Lydia Young Hayes, the first Director of the NJ Commission for the Blind, was born on September 11, 1871, in Hutchinson, Minnesota. When Lydia was eight years old, while playing in a field on her parent’s farm, she was thrown by a bull. This serious accident resulted in several injuries, including the loss of her eyesight.
Her parents were determined that Lydia should continue to learn and grow, despite her blindness. After a chance meeting with Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, her parents sent her to live with her uncle to enable her to attend the Massachusetts School for the Blind, better known as the Perkins Institute, where Sullivan received her education.
After graduating from the Perkins Institute, Lydia studied at the Kindergarten Normal School of Boston University. She opened a private nursery for sighted children but she spent much of her time volunteering as a home teacher for blind adults.
Around that time, a wave of social consciousness was sweeping across the nation, due to the vigorous human rights advocacy efforts of Helen Keller and the subsequent media attention she received. As a result, significant strides were made toward equalizing opportunities for people who were blind.
In 1904, Massachusetts officially recognized the importance of providing “home education” for blind adults. Lydia Hayes was the first person asked to be one of the program’s two official teachers, by Helen Keller and the other members of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.
It was Keller who personally visited New Jersey and appeared before the state legislature giving testimony on the need for (in her words) “a state Commission for the Blind”. In 1909, Governor Franklin Fort, (who’d squeezed into office by beating his opponent, Trenton Mayor Frank Katzenbach by a very slim margin of votes) followed up on Keller’s recommendation to invite Lydia Hayes to accept the responsibility to lead New Jersey’s state agency for the blind.
It was unusual for someone female, blind, and as young to be selected for such an important job. As the Commission's first Director, her initial task was to develop and organize a program of services for NJ residents found to be blind. In April 1910, with New Jersey ranking third in the nation for population density, the Commission for the Blind began providing education and training for NJ's blind residents. During that first year, 750 people were registered for services.
Throughout her career, Lydia Hayes fought vigorously for people who are blind and remained firm in her assertion that their right to a productive and fulfilling life was not something she would ever consider negotiable.
Unfortunately, during that time, not everyone agreed with Lydia’s philosophy. As a matter of fact, blind children were often a source of a family’s shame, often shut away and segregated from daily interaction with others. Those who were lucky enough to be able to attend school were sent to separate educational institutions, such as the New Jersey Institution for the Feeble-Minded, in Vineland, where blind students were shut away from their peers and referred to as “inmates”.
Mostly due to Lydia’s determination, New Jersey, unlike other states, began providing state support and supervision of Braille classes in public schools. Along with her colleague, Janet Gilchrist Patterson, she established the first classes where both blind and sighted children could learn together, side by side at a school located on Washington St. in Newark. The program was nationally recognized as innovative, and people from around the country came to see how Lydia ran her program for blind and sighted children.
After retiring in 1942, Lydia moved back to Minnesota to live with her nephew and his wife, Helen Schultz, a deaf-blind woman who was also her adopted daughter. She died at the age of 72, on February 8, 1943.
"Education concerning the blind should be two-fold: the education of the individual regarding his responsibility to the community and the education of the community to promote understanding of the capabilities of the individual."
Lydia Young Hayes,
First Director of the NJ Commission for the Blind
Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women; First Syracuse University Press, 1997; Joan Burstyn, Editor
The Unseen Minority; American Foundation for the Blind Inc.., 1976; Frances A. Koestler
Manuscript Group 1635, Mary and Louise Curcio Collection, The New Jersey Historical Society
Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Meckler Books; 1978; Robert Sobel and John Raimo