Originally appeared in the Fall 2015 Gazette
By Cecile Hales
Winnetka schools are known around the country and around the world, and none holds this distinction more proudly than Hadley School for the Blind, now celebrating its 95th anniversary.
Hadley’s progress since its inception in 1920 is remarkable: from a single “correspondence course” to an organization devoted to “home study” (now known as “distance education”), it has expanded over the years and broadened the communities it serves. Hadley is widely recognized as a global leader in distance education, providing nearly 10,000 students each year from all 50 states and more than 100 countries (1,462 international students last year) with tuition-free programs.
In course offerings alone, Hadley has moved with the times, adapting the correspondence format to online training. Just some of the more than 100 courses that can be taken online: Abacus, English, History, Birdsongs, Braille (in many applications, including music), Business, Greek and Latin, Parenting, and Poultry Raising.
In September Hadley received the prestigious Oculus Award from Envision, a national not-for-profit organization that supports those who are blind and visually impaired. It was a tribute to the achievements that have made a difference in so many lives—and it all began with one Winnetka resident.
William Hadley was teaching at Lakeview High School in Chicago in 1915 when he became totally blind at age 55. In time Hadley taught himself braille and proposed to teach others.
In 1920 a Kansas farmer’s wife became his first student. Hadley created and sent her his first correspondence braille course. Hadley then collaborated with his ophthamologist and neighbor, Dr. E.V.L. Brown, to establish proper correspondence courses, and in 1922 the Hadley School was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization.
The school moved from Hadley’s Oak Street home to an office on Lincoln Avenue and then to a location in the Winnetka Community House, where it remained until 1958. Hadley died in 1941.
We can trace the progress and innovations made by the school over the years. In 1938, 400 students were taking courses through Hadley. Fifty years later that number had risen to over 7,500. Technological advances included early use of “talking book machines” (33 rpm) – Hadley assisted blind persons to buy this helpful technology and also loaned out its own 130 machines for extended periods.
By 1963 Hadley was exploring more new media: it produced plastic braille books and built a recording studio working with 8 rpm records and multi-track tape recorders. Films and videos were created about the school, followed later by digital media.
Two significant events took place in the 1950s: First, the Women’s Board was established in 1953. This group has raised over $3.7 million thus far, which enables the school to be independent of other community-based funding. The Woman’s Board also manages the annual sale of braille Christmas cards.
Additionally, the school moved to its own brand-new building at 700 Elm Street in 1958. Its cheerful corridors and energetic staff continue to inspire visitors.
During these mid-century years, a blind and deaf staff member named Richard Kinney made great efforts to raise Hadley’s profile, calling on President Eisenhower, Princess Grace of Monaco, Indira Gandhi, Leonard Bernstein and other notables to gain sponsors for the school.
By 1990 (Hadley’s 70th anniversary) the school employed a staff of 70, offered over 100 courses, and had more than 9,400 students. Hadley also began offering programs for sighted parents of blind children.
To celebrate its 75th year, a black-tie benefit, with Barbara Bush as honorary chair, was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. An 80th birthday event was held in February 2000 in conjunction with TV Tuneout Week; it featured ways for children and adults to learn about braille and devices/games showing what it is like to be blind.
In 2005, Hadley’s current President, Charles E. Young, arrived on the scene. That year an online course, “Blindness Basics,” was introduced to educate professionals and paraprofessionals working with blind or visually impaired persons. This has since blossomed into a major division within Hadley. The School for Professional Studies offers courses with Continuing Education credits for these workers.
With such a range of activities, Hadley is much more than a school. Let’s celebrate its 95th anniversary and hope that it may long continue to provide its valuable services. ■