Photo of Thomas Pattison and Helen Keller

Thomas Pattison (pictured left), a deaf migrant to Australia from Scotland, established the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children in 1860.

With the help of several prominent figures of the time, the school was officially declared a public institution on 15 October 1861. It was a school with residential facilities.

Within a year it had moved to 368 Castlereagh Street and in 1868 moved to Ormonde House in South Head Road, Paddington. In 1872, the school moved to large, purpose-built premises at Newtown (now Darlington) where it remained for the next 70 years.

These premises, now a part of the Sydney University, are still known as the ‘Institute Building’ although they were purchased by Sydney University in 1961.

In 1961, RIDBC moved to North Rocks, where the main campus is still located, in addition to 12 further permanent sites.

Along with changes of location, the name of RIDBC has changed several times since its foundation in 1861. These changes reflect both the pervading philosophy of education for children with disabilities of the times and the links between RIDBC and the wider community.


1860 – “Deaf and Dumb Institution, 152 Liverpool Street, near South Head Road. This Institution is to be conducted by Mr Thomas Pattison, late secretary and treasurer of the Edinburgh Deaf and Dumb Benevolent society. The School will open on Monday 22nd October.

Seven deaf children are 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.

1861 – The School relocates to larger premises at 368 Castlereagh Street, Sydney and is officially declared a Public Institution on October 1.

1868 – Increasing enrolments, with children coming from as far a-field as Tasmania, Queensland and New Zealand, necessitates another move to larger premises “on the heights of Paddington”, on Old South Head Road.

1869 – 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.

1870 – The Institution is given a Government Grant of £2,000 and 5 acres of land at Newtown, later known as Darlington.

1871 – Samuel Watson is appointed Superintendent. He serves the Institution for the next 40 years.

1872 – The new building at Darlington is occupied in February and remains the Institution’s home for the next 90 years.

1873 – Samuel Watson begins evening classes for deaf adults. He believes that if children grow up within a group, segregated from the mainstream of society, they will need continuing support in dealing with the new experiences they face as adults in the wider community.

1880 – 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.

1905 – 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.

1905 – An outbreak of Rubella (German Measles), early in the new century sees a sharp increase in enrolments at this time. The relationship between deafness and blindness and a rubella-infected pregnant woman is not known at the time. Sir Norman Gregg discovers this 40 years later.

1908 – Alice Betteridge is enrolled as a student. She is the first deafblind child to receive an education in Australia.

1911 – Harold Earlam succeeds Samuel Watson as Superintendent. A progressive educationalist, Earlam introduces the notion that deaf children could be taught to speak. For blind students, he extends the use of braille within the school. He ensures the school has the most suitable braille books and that the latest braille equipment is purchased.

1942-1945 – 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.

1946 – Australian military forces vacate the Darlington Building. The deaf children returned to the Darlington School.

1948 – 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

1956 – The Department of Education assumes responsibility for the education of deaf children at the Darlington School.

1957 – 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.

1959 – 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 know as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.

1960 – Centenary of the Institution.

1963 – The North Rocks premises of the Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children are officially opened by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Eric Woodward.

1965 – The Institution enters into a partnership with the Department of Education to provide the first service for deafblind children in the Southern Hemisphere.

1967 – A preschool for deafblind children is established, a parent counselling service is provided and additional sporting and recreational facilities are built.

1970 – 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.

1972 – Student Enrolments reach 285.

1973 – A long-term joint research project between Macquarie University and the Institution commences. The focus of research is on communication, speech and language comprehension.

1973 – 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.

1978 – 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.

1980 – Increased enrolments and demand for the specialist services provided by the Special School for Multi-Handicapped Blind Children necessitate major extensions to the school which are officially opened by the Prime Minister of Australia, The Right Hon, Malcolm Fraser.

1981 – James Harris is appointed Chief Executive of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.

1985 – 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.

1989 - 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 and severely hearing-impaired children who are learning to listen and speak.

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

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

1990 – The Special School for Multi-Handicapped Blind Students is renamed the Alice Betteridge School..

1991 – 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 hearing impaired and vision impaired, are provided with specialist support from trained teachers of the deaf or of the blind.

1992 – 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.

1993 – The Thomas Pattison Annexe opens. Here, students from kindergarten to year 10 are taught in both Auslan and English.

1994 – 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.

1997 – The first 13 graduates of Renwick College receive their Master of Special Education (Sensory Disability) awards from the University of Newcastle.

1998 – Early intervention and preschool services for deaf and hearing impaired 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.

2002 – Jim Patrick Audiology Centre opens at North Rocks.

2003 – 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.

2004 – The Welwyn Centre opens. This is a base for services for children with impaired hearing and their families.

2005 – The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children reaches a new record: over 600 children and families are enrolled in its services.

2007 – RIDBC Teleschool is launched, providing vital services and support to rural and regional Australian families with children who are hearing or vision impaired.

2010 – 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.

2011 – John Berryman AM retires as Chief Executive. Chris Rehn is appointed as Chief Executive.

2012 – RIDBC Darwin Centre opens. This is the first permanent site outside of NSW.

RIDBC Cochlear Implant Program is launched

2013 - 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 or vision loss.

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

RIDBC is currently undertaking a substantial evolution as we implement our 2016-2020 Strategic Plan. In 2018 RIDBC merged with Early Education Program (EEP), and with Taralye, strengthening essential early intervention services for children with hearing loss, and their families, across Victoria. We remain focused on continuously improving our outcomes and service accessibility to achieve sustainability and growth for RIDBC.

The program provides a seamless, end-to-end suite of services, from early intervention and education; through to specialist assessment; surgical liaison and support; and re/habilitation services, delivering the highest level of care and support at every stage of the cochlear implant journey.