In December 1953, there was marked the occasion of the eightieth birthday of Dr. Newell Perry and his retirement as president of the California Council for the Blind. This was not merely a private event in the life of a private person; it was a public event in the life of a public figure.
Dr. Perry’s work, activities, and attitudes reflect and express the basic principles and outlook of the organized blind of the nation. In honoring him, therefore, we honor ourselves. And, in honoring ourselves, we honor him. A review of his life and work, therefore, will provide an excellent vehicle for conveying Federation doctrine and philosophy.
Fifty-eight years ago in California, there took place a flagrant violation of popular belief and publicly prescribed custom. The lawless act was this: a bicycle trip around the San Francisco Bay from Berkeley, by way of San Jose, to San Francisco. The culprit was a blind youth named Newell Perry. As surely as there are laws of man and nature, there seem then to be laws of blindness. Young Newel Perry’s performance in riding a bicycle for eighty miles was only his first transgression of the accepted conventions and convictions of his time. From that deed of lawbreaking, he went on to embody in his career a systematic challenge of the entire book of rules governing the conduct of the blind. The age-old proscriptions against independence of action, against seeking a higher education, against entering a profession, against striving for self-support, and finally against the anciently honorable and indeed biblical notion that the blind should not lead the blind.
In fact, there has been no law of blindness which Newell Perry has not defied and broken. Moreover, he compounded his offense by inciting others, particularly the youthful blind, to do likewise. The cumulated effects of this career of lawbreaking has contributed immeasurably to the fact that over the last half century, the old book of laws has been repealed and thrown away, and a new code has been secured by the blind.
Newell Perry lost his sight at the age of eight, but that was not all. Before two more years had passed, he was fatherless, homeless, penniless, and blind. With twenty-one cents in his pocket, a barefoot country boy, but without the bright eyes or even the dog, which usually accompanies that legend, he hitchhiked alone, all the way from Shasta County in the north of California, to the California School for the Blind in Berkeley.
Over the next nine years, he completed a primary and secondary education at the blind school and at Berkeley High School. This in itself was more education than most people acquired in those nineteenth century days. For the blind, it was almost unheard of; but for Newell Perry, it was only the beginning. He went on to graduate with honors from the University of California in the class of ’96, became successively a teaching fellow, assistant, and, finally, instructor in mathematics at the same university.
Still, this was not enough for young Mr. Perry. Breaking another rule, and yet another, he made his way alone through Europe in 1900, carried on graduate work at Zurich University in Switzerland, and Munich University in Germany, receiving his PhD in Mathematics from the latter in 1901.
The rest is well-known history. Social history. For thirty-five years, from 1912-1947, Dr. Perry was a teacher and Director of Advanced Studies at the California School for the Blind. For nineteen years, from its founding in 1934, he was president of the California Council for the Blind. For fifty years and more, he has been the guide and counselor for hosts of young blind people in search of full-fledged citizenship and opportunity.
In his lifelong occupation as teacher, it is natural that part of Dr. Perry’s enduring contributions to the welfare of the blind should fall in the field of education. He was likely responsible for the development of a system of higher education to the point of where today it is routine for the blind youth of California to matriculate at universities and colleges and enter all recognized professions. A fair share of the blind students who have received degrees and honors at California colleges and universities, not only participated in the system, which was so much a product of his labor, but drew from the doctor personally the original inspiration and, above all, the confidence that these accomplishments were within their power.
As great as Dr. Perry’s educational achievements have been, they are outstripped by far by his accomplishments in the broad field of social improvement. He was a prime mover in securing legal and constitutional provisions, which protected the right of blind persons to enter a number of professions, for bad irrational discriminations against the blind and the state civil service and in secondary teachings, enabled blind college students to pursue their studies with the aid of sighted readers hired by the state, and provided a system of public assistance to the blind, which is not only the best in the nation, but the model and precedent of the rest of the state. The steps, which led to the establishment of this system, included a constitutional amendment in 1928, the adoption of a comprehensive statute in 1929, and successive amendments in each of the sessions of the state legislature from 1931 through 1953.
It is the story of these battles, led by Newell Perry, in their conduct as well as their outcome, in their strategy as well as their policy, that the quality of his statesmanship most clearly emerges. For had the constitutional and legislative structure erected in California over these years of unremitting labor, been no more than a modern version of the Elizabethan poor laws, the blind would have been materially aided, but this was neither the character of the man, nor of the measure. And instead, the whole complex problem of public assistance to the blind was reassessed; a system was created which relieved the distress of poverty and did it better than ever before, but in addition, three cardinal principles were added, which raised the entire machinery out of the duct of the past, and pointed it into the future. The new system took cognizance of the need of the blind for adjustments on a social and psychological as well as on a physical level. It permitted and encouraged the sightless to rehabilitate themselves and to become self-supporting. It applied the democratic principle of individual dignity to an underprivileged class of American citizens by guaranteeing them a fair measure of independence and self-respect in the conduct of their lives.
These legal and material achievements have rested upon a firm foundation of self-organization by the blind. More than any other person, Dr. Perry implanted and nurtured among the blind the sense of common cause, the spirit of collaborative effort in seeking solutions to the problems of blindness. More than any other person, it was he who taught them that their overriding problems were not individual and could not separately be solved, that single-handed they could not oppose and hope to convert the power of government, nor the tyranny of public prejudice and unthinking discrimination, which rejects while it overprotects.
Underlying these activities and accomplishments, has been a philosophy of the blind and their role in society, which is humane, enlightened, optimistic, and deeply rooted in the most traditional principles of American democracy. The central propositions which composed that philosophy are these:
1. The right to work is the right to live. At the least, this is a proposition about material sustenance; at the most, it is a profound psychological, social, and perhaps even moral truth. It bespeaks the right of participation in society itself.
2. The blind are people too. They are normal human beings, endowed with the ordinary range of aptitudes and appetites, wits and wants, excellences and eccentricities, with the single difference that they cannot see. The blind are neither especially condemned, nor especially commended by nature. Neither mentally deficient, nor divinely gifted with a second sight to replace the first.
3. The blind are also citizens. They are entitled to the rights of citizenship, the right to privacy, free expression, to opportunity, to equal protection, to full participation in the mainstream of their culture and society. If the granting of these rights would constitute a revolution in the social treatment of the blind, it would sweep away the means test and the segregated workshop, it would disarm the social worker and the administrator, it would release the blind at long last from the ancient bondage of dependency and isolation.
4. Accordingly, the object of public programs and private efforts for the blind, whether in the field of education, social welfare, rehabilitation, employment, or minor benevolences, should be the reintegration of the blind into society on a basis of full and equal membership. An ounce of rehabilitation is worth a pound of care.
5. Action must be taken to erase, once and for all, the restrictive barriers of legal discrimination and institutionalized ignorance. The main channels of opportunity must be swept clear of artificial and irrational obstruction. Public service, private employment, the common callings, the ordinary tradesman occupations, and the profession must be rescued from arbitrary exclusions based on blindness, when blindness is not a factor bearing on competence and performance.
6. Moreover, the intimate personal experience of blindness, if met and successfully overcome, is an unusually sharp and effective teacher. Blindness is an enabling asset, rather than a disqualifying defect in the administration of programs affecting the blind.
7. Finally, the blind should lead the blind. The principle of self-organization means self-guidance, self-control, self-sufficiency. To say that the blind can, should, and do lead the blind, is only to say that they are their own counselors, that they stand on their own feet. From the acorn of self-respect, grows the mighty oak of self-support. And the control of their lives and the responsibility for their own programs and the organized and consistent pursuit of objectives of their own choosing, in these alone, lies the hope of the blind for economic independence, social integration, and emotional security.
These, then, are the works and this the philosophy which underlays it. A word might be said about the personality of the man who sponsored the one and expounded the other. What impels a man to a lifetime of selfless devotion to others? What prompts one to forget his personal advancement and spend his time and energy in the advancement of his fellows? What is the nature of self-sacrifice? Whence does the social conscience take its rise? These questions, for the most part, are unanswerable. The answers lie hidden deeply in the recesses of mind and personality, not yet probed by the psychologist.
In the case of Dr. Perry, however, some things are clear. He has never been a zealot. Reform with him has not been an emotional effusion, an accompaniment of unbalance and fanaticism. It was, rather, a product of a critical evaluation and a penetrating analysis of facts of his own experience with blindness and of an active and restless disposition. He is a man of singular determination and dogged persistence, and these traits are combined with emotional stability, temperamental equilibrium, intellectual composure, an incisive wit, and a remarkable sanity.
In all of this activity on behalf of the blind, however numerous and varied the paths, it may be seen that Dr. Perry’s role has been consistently the same—that of teacher. Who, then, have been his pupils and what have been his teachings? His pupils include those who were in his classes under the campanili at the turn of the century; to them, he taught mathematics. His pupils include several generations of youthful blind who enrolled at the state school for the blind in Berkeley; he also taught them mathematics, but much in addition. He taught them a new attitude toward their blindness, toward their problems as blind people, and toward the world. He infused them with hope, he served them with ambition, he gave them original and enduring confidence in their abilities to live youthful, normal, and economically self-supporting lives. His pupils include the adult blind population for whom he has been pathfinder, pioneer, and sage. His pupils include, as well, those who work with the blind, whether in education, rehabilitation, legislation, or social welfare, who have learned from him what the real needs of the blind are—the needs of normal and ordinary people with a physical handicap—and still, more important, what the real abilities of the blind are—the abilities of normal people seeking only self-respect and self-sufficiency. Most of all, the pupils of Newell Perry are the sighted public of America, for in his lifetime and immeasurably through his work, they have come ever more clearly to see the blind as neighbors, not as outcasts; as equal partners, not as dependent wards; as normal human beings, not as mental dependents. In short, as ordinary human beings like themselves.
Eighty years ago, the almost invariable fate of the blind man was mental and spiritual disintegration. Today, his prospect, though not necessarily fully realized, is complete social and economic integration. Eighty years ago, the blind man begged only for a shelter by the side of the road. Today, in the full confidence of his normality, he demands a place in the sun. We cannot say more or less in summation of the work and the life of Newell Perry than that the data of his biography are monuments in the history of this social revolution.