Disability Services: Does One Size Fit All? – Part 2 of 2: A History of Separation

The Governor has proposed that the Department of Economic Security be abolished.  Some agencies which serve people with disabilities that […]

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The Governor has proposed that the Department of Economic Security be abolished.  Some agencies which serve people with disabilities that are currently in that department will move to a new place.  This month’s column looks at some of the issues from the point of view of Minnesotans who are blind and visually impaired.


As far back as the 1500s services for blind people were separate.  They sometimes were paired with people who were deaf, and often with the poor.  Residential schools for the blind were created in the 1700s.  The first residential school for the blind opened in Minnesota late in the 1800s.  A feeling began to surface among teachers of blind children that parents of blind children did not know how to care for them properly.  The same curriculum that was taught to sighted students was taught in residential schools.  There were some additions to the curriculum that were unique to students who were blind, such as braille, cane travel, abacus, and crafts like basket weaving and chair caning to provide a skill for the students to earn a living once they graduated.

Also in the 1800s sheltered workshops were established.  These were places where piecework was performed and individuals were paid by the number of pieces they assembled.  These workshops were established because, as society became more mechanized, sighted people believed it would be too dangerous for people who were blind to work in shops with heavy machinery; in addition, transportation and travel to the shops was an issue.

The sheltered workshops were either close to residential schools, or assistance with transportation was provided to the people who worked in the shops.   In 1915 a law was passed allocating $300 for the expenses of blind students who wished to attend the University of Minnesota.  This was the forerunner to the current “Blind Student Tuition Waiver.”  In the early 1900s the Minneapolis Society for the Blind was established as the first rehabilitation center in Minnesota for people who were blind.  In 1923 The Minnesota State Board of Control established an “Agency for the Blind,” now known as Minnesota State Services for the Blind.

For the most part, separation has been based on the different access needs of people who are blind, such as the need for materials in alternate format (e.g. braille, sound recordings, large print), training in orientation and mobility, and adapted techniques for daily living.  Another, less well-known, factor is the perception by many non-disabled people that losing their sight is one of the worst things that could happen.  This stigma attached to blindness has been borne out in many studies that have asked the general public which disability they would least like to have if they had to have a disability.

Fears and concerns 

Because of the historic separation of services, integration into the “disability community” does not seem necessary to many people who are blind.  Their services have historically been provided to them without integration with other disability groups, and with an emphasis on integration into society at large.  They have found common ground through associating with other people who are blind through the political organizations or, in some cases, through social clubs.  Rehabilitation centers and Dog Guide Schools have provided another source of community.

Because it has always been this way, some people who are blind fear the merging of services, seeing it as a dilution of their hard-won rights and access to society.  They know their workplace accommodations are often among the most costly.  This brings a fear that others will want to raid the financial pot of money appropriated for these accommodations.  They have found that when they have tried to integrate with other disability groups, their own needs take second place.  For example, materials are not provided to them in the appropriate formats, or orientations are not provided to hotels where conferences are held (which does not make them feel welcome).  Often, access is defined only in terms of physical and architectural barriers, rather than in their terms, which would put immediate access to information at the forefront.  In short, their fears and concerns are affirmed by the few experiences at integrating that they have attempted.  For these reasons, some find it more appealing to remain separate.

Disability identity

Some people who are blind do not see blindness, in and of itself, as a disability.  This is a minority within the blind community. 

So much of how our disability identity is formed depends on those with whom we choose to build relationships.  If we feel safest with those we think are the most like us, we’re likely to seek out those who are like us for support.  If we feel even more marginalized by those who should, by rights, understand our marginalization from society (i.e. other people with disabilities), we are unlikely to build relationships with people who have disabilities other than our own.

If we are to change this pattern it will take two people who are willing to risk disappointment and being misunderstood, and who are willing to come back until the gap of knowledge and understanding is bridged and trust is established.  Because we are oppressed doesn’t mean that we don’t oppress others within our community.  Sometimes it takes a while to recognize when we’re perpetrators of oppression, just as it takes a while for those who oppress us to understand their actions.        

Coming together

One way this chasm may be bridged is if individuals from the blind community and from the cross-disability community take the initiative to sit across the table and begin building relationships, attempting to understand each other’s needs, fears, and concerns, and pledging to stand in solidarity.  Then, gradually, change will come.  Another factor is the acquisition of secondary and tertiary disabilities by people who are blind and visually impaired.  The reverse is also true for those with mobility impairments who may acquire blindness as they age.  This too may help bridge the gap. 

Matthew Little of the NAACP says, “Social change happens inch by inch.”  This applies to change within our own disability community as well.

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