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Bonzer Words!: Alice Betteridge

Paula Wilson outlines the life of Alice Betteridge, a woman who had a profound impact on the education of deaf blind children in Australia.

In 1990 the Special School for Multi-handicapped Blind Students (part of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) in New South Wales, Australia) was renamed the Alice Betteridge School. The renaming was dedicated to a woman who had died twenty-four years earlier. A woman who had a profound impact on the education of deaf blind children in Australia.

Alice was born at Sawyers Gully near Maitland, New South Wales in 1901. When she was just two, Alice contracted meningitis, which occurs when the membrane around the brain and spinal cord becomes infected. It comes on very quickly and can result in death; one in five develop disabilities that can include blindness, cerebral palsy and deafness. Alice was left deaf and blind.

People with disabilities were usually placed in institutions and often forgotten about. Emily and George Betteridge kept their daughter at home and did the best they could. But Emily wanted more for Alice and approached the New South Wales Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution (now RIDBC.) It was a boarding school and Alice who was only three remained there for a few months before returning home.

It was not until she was seven that Alice went back to the RIDBC. In the early twentieth century institutions were not the best of places. The RIDBC was one of the better ones, rather forward thinking for the time. Their belief was that children with disabilities should be treated just like other children.
When Alice was accepted she was the first child with duel disabilities to gain a place at the school. It would have been extremely difficult for a child whose only communication was that of touch. Then into her life came an extraordinary teacher. Roberta Reid recently graduated from the University of Sydney joined the RIDBC. She was given a class of thirteen blind children one of whom was Alice. It was Robertaís perseverance that saw a breakthrough with Alice.

At home on the family farm Alice was used to going barefoot and had difficulties wearing shoes at school. She hated footwear and would constantly remove them. Roberta used the object of Aliceís hatred and tapped out (finger spelt) the word shoe into the palm of her small hand. She constantly repeated the word until Alice responded by copying it back to Roberta. This one word opened up the gateway to a whole new form of communication for Alice. From here on she quickly learnt new words and her quest for knowledge was limitless.

After graduating in 1920 as dux of the school Alice was asked to stay on to assist other students. Her ability to read and write Braille fluently was living proof of what could be achieved against the odds.

Nine years later Alice went home. Being able to communicate had opened up new worlds for her one of which was having penfriends. One of these was Will Chapman who was also deaf blind. Their friendship blossomed into romance and after their marriage she moved to his home in Melbourne.

Alice and Will were together for nine years until his death of a heart attack in 1948. Willís death occurred just after Alice met with the deaf blind American writer and activist Helen Keller who was in Sydney as part of a six-month tour of Australia. Helenís early story was similar to Alice except her breakthrough moment came with the running of water over her hand. They also differed in that Helen Keller was well known worldwide through her writing, lecturing and campaigning to eradicate preconceived prejudices towards deaf blind children.

Alice was not one to be held back and considered life an adventure. She travelled considerably including a tour of New Zealand. After Willís death Alice returned to Sydney to be close to her family. In 1955 a massive flood hit New South Wales. It was one of the worst natural disasters in Australian history and covered the entire Hunter Valley region. Twenty-four people died in Maitland and the surrounding area, thousands more were stranded. Alice was one of those caught up in it, being stuck for four days at Maitlandís railway station.

Alice moved into Helen Keller House at Woollahra, a suburb of Sydney, where she died of cancer in 1966. She was 65.
Although not as well known as Helen Keller, Alice was the first deaf blind child to receive a formal education in Australia. Her legacy lives on at the Alice Betteridge School where children from four to eighteen are taught.

© Paula Wilson

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Paula writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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