Disability History in Texas From Isolation to Participation a history of Disability in Texas, 1835 – 1999

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Before Statehood

Two significant early Texas leaders had disabilities. Erastus "Deaf" Smith served as messenger for William B. Travis when he was desperate for help in the Alamo, rescued the survivors of the siege, was appointed Chief of Scouts (modern day spies) by General Sam Houston, and later intercepted a courier carrying information to Santa Anna at San Jacinto. A childhood illness left him severely hearing impaired, and he was reportedly seen accompanied by his dog trained to alert him to danger by tugging on his clothes rather than by barking. Reports also indicated that he had "diminished eyesight."

Thomas William Ward served in the Texas military, and lost a leg at the Battle of San Jacinto. In 1837, Ward contracted to build the first state Capitol in Houston. Thereafter he served three terms as mayor of Austin. He lost his right arm when a cannon was inadvertently shot during a ceremonial occasion, but continued to be highly active, pursuing a series of appointments within Texas and serving as U.S. Consul to Panama. He was popularly known as "Peg-Leg" Ward.
Early figures in Texas history often acquired disabilities during fighting. Such was the fate of Santa Anna, arch enemy of the independence fighters and two time Mexican president, who history records as losing the same leg twice in battle. He lost his original leg during the attack of San Juan de Ulloa two years after the Texas Revolution. Some years later in 1847, Santa Anna was again in battle, but this time at Cerro Gordo. While eating lunch, he was surprised by volunteer infantry from Illinois and in his haste to escape with his life, he left behind not only his lunch, but his artificial leg as well. For more information, go to

Another early Texas leader dealt with a childhood disability. Robert Williamson had a leg that was drawn back at the knee necessitating the use of a wooden leg. He thus was known as "Three-Legged Willie." His accomplishments included practicing law, editing newspapers and fighting in the Battle of San Jacinto. The first Congress of the Republic elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District, automatically making him a member of the Supreme Court. When the courthouse burned before he convened his first court, he held it under a large oak tree. In 1840, he was elected to represent Washington County in the Congress and later served as a Senator in the Republic. He also served in the Texas Senate.
Early Texans were pioneers and renegades. Although these traits propelled Smith and Ward to greatness, they sometimes delayed other actions such as establishing public schools. Early leaders began schools for persons who were deaf or blind before beginning public schools in Texas.
Texas' population prior to statehood was small, sometimes poorly nourished, and faced many challenges dealing with diseases and adversities. Many families, ashamed of their members with disabilities, shielded them from others. Many people died who today would have been treated and survived. Harshness of early Texas life often resulted in the survival of the fittest.

The geographical size of Texas posed a particular challenge in dealing with disabilities. Dirt roads limited travel, especially during rainy seasons. Since most of the state was rural, the people needing services were widely scattered across the state. Most early disability services were provided in institutions where people of similar need could be jointly served.

Early Institutions

In 1856, twenty years after Texas won independence from Mexico, the Legislature appropriated funds to establish institutions for the blind, deaf, and insane. Governor Elisha M. Pease first voiced this intention when in 1853 he requested that $250,000 in federal bonds be set aside in the permanent fund to build and maintain a state lunatic asylum. Besides its practical value, the appropriation showed an awareness that the responsibility for care might lie beyond the limited help a family could provide. Early institutions served Texans who were deaf or blind; many others with disabilities received services in the state lunatic asylums. These facilities served persons with epilepsy, mental retardation, and other disabilities.

The very size of Texas posed an impediment to providing services for those in need. Distances were far more daunting than they are now. There was no network of highways, or even paved roads. The cost of travel was prohibitive, and before railroads began to criss-cross the eastern part of Texas in the 1870s, rain could turn unpaved roads into mud, preventing travel. In cities, medication gradually replaced some of the multitude of home remedies that were dispensed to deal with illness, but rural availability remained limited. More serious illnesses and disabilities often ended tragically in the absence of medical treatment.
When the railroad linked the Trans-Pecos to the rest of Texas in the early 1880s, the tracks were beyond the reach of most settlers. The School for the Deaf attracted only a handful of pupils in the first few years, and an early superintendent, perhaps nervous about the institution's future, blamed the absence of a viable railroad system. One ramification of the distances resulted in boys and girls who were institutionalized, virtually losing touch with their families.
The 1870 U.S. Census enumerated four categories of disability: blind, deaf and dumb, insane, and idiotic. The lack of information probably under-reported the numbers, suggesting a total of just 404 Texans, some of whom had "a double or triple affliction or infirmity." Commenting on the next Census, Frank Rainey, Superintendent of the Blind Asylum said "the census of 1880 states that there were 1,349, but as it was incomplete, no one really knows anything about, even approximately, the number of blind persons." He added, comfortingly, "the equable climate is not favorable to production of diseases of the eye." With similar diffidence, and an equally flimsy resource base, it was assumed that there were 192 deaf students in need of education.
The Blind Asylum admitted Anglo and Hispanic children aged 6-19, at a small weekly cost for those who could pay, no cost for the indigent, and free board for all by state decree. By 1870, twenty-one students attended. Each spring at the end of the school year, they left for a two-month furlough with their families. But if they were homeless, they stayed on in Austin. This hardly allowed relationships to be reestablished before it was time for the lengthy journey back to school. In this particular year, once the new superintendent recovered from having to refurbish his house, as his predecessor had parted with the furniture, he set about improving the lot of the students. He expressed his gratitude for the newspaper subscriptions, the map of Jerusalem, and a supply of raised-letter books (prior to Braille books) from Louisville, Kentucky to enrich existing materials for the students who could not "see to read the ordinary print of school books."
The School for the Deaf, established in 1856 as the Texas Deaf and Dumb Asylum, first opened its doors half a mile south of the Colorado River, near the present day complex. A two-room cottage, three log cabins, and a smokehouse converted into a schoolroom served the three initial students. Matthew Clark, a deaf and mute teacher from New York was appointed by the Board of Trustees to canvas the state for students. The first superintendent, Jacob Van Nostrand, served for 19 years and saw the school through the lean years of the Civil War. During that period, a shortage of funds prompted the matron to shear the school's sheep and teach the older girls to spin wool to make the students' clothing. Some boys had to go barefoot, and from time to time youngsters subsisted on bread and molasses. After the war ended, the school's budget in 1869 reached $10,382. Expenses ranged from $1,000 toward building and repairs, down to 45 cents apiece for mousetraps. A third of the total budget met salaries. An extensive building program began in 1875, the same year that vocational training began.

Initially the school's function was to educate young people who could not follow the curriculum in a public school classroom. It became evident before too long that it was equally important to prepare students for life after school, for jobs not wholly dependent on classroom learning. For example, at the School for the Blind, several options were introduced including shoe-making and printing. In 1876, the State Printing Office was established at the school in the hope that students could undertake all state printing. More successfully, the students began publishing their own Texas Mute Ranger, which later became the Lone Star. Despite repeated discussion, no provision was made for speech instruction during the lengthy tenure of Van Nostrand. In 1893, an oral department opened to help students who had achieved some speech before losing their hearing. A wealth of vocational options provided varied job skill training over the ensuing years. In 1900, they began a Deaf-Blind department, which was transferred to the School for the Blind in 1934.

The purpose of the State Lunatic Asylum, established in 1856, was to protect the patients from the world at large, and vice versa. It was the catch-all for disabilities affecting the mind rather than the body, and they served 54 residents by the mid-1860s. Overcrowding was cited as a problem in annual reports for several decades. Many times the reports complained that despite expectations to the contrary, the non-indigents refused to pay their fees. County residents were expected to pay $2.00 a week, though $5.00 was considered more acceptable in view of the inadequate funding provided by the State. The reports expressed a belief that early admission improved the chances of cure.
Professional staff and board members often made revealing comments to the Legislature in these reports, especially the superintendents of each of the institutions responsible for the young and old with disabilities. At the Asylum, later the Austin State Hospital, James A. Corley tabulated the 1869 admissions and deaths, including a woman who "committed suicide by hanging herself to the iron grating of her window with a sheet procured from her own bed," and noted that six patients had escaped. Many of the patients were born in Germany, the leading immigrant population in the area. The predominant forms of mental illness were diagnosed as acute and chronic mania, and melancholia. Corley stated his own preferred treatment for the mentally troubled: "There is nothing to surpass the old plunge bath; the most maniacal raving can often be subdued by a solitary plunge." In 1874, Dr. David Richard Wallace, a pioneer in the treatment of nervous diseases and whose clients included the Empress Carlotta of Mexico, became superintendent and introduced more humane and up-to-date treatments. He subsequently directed the North Texas Lunatic Asylum, now the Terrell State Hospital, which was set up with a $200,000 legislative appropriation in 1885 to ease overcrowding and provide for "the chronic and incurable insane."
The first institutions catered only to Anglo and Hispanic Texans. William H. Holland, one of the few African-American state legislators prior to the turn of the century, introduced a bill to the 20th Legislature in 1887, with the support of both Anglo and African-American supporters, expressing the need for an institution for African-Americans. The bill was passed easily by the House, but went through the Senate only within minutes of the closing session. Governor L. L. Ross said that its passage gave him more pleasure than any other bill. The school opened as the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth in September 1887 some four miles northwest of the Austin city center. An existing catalogue emphasized that "this is not a place for the feeble-minded, idiotic, epileptic and insane boys and girls. This is a school and not an asylum."
A tract was purchased for the Institute for $10,000, a sum considered much below average for "naked ground" in the area. Household and farm articles cost $1,125, and included two mules and seven head of cattle. The next year, the school opened in makeshift accommodations while funds were procured to erect a new facility. But the new $18,000 structure soon "cracked through and through" and had to be condemned.
A notable difference in administration between then and now was the close supervision exerted by the administrators. For example, after several students died of pneumonia, the annual report paid homage to Superintendent S. J. Jenkins: "During the long weeks when the dark mantle of death seemed to hang over the institution, he gave his entire time, day and night, to aid in the care of the children, and there never was a time when these orphans, or those whose parents were absent at home, did not receive that love and tender care that the most indulgent and loving parent could have shown. Every hour between midnight and day he could be seen coming to the sick-room to look after the children's wants. Jenkins deserves the praise of his race and the thanks of his State for the unswerving devotion to duty in these times of trouble."

The Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute for Colored Youth boasted five Jersey cows, and produced corn, hay, potatoes and other vegetables on their nearby 300-acre farm. It was commonplace for institutions to produce and grow much of the necessary food, a practice that continued for many years, though not always with student labor. As in the other institutions, building programs succeeded each other almost continuously as the need for more space seemed boundless.

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