A museum for visionaries Tribute to Phila. visionaries Exhibits pay tribute to Overbrook's 175 years of educating blind children.

Posted: February 28, 2007

In the early 1800s, a blind child hadn't much of a chance in Philadelphia - or anywhere else in the expanding nation.

Social stigmas and stereotypes abounded, touching the lives of every one of the roughly 8,000 blind people living in the United States in 1830.

Blind children were said to be ineducable. Their parents were thought to be sinful. Best to keep the sightless out of sight.

But in Europe, particularly in France, schools for the blind were forging ahead with great success - so much so that a group of progressive Philadelphians took particular notice.

Led by J. Francis Fisher and Roberts Vaux, the group lured a young German educator, Julius Friedlander, to the New World, and in 1832 Friedlander opened the doors of the city's first - and the nation's third - school for the blind.

Now, 175 years later, the Overbrook School for the Blind is celebrating its roots and longevity with a new museum devoted to its own history and the history of educating the blind in the United States.

It's a story of small steps taken with great determination and diligence.

The modest museum, located in a suite of rooms in the school's main building at 63d Street and Malvern Avenue, features documents from Overbrook's founding (as the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind), artifacts from its past, and photographs of its daily life.

It is scheduled to open to the public today.

"I think that it shows a group of Philadelphians who . . . were very committed to children who were blind and visually impaired and making sure that they had access to education," said Bernadette M. Kappen, Overbrook's director for the last 15 years.

"At the time that we came about, there was no right to education for those children," she continued. ". . . [B]lind children most likely stayed at home and weren't given an opportunity to go to school. So the school was founded basically to give the children the right to education, that they would be able to have the materials that were accessible for them to be able to read.

"The goal was to teach people to be able to take their place in society through training and vocational opportunities, and I would say that throughout the years, when you read back through board minutes and other materials, the same philosophy has been in place since 1832."

Overbrook archivist Edith Willoughby, assisted by Kappen and others at the school, drew materials for the exhibits from Overbrook's records, archives, storerooms, library and file cabinets. All have Braille labels, some have explanatory audio recordings, and many of the items may be picked up and handled.

There are wood-working benches, piano tuners, wooden tools, chair caners and other relics of vocational training; different kinds of abacuses, styluses and slates; and a complete exhibit on James G. Blaine, the 1884 Republican candidate for president, who taught for a time at Overbrook. (Blaine's victorious opponent in 1884, Grover Cleveland, once taught at the New York Institute for the Blind.)

Not surprisingly, perhaps, a large number of artifacts relate to communication. There are several Braille writers (similar to typewriters) dating back to the mid-19th century on display, and various versions of writing for the blind are also in evidence, including several examples of Braille, plus the rarely used Moon and New York Point script systems.

The nation's first embossed book, a Gospel of Mark, printed by the school in 1833, is on display, its pale cream pages filled with large raised letters.

There are also several versions of embossing, enhancing and Thermoform molding - different ways of giving a third dimension to a two-dimensional page - on view.

"Probably the two things that are the biggest stumbling blocks for people who are blind are access to information in a timely manner, and travel and mobility," said Kappen. "Most other things you can manage pretty well. But you need really skilled training for travel, as well as the information gathering, to be a competent person."

While the needs of blind children have remained relatively constant over time, the nature of blindness and visual impairment has evolved, Kappen said.

When the school was founded, for instance, there probably was a much larger proportion of children who were simply blind. Now, however, because of medical and nutritional advances, a far higher percentage of children with multiple disabilities, including blindness, survive past infancy.

What this means in practical terms for a place like Overbrook - which currently serves more than 300 children through high school - can often be seen in small things that loom large.

Overbrook, for instance, no longer has a marching band. An old red band uniform and a lonely clarinet are on display, testimony to an era now past.

That said, music is extremely important here.

"I think from the beginnings of the school to today it's been a big deal," said Kappen. "We have the choir. We have a mixed ensemble of different-age group children. Piano.

"We actually have something called the Soundbeam," she said. "It's like a beam that shoots out and you can set up the computer to have it play whatever you want it to play when you walk through the beam.

"The kids really do love it. Music is a big part of their lives."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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