- The Blind in British Society: Charity, State and Community, c. 1780-1930
In the past fifteen years, the field of disability history has grown to be an important topic within the historical discipline. Many monographs and edited volumes have added to both the knowledge base and the theoretical underpinnings of the field. Most of these works examine physical disability and deafness, leaving the history and social construction of blindness and visual impairments relatively unexplored. In this book, Gordon Phillips helps to fill the gap by giving a comprehensive overview of the treatment of blind people in Great Britain, from the Enlightenment to the establishment of the welfare state. Encyclopedic in nature, yet often lacking in the social history that marks many of the best works in disability history, his book will be the starting point for anyone interested in blindness in Britain in the modern era.
Phillips opens his work by examining the origins of British institutional patterns during the eighteenth century. Part of the large undifferentiated mass of persons comprising Britain's poor underclass, the blind represented a social and economic problem to the various layers of government and charitable organizations. While influenced by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment, who "helped to encourage a view of the blind as at the same time exceptional and educable" (p. 29), British leaders developed models that were designed to provide economic security by "setting blind individuals to work" (p. 45). This emphasis upon work would mark the British response to the issue of blindness for the next 150 years. While emphasizing economic independence, British officials also looked at blindness as a local issue. Taking their cue from the parish responses to poverty, small nongovernmental institutions developed in major British cities by 1780, often funded by the bequests of philanthrophic businessmen engaged in a wide variety of charitable enterprises. The uncoordinated approach to ameliorating the problems of blindness, combined with the small numbers of blind individuals served, made these enterprises ineffective and rather lost in the wide array of arrangements designed to handle Britain's burgeoning underclass. [End Page 371]
Phillips is at his best when describing the differing, and often fractious, programs designed for the blind in the nineteenth century. Leaders offered charity through cash grants, education through the development of various systems of raised type, training in workshops for occupations that could provide long-term employment, infusions of Christianity into an assumed heathen population, and programs for both integration into and separation from mainstream British society. Unfortunately, these added up to a failure to handle the problems associated with blindness: by 1900, most blind people were still uneducated and unemployed. Phillips concludes that "the power of the spirit of charity to lead and transform the life of communities, asserted with some confidence in the past, seemed now to be irreversibly in retreat" (p. 266).
As western Europe quickly industrialized in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, states developed welfare programs to handle the social ills associated with this wrenching economic change. Britain was no different, as the central government took on responsibilities previously assigned to private charities, churches, and local administrations. Those institutions organized to help the blind were part of the earlier movement and often fought to maintain their influence against the incursions of a powerful bureaucratic state; while the result was "a transitional, ambivalent admixture," Phillips rightly concludes that "the old was already doomed" (p. 405). The establishment of the Blind Persons' Act of 1920 firmly organized the care and control of blind individuals under the state. While the structure of the bill was set before the Great War, the increasing numbers of blind persons (especially young men) as a result of war injuries ensured its passage. Establishing pensions, setting out educational guidelines, even developing new criteria for what constituted blindness, the Act formalized governmental control of blindness and "demanded a mode of welfare which was regular, programmed, and comprehensive" (p. 404). By the 1920s, the care of blind individuals had been subsumed under...