In 1900, two blind men from Connecticut, Francis R. Cleveland and H.R.W. Miles, founded the Columbia Polytechnic Institute for the Blind in a small building in Northwest Washington, D.C. Now called Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, the organization has changed its location, size and scope over the years. Its overall mission, however, has remained the same – to help people of all ages in the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia region overcome the challenges of blindness or vision loss and enable them to remain independent, active and productive in our society.
Having been involved with work for the blind in their home state of Connecticut, Cleveland, an attorney, and Miles, a graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, arrived in Washington in 1899 with plans to set up an organization for the blind in the nation’s capital. Their goal was to establish an organization that would serve as a model institution for the rest of the country and demonstrate to the sighted world the capabilities of individuals who were blind.
After months of work, on May 17, 1900, the Columbia Polytechnic Institute for the Blind was incorporated. Its purpose was to educate and foster employment opportunities for Washingtonians who were blind.
The incorporators and trustees of the Institute were prominent men of their day and were instrumental in securing a $5,000 Congressional appropriation to start up the nonprofit organization. Payment was made on the original building at 1808 H Street, N.W. The remaining funds were invested in a printing plant, which would become a source of income for the organization as well as provide employment for people who were blind.
Workers who were blind were taught how to “feed” the press and to fold, stitch, insert and trim magazines and pamphlets. A monthly magazine, Talks, Tales and Public Opinion, was published. The magazine served as a medium for the exchange of information and ideas as well as featured book reviews, travel articles, stories and poetry. Later, this magazine was merged to become a quarterly publication titled Voices from Dark Lands. However, by 1918, both the printing department of the Columbia Polytechnic Institute and the quarterly magazine were discontinued.
In the meantime, the Institute embarked on other ventures to increase revenue for the organization and create employment opportunities for people who were blind. A chair-caning operation was established. In addition, a number of individuals associated with the Institute were gifted musicians, and music rooms were made available, where teachers who were blind gave music lessons to their sighted students.
In March 1911, Congress gave the Institute an additional appropriation of $3,000. This money was used to purchase new machinery, furthering the Institute’s income-producing endeavors. Following World War I, the Columbia Polytechnic Institute for the Blind was designated as a convalescent home and training facility for blinded veterans. Veterans were given assistance in adapting to and coping with blindness, enabling them to live independent lives despite their vision loss.
In 1933, the Columbia Polytechnic Institute hired its first Braille instructor and expanded its mission and scope to focus more intensely on academic and vocational training. A department of furniture repair was created, where individuals who were blind received training and employment. Braille, typewriting, piano tuning and voice instruction also were offered and, for those people unable to attend classes at the Institute, a home teaching service was inaugurated.
With the onset of World War II, the Columbia Polytechnic Institute expanded its facilities to include sub-contract work. Nearly 20 individuals who were blind were employed through various defense contracts, marking the highest level of employment achieved by the Institute since its inception in 1900. The Institute also collaborated with the Veterans’ Administration, providing vocational training and assistance to wounded veterans when they returned from overseas.
In 1947, there was considerable turnover in the Columbia Polytechnic Institute’s Board of Trustees. A group of young businessmen became interested in improving the services available for people in the Washington community who were blind. In 1949, Page Hufty, who had been a member of the Board of Trustees since mid-1930, was elected president of the Board of Directors and took steps to ensure that the Institute became better known to the public. The Institute expanded its services and increased its staff. Hufty served as Honorary Chairman of the Board until his death in February 2001.
In 1950, Columbia Polytechnic Institute sought help from two leading national service organizations for the blind ̶ the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the National Industries of the Blind (NIB) ̶̶̶ to conduct a survey of people in the Washington region who were blind to learn how the Institute could better meet that population’s needs. Results showed that the organization needed to substantially increase its rehabilitation services and expand its workshop facilities. The Institute implemented the recommendations and steps were taken to obtain a larger “home” for the organization.
Also, in 1950, the Columbia Polytechnic Institute for the Blind renewed its charter and changed its name. In 1952, a renovated school building at 9th and E streets, S.W., became the new headquarters of the newly named Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. Later, in 1976, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind moved its headquarters to 1421 P Street, N.W.
In December 2000, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind moved to its current headquarters in the heart of the federal business district at on K Street, NW. In April 2001, the organization opened a full-service regional office in Riverdale, MD which has since moved to Silver Spring, MD.
Programs and services offered at the Silver Spring facility include assistive technology training; career services; a low vision clinic; instruction in Braille, typing, keyboarding, independent living skills and safe travel techniques; a children’s summer camp; counseling; and social and cultural activities.
Over the years, the organization’s mission of promoting independence for people who are blind or visually impaired has remained the same, but how it achieves that goal has changed. In today’s increasingly technological society, greater emphasis is placed on technology training in order to better prepare people who are blind or visually impaired for the job market.
In addition, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind has expanded its services to include people who have low vision. Contrary to popular belief, more than half of those who receive services from the Columbia Lighthouse have some useable vision. As a result, a full-time clinic, directed by a doctor of optometry who specializes in low vision care, offers individuals an opportunity to receive examinations and prescriptions for low vision aids.
Today, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind is the only organization in the region that provides the comprehensive range of programs and services for the nearly 180,000 people living in Maryland, DC, and Virginia who are blind or visually impaired. These programs and services are provided to people of all ages and regardless of an individual’s ability to pay.