Discovernet: Stories of Vision!

Stories of vision! A history of blind and vision impaired Australians

from the Vision Australia Heritage Collection

Being unable to see in the 1800s was not easy. Australians who were blind were not allowed to vote and many were very poor. In addition, people who lost their vision after the age of 16 could not receive a pension. There were no schools, libraries and hardly any services. How would you feel if you were blind at this time? What would you do to bring about change?

Vision Australia was founded to improve the lives of people who were blind or vision impaired. Our story begins with a man named Reverend James Miriam. Blind in one eye, he pledged to devote himself to helping people who were blind if the sight in his other eye was spared. It was and in 1866 Reverend Miriam called a meeting, from which the Asylum and School for the Blind was formed. At that time, the word asylum also meant a safe place. This was Australia’s first school for children who were blind. It is now part of Vision Australia.

In the 1800s many people who were blind couldn’t get a job due to a lack of training. To fix this, the first employment workshops were set up in Victoria in 1870 and in NSW from 1880. People were taught a variety of skills, which included brush making, mat making and basket weaving.

At this time, there were still many other barriers facing people who were blind. Born in 1873, Tilly Aston was totally blind by the age of seven. Tilly read and wrote using a different kind of writing called Braille. Braille letters are made of combinations of up to six raised dots, which are read by touch. Tilly was very good at school and became the first Australian who was blind to continue her education when she entered the University of Melbourne. However, at that time there were hardly any Braille textbooks. Tilly’s tutor had to help her slowly copy her textbooks into Braille. In the end the strain became too much, forcing Tilly to leave university early. How would you feel if that was you?

Despite feeling very sad and frustrated, Tilly was determined to bring about change and in 1894 she called a meeting of friends and supporters. From this meeting Australia's first Braille Library was formed by the Victorian Association of Braille Writers (now part of Vision Australia). What would you do if you were in this group?

Braille training courses began and within seven months 93 volunteers were learning to copy Braille. It took great patience – by hand each page took an average of about half an hour to produce. Can you imagine learning to read by touch?

An important part of the library service was making sure that the books were available to all readers. In 1899 the library were successful in getting free transport on the railways for all Braille books - a world first! How do you think people who were blind in other countries would have felt about this breakthrough?

Discrimination and prejudice were still widespread. To fight this, Tilly called another meeting of friends and supporters to fight for greater independence, social change and new laws. In 1895 the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (now also part of Vision Australia) was formed. The Association fought for and won Australia’s first voting rights for people who were blind. They also were successful in having the much hated travel bond abolished in 1901. Before then, people who were blind had been discriminated against. Branded as 'undesirable' they were forced to pay extra money, (a 'travel bond') to be able to travel interstate. Imagine if you couldn't travel freely in your own country?

Another major problem was the appalling living conditions for people who were blind, many of who were living in poverty. In 1909 the Association opened Australia’s first nursing home in Melbourne for people who were blind. Other homes were later established across Victoria and New South Wales.

Did you know that during World War I many Australians soldiers lost their sight? Many groups gave money to assist. One group that benefited was Vision Australia library. Braille takes up a huge amount of space. For years the library had been temporarily based in members' homes and leased offices. In 1918, Trustees of the Edward Wilson Estate made a large donation for a library to be built in South Yarra. This remained its home for the next 83 years until its relocation to Kooyong in 2001!

Are you surprised to hear that blind cricket is a popular game that is played throughout the world? Invented in Melbourne in 1922, the game uses a cane wicker ball with metal pieces inside that make a noise when the ball is thrown. This helps blind cricketers to know where the ball is. The world's first sports ground for blind cricketers was developed at Kooyong in 1928 by the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (now part of Vision Australia) and is still used today. Can you imagine using your ears to work out where the ball is instead of your eyes?

Over time services have developed to meet the needs of people who are blind. In 1972 Australia’s first low vision clinic began, which helps people get the most out of their remaining vision through the use of aids such as magnifiers and lighting equipment. Radio is a good way for people to get information. In 1981 the first radio station for people who can’t read standard print was started. Two years later Australia’s first talking newspaper service began.

Many people who are blind listen to talking books. When introduced in 1934, these were very bulky records and the sound quality was poor. Today, books are recorded on CD, which are very compact with crystal clear sound.

Another major change has been in Braille production. Braille typewriters and printing presses largely replaced hand frames in the 1900s. They enabled duplicate copies and printing on both sides of the page. From the 1980s, computers have been used which have made production much faster and cheaper.

All services have needed money. One very well known fundraising event has been Carols by Candlelight held each Christmas Eve since 1938. Have you seen it on television? Many singers and celebrities such as Guy Sebastian have performed. Sydney also has a big fundraising event, the annual Black and White Ball that has been running since 1937. Each year people dress up in ball gowns and dance the night away.

Can you imagine what it is like to be both deaf and blind? Helen Keller was and spent much of her life fighting for better rights and services for people with disabilities. In 1948 she visited Australia. During her visit, she said that services for Australians who were blind needed much improvement. Her comments led organisations such as Vision Australia to focus more on enabling people who were blind or vision impaired to become equal and independent citizens.

From the 1960s, Vision Australia has worked to help people who are blind access general community services rather than providing specialised care. Where possible services assist children who are blind or vision impaired to be educated in mainstream schools. Instead of providing separate nursing homes the focus is on making all homes accessible. Employment services enable people who are blind or vision impaired work in jobs they want. Current clients include engineers, lawyers, farmers, bank tellers, masseurs, spot welders and psychologists.

Today Vision Australia works with more than 38,000 Australians who have vision loss. Much of this exciting history has been recorded in the organisations heritage collection. If you would like to know more, contact the Vision Australia Archivist/Curator on +61 3 9864 9349 or email:


For more information on Vision Australia, its history and the services it offers

For more information on the history of Braille

For more information on blind cricket – Victorian Blind Cricket Association

For the history of the struggle for disability rights in the United States of America – Smithsonian National Museum of American History – The Disability Rights Movement

For information on how printing of material for people who are blind has developed - The American Printing House for the Blind



Image of children seated at long desks in school room
Classroom at Australia’s first school for children who were blind, St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, late 1800s

Image of men making making baskets
Weaving workshop, Boomerang Street, Sydney, c1895

Photograph of a woman sitting on a park bench teaching four young girls Braille.
Besides founding Australia's first Braille Library, Tilly Aston was the first Australian who was blind to go to university.

Click to hear Tilly Aston.
Click on the image to listen to Tilly Aston, in an excerpt from 'With love to my niece'. (May take several minutes to download)

Framed and mounted stained glass window depicting the front head and shoulders profile of a man with the words
At 15 Louis Braille invented Braille, a system of writing for people who were blind using combinations of tactile bumps that is now used worldwide. This window commemorates his achievements and is on display in the library.

Image showing two women sitting at a table, copying text into Braille.
Volunteers produced many Braille books in the early years of the library.

Photograph showing three women and a man at work in a library room lined with shelves of books. Several baskets of books are stacked in the centre of the room.
The Library gained the world’s first free postage of Braille in 1899.

Photograph showing a long house fronted by a verandah, which stands at the head of driveway. The driveway curves around a garden with lawn and palm trees.
Australia’s first nursing home for people who were blind or vision impaired was established at Brighton, Victoria in 1909.

Image of two men, one in soldiers uniform, standing in front of bluestone building
Returned soldiers standing in front of Vision Australia's first permanent site at St Kilda Road, Melbourne, 1915-1918

Photograph showing a cricketer just missing a ball, which is flying towards the wicketkeeper. A crowd stands behind the pitch watching the action.
The world’s first sports ground for blind cricketers was established at Kooyong, Victorian in 1928 with the inaugural match played the same year. The ground is still used today.

Cane wicker cricket ball
This blind cricket ball was used in the first interstate blind cricket match in 1928. Made of cane wicker it had metal pieces inside that made a noise when thrown.

Image of woman reading and recording a book
Dame Mary Gilmore recording books for the Blind Book Society, c1950s. The Society produced Australia’s first talking books and is now a part of Vision Australia

Photograph of three women posing in ball gowns
"White Ball Flower sellers” promoting the inaugural White Ball, which raised funds for services for people who are blind or vision impaired, Sydney, 1936

Image of woman and three men standing together
Disability advocate Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind, communicating with three men from the Royal Blind Society (now Vision Australia), Sydney, 1948