Samuel Gridley Howe: Hero or Villain?

Listen to Samuel Gridley Howe: Hero or Villain?

Howe is celebrated for making books accessible to blind and low-vision readers, but he is not universally revered. Howe, educator Horace Mann, and telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell actively campaigned against sign language because they considered it “arbitrary” like braille. Howe favored lip reading and speaking instead because he believed they would help Deaf Americans integrate into a society dominated by hearing persons. Howe was interested in universal forms of communication that individuals with disabilities and nondisabled individuals could share, but his efforts made him a hero in some histories and a villain in others.

Is Howe a hero or a villain? Or, is the question more complicated? What lessons does this story hold?

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Description of the Map of Massachusetts

This map of Massachusetts comes from the 1837 Atlas of the United States. The Atlantic Ocean appears on the right with parallel lines. In the interior, solid lines show the course of rivers; dotted lines show the political boundaries; and a patterned set of triangles show mountains. On the page following each map in this atlas, Howe explained with text in Boston Line Type what the abbreviations on the map meant. He also provided background on each state.

Howe was dissatisfied with the existing European maps that required blind readers to “be taught upon each map, by a seeing person.” Howe explained that the descriptive text and abbreviations in this atlas would provide “a source of great pleasure and useful knowledge to the blind, who can study it unassisted by a seeing person.”


Harriet Gamage, Student and Teacher

After graduating from Perkins, Harriet Gamage returned to her family in New Orleans. In letters to Howe, she recounted enjoying all the books she received from Perkins and explained how she used these books to teach her sister's children. In one letter sent in 1841, Gamage describes teaching with the raised-print maps: 

“As I am in a great measure indebted to your noble institution for the faculties I may enjoy I will name the branches I am at present imparting. Reading, Spelling, Arithmetic, History, Geography, the maps, such as the seeing use, which I am enabled to explain from a retentive memory, and a reference to my own which are so beautifully embossed.”