Massachusetts Commission for the Blind History

Established July 13, 1906

As one of the original five Commissioners, Helen Keller was instrumental in launching and setting the philosophy of the first Commission for the Blind in the United States. For more than a century, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) has believed in the ability of people who are blind to be productive members of society. Since 1906, MCB's mission has been to provide access to employment opportunities and social rehabilitation with the goal of increasing independence and full community participation.

"The curse of the blind is not blindness, but idleness." - Helen Keller

A Blind Advocate Makes History (1899-1906)

"By Chapter 13 of the Resolves of 1899, the State Board of Education was directed to inquire and report upon the feasibility of instructing the adult blind in their homes. The Legislature of 1899 was led to take this action mainly through the appeal of the late J. Newton Breed of Somerville. Mr. Breed, who had become blind in the prime of his life, was keenly alive to the pitiable condition of many of the adult blind in the State, who were rendered unhappy and dependent through lack of occupation. He strove assiduously to have means provided for their home instruction."

The secretary of the State Board of Education prepared a report titled, "Feasibility of Instructing the Adult Blind at their Homes," which showed the needs of adults who were blind were "both genuine and unprovided for." The report stated there was "a considerable proportion of the adult blind for whom home instruction is both feasible and desirable." 

In accordance with the report's recommendations, the Legislature of 1900 appropriated $1,000, "to be expended by the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind for the instruction of the adult blind at their homes." The State Board of Education has to approve how the money was spent. The trustees of the Perkins Institution also granted $100 to the Alumni Assocation of the Perkins Institution, which in 1898, started providing home instruction for certain woman who were blind.

The General Court made a further appropriation of $3,600 in 1901 and $5,000 in 1902 for the instruction of adults who were blind at their homes. For several years, four people who were blind served the Commonwealth as home teachers for people who were blind, with laudable results. They mainly taught writing and the use of embossed type for reading, but also gave lessons in basketry, sewing, and knitting. 

In 1902, a group of women connected to the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston became actively interested in the welfare of adults who were blind. They enlisted the help of philanthropists and other community-minded people who teamed up to organize the Massachusetts Assocation for Promoting the Interests of the Adult Blind. Together, they tried to persuade the Legislature to create an industrial home for the blind, similar to institutions already maintained or aided by the states of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. At the suggestion of Governor John Bates, their plans were modified. In early 1903, they urged the Legislature to authorize the creation of a Commission to investigate the condition of adults who were blind and to report to the Legislature of 1904. 

Accordingly, in August 1903, Governor Bates appointed a Commission consisting of Mr. A. H. Hardy (Chairman) of Boston, Dr. Edward M. Hartwell of Boston, and Miss. Agnes Irwin of Cambridge. The Commission:

  • Held hearing and conferences with people who were blind and their friends.
  • Consulted with the overseers of people who were impoverished in several Massachusetts cities and towns.
  • Visited people who were blind in various parts in Massachusetts.
  • Toured the major educational and industrial institutions for people who were blind east of the Mississippi River.
  • Studied relevant reports and legislation. 

A Permanent State Agency is Proposed and Established

The Commission filed a report on January 15, 1904, and recommended the creation of a permanent state board consisting of five people who had authority to prepare and maintain a complete register of adults who were blind in Massachusetts. The board would also:

  • Establish a bureau of industrial aid for the purpose of developing home industries and helping people who were blind find jobs.
  • Establish one of more shop schools, designed to provide suitable instruction and work for people who were blind. 

The Legislature of 1904 received the report but did not see fit to act upon the recommendations. Instead, the Legislature appointed a second Commission to prepare a register of adults who were blind in the state. The Commission was also tasked with investigating and reporting on "the advisability and feasibility of ameliorating the condition of adults who were blind by industrial training or establishing of industrial schools or by any other means." The Commission was given a deadline of January 15, 1905.

The Commission's deadline was extended to January 1906. The Legislature also authorized the Bureau of Statistics of Labor, which conducted the 1905 state census, to help the Commission prepare the register by providing the names and addresses of people who were blind and recorded in the census. 

The Commission filed its report on January 15, 1906. The report included a register of people who were blind, along with recommendations and a bill. The recommendations included: 

  1. "The establishment of a permanent board for improving the condition of the blind. We believe that women and blind persons should be eligible for membership on such a board."
  2. "That the register and catalogues which we have prepared shall be placed in charge of said board, and that they shall be charged to maintain and perfect the same, to the end that the board may be enabled to serve as a bureau of investigation, information and advice."
  3. "That the Board shall serve as a bureau of industrial aid, to find new forms of employment for the blind, to aid them in finding work, and to develop home industries among the blind."
  4. "That the board shall be empowered to establish and manage a system of industrial schools and workshops, for the purpose of affording suitable blind persons instruction and work in the lines of industry best suited to their needs."

In accordance with these recommendations, the bill reported by the Commission, with slight changes, was enacted as Chapter 385, Acts of 1906, and approved by Governor Curtis Guild Jr. on May 11, 1906.

Many citizens, including Helen Keller and the members of the Massachusetts Association for Promoting the Interests of the Adult Blind, were involved in the intense lobbying and advocacy to establish the agency.

Below is the statement that Helen Keller made at a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature in 1903: 

"It has long been my earnest desire to help the blind. It is terrible to be blind and to be uneducated; but it is worse for the blind who have finished their education to be idle. Their very education becomes a burden because they cannot use it... They think, think, think in the long days that are nights... Their education was a delight, and a privilege; but for what have they been educated? ... I often receive letters from them, and the cry of their despair is in my heart as I speak. If the Commonwealth will establish a Commission to place the blind in positions of self-support, it will be doing three things - helping the blind, relieving itself from the burden of caring for them, and setting an example to other states..."
A photo of Helen Keller holding a magnolia circa 1920

Commissioners Appointed

On July 6, 1906, Governor Guild appointed five members of the Commission. 

  • Dr. Edward M. Hartwell of Boston, for five years. 
  • Miss. Helen Keller of Wrentham, for four years.
  • Miss. Annette P. Rogers of Boston, for three years. 
  • Dr. J.H. A. Matte of North Adams, for two years. 
  • Mr. Robert L. Raymond of Milton, for one year.

At its first meeting on July 18, 1906, the committee elected Dr. Hartwell as Chairman and Mr. Raymond as Secretary. 

Following its organization, the Commission opened an office at 15 Ashburton Place in Boston. The Commission established two departments: the Department of Registration and Information and the Industrial Department.

Public Services Begin

The early days the Commission were busy with the establishment of what is known today as the Blindness Registry and the development of the Industries Department. From the beginning, the agency's focus appears to have been on providing an education to children who were blind and employment opportunities for adults who were blind.

The agency served children of all ages. Notes from a September 5, 1906, meeting state the Commissioners voted to grant an employee, "authority to investigate the circumstances in the case of a blind infant at Feeding Hills near Springfield."

The agency also provided services to consumers with multiple disabilities. During the same meeting, the Commissioners reviewed the case of a consumer who was DeafBlind and voted to authorize arrangements for her to attend a school the following year. 

Services to adults seem to have been entirely vocational. At virtually every meeting, work-related or training services were authorized.

David Scott of Worcester was authorized to spend two weeks at the shop in Pittsfield, "at a cost not to exceed $25," in order to learn to cane chairs.

Frederick Brigham was sponsored at the Connecticut Industrial School for the Blind to be taught broom making.

However, the Commission did not rely entirely on workshops and training schools. One consumer was authorized to live with a Cambridge man and learn broom-making, "at a sum not to exceed $5 per week for room and board." Services of this nature were often provided in collaboration with cities and towns or groups of citizens.

The Commission authorized the purchase of a broom-making kit and material for a consumer in Marlborough with the condition the City of Marlborough or some of the residents provide the consumer with a place to work. 

The Commision agreed to "pay one-half the necessary expense" for a consumer to get training in massage from a doctor with the following conditions: 

  • The doctor thinks favorably of the consumer as a student.
  • A group of "responsible persons in Worcester" put in writing they believe "there is a fair chance for such work" in the city.
  • The group will pay the additional amount necessary to cover the consumer's training.
  • The group will make an effort to promote the consumer's work after her training. 

On November 7, the Commission agreed to place a "suitable apprentice" in the Trowbridge Piano Factory in Franklin. A week later, Waldo Ramsdell of South Hanover was sponsored to apprentice at a cobbler shop at a cost not to exceed $20. 

In a number of authorizations that seem to be precursors to the agency's current Vending Facilities Program, the Commission voted to authorize the expenditure of "not over $50 to purchase stock in trade consisting of candies, cigars, etc. for Thomas Henry of Everett," and "$20 for a coffee grinding machine for Henry Hill of Lawrence." 

Throughout 1906, home visits were made to Worcester, Fall River, Springfield, Marlborough, Everett, Lawrence, and South Hanover. The Commission found responsible citizens to support people who were blind in various endeavors including massage, broom, and cobbler shops.

1907 was a year of both growth and the beginning of an evolution toward a structure with an emphasis on industries and the funding of vocational rehabilitation services, referred to as "Industrial Aid."

Late in 1906, the Commission established a "Case Committee" to handle the routine requests for service. Through 1907, the Committee continued to act on requests involving the expenditure of funds. 

Being in touch with the times, Mr. Charles Campbell, Superintendent of the Industrial Department, asked for, and was granted permission, "to buy at wholesale, cloth for making automobile tool bags." (The Model T was introduced to the world in 1908.)

The Industrial Department rented one- and one-half stories in the Southwick Building as a factory for men to work, and a house and estate at 227 Harvard Street in Cambridge as a factory for women to work. 

While Mr. Campbell moved forward with the Industrial Department, Charles Holmes was the sole worker for the Vocational Rehabilitation Department. Miss. Lucy Wright, Superintendent of the Department of Registration and Information, forged ahead in her own contributions to the agency. She published a leaflet about Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the founding director of what would become Perkins School for the Blind, and another leaflet titled, "Hints to Parents of Blind Children." Miss. Wright purchased books and pamphlets relating to people who were blind to be used in the work of the Commission. 

In 1907, the Commission agreed to take over the "Home Work for Women Program of the Perkins Intuition of the Blind." This became known as the Department of Home Industries for Blind Women. 

On January 1, 1907, the register of the blind listed 3,806 people who were blind. The Commissioners stated the register "is unquestionably the fullest and most useful list yet made of the blind in Massachusetts. It embodies a large and constantly increasing amount of information, obtained through the personal investigation by agents of individual cases. Friendly reflections have been established with the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, various charitable organizations, and the Perkins Institution, with the result that many new cases of blindness are promptly referred to us for advice and aid. By it we are enabled to turn to practical account the returns of the State census, which, prior to the passage of Chapter 1, Resolves of 1905, could be used for statistical purposes only, as names and addresses were never divulged."

As the Commission developed, Miss. Wright was to become an advocate of a "Home Teaching Department." In 1912, the agency had a budget of $50,000, a register of more than 4,000 people who were blind, and a staff of 30, 12 of whom were blind. As a result of World War I, a number of returning veterans increased the state's blindness population and need for services. 

A photo of an employee who is blind reseating a chair at a Commission shop
"We the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg," said Helen Keller.

Mid-Century Expansion of Services

A photo of an exhibit in Boston in 1915 with three demonstrators who were blind

In the midst of the depression, the Library of Congress established what is now the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to distribute braille books to regional lending libraries across the country. Following the development of the Talking Book in 1934, the Commission became the state's distributor of record players and later cassette machines. In the mid-1930s, the federal government enacted the Randolph-Shepard Act nationalizing the Commission's already existing Vending Facilities Program. 

As veterans returned home from World War II, the need for services to the newly blinded population dramatically increased. Research and funding were devoted to help veterans adjust to their blindness, including the development of the white cane and the formal establishment of the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. Receiving and influx of federal and state funding, the Commission increased staff and resource to meet education, training, independent travel, and placement needs. 

The Commission's Children's Services also increased during the 1950s as more students who were blind were attending "Sight Saving Classes" in public schools. Integration into regular classroom settings increased in the 1960s and was formalized under Chapter 766 in 1974. 

The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind has been in the forefront of training people who are blind in communication skills. MCB rehabilitation teachers, assistive technology specialists, and orientation and mobility instructors provided braille instruction and trained consumers to use Talking Book machines, optical and tactile readers, speech recognition readers and software, and talking Satellite Positioning Systems. 

A photo of an employee who is blind weaving at an oriental loom

Present Day

In 2023, Massachusetts Commission for the Blind serves more than 30,000 residents of the Commonwealth who are legally blind by providing access to employment opportunities and social rehabilitation with the goal of increasing independence and full community participation. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 6, Section 136 requires eye care providers report all cases of legal blindness to MCB within 30 days of the date of examination. An MCB counselor contacts newly registered consumer to explain and offer appropriate benefits, programs, and services.

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