(© Deafblind UK)

This timeline explores major historical events which have affected the lives of deaf, blind and deafblind people. It runs from the 4th Century AD to the present day and to our knowledge, is the world’s only resource of its kind.


4th century: The first known tactile alphabet for blind people was made by ‘Didymus the Blind’, an Egyptian scholar, who carved letters out of wood.

7th century: The Venerable Bede wrote an account of the earliest known attempt to teach a deaf child in Europe, by his contemporary St. John of Beverley.

1066: The Battle of Hastings

1260: King Louis IX of France made the world’s first official public effort to benefit blind people by founding a hospice specifically for them.

1268: The first ever recorded pair of spectacles was made.

1348: The Black Death hit London

1550: The world’s first school for deaf people was established by a Benedictine monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon, at the Monastery of San Salvador, near Madrid, in Spain.

1653: The first reference to deafblindness in England was made in accounts describing how a serious disease left Martha Hatfield both deaf and blind.

1676: In Geneva, Elizabeth Waldkirch, a blind girl, learnt to read using her sense of touch. She made great progress, could read and write German, French and Latin and became an accomplished musician.

The ‘Ear Trumpet’, a simple mechanical hearing aid, became popular at the turn of the century.

1750: The Industrial Revolution began

1760: Thomas Braidwood established the first British Academy for deaf people in Edinburgh. Braidwood was renowned for teaching ‘oral’ and written skills to his students.

1784: In Paris, Valentin Haüy opened the world’s first school for blind people, marking the start of modern formal education for blind people. Two years later, he presented an embossed essay to King Louis XVI expressing the importance of academic education for blind people.

1791: The ‘Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind’ was established.

1806: Haüy opened the ‘Berlin School for the Blind’. Two years later he opened the ‘St Petersburg School for the Blind’. He remained in Russia until 1817, where he was in charge of educating pupils, who were both deaf and blind – the world’s first record of education provision specifically for deafblind people.

1817: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc co-founded the first American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

1819: Louis Braille enrolled at the school for the blind, in Paris. In 1821, a soldier visited with a tactile system of writing he had invented. Louis realised how useful this could be and began developing his own system. It was not until 1834 that Louis Braille’s alphabet finally reached its present form.

1827: Publication of the first known English book for the blind, using the embossed alphabet devised by James Gall, of Edinburgh.

1832: Samuel Gridley Howe began teaching blind students in his father’s house in downtown Boston – the birth of the ‘Massachusetts Institute for the Blind’.

1837: Laura Bridgman, the first known deafblind person to be successfully educated, enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute for the Blind. She became Samuel Gridley Howe’s greatest teaching success.

1838: Queen Victoria’s coronation

1846: In Manchester, Mary Bradley, a deafblind child, was taught to read and write and to communicate through fingerspelling. This is the first record of a deafblind person being educated in the UK.

1847: First production of a book in Dr Moon’s system of tactile writing.

1856: Amos Kendall established an institution that later became the world’s first place of further education for deaf students. It is now the site of the Gallaudet University campus in Washington DC.

17 May 1868: Sweden’s first Deaf club was founded in Stockholm.

1868: Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage founded the organisation now known as RNIB, to identify the most effective form of tactile writing available to blind people. In 1870, Braille was selected and Armitage and his colleagues promoted its widespread use, selling writing frames, publishing literature and teaching people to read and write in Braille.

1871: The Census for Great Britain listed 111 deafblind people. However, there are likely to have been considerably more deafblind people in the UK who were not recorded.

1875: In Sweden, the first public Holy Communion services for deaf people were held in Stockholm.

1876: Following a series of experiments to find mechanical means of amplifying sound, Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone, a breakthrough which lead to the invention of the hearing aid.

1878: An Act of Parliament was passed, which meant that blind people using dogs to guide them were exempt from having to take out a dog licence.

1880: An International Congress in Milan marked a major turning point in deaf education. The Congress’ decision to adopt ‘Oralism’ over manual methods dramatically restricted deafblind students’ ability to communicate; signs and fingerspelling were discouraged in favour of lipreading, which required clear vision.

1881: In Europe, the LORM Alphabet was developed. A form of tactile communication, like manual, LORM became very popular among deafblind people in Austria, Germany and Holland. In America, the Howe Press was established at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, for the production of embossed books. In the UK, ‘Progress’ the first magazine in Braille type was introduced, edited by Dr Thomas Rhodes Armitage.

1882: In Hampstead, London, a lending library for blind readers was established, which later became the ‘National Library for the Blind’.

1883: Mary Hare began teaching deaf children in the UK following the Oral approach. She was greatly influenced by Thomas Arnold, a pioneer in deaf education who wrote books about teaching speech to deaf people.

March 1887: Anne Sullivan, a former pupil of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, was sent to Alabama to teach Helen Keller. As soon as Anne met Helen, she started teaching her how to fingerspell.

1892: In the United States, Frank Haven Hall invented a mechanical Braillewriter known as the ‘Hall Braille Writer’. It was later modified and produced in other countries. In England it was known as the ‘Stainsby-Wayne’.

1893: UK Parliament passed a law making it compulsory for all children who were either blind or deaf to receive education. This resulted in several day schools being established. However, no mention was made of higher education and teachers still required no special qualifications. No such law was passed in relation to education provision for deafblind children.

1898: One of first electric hearing aids – the Akoulathon – was invented by Miller Reese Hutchinson.

1903: ‘Braille Review’ was first published, providing titles of Braille books and information for Home Teachers of blind students.

June 1904: Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe College – she was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

1910: In St Petersburg, the ‘Russian Deafblind Care Society’ opened the world’s first school for deafblind children.

1911: A deaf merchant banker, Leo Bonn, set up the organisation now known as RNID.

1914 – 1918: The Great War

1917: First copy of ‘The Beacon’, a magazine ‘devoted to the interests of the blind’ was issued. In 1930, the magazine was renamed ‘New Beacon’. Nearly 40 years later, a Braille edition of New Beacon was introduced in 1955.

1918: The RNIB opened the first of ten ‘Sunshine House’ nursery schools to cater for the needs of very young blind children.

1920: In the UK, Parliament passed the ‘Blind Persons Act’, which made it the duty of local authorities to provide for the welfare of blind people.

1921: After losing his sight, James Biggs, an English photographer, decided to use a white cane to let people in his community know he was blind. Ten years later, in 1931, the Lions Club International began promoting the widespread use of white canes by blind people.

1923: In America, the ‘Hayes-Binet test’ created at Perkins Institution for the Blind proved that the intelligence of blind people is no different to the intelligence of sighted people.

1926: The General Strike

1927: In the UK, the first issue of the Radio Times was produced in Braille. Since then, millions of copies have been issued.

1928: The ‘Deafblind Helpers League’ started life. It became the National Deafblind Helpers League in 1929 and is now called Deafblind UK.

1932: Perkins Institution for the Blind celebrated 100 years of service and established a specifically deafblind department.

1933: In the UK, the ‘Blind Voters Act’ allowed blind voters to take a companion to the polling booth to enable them to vote.

1934: In the UK, the ‘Guide Dogs for the Blind Association’ was established.

1935: The National Institute for the Blind’s ‘Talking Books’ service began. Pedestrian crossings were introduced in the UK to improve mobility for blind pedestrians.

1936: After tireless fundraising efforts by members of the National Deafblind Helpers League, ‘Fellowship House’ opened – the UK’s first holiday home specifically for deafblind people.

1939 – 1945: World War 2

1939: David Abraham, a woodwork teacher at Perkins School for the Blind, invented the Perkins Brailler. The Second World War delayed its development until 1951, when the first Perkins Brailler was produced. The portable machine enables individuals to produce documents in Braille and is still used worldwide today. In 1977, the 100,000th Perkins Brailler was produced.

1941: The NIB established a rehabilitation centre for war-blinded people in Torquay. ‘America Lodge’ was the organisation’s first vocational rehabilitation service.

1946: The National Health Service (NHS) was established

1946: ‘The Silent World’, the first official journal of the RNID, was launched. Since then, the journal has had several different names, including ‘SoundBarrier’, ‘See Hear’ and most recently, ‘One in Seven’.

1950: The first behind-the-ear hearing aid was issued through the NHS.

1951: ‘High Windows’, the UK’s first educational unit specifically for deafblind students was established at RNIB’s Condover site in Shropshire.

2 June 1953: Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

1955: In the UK ‘the Rubella Group’ (now ‘Sense’) was founded as a self-help and support group for parents of children affected by Rubella during their mothers’ pregnancy. In America, the Perkins Institution for the Blind became ‘Perkins School for the Blind’. In 1956, Helen Keller returned to the school to dedicate the Keller-Sullivan building to her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

1957: In the United States, research into prosthetic replacements for the cochlea culminated in single-channel cochlear devices being implanted in a group of deaf volunteers. The same year, the ‘World Council for the Welfare of the Blind’ held a conference in New York, to develop a rapid and adequate communication method for deafblind people.

1960s: Rubella epidemics resulted in an increase in children born without sight or hearing. In 1966, scientists developed a Rubella vaccine, affording immunity to the disease. A number of countries adopted vaccination programmes to reduce the number of children born deafblind.

1963: Sergiev Posad School for the Deaf and Blind was established in Zagorsk, near Moscow, to teach young deafblind people to communicate with others and lead meaningful lives. Today, it is the largest boarding school of its kind in the world.

1964: Helen Keller was awarded the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ by President Lyndon Johnson. The following year, she was elected to the ‘Women’s Hall of Fame’ at the New York World’s Fair.

1964: Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf American man, invented an electronic device to enable deaf people to use the telephone.

1967: Following an Act of US Congress, the Helen Keller National Center for Deafblind Youths and Adults (HKNC) was established in Sands Point, New York. It provides extensive research, rehabilitation and training facilities for deafblind people throughout America.

1968: The Swedish Parliament decided that deaf people should have the right to free interpreting services. However, over 25 years passed before legislation came into force in 1994.

21 July 1969: Man first walked on the Moon

1969: RNIB opened ‘Tate House’, its first purpose-built care home for deafblind people.

1970: In Wales, Ronald Sturt founded the UK’s first ‘Talking Newspaper’.

Early 1970s: Following the success of the single channel cochlear devices in the late 1950s, research teams in the United States and Australia began developing cochlear implants with 24 channels.

1976: The Red and White cane was introduced to indicate that the user was both deaf and blind. The campaign to increase public awareness of what the Red and White cane means continues to this day.

1977: Norway’s Directorate of Health completed the first national registration of deafblind people in the world, in which 202 deafblind people were recorded. Meanwhile in Canada, the first Helen Keller Deafblind Conference took place.

1980: The first telephone relay service for deaf people was set up in London. The system enabled deaf people to use textphones to contact hearing people using standard voice telephones. This was the first of many ‘Telephone Exchanges for the Deaf’ trials carried out over the next decade.

1981: Sweden became the first country in the world to officially recognise sign language, when the Swedish Parliament acknowledged Swedish Sign Language as deaf people’s first language.

1982: ‘Hearing Dogs for the Deaf’ was launched at the Crufts Dog Show in London.

1983: The first adult in the UK was given a cochlear implant. In 1987, the first child in the UK received a cochlear implant.

1984: The ‘National Talking Newspaper and Magazine Service’ commenced. At present, the Service records over 200 national newspapers and magazines onto audio-cassette.

2 November 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall

1989: DeafBlind New Zealand was set up by deafblind people for deafblind people.

1990: Sweden established a professorship in Swedish Sign Language, at Stockholm University – the first of its kind in the world. Swedish Sign Language can be studied at university, at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

1991: RNID’s ‘Typetalk’ service came into operation. The necessity of the service became obvious within hours – Typetalk received 300 calls on its first day!

1993: The ‘Australian Deafblind Council’ was established, following the National Deafblind Conference in Melbourne. That year, DeafBlind New Zealand hosted an International Deafblind Conference in Auckland.

1995: The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was introduced in the UK. For the first time, measures were introduced to end discrimination. Until the DDA, discrimination against people with disabilities was entirely legal.

1996: At a planning meeting, Gaela Benn, Vice Chair and member of Deafblind UK, first suggested the idea of a ‘National Centre for Deafblindness’.

1997: The 6th Helen Keller World Conference was held near Bogota, Colombia. It was the first time an Hispanic country had hosted such an event, aimed to unite the deafblind people of the world. Here, the seeds for the ‘World Federation of the Deafblind’ were sown.

1999: Following an Act of Parliament, the ‘Disability Rights Commission’ (DRC) was established as an independent body to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and promote equality by enforcing the DDA.

May 1999: Dr Philip Gafga became Chair of Deafblind UK. He is the first deafblind Chair of a national voluntary organisation.

September 1999: Deafblind UK’s Directors, led by Dr Philip Gafga, approved plans to establish and promote a National Centre for Deafblindness. In April 2000, HRH the Duke of York officially launched Deafblind UK’s ‘Touch Appeal’, which was set up to raise the money required to build the National Centre for Deafblindness.

2001: In the UK, the Government introduced ‘Deafblind Guidance’ under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. This gave new rights to deafblind people and placed additional duties on Local Authorities to ensure their welfare. In October, DeafBlind New Zealand hosted the 7th Helen Keller Conference in Auckland and the First General Assembly of the World Federation of the Deafblind.

2002: The first group of students working towards the Deafblind Diploma began their course of study. The course is a joint initiative between Sense, Deafblind UK, RNIB and CACDP and will be the first Diploma level qualification in congenital and acquired deafblindness.

18 March 2003: the Government announced that it recognises British Sign Language (BSL) as a language in its own right.

12 June 2003: The official opening ceremony of Deafblind UK’s National Centre for Deafblindness, in Hampton, Peterborough.

November 2003: Collaboration between Hearing Dogs and Guide Dogs resulted in the successful training of the first dual-purpose assistance dog for deafblind people.

1 April 2004: Following a campaign by the European Deafblind Network (EdbN) the European Parliament officially recognised deafblindness as a separate and distinct disability. The declaration requires all Member States to ‘recognise and implement the rights of people who are deafblind’.