The GPO, Post Office and BT always catered for the blind and poorly sighted.   Some of the equipment was modified or had adaption's, e.g.  large number rings for telephone dials.  This page will describe some of the apparatus so designed.

The Training of War Blinded Telephonists
by J.  W.  Tatum - August 1952

It all started back in 1915, when the first blinded soldiers began to return from the front.  The late Sir Arthur Pearson, Bt., who himself was blind, determined to do his utmost to enable these men to 'learn to be blind'.  The first four men Were received in a small hostel in Bayswater Road, London, in February, 1915.  The work grew rapidly, and in March the organisation took over St. Dunstan/s, a large house on the edge of Regent's Park.  Today, there are many 'St. Dunstan's' houses and centres, and blinded men and women are not only trained but are helped with welfare work throughout their lives.  Since 1915, some 5,000 men and women have come under the care of St. Dunstan's.  More than 250 of them have been trained as P.B.X.  operators, several not only being blind but also having only one hand; one man is both blind and handless.  The Post Office has been able to help considerably with this work.  The main centre for training in telephony is at St. Dunstan's, at Ovingdean, in Sussex, a few miles east of Brighton. 

The first task is to restore self-confidence and develop the art of 'seeing' through the senses of touch and hearing.  By skilled and patient guidance, in some of which blind instructors are employed, the mental blackness of early blindness gradually gives way to a visualised world built by the imagination out of previous knowledge of form and texture.  The blind man learns how to walk about alone, to shave, take care of his appearance, do woodwork, play games and in general lead a normal, active life.  This restoration of self-confidence and development of manual dexterity and touch sensitivity takes up to twelve months or so.  During this time, the blind man learns to touch-typewrite, read Braille and operate a Braille typewriter.  Meanwhile, the St. Dunstan's staff study his individual ability and character and form some idea of what occupation will suit him best, so that he can be helped to decide a career.  There is inevitably a limited number of occupations for which large numbers of blind persons can be trained with a good prospect of effective employment.  Among these are physiotherapy, capstan lathe operating, small shop management and P.B.X. operating. 

Telephone operating by blind men is limited to P.B.X.  work.  The main reasons for this are that signals that can be distinguished by touch and sound are required in place of visual signalling; less reference to written information is required, and much of it can therefore be memorised, and no ticket work is needed.  The first two of these also limit the blind operator to the single-position P.B.X. 

At Ovingdean all learners are taught to operate '5 + 20', '10 + 30' and '10 + 50' switchboards, which are of standard Post Office pattern except for modification to the supervisory indicators.  There are also facilities for training on cordless P.B.X.s, but this is given only if specifically required. 

The usual arrangement of practice and control positions is followed, as in Post Office Telephonist School training.  The instructor originates calls from her control switchboard to the learner's practice position, and the learner, in completing the connection, calls on the control position, the instructor thus acting the part of both caller and called and the learner fulfilling the normal operator's function.  The general arrangement are shown to the right, where the blind man is operating a '10 + 30' position and the 'control' (unstaffed) is visible beyond a sliding glass panel.  The blind pupil requires more individual attention than a sighted one, and one instructor can handle only one at a time. 

Again, the blind person requires a longer period of training that the sighted person.  This is not just a question of taking longer to acquire new skills; there is also the fact that during the initial practice the mental concentration required of the sightless is very considerable, and until the training is well advanced only two periods of 40 minutes each, with a complete relaxation from telephone work for the rest of the day, are permissible if a sense of strain that will defeat the purpose is to be avoided.  Even so, it is possible to turn out a fully trained P.B.X.  operator in about six months, which, considering the inherent difficulties and limited periods of actual training, appears a not inconsiderable achievement. 

The instructors are all Post Office telephonists from Brighton or another nearby exchange.  A vacancy for an instructor is advertised locally and applicants and their probable suitability for this work are reported on by the Telephone Manager to St. Dunstan's; but the final selection is made by St. Dunstan's alone, as a result of interviews.  While at St. Dunstan's, instructors remain on the Post Office pay roll, St. Dunstan's reimbursing the Post Office. 

Among the qualities desirable for this work, a pleasant, friendly voice is especially important to persons who learn to know one largely through the voice.  To this must be added the other qualities essential to any good instructor: patience, tact and understanding.  Occasionally a mistake is made, and it becomes evident that a man will not qualify as a telephonist.  The sooner he is told the better - not a very easy task when dealing with a man so handicapped, who is trying his best.  The instructor must have the character to act firmly and yet in such a manner as to cause least damage to the processes of mental rehabilitation. 

Until recently there were three instructors, but now that the worst of the last war's aftermath has been dealt with, the number has been reduced to two.  Each instructor can deal with about four learners concurrently, and can turn out about eight a year.

Post Office standard one-position P.B.X. switchboards use indicators and not lamp signalling.  St. Dunstan's operators are taught to listen, with the heightened hearing that the blind develop, for the small sound made by the dropping of the indicator.  Reliance on any more audible alarm (for example, a buzzer) is not permitted, so avoiding possible complaints of disturbance to others. 

When he hears an indicator drop, the operator runs his fingers across them from left to right, as shown in the picture to the right.  By using several fingers, he can hunt over several strips of indicators simultaneously.  In the picture it can be seen that his middle finger has stopped on an operated extension.  Below the calling indicators are, of course, the corresponding sets of jacks on which to call or answer the extensions or exchange.  In the picture, the operator is taking the plug out preparatory to running his fingers along to find the jack corresponding to the calling extension. 

The only feature in which the blind operator's P.B.X. differs from the normal one is in the adaptation of the cord supervisory signals.  These, being horizontal, are under glass to prevent the entry of foreign matter.  It is therefore not possible for the blind operator to feel them as he can the calling signals.  The problem, therefore, was to translate the position of the indicator into a touch-responsive mechanism, without doing away with the glass protection.

This is achieved by means of a small marker closely fitted in a circular hole cut in the centre of a transparent plate, which replaces the plate normally protecting the supervisory signal.  When the indicator is in the operated position, it pushes the marker up as shown below, and the operator can then feel it.  In the non-operated position, the top of the marker is flush with the glass covering.  The supervisories remaining operated, the markers are up all the time that connection is established between caller and called, but replacement of a receiver causes the supervisory signal to restore to normal, the marker drops back and gives the indication to the telephonist.  These markers are now a standard item of Post Office stores.  Not only are they used in this country, but on occasions they have been supplied to St. Dunstan's, so that a blind man can take a stock with him to a job overseas. 

It may be wondered how the blind man is to remember messages left with the P.B.X. operator.  The sighted person can jot them down on a memo.  pad: so, in effect, can the St. Dunstaner.  He is taught a form of brief-hand by which most words can be expressed in two or three letters.  A Braille tape typewriter is provided and this is illustrated below.  It will be seen that there are only seven keys: a long one in the centre and three on each side.  The keys are arranged so that if necessary they can be operated by one hand.  Braille characters consist of various combinations of six dots.  These are punched by the six shorter keys on to paper tape, the centre key being a spacer.  With this instrument the operator, using the brief-hand, can quickly record messages on the tape. 

Fig.  4 Braille tape typewriter used by the sightless P.B.X.  telephonist 

During the first few lessons, the instructor sits with the learner on the practice position and, by explanation and help in guiding his hands over the switchboard, enables him to visualise it and so to become familiar with the functions of the different items of equipment.  The pupil then learns and memorises the details of the various extension users and exchange lines, which are, in fact, a replica of the live P.B.X. at St. Dunstan's, Ovingdean.  The extension users are therefore mostly familiar to him and the task of memorising them is relatively simple.  He then starts practice with calls coming in to the extensions.  When he has mastered these and acquired some dexterity, he goes on to deal with calls going out to the public exchange.  In this connection, he learns how to dial and is assisted by having notches cut in the edge of the dial plate opposite digits 4 and 7.  A dial speed tester is fitted at the top of the control position, and as this is wired to the practice position dial, the instructor can check that dialling has been performed correctly.  After some four to five months of perseverance and patience by both pupil and instructor, the pupil can be promoted to live traffic by being put on to the Ovingdean P.B.X. 

At this stage it becomes necessary to look for a job for the trained telephonist.  The Telephone Placement Officer - a former Post Office telephonist, who was one of those lent to St. Dunstan's as an instructor - gets in touch with the Telephone Manager for the man's home area and obtains details of suitable P.B.X.s in that locality.  She then canvasses the renters and when a likely employer has been found a preliminary visit is arranged for the trained man, accompanied by the Placement Officer.  If the interview is mutually satisfactory, details are obtained of the P.B.X. extension users and the general organisation of the firm or department; also, particulars of the outside numbers more frequently called.  When he gets back to Ovingdean, the trained telephonist incorporates this information in a Braille Directory and memorises it.  After a fortnight spent on practice traffic made to simulate the traffic of the P.B.X., and a few days at the P.B.X. itself, the blind telephonist starts his new job, accompanied for the first few days by the Placement Officer. 

That so much can be achieved is wonderful enough, but I should like to describe briefly a further development - the provision of a P.B.X. for the blind and handless man to whom I have already referred. 

It was in 1943 that Sir Ian Fraser, C.B.E., M.P., Chairman of St. Dunstan's, sought the aid of the Post Office in solving the apparently insoluble problem of finding a useful occupation for a blind and handless man.  Preliminary consideration suggested a cordless P.A.B.X., and eventually, after some two and a half years of research and experiment, the final product is shown to the right, was evolved.  This was largely the work of Mr.  J.  H.  Combridge, of the Post Office Engineering Department, with devices developed by Mr.  P.  B.  Nye, who is in charge of St.  Dunstan's Research Department.  I am indebted to Mr.  Combridge and to the editors of the Post Office Electrical Engineers' Journal for the following details, which are mainly abridged from a full description published in the P.O.E.E.J.  for July, 1948. 

The mechanical arrangement of the keyboard is illustrated in picture.  The basic idea is to use a metal rod, attached to the operator's arm, to operate a series of plunger keys.  The rod is guided to the keys by holes cut in the centre of guide slots.  The four rows of jacks provide the following facilities:-
Top row - Speak keys for miscellaneous circuits.
Second row - Digit keys connected to a key sender.
Third row - Speak keys for exchange lines.
Bottom row - Digit keys for selecting extensions. 

In front of and slightly below each row of jacks is a free standing tone bar, which helps to guide the operator's rod.  Foot pedals are used to perform various 'common' functions.  Following is a simple description of the operating procedure:- When an incoming call is received, a low-toned buzzer sounds continuously.  The operator presses a foot pedal to silence this and, placing his rod on the tone bar of the third row, slides it along the bar with the end in contact with the key plates, until he comes to one which is distinguished by the sounding of a high-toned, interrupted buzz.  On pushing with his rod the key within the jack in the centre of the guide channel, the operator connects his instrument to the calling line and, after ascertaining the extension wanted, keys out the required two digits on the bottom row.  Supervisory conditions are provided by tones from the key plates. 

Outgoing exchange calls can normally be dialled directly by the extension users, but if the operator's assistance is required, dialling of the appropriate code causes the buzzer to sound interruptedly.  In this case, the operator searches along the top row of key plates and answers as before.  On learning that an exchange call is required, he presses a foot pedal, which puts a tone on the key plates of all engaged exchange lines and thus enables him to select a free one.   When the dialling tone has been received, the operation of another pedal connects the key sender, so that the call may be keyed out. 

A board of this type, with a capacity of five exchange lines and 24 extensions, is in use in one of the St. Dunstan's buildings, where it is regularly operated by a blind, handless man.  So in some two and a half years equipment was devised enabling a man with no sight and no hands to operate a '5 + 24' P.A.B.X. switchboard.  Who would have supposed a few years ago that such an achievement was possible?

In conclusion I should like, in addition to the acknowledgments already made, to thank all those, both in St. Dunstan's and the Post Office, who have helped me in preparing this article - not least the St. Dunstaners themselves, whom it is not possible to visit and talk to without coming away humbled yet exhilarated by their magnificence of spirit. 


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Last revised: November 05, 2022