American Association of Blind Teachers

Telephone: (865) 692-4888

Home  |   Join Us  |   Subjects Our Members Teach  |   Contact Us  

The following article originally appeared in the
Devil's Lake Journal
July 8, 2011. While there are fewer challenges confronting someone wanting to get a teaching credential today, obsticles are still a reality. Moreover, it is generally more difficult to be a successful blind teacher in a smaller community; however, as this article indicates, it is not impossible.

Heather Spangler
University of Iowa College of Education

Judith (Young) Saunders’s grandmother was a teacher. Her mother was also a teacher. So that Saunders would choose that profession as well wasn’t unusual. What was special about Saunders is that she persevered through college and found success in her career despite the fact that she was blind and often had to fight for her acceptance.

“Some people think that the blind are dependent,” she would later tell a reporter from the Grand Forks Herald. Saunders, who would become an advocate for the blind, was anything but dependent.

Saunders (BA ’68) was born sighted, but lost her vision after surgery for a brain tumor when she was just seven years old. Her disability didn’t get her special treatment at home in rural LaPorte City, Iowa, though. She still had chores to do and was expected to succeed in school. She participated in band, speech, and cheerleading. Judy initially attended the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton and later completed her education at Geneseo Community High School.

Saunders attended Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids for two years and spent one year training at the Orientation and Rehabilitation Center for Adults run by the Iowa Blind Commission before coming to The University of Iowa to earn her degree in Elementary Education.

Although University officials initially resisted admitting her because of concerns about her disability, Saunders became the first blind student to earn her teaching degree at Iowa. She completed her student teaching with a second-grade class at Grant Wood Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. She told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that “open-mindedness” among University officials and acceptance among Cedar Rapids schools administrators helped her succeed.

Saunders, however, knew she’d face discrimination in her career. “There’s no question that the biggest problem a blind person faces is the social prejudice of the sighted world toward the blind,” she said. “They think we can’t do it, but the truth is, we can.”

Saunders became Iowa’s first sightless public school teacher when she took on her first teaching position in a fourth-grade classroom at Olmsted Elementary School in Urbandale. A Des Moines Register article about the new teacher—“Nothing Unusual about a Teacher this Year—Except She’s Blind!”–reported that some parents had misgivings about Saunders leading a classroom.

Saunders was able to change their minds. She used student monitors to report if any of their classmates were acting up. She was also able to identify students by their voices and could reprimand students acting out if needed. One of her students told the Register, “She can hear your little bittiest whisper and recognize your voice.”

Saunders had other adaptations in her classroom to make it work smoothly. She hired an assistant who would read the students’ work to her. She also had books translated into Braille.

Cedar Rapids teacher Irene Harrington observed Saunders interacting with children when Saunders visited her classroom. “I was giving an art lesson. Kids were using their initials or name to make a logo,” Harrington said. “The kids would go up to her and she would feel their work and give them comments. She was so good with the kids. I think they hardly realized she wasn’t sighted. She was a determined young woman.”

In 1969, Saunders married Curtis, a chiropractor who was also blind. The couple moved to Devils Lake, North Dakota, where she became the only blind teacher working in the state. Facing parental resistance, Saunders again won over her detractors.

Saunders said her students were always initially more accepting than their parents. “Children are more adaptable than adults. They accept things more readily,” she said, noting that her blindness presented an opportunity for her students to learn in new ways. “Children learn to verbalize more,” she told a reporter. “They tell me their problems, and in the process learn to express themselves better. I think it is good training.”

One of her Devils Lake students, Mark Hewitson, happened to sit next to Saunders’ friend and fellow advocate for the blind, James Omvig, on a plane some 25 years after Hewitson was in Saunders’ classroom. When the men realized they both knew Saunders, they spoke of her at length. Hewitson told Omvig that Saunders was the best teacher he ever had. “I don’t know exactly what it was. I just felt that I always needed to do my absolute best the year that Judy was my teacher, and so I really worked hard,” he said. “Everybody loved her and felt the same way I did about her ability.”

Saunders taught only one semester at Devils Lake before leaving to raise the first of her three sons. She did not return to the classroom and died of cancer in 1981 at age 36.

Saunders’ younger brother, Richard Young, said he’s proud of what his sister accomplished in her short life. He describes her as competitive, smart, progressive, and driven. But she also just wanted to be treated like anybody else. “Most people would have tripped all over themselves treating her differently, and she just didn’t allow that,” he said.

Saunders described her blindness as just one characteristic among many. “Lots of people are blind,” she said in a Des Moines Register story. “But then again, lots of people have IQ’s under the genius level and lots of people are left handed and lots of people have black hair.”

Top of Page