Lighthouse for the Blind

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 11/11/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7064
The Lighthouse for the Blind was incorporated in Seattle in 1918, with the purpose of advancing the general welfare of the blind. Three of the five men who wrote the articles of incorporation were blind. At the time it was estimated that there were some 100 blind people in Seattle, and by 1919 there were 90 people on the membership rolls. Before long leadership was taken over by philanthropic women such as Nellie Cornish, Julia Ballinger, and Ethel Garrett Eddy. The Lighthouse began fabricating small crafts, especially well-made brooms, and from there evolved into a major manufacturing concern, providing training and employment for the blind, and superior products for firms such as Boeing.

Precursors and Beginnings

A precursor organization, the Seattle Association of the Blind, was inaugurated in 1914. At this time, a number of blind people and their friends and families began discussions among themselves about problems and issues relevant to their concerns. The organization's agenda was informal, and the members explored topics like education, informing the general public about prejudice toward blind people, transportation, employment, and good old-fashioned fun.

Besides social aspects -- an important ingredient for isolated blind persons -- the question of employment was paramount. In 1916, on the present downtown site of Seattle's Fairmont Olympic Hotel (between 4th and 5th Avenues and Seneca and University streets), a workshop was established. That small commercial undertaking sold jigsaw puzzles and baskets made by blind and partially sighted workers.

The next step was the official April 1918 incorporation of The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. That new organization was authorized to "advance the general welfare of the blind." Five men wrote and notarized the articles of incorporation: W. Roy Clark, John Austin, John McLaughlin, Frederick Bentley, and John P. Hartman. Three of those men were blind. At that time it was estimated that about 100 blind people lived in the city of Seattle.

The serious purposes of the organization were outlined: "provide industries, employment ... acquire ... real and personal property ... [and] borrow money when deemed necessary." Those sober ideas seemed to contrast with America's coming celebration, i.e. the 1920s Jazz Age. Following the 1918 end of World War I in Europe, the country was bent on having fun. Lighthouse leadership also knew how to enjoy life, but it relentlessly moved forward in providing opportunities for blind Seattleites. John P. Hartman, board member and attorney, helped the Lighthouse establish a "sheltered shop" while inviting others to participate. More than 90 people were listed on the membership rolls in 1919.

Soon, leadership passed to a group of dedicated and influential Seattle women. For the next 40 years a mostly female board managed Lighthouse affairs. The articles of incorporation specified that members, "women or men," could be accepted for membership provided they were of "good moral character ... [and] can conscientiously subscribe to all the objects of [the] corporation." Further, selection of members would be made "without any reference whatever to or restriction upon their religious or political belief or profession."

Lighthouse founding names include Nellie C. Cornish, who established the Seattle school for performing and fine arts bearing her name. Other notables were Julia A. Ballinger, whose husband, Richard, was a prominent attorney, former Seattle mayor, and U.S. Secretary of Interior; and Ethel Garrett Eddy, the wife of John W. Eddy, principal in the Skinner & Eddy Corporation, which dominated Puget Sound and Alaska shipping for years.

Blindness

Blindness was then -- and still is -- an international issue. The Lighthouse in Seattle took up that challenge. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines blindness as vision of 20/400 or less with best optical correction. In the United States legal blindness is 20/200 -- that is, what a person sees from 20 feet away contrasted with what a person with normal vision sees if standing 200 feet away. Visually impaired vision is defined as less than 20/40.

The three main treatable causes of blindness are cataracts, trachoma, and glaucoma. Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness in the developed world, and injuries account for a small percentage of blindness worldwide.

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a group of hereditary retinal diseases, is often mentioned in Lighthouse literature. Sources estimate that there are 50,000 to 100,000 cases of RP in the U.S. The only treatment is a daily dose of 15,000 units of vitamin A, which may slow the progression of the disease but does not restore vision.

Usher syndrome is another familiar term at the Seattle Lighthouse. This inherited disorder is characterized by hearing loss and a progressive loss of vision due to RP. There is no effective treatment. The Lighthouse has responded to the needs of people with this condition by introducing programs for deaf-blind people, including education and career guidance, teaching daily living skills, and annual retreats on beautiful Hood Canal in Washington state.

The name "Lighthouse" was known in other regions of the country. The name can mean a beacon -- perhaps a bright light of help and hope, of accomplishment, of aspiration. Several national agencies for the blind are older, but the Seattle Lighthouse was proud to celebrate its 90th year in 2004.

Following the long decade of the Great Depression (1930s), World War II brought life to the shipbuilding and airplane manufacturing industries. The war brought more people to Seattle, some of whom had physical disabilities, including blindness.

The Well-Made Broom

Under the board of director's guiding hands, Seattle Lighthouse outgrew its tiny downtown shop. After moving to 131 Elliott Avenue W -- site of today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer building -- broom making and chair caning became staple employment activities.

The famous brooms, sold door-to-door by blind or partially sighted salesmen (no women at that time), were rugged and long-lived. In fact, for decades the Lighthouse's reputation rested on the durable brooms. To cite one statistic: In 1950, Lighthouse employees turned out 97,272 brooms and mops.

However, despite an excellent record of management and fundraising, including the sponsorship of large dinners and receptions surrounding the 1950s and 1960s performances of My Fair Lady, and Fiorello!, both fresh from their respective Broadway runs, the board decided that the Lighthouse should operate as a competitive business entity.

Changing Times

Beginning in the 1950s, a non-profit organization called Handcrest, Inc. served as a marketing outlet for products made by blind people at the Washington State Rehabilitation and Training Center for the Blind. In 1964, Handcrest merged with the Lighthouse. The result was a reordering of priorities from crafts to manufacturing.

National legislation over a period of 40 years had opened doors to disabled Americans. Beginning with the Wagner-O'Day Act of 1938, modified as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act of 1971, blindness agencies found opportunities to sell and market products to the federal government.

The Seattle Lighthouse entered the field of manufacturing beginning in the 1950s with a Boeing contract. By 2000, Lighthouse relationships with Boeing, other companies, and the federal government had burgeoned into several product lines. The Lighthouse proved that it could meet rigid government and private sector product-specifications and maintain high quality. In fact, today's Lighthouse products for Boeing include sophisticated parts for airplanes. Boeing has enhanced this experience by supporting Lighthouse training programs on a grand scale.

Following the 1964 merger of Handcrest and the Lighthouse, and the realization that federal and private customers were increasing in numbers, the Lighthouse broke ground in 1966 for its new home at Seattle's 25th Avenue and Plum Street, just off of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way S. The 40,000-square-foot building, with alterations over the past 30 years, today houses a busy manufacturing and training facility for the blind, deaf-blind, and others with multiple disabilities.

From Craft to Manufacturing

The Seattle Lighthouse, evolving from a small crafts operation to one of the state's major manufacturers, is an exciting example of community support, a growing knowledge of disabilities, and exceptional leadership. Products from the Lighthouse are designed, manufactured, and often marketed by blind, partially blind, and deaf-blind people. The Lighthouse's relationships with Boeing and the federal government have grown into firm, mutually successful partnerships. The term "sheltered" is no longer accurate in describing Lighthouse affairs.

With the increasing use of computers equipped with Braille and speech outputs, and Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) manufacturing equipment, the sky is virtually the limit for blind people. Blind and other disabled Lighthouse employees can set up their own jobs and interact with machines that "talk." The new technology is expensive, but the pay-off (besides high quality products) is the direct participation of disabled people in the economy. Also, it has allowed these same people to lead independent, self-sufficient lives.

Ninety years (2004) of Lighthouse experience has contributed to a rich storehouse of business, cultural, and social data. Creating jobs for people who are blind, deaf-blind, and have other disabilities has always been the Lighthouse's primary focus. The Seattle Lighthouse strives to ensure that jobs throughout the organization as well as opportunities for advancement and all training programs are completely accessible for people who are blind and deaf-blind.

George Jacobson, president of The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., described his view of the future. Jacobson sees "a [Puget Sound] community that has been positively affected by the Seattle Lighthouse, a community of employers and workplaces where people who are blind and Deaf-Blind are an integral part of the economy."


Sources: Junius Rochester, Seattle's Best-Kept Secret (Seattle: Tommie Press, 2004); Don Donaldson, What's in a Name (Bloomington, IN: lst Books, 2004); Robert E. Ficken, Washington Territory (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2002); Russell Freedman, Out of Darkness: The Story of Louis Braille (New York: Clarion Books, 1997); Dorothy Hermann, Helen Keller: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998); Robert LeFevre, The Story of the Wagner-O'Day Act (New York: National Industries for the Blind, 1996); Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1950); Martin F. Norden, The Cinema of Isolation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994); Junius Rochester, The Last Electric Trolley: Madrona & Denny-Blaine (Seattle: Tommie Press, 2002); Robert J. Serling, Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992); Files of Handcrest, Inc. and Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., 1918-1924. See Also: Lighthouse for the Blind Website (http://www.seattlelighthouse.org); Lighthouse Store Website (www.lighthousestore.org); Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind Deaf-Blind Program Website (www.deafblindlh.org).

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