What America Looked Like: Blind Athletes in Pyramid Formation


In the spring of 1911, talented gymnasts like these helped change the way Americans -- even the president -- perceived the sightless

blind athletes.jpg

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.
Later in the speech, Taft advocated for greater educational opportunities for the blind, encouraging early-childhood interventions as well as medical research to search for preventative measures. Taft made good on his promise, and two years later was involved in the dedication of The New York Light House, a blind education workshop.

The athletes pictured here stood proof of Taft's message that the blind could escape a life of doldrums. In what must have been a great excitement, Overbrook gymnasts even performed for the president during the exhibition (although it is unclear whether this picture, dated the same day as the Metropolitan Opera House exhibition, depicts those particular boys). 

Helen Keller who, seven years earlier, had become the first deaf-blind person to earn an undergraduate degree, was invited to the event, but sent a letter instead. In the correspondence, she expressed astonishment in how quickly blind-awareness had spread since the turn of the century. "Ten years ago all that was known about the blind was locked up in institutions," she wrote. "Now they have come forth from cloistered seclusion and have become your fellow citizens." 

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."
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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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