Leaders and Legends: Robert B. Irwin

Robert B. Irwin
Inducted 2002
Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field

Robert Irwin (1883-1951) was born in Iowa. When he was five years old he became blind as a result of an eye inflammation. He attended and graduated from a "School for Defective Youth" which was later renamed the Washington State School for the Blind. After graduating from the University of Washington, he attended graduate school at Harvard University where he received an M.A. in 1907 and stayed for two more years to concentrate on the education and welfare of the blind as well as on government and history.

Robert Irwin began his career in 1910 as supervisor of the classes for the blind in the Cleveland Public Schools, where he also organized classes for partially seeing children in 1913. Assisted by Dr. Goddard in 1914, he was the first to adapt Binet intelligence tests so that they "might be used more appropriately with the blind."

In 1923, Robert Irwin was called to New York to become the Director of Research and Education of the American Foundation for the Blind. During this time, he developed an efficient interpoint braille printing machine which reduced the bulk and cost of braille books by about 40 percent. Another significant contribution was to bring Edison's idea to fruition by using 33rpm long-playing records, long before they became commercially accepted, as Talking Books and by promoting a nationwide system of library services to supply them to the blind in the United States.

During Robert Irwin's tenure as Executive Director of AFB from 1929 to 1949, he built it into one of the most important agencies in work for the blind. An early concern of his was the achievement of better international cooperation on behalf of all the blind in the world. To promote this cause, he organized the World Conference on Work for the Blind which met in New York in 1931. In 1946 Irwin's interest in international work for the blind resulted in organizing the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, later renamed Helen Keller International.

His legislative efforts led to the program of Aid to the Needy Blind under Title X of the Social Security Act and a bill allowing the blind an additional exemption on their Federal Income Tax. He was instrumental in the passage of three laws which became a great stimulus to the employment of the blind: the Barden-La Follette Act, the Randolph-Sheppard Act, and the Wagner-O'Day Act. When World War II required special provisions for war-blinded, he wrote and secured the passage of the bill recognized as "a bill of rights for blinded veterans."

Many honors have been bestowed on Robert Irwin: President of AAWB for four years, named Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus by the University of Washington, made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French Government, and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Western Reserve University in Cleveland "in recognition of his local, national, and international service in behalf of the blind."

Robert Irwin Robert Irwin's Hall of Fame Plaque

Plaque sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind

About the Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field is dedicated to preserving, honoring, and promoting the tradition of excellence manifested by the specific individuals inducted into the Hall of Fame and through the history of outstanding services provided to people who are blind or visually impaired.

These significant professional colleagues of the recent and distant past are a fascinating cross-section of heroes and pioneers who not only shaped our rich history, philosophy, knowledge and skills, but also give us insights into current and future challenges. These giants shared their personal lives and showed us strategies to ensure that services for blind persons remain unique and specialized. Enjoy their lives and contributions and reflect upon your own list of heroes.

Hall of Fame: Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field is a project of the entire field of blindness. It is curated by the American Printing House for the Blind, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization.

Visit the virtual Hall of Fame for the inspiring stories of many more heroes of the field of blindness.


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