In the spring of 1911, talented gymnasts like these helped change the way Americans -- even the president -- perceived the sightless
Library of Congress
For a least the time it takes for a camera shutter to flicker, these students at Overbrook School for the Blind enjoy an accomplishment. They're outside on a sunny April day, performing a gymnastic endeavor like any other group of able-bodied athletes.
This image was captured in the spring of 1911, a turning point in terms of public perception of the blind. On the very same day this picture was dated, April 27, President Taft presided over a blindness awareness exhibition at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. There, the blind demonstrated their capabilities, playing music, dancing, and showing off their handmade crafts to dignitaries and blind-awareness advocates. As reported in the New York Times, Taft took blind education as a personal cause, and told the the crowd in no uncertain terms,
the loss of that sense which enables us to see, to read, to write, to walk ... to look into the universe of countless words, is a deprivation the very thought of which melts our hearts and brings tears to our eyes for the afflicted. Without thought we class them all among the helpless and necessary objects of charity. We segregate them from the world at large, we put them in expensive asylums ... and then with a sigh we consign them to a life of hibernation, of deadening monotony, of helpless aimless existence within a windowless tomb.
At least one attendee overcame such ignorance in the course of the exposition. "I always pitied the blind," an anonymous observer told The New Outlook for the Blind, a quarterly journal. "I knew that they could be taught to read and write, but I never supposed that they could do anything which would be of real value. ... I shall never again think that blindness is necessarily a hopeless condition."