and after that she did something very strange indeed. She held one of Helen’s hands and in its palm formed curious figures with her own fingers. First she held her own thumb and middle finger together while her index finger stood upright. Then she formed a circle by joining her thumb and first finger, and finally she spread her thumb and index finger as far apart as they would go.
“With a sudden wild leap Helen darted for the door, but the stranger caught hold of her and brought her back, forcing her into a chair. Helen fought and raged, but the stranger was strong. She did not give in like family and servants. Helen was startled to feel a piece of cake being placed in her hand, and she gobbled it down quickly before it could be taken away. The stranger did another trick with her fingers. On Helen’s palm she formed an open circle with thumb and first finger, next closed her fist for a moment, following that by placing her thumb between her second and third fingers and curling her last two fingers under, and finally held all her finger tips together against her thumb.
“That was enough! Helen tore loose and bolted out of the room and down the stairs, to Mother, to Father, to her stepbrother, to the cook, to anybody whom she could manage.
“But at dinner the stranger sat next to her. Helen had her own way of eating, and no one had ever tried to stop her. She stumbled and groped her way from place to place snatching and grabbing from other people’s plates, sticking her fingers into anything at all. When she came to the visitor her hand was slapped away. Helen reached out for the visitor’s plate again. Another slap! She flung herself forward and was lifted bodily back. Now she was being forced into her own chair again, being made to sit there, and once more she was raging, fighting, kicking. She broke away and found all the other chairs empty. Her family had deserted her, left her alone with this enemy!
“Again the enemy took hold of her, made her sit down, forced a spoon into her hand, made her eat from her own plate ....
“Every day there were battles with the newcomer. There were battles when she had to take her bath, comb her hair, button her shoes....
“The big day of revenge came when, in one of the enemy’s unguarded moments, Helen raised her fists in the air and brought them down on Miss Sullivan’s face. Two teeth snapped off” (38, pp. 15-17).
Anne Sullivan had arrived at her new post intending to embark at once upon teaching her pupil words using the dactylic alphabet according to the method described by Doctor Howe in his account of his work with Oliver Caswell. Yet here she was confronted with a pupil with whom it was not possible to embark upon any serious teaching programme. It was control that had to be achieved first of all. The teacher moved with her pupil into a separate wing of the house, which no member of the family was allowed to enter. This was the hard and fast rule which Miss Sullivan laid down in order to change her pupil’s environment, since previously all members of the family had submitted to all the child’s tyrannical tantrums. Making her behave properly, sometimes by force, sometimes by the “stick-or-carrot” method, the young teacher, now driven to despair, now hoping for eventual success, was nevertheless steadily moving forward to her goal.
Helen now began to submit to the strict regime and standards set by her new teacher – sometimes willingly, sometimes because she was left no alternative, and she was now learning to behave properly at table, to be mannerly with her teacher, to dress and undress herself, etc.
From the very beginning of her work with Helen, Anne Sullivan attempted to spell out, using dactylic letters, the names of objects which Helen was given to feel. However, such attempts did not prove successful at first. It was not long though before Helen noticed that after she had made certain movements of her fingers a piece of cake would follow. Other members of the household, such as Helen’s mother and father, also started spelling out words on her hand for her.
As she taught Helen how to feel and handle various objects, Miss Sullivan always spelt out their names on her pupil’s hand or guided Helen’s fingers to trace out the names. This was the method she used while acquainting Helen with all the plants and animals in her little world, such as chicks, rabbits, crickets, squirrels, frogs, wild flowers and trees. For each of these there was a special sign to be traced out with the fingers, also for walking, running, standing, drinking, for petals, wings, river boats and so on and so forth.
At first Miss Sullivan set aside a special hour for learning dactylic words, namely from twelve to one o’clock in the afternoon. However, the teacher soon noticed that Helen found it easier to remember words outside lesson time, in a more natural setting while out for a walk or playing. Then they started learning words both during lesson time and outside it. However, the words which Helen learnt appeared as something external and alien to her day-to-day life, associated only with lessons, since she did not use them when communicating with other people, but continued to make do with gestures she herself had invented. She did not enjoy learning words and found it difficult to memorise them. Miss Sullivan was persistent in her efforts to light upon the right path. In her diary of that time she wrote: “I have decided not to try to have regular lessons for the present. I am going to treat Helen exactly like a two-year-old child. It occurred to me the other day that it is absurd to require a child to come to a certain place at a certain time and recite certain lessons, when he has not yet acquired a working vocabulary. I asked myself, ‘How does a normal child learn language?’ The answer was simple, ‘By imitation’ ... He sees people do things, and he tries to do them. But long before he utters his first word, he understands what is said to him. I have been observing Helen’s little cousin lately. She is about fifteen months old, and ready understands a great deal. In response to questions she points out prettily her nose, mouth, eye, chin, cheek, ear. If I say, ‘Where is baby’s other ear?’ she points it out correctly. If I hand her a flower and say ‘Give it to Mamma, ‘ she takes it to her mother.... She obeys many commands like these: ‘Come’, ‘Kiss’, ‘Go to Papa’, ‘Shut the door’, ‘Give me the biscuit.’ But I have not heard her try to say any of these words, although they have been repeated hundreds of times in her hearing and it is perfectly evident that she understands them. These observations have given me a clue to the method to be followed in teaching Helen language. I shall talk into her hand as we talk into the baby’s ears. I shall assume that she has the normal child’s capacity of assimilation and imitation. I shall use complete sentences in talking to her, and fill out the meaning with gestures and her descriptive signs when necessity requires it; but I shall not try to keep her mind fixed on any one thing, but on the contrary I shall do all I can to interest and stimulate it, and wait for results”.
Natural conversation using whole sentences was something very different from meaningless swotting of individual words at lesson time; it was real, live, essential conversation of boundless interest. Success was overwhelming. After a mere two weeks the teacher was to note the following: “The new scheme works splendidly. Helen knows the meaning of more than a hundred words now and learns new ones daily without the slightest suspicion that she is performing a most difficult feat. She learns because she can’t help it, just as the bird learns to fly. But don’t imagine that she ‘talks fluently’. Like her baby cousin, she expresses whole sentences by single words. ‘Milk’ with a gesture means, ‘Give me more milk’. ‘Mother’ accompanied by an inquiring look, means, ‘Where is mother?’ ‘Go’ means ‘I want to go out.’ But when I spell into her hand, ‘Give me some bread’, she hands me the bread, or if I say, ‘Get your hat and we will go to walk,’ she obeys instantly. The two words, ‘hat’ and ‘walk’ would have the same effect; but the whole sentence, repeated many times during the day, must in time impress itself upon the brain, and by and by she will use it herself” (65, p. 41).
In this way the young teacher had overcome the most formidable obstacle on the path to effective teaching – namely an artificial or formalistic approach, instruction divorced from real life and a child’s true interests. It was at this stage that she came into conflict with established pedagogic theory and methods of her time: “I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas, if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, or plant straw trees in bead flowerpots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of, before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences” (65, p. 42-43).
It could be said that, in the heat of polemics, Anne Sullivan here rejects all intervention of the teacher in the process of instructing a normal child; however, her view of the undoubted harm that artificial methods in teaching can cause is expressed vividly and to the point.
In another report on her work with Helen, Miss Sullivan writes: “I see no sense in ‘talking’ conversation for the sake of teaching language. It’s stupid and deadening to pupil and teacher. Talk should be natural and have for its object an exchange of ideas. If there is nothing in the child’s mind to communicate, it hardly seems worthwhile to require him to write on the blackboard, or spell on his fingers, cut and dried sentences about ‘the cat’, ‘the bird’, ‘a dog’. I have tried from the beginning to talk naturally to Helen and to teach her to tell me only things that interest her and ask questions only for the sake of finding out what she wants to know; when I see that she is eager to tell me something, but is hampered because she does not know the words, I supply them and the necessary idioms, and we get along finely. The child’s eagerness and interest carry her over many obstacles that would be our undoing if we stopped to define and explain everything” (65, pp. 71, 72).
The fortunate innovation that Anne Sullivan lighted on was her rejection of teaching grammar; she realised that without practical mastery of language the swotting of grammatical rules not only would not help but would to a large extent impede a child’s efforts to master language. She wrote at the time: “Grammar with its puzzling array of classifications, nomenclatures, and paradigms, was wholly discarded in her education. ... I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it, but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of thought. ... No amount of language training will enable our little children to use language with ease and fluency unless they have something clearly in their minds which they wish to communicate” (65, pp. 134, 133). At this stage the question as to the correlation between word and image arises.
Words can only be properly mastered if they denote what has been experienced. Words learnt as such possess no meaning, and they only obtain the latter when they are underpinned by immediate knowledge, first-hand experience. The practical demands of her work led Anne Sullivan to a vital principle fundamental to educational work with the deaf-blind, namely the need for precise and consistent correspondence in the child’s mind between each newly introduced word or grammatical category and the immediate image of objects to be talked about. However, not all the implications of this principle were appreciated by Miss Sullivan and she did not deliberately adopt it as the cornerstone of her teaching work. Later this principle was formulated by Ivan Sokolyansky and provided the basis for his system for the rearing and teaching of the deaf-blind. Anne Sullivan did not always abide by the principle that the image must always precede the word and correspond to the latter, and she sometime put forward principles that contradicted it. The main method which she advocated for promoting conceptions for deaf-blind children was the repetition of language material. She advocated frequent repetition of words and phrases maintaining that a “whole sentence, repeated many times during the day, must in time impress itself upon the brain, and by and by she will use it herself.” (65, p. 71)
What is the point of repeating phrases again and again, how can the pupil arrive at its meaning? That was a question for which Miss Sullivan had no ready answer. Neither she, nor the numerous writers who took it upon themselves to interpret her work later on, appreciated that the effective and correct imprinting of words and phrases on a child’s memory takes place only if the words and word combinations are underpinned by a previously formed system of immediate images; if no such images have been established then the words and phrases will only be mechanically assimilated, and they will remain empty, however often they are repeated. Yet when there does exist a correspondence between the words and phrases on the one hand and the immediate images on the other, there is no need for endless repetition; the words and phrases will be assimilated quickly and without difficulty.
In her work with Helen Keller to which Anne Sullivan devoted the whole of her life, she was tireless in her search for teaching methods and techniques and always ready to experiment. Devices which brought her nearer to the goal she had set herself were retained and others rejected. It was in this empirical way, through trial and error, that the young teacher evolved her teaching programme. Theoretically her method was never elaborated in full and taken to its logical conclusion. Practical mistakes, including her view that the best way to master language was by means of frequent repetition, led to certain unfortunate consequences. Precisely this conviction that understanding should be fostered by “endless repetition of phrases not understood by the child” (to use the words of the man who was to become Anne Sullivan’s husband, J. A. Macy, a journalist in charge of Helen Keller’s publicity) was not only a mistake from the theoretical point of view but also the main shortcoming of Anne Sullivan’s practical work as a teacher. The success of her efforts in teaching the deaf-blind girl Helen Keller showed that a deaf-blind person can be reared and taught like any other human being and taught not only to read and write but also to master social sciences. Helen Keller graduated from college, obtained a doctorate in philosophy, became a writer and prominent public figure in a campaign to organise specialised education for the handicapped and to further charitable enterprises. However, a closer perusal of Helen Keller’s writings reveals a major shortcoming in this pedagogical experiment. In Helen Keller’s book The World I Live In psychological details are obscured in a welter of literary reminiscences and theological digressions, which constitute the main fabric of the work: moreover the factual details of the deaf-blind author’s self-observation lose much of their authenticity when served up as literature.
Even when teaching a child possessed of normal sight and hearing there is a danger that he will assimilate words and word combinations mechanically without fully or correctly correlating them with concrete images, i.e. without truly understanding them. We are familiar with the unpleasant results of training the child as a philosophiser well-versed in adult language, at home with “adult” words.
The danger of the formalistic approach to the attainment of knowledge, the danger of “word-skill” as opposed to true knowledge, is ten times greater in the case of blind children. When it comes to deaf-blind children, this danger grows beyond measure, and the struggle to guard against it must become the teacher’s main objective every hour of every day. Thanks to the enormous capacity of the human memory the deaf-blind child can master an enormous amount of language material in a formal way without linking it up to the real world around him, and without possessing, in his mind, a sufficient wealth of first-hand images. The dangers inherent in such “accumulation” of knowledge loom still greater because it often goes unnoticed, for these empty words and phrases are subtly concealed by their “correct” usage in appropriate situations.
Helen Keller herself, without realising that she was pinpointing the main defect of the education she had received, wrote that she memorised a whole host of words and phrases, to whose meaning she had not the slightest clue, and later, when she began to talk and write, those same words and phrases surfaced quite naturally and were used by her so aptly that her friends and relatives could do nothing but marvel at her rich vocabulary.
Helen Keller found it so hard to differentiate between “literary reminiscences” and her own thoughts, that once, while still an adolescent, she “wrote” a fairy tale which, in actual fact, had been read to her and which she had remembered almost word for word. Principal of the Perkins institution Anagnos published the tale in his monthly journal. Imagine his surprise when he was informed that the tale was a repetition of one by Margaret T. Canby. Helen was told that the principal suspected her of having intentionally deceived him. She cried bitterly and decided never to write anything again since whatever she might write was obviously already known to people. It was explained to her that if she wrote about herself, it would be new to people. “If you write the story of your own life, you can be sure that you are not taking thoughts from anyone else.” She understood it and got down to work. Soon her story was ready, subjected to editing and sent to The Youth’s Companion. The publication of her story encouraged Helen, who understood “she could do anything with words on paper. That was her world. Through it she could share her life with others. In it she could visit with the peoples of other lands and even other times, the heroes of Ancient Greece, the characters from Shakespeare, the tribes of faraway jungles. ... She would read and write” (38, p. 87).
Later on in her life Helen Keller carried out that intention, she read and wrote. It was not her fault but rather her misfortune that “the world she lived in” was peopled not by real men and women but rather by literary heroes. Hers was indeed a world of quotations, ideas and opinions. So it was all too easy for Helen Keller to become the mouthpiece of religious and idealist philosophy. Helen read a great deal of religious and idealist books. Her own books were to a large extent paraphrases of what she had read, but they were presented to the general public as the revelations of a “self-nurtured spirit.” The next logical step from this was to put Helen Keller over as a woman of a highly “original” nature, an individual of “unique genius,” who had succeeded in attaining “great” and “eternal” truths through “sudden inspiration.”
Materials relating to the teaching of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller have been the subject of numerous publications by psychologists, philosophers and other men of learning.
It should be noted here that among teachers and theoreticians specialising in work with the deaf-blind in the West no one has equalled the achievement of Anne Sullivan, though she herself never claimed to have evolved any theory and saw herself as a practical teacher, nothing else. Indeed “Teacher” was to become her second name.
In the West since her day there have only appeared theoretical treatises on the subject, usually of an idealist character, apart from occasional descriptions of actual case histories.
Deaf-blindness is usually defined as the loss of sight and hearing from birth or early infancy and dumbness resulting from the lack of hearing. This definition is correct but from the teacher’s point of view inadequate. The definition of deaf-blindness from the pedagogical point of view should supply an answer to the question: Who needs to be taught at a special school for the deaf-blind? It is clear that children who are completely deaf, dumb and blind or virtually so, i.e., those who cannot see tangible objects or hear human speech must be taught at a school for the deaf-blind. However, for children who have residual hearing or sight left the question is not so simple.
In order to establish whether or not a child whose two distance-senses are inadequate and who suffers from speech defects is deaf-blind from the pedagogical point of view it is essential to consider the relationship between his three defects. Deaf-blindness is not the simple sum of the characteristics to be found in the blind or the deaf-mute. In the case of the deaf-blind the loss of hearing is not compensated for by sight, as is the case with the deaf-mute, nor is the loss of sight compensated for by the faculties of hearing and speech as is the case with the blind. With blind people even partial loss of hearing gives rise to far greater repercussions for the development of the child than those that would have ensued in the case of a seeing child. In just the same way partial loss of sight can have far more terrible consequences for the development of a deaf child than for one with normal hearing.
A child bereft simultaneously of sight and hearing develops quite differently from blind or deaf children. This difference lies above all in the fact that the deaf-blind child’s opportunities for communication with those around him are drastically curtailed. This is the crucial aspect of a deaf-blind person’s development.
Anyone with eyesight of 0.04 or less is classified as blind. Those whose loss of hearing within the range of frequencies of speech exceeds 75-80 decibels is classified as deaf. However, this does not imply that the category of the deaf-blind only includes those whose sight is defined as under 0.04, or whose loss of hearing exceeds 75-80 decibels. This quantitative approach to diagnosing deaf-blindness would be incorrect from the pedagogical point of view. It is important to start out not from quantitative data that convey the loss of hearing and sight, but rather to take as a starting point the level of the child’s development, his development with regard to means of communication with the people around him, and above all his speech development, the real condition of this communication.
As laid down by pertinent regulations, a person whose acuity of vision is below or no higher than 0.08 can become a member of the Society for the Blind in the Soviet Union. Deaf children with this degree of blindness are automatically eligible for tuition at homes for the deaf-blind. As experience has shown, deaf children with eyesight of 0.1 or less cannot be taught alongside other deaf children at a school for the deaf. They are virtually unable to read textbooks in ordinary unraised print, or to learn to lip-read. Children in this category remain outside the scope of both schools for the deaf and schools for the partially sighted. They have to be taught in schools for the deaf-blind.
If poor sight is complicated by deafness it is essential that an eye specialist assess whether it might not be detrimental for his child patient, in view of his defective sight, to read textbooks designed for the sighted on any regular basis and whether he is able, relying on his sight, to learn to lip-read. If it emerges that the disease which gave rise to impairment of the child’s vision has not yet run its course and the child is thus still under the threat of further deterioration in his vision, then it is vital for him to be accepted at a school for the deaf-blind immediately and to learn to read and write using the Braille alphabet before such a child loses his sight completely. More success is then achieved than in the case of children who have to learn to read and write all over again after losing their sight completely.
Naturally, when a child’s sight is being tested, it is essential to take into account not only the clarity of his vision but also the breadth of his field of vision, the state of his central and peripheral vision, his upper and lower vision, to establish whether he suffers from any squint, or strain in ocular functions, etc. In some cases the child’s sight-load must be reduced and the reading of “sighted” books forbidden, and at this stage transition to Braille script must be made. It is essential to teach deaf-blind children to make use of their residual sight. It sometimes happens, albeit rarely, that deaf-blind children with partially restored sight, make virtually no use of their sight, preferring to rely on their sense of touch as in the past.
In short, schools for the deaf-blind are open to deaf-mute children with any impairment of vision that makes it impossible for them to use textbooks designed for the sighted on a regular basis and to learn lip-reading.
As stated earlier, persons designated as deaf are those whose loss of hearing exceeds 75-80 decibels in the range of speech frequencies (500-3,000 Hz). However, in this context, too, a purely quantitative approach is inadequate for a definition of deaf-muteness in respect of teaching requirements. When analysing the condition of a deaf-mute child it is important to stress not only that he is deaf, but also that he is dumb as a result of that deafness. For this reason deaf-muteness is defined as loss of hearing from birth or infancy or impairment of hearing sufficiently serious to prevent a child from mastering the skills of oral speech relying on its hearing.
Impairments of hearing of various degrees can lead to underdeveloped powers of speech. Deafness is generally differentiated into the following three categories:
First degree: loss of hearing in the speech range not exceeding 50 decibels;
Second degree: loss of hearing in the speech range between 50 and 70 decibels;
Third degree: loss of hearing in the speech range in excess of 70 decibels.
First-degree deafness in sighted children either from birth or dating from the beginning of their speech development only leads to defective pronunciation. These children do acquire speech skills. Second-degree deafness can disrupt overall speech development, and in cases of third-degree deafness speech does not develop at all, at least in ordinary conditions. To make these categories more concrete let us say that second-degree deafness means such a reduction in a person’s powers of hearing that speech cannot be apprehended over a distance of more than one metre. When a child is blind and cannot see persons talking to him, not only third but second-degree deafness is sufficient to rob him of the powers of oral speech in ordinary conditions, i.e. if no special tuition is provided. Where conditions are particularly unfavourable for the development of a blind child (if a child is isolated or has very limited contact with other people), even first-degree deafness can give rise to significant underdevelopment of speech skills.
When blind children with impaired hearing are being considered for places in special schools, not the degree of their hearing difficulties is of decisive importance but the state of their speech skills. Deafness that has robbed the child of speech skills or has seriously disrupted their development (severe limitation of vocabulary, a total absence of grammar or distorted pronunciation), when found in conjunction with blindness, is taken as an indication that a child must be sent to a school for the deaf-blind.
To sum up, places at schools for the deaf-blind should be given to blind children with (any) hearing difficulties that have either robbed them of speech skills altogether or have severely impaired their speech.
Defining the educability of children is always a complex task. Schools for the deaf-blind cater precisely for educable children. However, it is extremely difficult to define the potential for intellectual development in children suffering from a complex variety of handicaps.
As stated earlier, deaf-blindness condemns a child to isolation from the people around him and interrupts his mental development. This interruption of mental development when deaf-blindness befalls a child does not mean that his mental development is static at the point reached before deaf-blindness struck. Indeed, this is not the case at all, for the isolation which sets in leads to degradation of the mind. A child can forget how to walk, feed and dress himself and use the lavatory. If a child loses his sight and hearing before learning to read and write, he usually loses his speech skills, if not given special lessons. When examining such a child it is extremely difficult to establish his potential for intellectual development and his educability. Deaf-blindness usually follows in the wake of some disease or other that has affected the brain, the meninges, the nerve conductors. It is often difficult to decide whether a child’s lack of development can be explained by his loss of sight and hearing or must instead be traced back to some kind of brain damage. The task of distinguishing educable deaf-blind children from the uneducable, who have not only lost their sight and hearing but are also mentally retarded as a result of organic brain damage, cannot be carried out in the course of a short, routine examination. Sometimes deaf-blind children are diagnosed as “mentally retarded.” Later however, when given special tuition, they prove both educable and capable of intellectual development. It goes without saying that if a child is subject to partial paralysis, hyperkinesia, disturbed balance or coordination asymmetry in face muscles, affected reflexes, and certain other symptoms that indicate damage to the central nervous system, a doctor or teacher examining a child would be on his guard and wonder whether he were not faced by a degree of mental retardation, resulting from organic brain damage, sufficient to block any teaching success. However, the presence of such symptoms, just as, indeed, their absence, cannot provide a decisive answer to the question as to whether or not the child is educable.
In a number of European countries and the United States a variety of tests is used to analyse and ascertain the level of a child development. Attempts were made to examine even deaf-blind children with recourse to tests. Work to this end was embarked upon by Benjamin Wolman and Frederick Davis in the United States. However, they themselves consider that their work is at the experimental stage and will remain so for a number of years owing to the present lack of standardised tests for the assessment of levels of development attained by children with this twofold handicap. As an initial method for examining the educability of deaf-blind children and ascertaining their level of development they propose a series of tests selected from a variety of testing systems used for children with impaired hearing or sight on the one hand, and very young children with normal sight and hearing on the other. This series includes an experimental variant of the Vineland scale used for testing the social maturity of pre-school children with defective sight, tests for assessing intelligence (Stanford-Binet scale), the maze test, etc.
It should be remembered that analysis by means of standardised tests even for normal children does not achieve its objective, as it does not ascertain the actual level of development and does not define abilities, since testing cannot take due account of the specific characteristics of each individual child. This is doubly true of deaf-blind children. It is impossible to find even two deaf-blind children who have attained identical levels of development or who have been exposed to identical living conditions. In the initial stage of their development (and it is precisely during that period that a child’s educability needs to be ascertained) deaf-blind children do not take in the test tasks put before them at all. The tests in question include for example: building towers from bricks for children in their second year, threading beads and building bridges from bricks in the third year, cutting out paper patterns and tying knots for children aged between four and five, threading beads according to memorised patterns in the sixth year, etc. All these tests are completely divorced from the life of the deaf-blind child, from his real needs. Of course, he could be specially taught to thread beads or manipulate bricks, but it is most doubtful whether these specially trained habits were an indication of his abilities. At this stage a deaf-blind child should be being taught, for example, to hold a spoon, to use a pot and to put on his shirt. The deaf-blind child accepts these tasks because self-care skills are linked in his mind with unmistakable advantages of a very tangible kind. Learning to master a spoon enables the deaf-blind child to eat his fill, while dressing himself makes it possible for a deaf-blind child to keep out the cold. The tasks with which tests confront him, on the other hand, are something completely alien and have no meaning since they do not lead to any results that are tangible to him.
Meanwhile, in practical terms this meant that even in the Perkins Institution for the Blind in the United States deaf-blind children who proved unable over a certain period of mastering oral speech were regarded as uneducable and expelled. It is quite wrong to rate a deaf-blind child as educable or the opposite on the basis of his capacity for mastering oral speech, the development of which may be impeded for example by defects of motor functions or articulation.
A child can only be dismissed as uneducable after the most careful consideration. Before reaching such a conclusion it is essential to make a serious attempt to teach him. A period of trial teaching reveals a child’s educability far more decisively than any short examination. If over a period of specially organised intensive tuition conspicuous advances are scored in acquiring such skills as independent feeding, washing and dressing, then this shows that the child is not a hopeless case and there is justification for continuing his instruction.
How long should this trial period, providing the basis for such an important decision, be?
In the Memorandum Concerning the Admission of Pupils to Special Schools that is now in force, providing guide-lines for certifying that a child unfit for ordinary school and requiring specialised tuition, it is laid down that this trial period for the education of such children in ordinary schools should be not less than a year. If in the course of that year the ordinary school has failed to achieve results despite every effort and the child is proved to have organic brain damage, then a decision will be taken to the effect that the child concerned cannot be educated in an ordinary school.
A similar procedure should be followed with regard to decisions on whether or not deaf-blind children can benefit from tuition. Decisions to the effect that a deaf-blind child cannot be taught should be made
(a) when it has been established that attempts made over the period of a year to teach such a child have not yielded results;
(b) when it has been established by medical specialists that the reason for the child’s failure to develop is mental retardation stemming from organic brain damage.
When deaf-blind children are being examined it is essential to bear in mind the difficulties stemming from the lack or highly specific nature of communication between the child being examined and those carrying out the examination. Many facts in ophthalmological, audiological and clinical examinations are established through verbal communication or visual indications. The specialist carrying out the examination would ask: “Can you see it?”, “Can you hear it?” or give verbal instructions such as “Put your hand up,” “Like this.” Naturally, deaf-blind children cannot understand questions or carry out verbal instructions, even if they are transmitted by manual words or in Braille script. In many of their case histories one finds such phrases as: “Hearing could not be assessed,” “Impossible to define sight level.” In such situation it is necessary to use methods that obviate the difficulties inherent in contact via speech, for example, registration of vasomotoric reactions (using plethysmography) and of cutaneogalvanic reflexes, or electroencephalography.
When embarking on teaching the deaf-blind it is extremely important to establish the degree of hearing or sight still preserved and the neurological condition of the child. Sooner or later in the education of such a child these factors can come to play a decisive role, for example any vestiges of hearing whatsoever in the development of vocalised speech.
Even if they are not currently suffering from any disease, all of these children bear the traces of a disease undergone at some earlier stage that has given rise to their deaf-blindness. No two deaf-blind children are ever identical. One may be asthenic and tire very easily, another overactive and wild; a third may be subject to fits, while a fourth might suffer from motoric impairments. Thus for each one of them the optimal teaching tempo and conditions should vary. Consultation with a neuro-pathologist is essential when seeking to ascertain what these optimal conditions might be.
Help from the neuro-pathologist should be two-fold. Firstly, medicines should be prescribed to build-up the child’s health in general, to encourage inhibited functions, to normalise overactive nervous processes, etc. This treatment makes for a more favourable prospect for teaching success. Secondly, knowledge of the neurological picture of a child’s disorder can facilitate the organisation of certain aspects of the teaching process. If it is known, for example, that the disorder was localised in the left cerebral hemisphere, then a greater load should be given to the left hand, when a pupil is being taught finger-spelling, thus making sure that the better preserved right hemisphere be drawn into the work, and made the centre of manual speech.