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History of Early Intervention O&M: 1797-1900

Updated: Jun 5

Anatomy of 1797 Advice to Parents of Blind Babies A blind baby  “should lose a little blood, or even break a bone than be perpetually confined in the same place, debilitated in his frame and depressed in his mind”  Written by two blind professors of philosophy. Drs Blacklock and Moyes Published in a Reference Text 3rd Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica A blind baby  “should lose a little blood, or even break a bone than be perpetually confined in the same place, debilitated in his frame and depressed in his mind” perpetually confined in the same place Blind babies don’t move very well, very far, or very often. debilitated in his frame and depressed in his mind. Blind children unable to walk are delayed emotionally, physically, and cognitively. should lose a little blood, or even break a bone In the 1700s, we can think of no way a blind infant can safely walk independently. Inventions of the 1700 The piano was invented in the 1700s, and in the 1800s students at residential schools for the blind were taught to play professionally or to be piano tuners. Ben Franklin invented bi-focal eyeglasses. Yet, learned men who were blind could not even conceive of the idea that one should make a safety device to protect blind babies when they moved about freely. instead they advised parents to let their blind babies break their bones and lose blood. Parents of blind toddlers need a solution for keeping their blind babies safe as they explore to learn.

"The blind man who governs his steps by feeling, in defect of eyes, receives advertisement of things through a staff." — Digby (1622)

With the mass of those who are blind, there is little choice; they must either walk alone or sit still; and as health of body, tranquility and vigor of mind, and the attainment of the means of subsistence largely depend upon the power of moving at will ... One of the greatest aids to him who would walk by himself is a stick ; this should be light and not elastic, in order that correct impressions may be transmitted from the objects with which it comes in contact…” (Levy, 1872, p. 69).

Adults who became blind as adults seemed to have always understood the value of using a tool for safe mobility. From earliest recorded history, newly blinded adults have restored their safety using a stick, staff, human or animal guide. The same cannot be said of adults overseeing the development of infants with mobility visual impairment or blindness (MVI/B).

Parents have always had great difficulty teaching their infants born with MVI/B to walk. Many have invested time and energy trying to follow the developmental sequence first described in 1797 by two scholars who were blind themselves. The instructional sequence still in place today in early intervention for learners with a visual impairment states: First, 1) teach the child to WALK, after they are walking, then 2) teach the child to ORIENT, and once they are moving about well; THEN, FINALLY you can 3) teach the child to use a tool for SAFETY.

In the 21st century, research has documented a consistent 30 percent of learners with a visual impairment who are not able to develop within that recommended sequence. Their visual function is more aptly described as MVI/B.

Researchers have observed that blind toddlers don't walk unless holding a hand (Ambrose-Zaken, 2023, 2022). The opposite of this observation is also true. Blind babies can and do walk when they hold a hand, touch a wall, a table, a couch…, anything will do in a pinch.

People with MVI/B need more tactile contact with their world, than sighted children. They use hand holding to travel more efficiently.

When you understand how smart this behavior is, then you can understand why a white cane solution, like a Belt Cane, works so well in achieving walking and daily physical activity goals. Belt Canes provide these infants with more points of contact and safety. (Ambrose-Zaken, 2023, Penrod, Burgin, Ambrose-Zaken, 2024).

This is the first in a series of articles that takes the reader on a journey back in time to the origin story of the developmental sequence still in use today. First published in 1797, parents of infants with MVI/B have followed it faithfully, with limited success, for the past 220 years.

The history of early intervention for infants with MVI/B is important to understand. This series will make the case that it is the lack of proper safety caused by blindness that creates the deficits parents and professionals struggle with daily. The good news, there is a way to improve their safety.

The revised developmental sequence is 1) Provide safe mobility to the infant with MVI/B; and then 2) Play, explore, laugh, and learn together. The Pediatric Belt Cane allows infants with MVI/B to remain in contact with the structures of the world around them and it protects them as they move through the world.

But first, we must begin at the beginning on the isle of Scotland in the late 1700s.

18th Century

Drs. Blacklock and Moyes, both blind, authored an article entitled "Blind” for the Encyclopedia Britannica: Third Edition. They recommended to parents that it would be better that the child with MVI/B “should lose a little blood, or even break a bone than be perpetually confined in the same place, debilitated in his frame and depressed in his mind” (Levy, 1872, p. 76).

Dr. Blacklock, blind at age 6 months due to smallpox, was an “eminent philosopher, divine, and poet” (Levy, 1872, p.76). According to Levy (also blind), Blacklock blamed his parents for his physical weakness and timidity of nature, because they did not allow him to walk anywhere without a guide.

One could argue Dr. Blacklock seems to have fared well in life. Exhibit 1) he’s a Doctor of Philosophy, and b) he was tapped to write for the Encyclopedia Britannica –  …on any scale those are points in the plus column for development.

Yet, Blacklock's beliefs found their way into his and Moyes' 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica article in the cruelest way imaginable. They advocated for parents to ignore their children and instead to listen to them.

If they had listened to their children they might have heard the reason they were not letting go and walking, they felt unsafe and their blindness makes it necessary to increase the amount of tactile contact they have with the world.

Blacklock and Moyes’ encyclopedia article firmly established the 'walk first, safety later' developmental sequence in early intervention for infants with MVI/B. All subsequent early intervention educational texts have recommended this sequence of development to parents and professionals supporting the needs of infants with MVI/B. The incredibly cruel and wrong-headed method repeated through the centuries exposed blind children to direct bodily injury 'for their own good'.

Table 1. Modern interpretation of 1797 advice to parents. Advice to Parents in 1797 “…perpetually confined in the same place” Modern Interpretation “Parents prevent children with MVI/B from independent walking.”  1797 “debilitated in his frame and depressed in his mind”, modern ‘children unable to walk are at a significant disadvantage emotionally, physically, and cognitively’, 1797 “should lose a little blood, or even break a bone”, Modern – ‘in the 1700s we can think of no way an infant with MVI/B can safely walk independently’.

Blacklock and Moyes’ 1797 Thesis That They Delivered to The Future Is True. 

The modern interpretation of Blacklock and Moyes advice solidifies two truths, one, that walking is the most important outcome of infant development. Two, it is dangerous for blind infants to walk unaided.

Yet, Blacklock & Moyes’ solution contained no quest for finding a way to accomplish the first by improving the second. Instead, the belief that the child with MVI/B must endure bruises to be truly independent was now written in stone, or, at least, in a highly respected reference book.

    The piano was invented in the 1700s, and in the 1800s students at residential schools for the blind were taught to play professionally or to be piano tuners. In the 1700s, Ben Franklin invented bi-focal eyeglasses for people whose vision could be corrected with lenses. Yet, in the 1700s, learned men who were blind could not even conceive of the idea of making a safety device to protect blind babies when they walked.

black and white photo of a nicely dressed blind girl reading braille with right hand and playing piano with her left. Spanish caption Menina coga tocando piano a tendo musica em braille - fotografia de Lewis Hine (1874-1940)

19th Century

As founding superintendent of Perkins School for the Blind, Samuel Gridley Howe oversaw every aspect of his pupils' education. The influence Blacklock and Moyes' had on the curriculum taught at the first US school for the blind was obvious in Howe's Ninth Annual Report to the school's Trustees.

Howe wrote, “Do not too much regard bumps upon the forehead, rough scratches, or bloody noses; even these may have their good influences. At the worst, they affect only the bark, and do not injure the system like the rust of inaction”(1841, p.8).

Table 2. Modern interpretation of 1841 advice to parents. Advice to Parents in 1841“… the rust of inaction”; Modern Interpretation - ‘Children with MVI/B don’t move very well, very far, or very often.’ 1841- “…injure the system”, modern- Children unable to walk are at a significant disadvantage emotionally, physically, and cognitively.;  1841- “…bumps upon the forehead, rough scratches, or bloody noses”, modern - In the 1800s, we can think of no way an infant with MVI/B can safely walk independently.; 1841- Injuries “… may have their good influence”; Modern - Blind babies benefit from bruises.

Howe’s advice to parents was to consider any resulting 'bumps, scratches and bloody noses' that befell their children with MVI/B as proof of their success as parents.

The real problem was that nobody believed the blind babies.

These learned men were convinced that the evidence before them, that infants with MVI/B did not walk any distance unless in contact with someone, was the result of ignorance on the part of the infants. Ignorance, they believed, that could be overcome with rigorous educational standards, which began with achievement of independent walking.

Everyone recognized the potential of the infant with MVI/B to learn, and those could also physically walk. Everyone understood the fear preschoolers with MVI/B demonstrated when walking independently was a natural fear to have. The advice to parents focused on how important it was for blind infants to walk independently and believed the child's fear could be overcome through an adult's shear force of will.

These texts did not attempt to interpret the infants with MVI/B persistence on being in contact with their world, instead they made walking without a guide as the highest form of independence for all age groups. Yet, at the most basic level, an infant's contact is an act of self-preservation, because holding on to a parent is a more efficient and safer way to walk.

Children with MVI/B appeared to prefer to remain connected to objects even when standing still (Ambrose-Zaken, 2022, 2023; Penrod, et al., 2024). Yet, adults insisted children with MVI/B would only, could only be made strong and whole by enduring the gauntlet of making their way through the furniture inside home, across the uneven terrain of the yard, and among the hustle and bustle of the community completely exposed and unprotected.


The 1800s was a time of great expansion in ideas, abilities, and technical solutions for people great and small.

Inventions in the 1800s included the typewriter, a device immensely important to students of residential schools for the blind to independently write print. The telephone, steam engine, electricity, and the light bulb were all invented in the 1800s, just no device for keeping blind babies safe.

Black and White photo 13 young women neatly arranged with their teachers sitting at their typewriters. Perkins school for the Blind Archives. Female students at teh Royal Normal College for the Blind in Upper Norwood, England participate in a typing class. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

A Modern Idea at the Turn of the Century, Just Say 'There Is No Problem'.

The 19th century development of residential schools was dominated by men who had high educational and physical standards for their students with MVI/B beginning with strict admissions requirements; the children had to demonstrate "intellectual promise" (Koestler, 1976, p. 403). Their students were expected to ride bicycles, roller skate, play football and other ball games, and run track. All to prove that blind kids can do anything sighted kids can do.

Black and white photo of boys dressed in 19th century football gear on offense at the line of scrimmage. Caption reads Football team of the kentucky institution for the education of the blind (See "Athletic Sports for the Blind," by the physical instructor of the Kentucky Institution)

Most founders of schools for the blind did not train to be educators. In the 19th century, many schools for the blind were begun with one or two children. In Vienna, Johann Wilhelm Klein (1804) took in a blind lad, Jakob Braun, into his home with the purpose of educating him. His success led him to seek public funds to start a school for the blind which became the Imperial Royal Institute for the Education of the Blind. Klein published his theories which included advocating for children with MVI/B to attend the same school as their peers.

The start of the Oak Hill School in Connecticut also began with a series of well-meant abductions. Emily Wells Foster, took blind immigrant children from the darkened halls of “a rundown tenement” to begin her school:

“Foster made her way to the tenement and, while groping along the darkened walls, she found the object of her search, literally tripping over the child as he sat motionless and silent on the dank floor. He was three years old and …feeble, deformed and unpromising…his life was absolutely devoid of interest or occupation” (Palm, 1993, p. 9).

Black and White photo of a boy and girl in white dress covers, facing each other, holding hands, hugging, one is wearing dark, round sunglasses. Caption reads the first two nursery children, Antonio Martello and Antonio Martone.

One notable exception, Overbrook in Pennsylvania began with a study of practices in France begun by Valentin Hauy, the sighted founder of the Royal institution of Blind Children. Hauy's focus was to teach students with MVI/B manual work skills that would enable them to earn a living. He may be best known for teaching blind children to read raised letters.

Early educators of children with MVI/B also had access to the publications of Howe, Klein, and Francis Campbell. Howe and Klein were both sighted, Campbell, who founded the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind, was sighted until age 6. Campbell, like Howe & Klein, was a learned, respected, and well-traveled man.

Among these superintendents of residential schools for the blind, there was no mystery that blindness was the cause of their students' fear of walking.

The problem was the solution. These superintendents of schools for the blind were, "...convinced that only through exercise could they overcome the natural fear of injury which locked so many blind people into sedentary existences" (1976, p. 403). They admitted into their schools only children who had demonstrated "sufficient intelligence to educate...". From these children they understood their fear of walking was "natural".

Yet, instead of finding a way to protect them as they walked, they pushed them to face those natural fears completely unprotected (Koestler, 1976, p. 404). The common sentiment that united the advice to parents was that blind children would get hurt, and this would increase their tolerance for the pain resulting from the naturally occurring, unavoidable collisions from being blind.

By the end of the 19th century, the world of providers of educational services for blind babies had been convinced there had to be a way to teach children with MVI/B to overcome their resistance to walking independently. Unfortunately, it was doomed to fail because it relied on developing in these children a supernatural ability to navigate without any protection whatsoever.

An impossible goal.

The 19th century ended with the widespread distribution of a letter entitled, “To the Parents of Blind Children”. It was first distributed to families at the private Institute for the Blind in Austria in 1893. It was so popular, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind sent it out to its families in 1898; and in 1907 the journal Outlook for the Blind published the letter in its entirety. The authors advised parents to…

“1. Treat the blind child exactly as if it were a seeing child, and try as early as

possible to make it put its body and mind into action... Teach the child to walk

at the age when seeing children learn” and

“2. Do not allow the child to sit long in one place alone and unoccupied, but

encourage it to go about in the room, in the house, in the yard, and, when

older, even about the town” (p. 44).

Table 3. Modern interpretation of 1898 advice to parents. Advice to Parents in 1898- “…Do not allow the child to sit long in one place alone and unoccupied”, Modern Interpretation-Children with MVI/B don’t move very well, very far, or very often, Children unable to walk are at a significant disadvantage emotionally, physically, and cognitively. 1898-“…Teach the child to walk at the age when seeing children learn”, modern-Actively walking is the only way to learn about the environment; 1898- “…encourage it to go about in the room, in the house, in the yard, and, when older, even about the town.” Modern-Children with MVI/B appear to walk more freely at home., Children with MVI/B appear to walk less freely in unfamiliar places.; 1898-“Treat the blind child exactly as if it were a seeing child...”, modern-Children’s MVI/B is not a factor when making educational and safety decisions.

Once again, the problem was framed as the solution.

The new twist on the old problem was amplified further in this article. The first sentence uses the phrase "do not allow the child to sit". This phrase squarely places the blame on the child. The authors are saying, the child with MVI/B is getting away with the bad behavior of sitting too long.

This speaks perhaps to the frustration felt by well-meaning and hard working teachers at schools for the blind witnessing what Howe reported, “Most of our pupils are over fourteen years old when they enter, and they have generally the quiet and staid demeanor, and the sedentary habits of adults (p. 5).

The adults were interpreting the children's reluctance to freely walk and run as an ignorance on the part of the children, rather than recognizing it as a natural human reaction to unsafe conditions.

There are only arguments to be made in favor of the the next two points in the popular letter which provided expectations and goals for development that are age and outcome based. It is the final sentence that confounds logic in our modern understanding. "Treat the child exactly as if it were a seeing child..."

How can it be right that adults should not consider the degree of visual impairment when making safety and education decisions for infants?

This advice has continued to be heralded as the highest standard a blind child could achieve; to be treated no different from a sighted child. This meant, blind children should roller skate, ride bikes, and be encouraged to do sport and other games that rely on eye/hand coordination. The obvious difficulty being, that this leads to feelings of unworthiness. How can a blind child truly compete in games of eye/hand coordination and why should they?

20th Century

The 1900s was a time of revolutionary inventions. Inventions in the early 1900s included the radio and phonograph, devices used to teach, entertain, and inform graduates of residential schools for the blind. The telephone, steam engine, electricity, the light bulb, computers, cell phones, long canes and rocket ships to the moon were all invented in the 1900s…just no device for keeping blind babies safe.

Black and white picture - six men sit around a record player, caption Blind students listen to a "talking book" at Lighthouse in New York. (PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

The next blogs in this series will delve into more detail about the early 20th century, before and after the white cane makes its way into the advice provided to parents.

Every time you feel pressured to encourage your blind baby to walk into danger - remember - Safe Toddles has research to prove that blood, bruises and broken bones do not result in better blind baby outcomes. Your blind baby doesn't walk because he can't see where he is going and he doesn't feel safe.

The people who wrote the advice to act as if your child could see did not base their conclusions on any scientific rationale, nor did they study the outcomes of their hypothesis.

Maybe they just didn't know it was wrong? What else could explain such barbaric treatment of our most precious resource-our beautiful blind babies.

Same boy on left leans on a table, no shoes, wearing an infant one-sy; right side t-shirt, pants, tennis shoes and Belt Cane at a grocery store independently locates the cart with his belt cane


Levy, W. H. (1872). On the Blind Walking Alone, and of Guides” (pp. 68-77) in

(W. H. Levy) Blindness and the Blind: A Treatise on the Science of Typhlology.

London : Chapman and Hall

Howe, S. (1841). The Ninth Annual Report of the trustees, of the Perkins

Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the blind 1841 from Boston:

Koestler, F. A. (1976). The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the

United States. New York: David McKay Co.

Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. (1907). To the Parents of Blind

Children Leaflet Number I (1898). In Outlook for the Blind July.

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