Thomas Armitage

Caring about the disabled – the Royal National Institute for the blind

Other themes:

thinking positively, using our talents.

The Problem

Listen to this story: there’s something to think about at the end.

Robbie hated school sports day. Worst day of the year, he reckoned. For Robbie couldn’t run; he’d probably never be able to. He could walk a bit, but if he tried to run, he’d fall flat on his face. And as they didn’t have a falling over event, that was that, he couldn’t take part.

So he just sat with his house, the Swallows, and watched as his mates were called up to the starting line, and as they came back with bits of coloured ribbon pinned to their shirts. He felt a right nerd, for what could he do for his house? Nothing. Everyone understood but that wasn’t the point.

The gun went for the start of the 400 metres. His best friend, Joe Collins, was in this for the Swallows. Not that he’d win, but Robbie would give him a cheer as he got to the finish, hopefully not too far behind the others.

But what was this? Joe for the first time was keeping up, arms and legs pumping away. Robbie had never seen him like this before.

And, look, he’s up to second place now, just behind Matthew Drew.

He’s coming up level!

Robbie could see Joe’s face, bursting with effort. Without thinking, he pushed himself up from his seat and started yelling, “Go on, Joe! Go on! You can do it!”

He was vaguely aware of faces turning to look at him for a second. “Go on, Joe!” he screamed.

Still level, only a few yards to go.

And Robbie was waving his arms wildly, calling out Joe’s name. “Joe! Joe!”

Suddenly it was over. Who’d won? They’d seemed level at the tape.

And then Robbie saw. There he was, his best mate Joe with the gold ribbon for first, striding back to his house like a king.

“Great stuff, Joe,” Robbie grinned at him. “Knew you could do it.”

Joe grinned back. “Couldn’t have done it without you though, Robbie. It was your shouting that did it. I could hear you above everything. Thanks, mate.”

A few minutes later, Mr Broomfield, the teacher in charge of Swallows house, came up to Robbie and said, “Come on, lad, with a voice like that, I’m making you official cheerleader for the Swallows tug-of-war team.”

So, as the team grabbed the rope, a chair was put for Robbie close by. Given official permission to make a noise, Robbie made the most of it. “Pull, I said, pull…and pull, get up, James, pull!”

And suddenly the Swallows fell backwards. They’d won.

“Well done, Robbie,” said Mr Broomfield later. “You’ve got a voice and a half there.”

“Yeah, but..” Robbie began. “That’s all I can do – shout. I can’t take part.”

Now think:

Did Robbie take part that day? Did he let his house down because he couldn’t run?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Now for a true story. It starts in the year 1860.

It was no use. He’d have to give up.

The one thing he wanted to do in life, to help others through medicine, he would no longer be able to do. For he was going blind.

So, he thought, what now?

Yes, he thought, what? I have great knowledge, and I can’t use it. I have the desire to help people get better, but I can’t help them. I am wealthy enough to give treatment to those who can’t pay, but I can’t see to give them treatment. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t….

Thomas Armitage had had trouble with his sight before when he was a medical student. His eyes had not been able to cope with the amount of reading he had to do. So he had taken a long rest and eventually he’d been able to go on with his studies, becoming a qualified doctor and surgeon. But the trouble was more severe now. A rest would not help him this time.

He prayed into the stillness. “Lord, you understand. You know all I wanted to do for people, for you. And now – I can’t. Oh, Lord – what use can I be if I’m blind?”

But then an idea began to grow in his mind… For yes, there was something he could do, a group of people he perhaps could help, people whose problems he’d be able to understand very well now.

Blind people.

They certainly need help, he knew that. For it was difficult for blind people to get jobs, and if they had no family willing and able to care for them, then they had to beg. It could be a desperately sad life.

And he realised what would change all this: if they could be taught to read. Some could already, by running their fingers over raised type or patterns which represented the different letters of the alphabet. But there were so many systems, so many types of type! So a blind person could only read what was produced in the system he knew.

What was needed was for everything to be produced in one system. But who should decide which? It was obvious to Thomas Armitage. Blind people should decide.

So he brought together a little group of blind men to examine every system of reading by touch that they could lay their hands on, if you’ll excuse the joke. Not just British ones but foreign ones too.

Many other people were asked for their opinions as they went along – many blind people, that is.

Eventually one system came out tops – the one devised by a French lad called Louis Braille when he was just fifteen. It used different patterns of up to six raised dots to represent each letter, number and so on.

Through Dr Armitage’s efforts more and more was printed in the Braille system, with the doctor taking a personal interest in everything to make sure what was produced was the best. He was doing this work for God.

So it was his fingers that checked each hill and valley on the Braille maps, and when sheets of Braille print were stamped out, he would take them home for varnishing in his own kitchen, where they were hung up to dry amongst all the pots and pans. Fortunately his wife was as keen as he was, so she didn’t mind.

As so a whole world of reading was opened up to blind people, as not only books and maps were published in Braille, but also music scores and, I’m afraid, exam papers, and even, would you believe it, times tables. No excuse now for not knowing five fives!

Dr Armitage was concerned about other needs too. He set up a Samaritan fund to help blind people who fell ill or on hard times. And more. He was largely responsible for setting up a college for the blind. He personally provided a swimming pool and gym equipment. And he arranged a special garden for the blind to be part of Kew Gardens.

And today the work he began has grown into a large organisation called the Royal National Institute for the Blind, or RNIB, which trains blind people to do all kinds of jobs, such as computer programming, or helps them set up their own businesses. It runs care homes and holidays for the blind, and much, much more.

And it all began – where? It began with a man who stopped thinking of the “can’ts” in his life and started thinking of the “cans”.

Time of Reflection

We can all think of things that we’d really like to do but can’t. Of course, some “can’ts” would become “cans” if we practised hard enough. But some things we’ll never be able to do, so let’s not think about them. Let’s think about our “cans”. What’s your biggest “can” – the thing you do best? It could be in sport or in music or in school work or a hobby, or something like encouraging others like the boy in the first story. How in the next week or month are you going to make the most of it – for your own sake, and for others? Let’s think about that for a moment.

Bible Bits

God has given us all the possibility of having a satisfying life, a life where the “can’ts” aren’t so important.

David said in one of the Psalms:

“You have done many things for us, O Lord our God…You have made many wonderful plans for us.” (Psalm 40:5)

And Jesus said:

“I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10)


Help us, Lord, not to be jealous of those who can do what we can’t. Thank you for what we can do. Help us to put our “cans” to good use, whether it’s cheering on the sidelines like Robbie or helping in a way we hadn’t thought of, like Thomas Armitage. Amen

Variations on a Theme

Pupils – and teachers? – could share one thing they’d like to be able to do, but can’t, and one thing they can (and perhaps show a result – a piece of work, a medal, etc). Include a good variety of “cans”.

Quiz Questions

  1. Why was Thomas Armitage so depressed?
  2. What pulled him out of this depression?
  3. What was stopping blind people reading everything printed for them?
  4. Who invented the reading system Dr Armitage chose?
  5. What nationality was Louis Braille?
  6. How old was he when he invented the system?
  7. Braille used patterns of – up to how many dots?
  8. What does RNIB stand for?
  9. Name one way the RNIB helps blind people.
  10. Name one more.

The address of the RNIB is: 224 Great Portland Street, London, W1N 6AA

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