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Education: Iowa Braille School- Vinton

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      The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, Iowa has served as the center for the education of blind children for many years. For a period of time, it was a place of education for blind adults as well. 

      Founding of the School

      The school for the blind in Iowa was founded by Samuel Bacon. Bacon, blind since childhood, was educated at the Ohio School for the Blind and had established a school for the blind in Jacksonville, Illinois. During a visit to Keokuk, Iowa, he was persuaded to begin a similar program in Iowa. He started teaching three blind children in a house he rented in Keokuk. By December 1852, he had the backing of Iowa state legislators, including future Governor James Grimes, to establish a larger school. In January 1853, the “Asylum for the Blind” opened in Iowa City. As noted below, the school has had many names since its founding in 1853. Those names are reflective both of the mission of the institution and of the cultural times in which it operated.

      1853- Asylum for the Blind
      1854- Institution for the Instruction of the Blind
      1872- Iowa College for the Blind
      1926- Iowa School for the Blind
      1951- Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School

      Bacon changed the name from the Asylum for the Blind soon after its founding. He did not want to give the impression that the school was a poorhouse. So, the named was changed to the Institution for the Instruction of the Blind in 1854. As the institution gained prestige, interest in it increased significantly. When the Governing Board requested more space in 1856 fifty students were in attendance.  School officials and legislators looked into expansion. Bacon wanted the expanded school to remain in Iowa City. He felt that the students needed to be a part of the community and that materials and services would be more easily obtained. However, an offer of free land near Vinton proved attractive to the legislators. In 1862, buildings for the school were erected on the outskirts of Vinton. Bacon left the school in 1862 because of his opposition to the move. He went on to establish a school for the blind in Nebraska. Today, the site in Vinton remains the home of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School; the city of Vinton has grown around it.

      Student Body

      Initially, blind persons between the ages of seven and twenty-two could enroll in the school. The school also accepted students aged 22-35 for trades training only, such as chair caning, basketry, or needlework. While preference was given to Iowans, blind persons from other Midwestern states attended as well, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Students whose families could afford to pay tuition were required to do so; students from out of state were also required pay to a fee in order to attend. One of the most well-known students to attend the school was Mary Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder who was the author of the Little House series of books.

      Students lived at the school for most of the year. Students returned to their homes over holiday breaks and in the summer. In the 1970s, the school began providing bus transportation so that students could go home for the weekends. Read a newspaper account from 1972 about the change: "Blind Students, Parents like Home Trips".

      Curriculum

      The curriculum focused on academic, music, and industrial pursuits. During the early years, a student’s day began at 6:00 am and ended at 8:00 pm, except on Sundays. (Schedule of the Early School) Teachers taught basic courses, such as arithmetic, and classes on "useful trades," such as bead work, sewing, rug-making, and broom-making. Trades training was provided so that students could use these skills to supplement their families' income by selling their handcrafted items. (Learn more about the history of employment of blind Iowans.)

      The musical education at Vinton was thorough and most students read music, played an instrument, and sang. Late in the 19th century piano tuning was introduced into the curriculum. This trade was taught only to male students. The expectation was that students learning piano tuning would obtain self-sufficient employment. (Businessman and long-time Iowa Commission for the Blind board member, Carlos E. Laustrup learned piano tuning at the school and subsequently opened a successful music store in Council Bluffs, Iowa.)

      The Iowa School for the Blind was officially considered a custodial care institution until 1911 when it became an accredited school under the Board of Education. Training in rug-making, broom-making, and hammock tying continued to be a part of the curriculum until 1936 when these activities were phased out. After that time, the only vocational classes taught were Music and Industrial Arts. The music education was considered to be at a college level, and those who went on to get degrees in music did not have to repeat courses they had already taken at the school.

      In later years, the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School provided an array of extra-curricular activities. Boy Scout, Girl Scout, and other groups met on campus, giving students something to do on the weekends. Track and wrestling teams competed with other schools for the blind, all with the encouragement of the cheerleading team.

      A thorough history of the school can be found in the book Gleanings from Our Past by Dorothy Petrucci O'Leary and Catherine Goddard. This book was published by the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in 1984.

      Lois Tiberghien (class of 1910) submitted this written recollection to the school: A Backward Glance at the Iowa School for the Blind. (Story from the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School records.)

      Introduction of Braille

      Initially, recitation was the primary instructional method as school officials felt that using Raised Print books was inefficient. With the introduction of Braille and New York Point books a more traditional, reading-based education was possible. Both New York Print and Braille were tactile systems that used raised dots arranged in cells that could be read with the finger tips. Starting in 1887, New York Point was taught alongside Raised Print. The New York Point system was taught at the school until 1920 when it began to be replaced by Braille. The use of a tactile writing and reading system, like Braille, allowed students to read their lessons and prepare homework independently. (Learn more about the adoption of Braille as the uniform system of reading and writing in the United States here: www.afb.org/warofthedots/book.asp and www.afb.org/afbpress/pubjvib.asp?docid=jvib000302.)

      Sight Saving Instruction

      In 1951, the school was renamed the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School to reflect a change in the educational approach. From 1928 until 1943, Braille was taught to all incoming classes. As ophthalmologist learned more about the function and diseases of the eye, theories regarding sight saving were introduced. The belief at the time was that by using sight sparingly, it could be saved. In 1943, the school began using Large Print books. Students with some vision were required to read from these materials for a period of time and then work on a non-sight based activity. Other sight-saving efforts that were introduced included the use of green chalk boards with yellow chalk and yellow paper with thick, black pencils. The theory of sight saving was later proven false. However, visual techniques and tools for those who have some vision continue to be used in instruction, including magnifiers, Closed-Circuit Televisions, screen enlargement software for computers, and contrasting color combinations. Often, those who have some remaining vision use a combination of visual and non-visual techniques, such as traveling with a cane, accessing information by Braille or audio, and a host of other techniques.

      An unintended consequence of the introduction of the sight-saving approach was that divisions based on sight were created. Students with some sight, "partials," were treated differently than those who had none, "totals." Totals were taught Braille whereas partials were expected to read large print. Partials were permitted to hold jobs assisting kitchen staff, give tours, and leave campus with another partial. Totals did not have these privileges. This different treatment led to the belief that the more sight one had the better they would get along outside Vinton. Over time, attitudes changed such that expectations for students with no vision are the same as those as those who have vision.

      Relationship with the Iowa Commission for the Blind

      The Iowa Commission for the Blind was established in 1925. For many years, the purpose of the Commission was to train blind Iowans in the production a variety of handcraft items, loan or lease tools and equipment needed to produce the handcrafted items, and to market and sell those items. The legislation that established the Commission required that the superintendent of the school serve as a member of the board that provided oversight to the Commission. Commission staff worked closely with school staff to host a six-week summer school program for blind adults between the years of 1927 and 1947. Between the years of 1959 and 1965, Kenneth Jernigan, the Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, sought to move administrative control of the school from the State Board of Regents to the Commission. This attempt was met with resistance from several arenas. An important point of dispute centered on the different educational approaches of blind individuals espoused by the Commission and the School. Ultimately, the Board of Regents retained administrative oversight. However, rule changes removed the mandate that the superintendent of the school be a required member of the Commission Board. (Newspaper articles and other publications on this controversy are included in the Iowa Blind History archive.)

      The School Today

      The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School remains in Vinton. However, since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, enrollment at the school has declined. Now, the school serves as the administrative center for the statewide Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVI) program. The Teachers of the Visually Impaired travel the state to provide instruction in alternative skills, such as Braille, assistive technology, and Orientation and Mobility, to students in their home school. A few students continue to attend classes at Vinton as day students. The school no longer has a residential component.

      Read more about the Integration into Public Schools.

      Blind Iowans Talk about their Experiences as Students at Vinton:

      Eldred Gerhold
      Roger Erpelding 
      Jim Snowbarger
      Karen Keninger- A day at the Braille School

      To hear the full narrations, read transcripts, or find additional oral histories in which blind Iowans talk about their educational experiences, visit the Oral History page.

      Additional materials are available in the Iowa Blind History archives.