VRT Appreciation Week

April 8, 2020

Anne Sullivan and her Contribution to the Field of VRT

Adapted from article by Steve Kelly, Recruitment & Retention Committee,

AER Vision Rehabilitation Therapy Division

Appearing in the Spring 2015 VRT Newsletter 

VRT Appreciation Week (the second week in April) which features the birthday of Anne Sullivan on April 14. 

Commemorating Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, as part of VRT Awareness, is a natural fit for the profession. Ironically, it’s been my observation that most individuals outside our profession have no idea what a Vision Rehab Therapist does, yet most people, of all ages, know that Anne Sullivan was a great teacher for her pupil, Helen Keller who became deaf-blind following a serious illness when she was 19 months old.

In 1887, Anne Sullivan was a recent graduate from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts when she traveled to the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At that time, she may have been considered a "Home Teacher" for her new student, 7 year-old Helen. Home Teacher was one of the earliest occupational titles for VRTs, and were individuals who traveled to consumer’s homes to teach skills related to vision loss, such as Braille, reading embossed books, crafts,  and other activities we might call Adapted Daily Living skills today.


Often, home teachers were blind or visually impaired themselves, as was the case with Anne Sullivan. Sullivan herself lost much of her vision in early childhood from a trachoma. As an adolescent, she regained enough vision from a surgical procedure to read print again, but would remain visually impaired the rest of her life.


Professional preparation for VRTs is much different today, than in Sullivan’s time, often including a Master’s Degree and national certification.  Sullivan’s preparation for teaching included her 6 years of schooling at Perkins, and studying the successful work Dr. Howe (former director of Perkins) undertook with another Perkins student, Laura Bridgman, who was also deaf-blind. Bridgman was also a resident at Perkins during the time Sullivan was a student so she was experienced communicating with her. Perhaps even more important experiences for teacher training, however, were the life lessons Sullivan learned growing up in profound poverty.  The eldest daughter of Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine, she found herself at 10 years old alone and nearly blind, in the Tewksbury Almshouse (Massachusetts) with her younger brother Jimmie, who died shortly after their arrival. It was surely these lessons that helped Sullivan develop her persistence, creativity, and efficacy as a teacher.


Over the years, there has been considerable debate about some of the facts surrounding Helen’s acquisition of skills and the details of Sullivan’s teaching methods. Much of this has to do with abridged letters in Keller’s autobiography from Sullivan to her former teacher and mentor Mrs. Sophia Hopkins, and Perkins Director Michael Anagnos. Regardless of the specifics it is evident that Sullivan’s efforts as a teacher were creative and focused on the goals of the student.


In the following quote from the Perkins History Museum Web page (McGinnity, B. L., J. Seymour-Ford, and K. J. Andries. "Anne Sullivan." Perkins.org. Perkins School for the Blind, 2004. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. http://www.perkins.org/about/history/anne-sullivan) on Anne Sullivan, it is clear that Sullivan set a precedent for the vision rehabilitation professionals who followed, that recognized the importance of meeting the student wherever they are and focusing on their goals.


It was not long before Sullivan realized that the rigid routine did not suit her exuberant and spontaneous young pupil. Never one to be limited by rules, Sullivan abandoned the prescribed schedule and shifted the focus of her teaching. Sullivan decided to enter Helen's world, follow her interests and add language and vocabulary to those activities.


No doubt, the specifics of this debate will have some historical merit, but will not influence our recognition of Anne Sullivan's great teaching ability and lifelong dedication to her student, Helen Keller. It is for this reason that the VRT Recruitment and Retention Committee has selected the week of Sullivan's birthday to further recognize one of the pioneer teachers in vision rehabilitation therapy!

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