Anna Wikström was a pioneer of special-needs education for the blind.
Anna Wikström was born in 1854. She was the daughter of wholesale merchant and factory-owner Pehr Wikström and his wife Anna Sophia Edlund. Both of her parents were engaged in philanthropic efforts, primarily within the social welfare movement. As adults Anna Wikström and her sister Hulda focused on charitable work in different areas.
The Wikström family owned their own house on Blasieholmen in Stockholm as well as a summer house called Listonhill on Djurgården. Listonhill was next door to the Allmänna institute för döfstumma och blinda (public institute for the deafmute and blind). Anna Wikström lost her sight completely when she was 16 years old and she began to attend the institute as a day-student, where one of the skills she learned was to read braille. She also benefited from private teaching at her home and sometimes attended classes at Statens normalskola för flickor (state-run girls’ school). Anna Wikström constantly sought to be as independent as possible. She hated the fact that her disability made her reliant on other people. One of her teachers, Maria de Vylder, recommended that she take an active role in philanthropic efforts on behalf of the blind. She was given an ideal opportunity to do so when Blindinstitutet (the institute for the blind) stopped printing their journal Tidskrift för blinda which had formed the main source of reading material for the blind once they had left school. Anna Wikström’s father purchased a printing press from Great Britain and she then began to print a new journal called Ny tidskrift för blinda. This publication included poems, biographical articles, religious essays, and information disseminated by De Blindas Förening (DBF) (society for the blind).
Anna Wikström became an early member of Föreningen Blindas Väl (society for the good of the blind), a philanthropic society which was active across Sweden. This put her in touch with other blind people and gave her an insight into their situations. She had a particular soft spot for blind women who found it difficult to make ends meet because they lacked professional qualifications. Many of these women were unable to read and write as they had never had the chance to go to school. There were hardly any vocational schools for the blind and those which existed primarily served men. At Blindinstitutet girls were limited to being taught “women’s handicrafts”, namely knitting, crocheting, and sewing.
In Denmark and Germany at this time there were handicrafts schools for the blind which accepted both sexes. Anna Wikström travelled to Denmark in 1884 in order to visit both the Danish institute for the blind and a residential workhouse for the blind where they could work for pay. According to its principal, Johannes Moldenhawer, in Copenhagen it was necessary to combine schooling with this type of residential facility where the students could not only live once they had completed their education but also produce items for sale, which then covered the cost of their lodgings and fare.
In the autumn term of 1884 Anna Wikström founded a handicrafts school for blind women in Uppsala. She chose Uppsala because at that time it was a small town which made it easier for people with impaired vision to move around within it. During the first academic year the school only numbered five students, all of which were mature women. The difference between this handicrafts school for blind women and other schools for the blind was that several of the instructors were also blind. Mathematics and physical education were taught by sighted teachers. The physical education instructor was Hildur Ottelin, who was a physiotherapist and a housing inspector in Uppsala.
For five years the school was run from an apartment at Kungsängsgatan, but then moved to its own premises which Anna Wikström had had specially built for the purpose. This was probably the first building in Sweden which was adapted for use by those with impaired vision. The students had their own rooms and the school had not just a bathroom but also central heating, which was very unusual at that time. Anna Wikström did not live at the school herself but she was a regular visitor to it. In 1908 she had the upper floor of the handicrafts school adapted as a home for blind women where they could settle after they had completed their course-work. Anna Wikström also tried to sort out housing and work for her former students in other ways. One of these was by collaborating with the so-called “Enköping doctor”, Ernst Westerlund, who had set up what he called “camps” for blind women. This entailed four blind women sharing an apartment with a sighted assistant who helped to sell the handicrafts produced by the blind women.
Apart from Föreningen Blindas Väl and De Blindas Förening, Anna Wikström was the most significant supplier of aid to poor blind women in the early 1900s. She did not apply the same morally strict views as the aforenoted societies and their executive members with regard to blind people’s rights to support. The other societies never aided blind musicians, whom they viewed as vagabonds, which at that time was an illegal occupation. Anna Wikström’s goal was to try to foster order and sense out of what were often fairly chaotic situations when it came to providing assistance. All of the students who graduated from her school were given a subvention towards tools to allow them to begin their own enterprises.
Anna Wikström died in 1919. She is buried at Norra begravningsplatsen (The Northern Cemetery) in Solna. Her will stipulated that her school-building in Uppsala, along with a sum of 400,000 kroner, should be donated to Diakonissanstalten (social-welfare organisation) in Stockholm on the condition that the running of the handicrafts school for the blind was maintained and protected until the state founded a similar “organisation for women”. Her will stipulated that once such a state-run organisation existed the school should then be turned into a home for elderly and poorly blind women. The school was to be run by a trust named the Anna Wikströms Stiftelse which would operate entirely independently of Diakonissanstalten. The school did not close until 1935, after the state had taken over responsibility for the vocational training of blind women, at a facility situated in Växjö. This fulfilled the conditions of the will and the trust’s funds were then used to set up a care-home for elderly blind women.