In 18th century Paris, most people were poor and many were often hungry and in the wintertime, freezing cold. But on Sundays, people dressed in their best clothing for church and afterward, in the summer and early fall, attended colorful fairs.
On a September Sunday in 1771, 25-year-old Valentin Hauy, a linguist in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was part of that vibrant crowd and having a wonderful time when suddenly he saw an event with blind people that changed his life, and the lives of all blind people since then.
Over the ages, many societies considered blind people to be a waste of life, uneducable, with nothing to offer. Often blind men, woman and children were left to the streets to beg for money.
At that fair, a show caught Valentin’s attention. A dozen blind men and boys were dressed as imbeciles, wearing dunce caps and other silly garb and were performing as mock musicians; playing instruments they didn’t know how to play. In the noise they made, the crowd, many of them drunk men and women, jeered them.
As the jeering and shout outs grew worse, a sickened Valentin fled this spectacle. To him these blind people were handicapped human beings with feelings and not deserving of ridicule. They were there because they needed money for food. That sickening scene compelled Valentin to do something about it, but what?
The answer came two months later. On a November Sunday, as Valentin left church, a blind boy was outside shivering, shoeless, wearing tattered clothing on his thin little frame. As he looked at this boy, Valentin recalled the disgusting scene from two months earlier and took some coins out of his pocket and set them in the boy’s outstretched hands.
The boy nimbly touched the coins with his fingertips, feeling each groove and raised portion and instantly knew the value of the coins.
Suddenly inspiration overwhelmed Valentin. Using the same approach this boy used to read the coins, could text books be created for the blind to read equally as well? If so it would revolutionize their world. Valentin asked the boy his name and the child replied, Francois Lesueur.
As they talked, Valentin decided to rescue this poor child and try to educate him. Valentin paid a wood carver to make wooden blocks with the alphabet and numbers in raised, stylized structure, to copy the coins. This would be the first step in educating Francois, using a concept that would ultimately educate millions of blind people throughout the world.
But it was hard for Francois, for he had only known darkness and ignorance, not letters or written words or sentences, so Valentin quit his job to work intensively with the boy to instill the building blocks of knowledge. And eventually it worked. Now Francois was ready to learn math, grammar, history and geography, but how to teach him?
He would need books, books exclusively for the blind, with raised lettering. But no such printing process existed; it would have to be created and that would be costly. However, if it was created, not only could Francois be educated but so could other blind pupils, whose families would happily raise the money to pay tuition. But even that would not nearly be enough money.
So Valentin made a remarkable decision. He would commit the rest of his life and everything he owned, and all the money he could raise so blind boys and girls, children like Francois would be educated.
Within four years, he obtained and renovated an old house on Rue Notre-Dame des Victoires and opened the world’s first school for the blind. Who was one of its teachers? Francois Lesueur, the former street beggar.
Now as blind children sat in the world’s first classroom for the blind, each of them avidly pursued knowledge, which would open a panorama to their minds, unimaginable only a short time earlier and it would provide each of them with a sense of pride and dignity and the potential for a very productive future.
Today over 240 years later, there is a statue of Valentin and Francois carved in stone on the busy Boulevard des Invalides in Paris, to recall the first institution in the world to educate the blind, the one Valentin established, as he became known as the “Apostle to the Blind.”