Our History - Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children

Our History

Thomas Pattison, a deaf migrant to Australia from Scotland, established the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children in 1860. We’ve been making a difference in the lives of people with hearing loss and vision impairment ever since.

Photo of Thomas Pattison and Helen Keller


We’ve been providing care for Australians since 1860, when the first school for deaf children opened in Sydney.

First opened as the “Deaf and Dumb Institution”, located at 152 Liverpool Street near South Head Road, seven deaf children were enrolled in the fledgling school after an advertisement was placed in the Sydney Morning Herald. It would eventually become the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.

The School relocates to larger premises at 368 Castlereagh Street, Sydney and is officially declared a Public Institution on October 1.

Increasing enrolments with children coming from as far afield as Tasmania, Queensland and New Zealand necessitate another move to larger premises “on the heights of Paddington”, on Old South Head Road.

The first blind children to receive specialist services are enrolled. The Institution becomes The New South Wales Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and the Blind.

The Institution is given a Government Grant of £2,000 and 5 acres of land at Newtown, later known as Darlington. Samuel Watson is appointed Superintendent and will go on to serve the Institution for 40 years. The new building at Darlington is occupied in 1872 and remains the Institution’s home for the next 90 years.

Samuel Watson believes that if children grow up within a group, segregated from mainstream society, they will need continuing support dealing with the new experiences they face as adults in the wider community.

The Public Education Act makes general education “free, secular and compulsory” but makes no provision for deaf and blind children. The Institution undertakes a steady campaign for compulsory education for all. Despite many appeals, the government stands firm on its decision not to pass such an Act. It will take until 1944 for education to be compulsory for deaf and blind children between the ages of six and eleven years.

The New South Wales Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind is incorporated under an Act of Parliament – Act No 10. A rubella outbreak in this year sees a huge influx of children to RIDBC in the years 1909/10. Alice Betteridge, RIDBC’s first deafblind student, enrols. Alice attends the school until 1921.The relationship between deafness and blindness and a rubella-infected pregnant woman is not known at the time. Sir Norman Gregg will discover this 40 years later.

Progressive educationalist, Harold Earlam, succeeds Samuel Watson as Superintendent, introducing the notion that deaf children could be taught to speak. For blind students, he extends the use of braille within the school, ensuring access to most suitable braille books and the latest braille equipment.

World War II significantly disrupts the operation of the Institution. The Defence Authorities move into the premises and many deaf students are returned to their home for lessons by correspondence. Premises are purchased in Wahroonga for use as a residential and day school for blind children. Australian military forces vacate the Darlington Building in 1946 and the deaf children return to school.

Student numbers reach 242. A second rubella epidemic four years earlier means that almost half of these children are in the junior age range. The Department of Education assumes responsibility for the education of blind children at the Wahroonga School.

The Department of Education assumes responsibility for the education of deaf children at the Darlington School.

Her Majesty, the Queen honours the Institution by conferring the prefix “Royal” in its title. The name becomes The Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children. The word ‘dumb’ is deleted. Stanley Swaine is appointed Chief Executive.

The Board of Directors, being acutely aware of the inadequacies of the Wahroonga School and the now unsuitable environment of the Darlington premises, purchases land at North Rocks and commences building the complex now known as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.

The North Rocks premises of the Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children is officially opened by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Eric Woodward.

The Institution enters into a partnership with the Department of Education to provide the first service for deafblind children in the Southern Hemisphere. A preschool for deafblind children is established, a parent counselling service is provided and additional sporting and recreational facilities are built.

The Parent Counselling Service is expanded to embrace the families of blind preschoolers. A program for deafblind children who do not meet Department of Education standards is opened. The students in this unit, once labelled ‘uneducatable’, make great gains and reach goals once thought impossible.

The focus of research is on communication, speech and language comprehension.

A further name change results in the “Institution” being replaced by “Institute”. Throughout the early 1970s, the Institute turns its attention to the specific educational needs of multi-handicapped children. Following intensive investigations both within Australia and abroad, a pilot program commences which leads to the establishment of the first school in Australia for multi-handicapped blind children in 1974. Known as The Special School for Multi-Handicapped Blind Children, the school provides accommodation as well as medical, educational and therapeutic facilities.

The first computerised Braille production unit in Australia is established at the Institute. Today, the Institute continues to produce Braille, large print and tactile diagrams for students.

A separate Junior Department in the Special School for Multi-Handicapped Blind Children is established. John Berryman is appointed Chief Executive of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.

Early childhood services are expanded with the establishment of Homestart – an enlarged home visiting service for children from birth to school age. The Outreach Program sees specialist staff conduct seminars in Wollongong for the benefit of parents and professionals and now extends to many major country centres.

The Garfield Barwick School at North Parramatta is officially opened by the Premier of New South Wales, Nick Greiner. The new school provides an oral program for profoundly deaf children and those with severe hearing loss who are learning to listen and speak.

Students are progressively integrated, with support, into mainstream schools.

The Rockie Woofit Preschool for children who have hearing loss and children with normal hearing, is also established. This is the first reverse integration program established by the Institute.

The Special School for Multi-Handicapped Blind Students is renamed the Alice Betteridge School.

The Tingira Centre in the Hunter Region is opened. This is the Institute’s first major regional undertaking and provides a base in the Hunter for Early Childhood Services. The Tingira Centre offers both preschool and long-day care programs on a reverse integration enrolment basis. A Homestart service is also conducted from the Centre.

The Itinerant Teaching Service is established. Through this service, students attending independent schools who are hard of hearing and vision impaired, are provided with specialist support from trained teachers of the deaf or of the blind.

In response to community needs, the Institute establishes the Roberta Reid Centre, a preschool for deaf children and hearing children of deaf parents for whom Australian Sign Language (Auslan) is their first language.

The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and The University of Newcastle complete a Memorandum of Agreement to create the basis for Renwick College—a centre for research and professional education to be operated by the Institute in affiliation with the University.

The Thomas Pattison Annexe opens. Here, students from kindergarten to year 10 are taught in both Auslan and English.

A reverse integration Early Childhood Centre for Children with sensory disabilities is established at Glenmore Park near Penrith. Renwick College is launched, and new facilities are opened by His Excellency Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair, Governor of New South Wales. Seventeen students commence in the Master of Special Education (Sensory Disability) program.

The first 13 graduates of Renwick College receive their Master of Special Education (Sensory Disability) awarded by the University of Newcastle.

Early intervention and preschool services for deaf and hard of hearing children are consolidated into a new department, Early Childhood Services – Deafness and Hearing Impairments. The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children services are more widely promoted within non-English speaking communities.

Jim Patrick Audiology Centre opens at North Rocks. Roberta Reid Preschool relocates next to The Thomas Pattison School, creating an Auslan precinct. The Dorothy Paul Family Resource Centre opens for families of children with vision impairment. The Welwyn Centre opens. This is a base for services for children with hearing loss and their families.

The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children reaches a new record: over 600 children and families are enrolled in its services.

RIDBC Teleschool (now known as Remote Services) begins providing vital services and support to rural and regional Australian families with children who are hard of hearing or vision impaired.

The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children celebrates its 150th Anniversary. A state-of-the-art tertiary facility is opened for the RIDBC Renwick Centre by Her Excellency, Governor Marie Bashir. John Berryman AM retires as Chief Executive. Chris Rehn is appointed as Chief Executive.

RIDBC Darwin Centre opens. This is the first permanent site outside of NSW. RIDBC Cochlear Implant Program is launched.

Over 700 graduates from RIDBC Renwick Centre are now working to improve the educational opportunities available to children with sensory impairment across Australia and the world. Almost 200 students are now enrolled in RIDBC Renwick Centre/University of Newcastle degree programs.

Assisting thousands of children each year, RIDBC is now Australia’s largest non-government provider of therapy, education and diagnostic services for children with hearing loss or vision impairment.

On July 1 2014, SCIC (Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre) and RIDBC join forces to provide Australia’s largest and most comprehensive cochlear implant program for people of all ages.

Victoria: In February 2018, RIDBC officially expanded its services to Victoria, through our merger with Taralye – an early intervention, preschool and audiological service provider; and with the Early Education Program for Hearing Impaired Children (EEP). The merger between RIDBC, Taralye and EEP is part of our strong strategic focus on supporting even more people with vision impairment or hearing loss across Victoria.

Queensland: The Clive Berghofer centre opens in Toowoomba, to reach adults and children across the Central Queensland region. The centre also offers outreach programs to surrounding communities.

New South Wales: In a first for the state of NSW, RIDBC partner with the Mid North Coast Local Health District to provide end-to-end cochlear implant services at Port Macquarie Base Hospital and the newly refurbished RIDBC Port Macquarie centre.