In 1771, a young man named Valentin Haüy visited St. Ovid’s Fair and stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch. What he felt about what he saw there would begin to change the world for blind people forever. A group of blind men were performing a slapstick comedy act, pretending to be what many other blind people actually were-musicians. They wore dunce caps, donkeys’ ears, and huge cardboard glasses. Seated before sheets of music turned upside down, they clowned for the crowd by making
squawking, discordant noises on old musical instruments. The act was a hit, but Haüy was so sickened he could not finish his lunch. He decided on the spot that blind people needed formal education to make something better of their lives.
Valentin Haüy was exactly the right person at the right time to have this inspiration.
Born in 1745 in the small village of Saint-Just-en-Chausèe, Valentin at age 6 relocated with his family, who were weavers by trade, to Paris. Valentin became a skilled linguist who spoke ten living languages in addition to ancient Greek and Hebrew. While not personally wealthy, (he earned his living translating and authenticating documents) he was well connected.
Once Haüy became interested in education for the blind , he turned himself into an authority on the subject, visiting blind people from wealthy families to learn what methods they used to cope with various tasks. His own energy and flair for public relations would prove extraordinary, and so would his luck.
In the spring of 1784, while on another walk in Paris, he found the perfect student. As Haüy departed Saint Germaine des Prés church after services, he pressed a coin into the hand of a young blind boy begging near the entrance of the church. When the boy instantly called out the denomination correctly, Haüy had a startling insight: The blind could learn a great deal, perhaps even reading, using the sense of touch. The beggar, 12-year-old François Lesueur, became Haüy’s first pupil. François had been blind since infancy and had spent much of his short life begging on the streets of Paris to support his family. Haüy made up François’ lost earnings from begging while he taught him to read by using wooden letters, he
moved around to form words. François was a very quick study; within six months he had learned to decipher even the faint impressions on the back side of printed pages. Haüy brought him to the Royal Academy, where his skills stunned France’s top scholars and scientists.
Haüy made the most of this triumph, soliciting help from celebrities of the day, such as Maria Theresia von Paradis, a young blind girl with an international reputation as a piano prodigy. Making his own living in linguistics, Haüy was well-positioned to know of Louis XVI’s avocational interest in old manuscripts and secret codes and successfully solicited the king’s financial help. At first, he operated the school from his home, but as the project grew, he was able to attract sufficient royal support to lease a building. With twenty-four pupils, Haüy opened the world’s first school for the blind in Paris where their most famous pupil would be about to attend!
I always marvel at Valentin’s story and wonder what I would have done that day if I had seen what Valentin had seen?