Records indicated that no organized program for the blind existed in the state of Delaware before 1906. Blind children were occasionally educated in Pennsylvania or Maryland while adult blind were usually left to their own devices, with no agency to train them or help them find employment. The use of blind persons in industry was unheard of; and except for an occasional blind salesman or piano tuner, the blind of that era were unfortunately not afforded opportunities nor thought capable of self- support.
The picture brightened in 1906, however, when a group of citizens met in the New Century Club of Wilmington to discuss the plight of the blind in Delaware. Ladies present at the meeting, including representatives of the Sunshine Society and the New Century Club, agreed to raise funds, and a new organization was born, the Delaware Committee for the Blind.
The principal figure in this community group was C. Reginald Van Trump, a Wilmington businessman who had become acutely aware of the problems arising as a result of blindness, when he himself lost his sight. Mr. Van Trump succeeded in interesting Bishop Leighton Coleman, an influential Episcopal clergyman, in the project.
In 1909 an appeal for funds was made to the State of Delaware. As a result, the State Legislature made a $1500 appropriation and more significantly, passed a bill that established the Delaware Commission for the Blind. The City of Wilmington, through the Wilmington Institute Free Library, made a second appropriation for the purchase of books of raised type.
The first meeting of the Commission was held on April 16, 1909, in the Wilmington Library. At this first meeting, the bill, which established the Commission, was presented and formally approved. Two “Divisions” were established for the supervision of care and training of the blind, one in the portion of Delaware south of Middletown and one for Wilmington and northern New Castle County.
A final item of business, and a significant one at that first meeting, was the motion of Mr. Palmer to appoint Miss Nellie Curren as a teacher to visit adult blind persons in their homes, tutoring them in Braille and hand crafts, and to enable them to function somewhat independently.
The Delaware Commission for the Blind was immediately concerned with the problem of providing gainful employment for those without sight. The Sales Exchange was soon established in one room at 307 Delaware Avenue in Wilmington, where articles made by blind persons were sold.
A significant expansion in the program was made possible in 1911, when the General Assembly increased the appropriation of the state to $3,000.00 A year later, private funds were raised for the purchase of a building located at 305-07 West 8th Street in downtown Wilmington. This site though not in use still stands today.
According to the census of 1910, there were 138 known cases of blindness in Delaware. A survey made in 1913 revealed 286 blind residents of the state. During this same period, of 35 prospective students, 11 were enrolled in out-of-state schools for the blind.
A workshop was established by the Commission for the employment of blind workers and gradually expanded to 16 blind employees by 1914.
In 1916, the Commission reported significant sales from the workshop, in areas such as production of 1449 rugs, 686 yards of woven carpet; 1019 dozen brooms and 282 baskets, as well as 1304 chairs had been caned and 171 baskets repaired.
Demand for space in the workshop was so great, that in 1917 the members of the Commission decided to construct a two-story addition to the original building. In 1919 the State Legislature of Delaware appropriated $10,000 for the growing program.
The Red Diamond seal was registered with the State Department in Dover, for use on all articles manufactured in the Commission workshop. The use of the seal was later discontinued.
The year 1924 marked the death of the man who had pioneered the work for the blind in Delaware, Mr. Van Trump. After his passing, Mrs. Irenee duPont was elected as the new chairperson of the Commission.
In 1928 the Commission started a craft class for blind women. Miss Ruth Thorpe from Maryland joined the Commission staff as a home teacher for Kent and Sussex Counties.
Through the generosity of Mrs. DuPont, the Commission was able to acquire Camp Landis, later called Landis Lodge, in 1929.
In 1935 Dr. Francis J. Cummings joined the Delaware Commission for the Blind. Even though he lost his sight at age 12, Dr. Cummings was able to graduate from the Pennsylvania Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1942, Dr. Cummings was named Executive Secretary of the Commission.
World War II coincided with a re-evaluation of the services of the Commission and a general expansion of its program. Where Commission staff members previously had been concerned primarily with the education of children and the employment of adults in the workshop, the Commission now began to look toward even higher goals, i.e.-entry into such fields as social services, vocational rehabilitation, financial assistance and nursery classes.
Under Dr. Cummings’ direction, blind persons were place in industrial jobs where they could make a contribution to the war effort. A Training course in machine stop techniques was organized at Brown Vocational High School in Wilmington.
In 1944 the Commission launched a vocational rehabilitation program, following the enactment of Public Law 113, the Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Rehabilitation Instructors were hired to train people for employment. Services included such areas as cane travel, use of Public transportation and learning to dress appropriately for the work place.
Changes in 1945 made the Delaware Commission for the Blind subject to the provisions of the Social Security Act as it applied to the Aid to the Blind Program.
The post-war period marked the establishment of the Commission’s vending stand program throughout the state, providing additional sources of employment for blind of Delaware.
In 1950 a nursery school for the pre-school blind children of Delaware was established and operated at Sunnybrook, near Wilmington, until 1958. The function of the nursery school was continued through fieldwork with individual families.
In 1956 a first grade Braille class was established on a two-year experimental basis in cooperation with the Wilmington City schools. Grades 1 and 2 for blind students were conducted at the Lore School in Wilmington. Other children were sent, at state expense to special schools for blind children in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Adults as well as children were included in the educational program. Home teachers made regular visits to the homes of blind adults to instruct them in daily activities, household management, handicraft skills, Braille typing, and script writing.
When Delaware established a Cabined form of government, on March 16, 1970, the Commission for the Blind became part of the Department of Health and Social Services, with its name changed to the Bureau for the Blind (later changed to Visually Impaired), with Howard Jones as the Executive Director.
The first Itinerant teacher was hired in 1970, and by the end of 1971, 50 students who had been attending schools for the blind outside Delaware were attending their home schools in Delaware. Another Itinerant teacher was added in 1972.
The Telephone Reassurance Program was started in April 1972 and is now known as the Peer Support Program. The first Visualtek (CCTV), costing $1,642 was purchased in October 1972, thereby starting the use of assistive technology for the visually impaired.
Howard Jones retired as Executive Director of the Commission in 1973, and was replaced by Norman Balot.
Enacted by legislation in 1978, the Bureau for the Visually Impaired became the Division for the Visually Impaired. The workshop moved from 305 West 8th Street to the Biggs Building. In January 1991, Robert Snider died suddenly, and Dianne Post became Acting Director, and then permanent Director.
In October of 1994, the Division for the Visually Impaired relocated staff from several sites in the Dover area, to the Milford State Service Center - Annex.
In 1995, Dianne Post stepped down as Director and became the supervisor of the Independent Living Services unit. Chuck Gebhart was named acting Director in her place, but left the agency in May 1996. Debra Wallace then became Acting Director in June 1996 and was named the permanent Director from May 1997- November 2000.
Robert Goodhart, the Deputy Director, had a dual role from February 2001 –November 2001 when he was appointed Acting Director. In November 2001, Harry Hill became the Director for the Division for the Visually Impaired, followed by Cynthia B. Lovell and then by Robert Doyle, III.
At the present time, there are 70 Merit System employees, eighty (80) who work in the Business Enterprise Program and another forty (40) who work at Delaware Industries for the Blind. Programs include Independent Living Services, Education, Vocational Rehabilitation, Orientation & Mobility, Low Vision, the Training Centers, Outreach and the Materials Center.