The Braille Monitor                                                                                       October 2002

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The Escalation of History and the Work of the National Federation of the Blind

by Gary Mackenstadt

From the Editor: The following speech was given by Gary Mackenstadt, a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind, at the Fall 2001 Convention of the NFB of Washington. It had originally been a commencement speech for the graduating class at the Washington State School for the Blind several years before. Gary added to it for his convention presentation in an effort to remind Federationists of Federation history and the bedrock importance of developing healthy attitudes about blindness. This is what he said:

Gary Mackenstadt
Gary Mackenstadt

It was Henry Adams, a renowned historian and descendent of two presidents, who wrote about the escalation of history. By this he meant that history had been compressing as man progressed through the ages. Henry Adams lived from 1837 to 1918, and he said that more had occurred during his lifetime than had transpired in all of previous history. He specifically pointed to the advent of the railroad, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, electricity, the telegraph, and the radio, all of which had had a tremendous impact on the United States and the world during his lifetime.

I have been thinking about the concept of the escalation of history as it pertains to the treatment of blind people since the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. I have also thought a great deal about the changes in my attitude towards blindness and life since I joined the Federation in 1971. As a matter of fact, I attended my first state convention in California thirty years ago this month. I was affected tremendously by the blind people I met and the issues which were being discussed. I was also affected by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who attended that convention. He had a tremendous impact not only on my life but also on the lives of tens of thousands of blind people across this country.

No doubt technology has enabled blind people to travel paths never traveled before by the blind. In various fields of study and areas of employment, blind people are now accomplishing what previously seemed impossible. While there is no doubt that technology has opened some doors for the blind as well as the population in general, in my judgment it is the National Federation of the Blind that is responsible for the progress of blind people individually and collectively during the past six decades.

Since the inception of the National Federation of the Blind, there is no question that significant progress has been made in affording blind people more opportunity. I grew up in the 1950's and '60's. In those days very few school districts hired blind people to teach. In the 1950's a school district in California was not willing to hire a blind teacher to teach sighted students in the regular classroom. The district's reason for not hiring a blind person was that she would not be able to lead sighted students out of the classroom in the event of an emergency. This same school district was, however, willing to hire this blind teacher to be a teacher of the blind. This discriminatory treatment was repeated in numerous school districts, colleges, and universities across this country. Most of us in this room recognize such practices as a blatant example of gross discrimination and hypocrisy.

The discrimination in the hiring of educators is not isolated. Employment opportunities for the blind have been limited too often because of blindness and the limited support received by blind individuals from the agencies serving them. Workshops too often pay below the minimum wage and treat their employees like chattels. Until fairly recently federal agencies for the most part did not hire blind people. Frequently, qualified blind people were denied admission to institutions of higher learning solely because of blindness. Certainly the United States has had civil-rights statutes, but repression of the blind has continued. Lawsuits have been filed. Congress and various state legislatures have now adopted legislation. Since 1940 much progress has certainly been made. But note, the catalyst for this progress has been and continues to be the National Federation of the Blind.

As a blind child growing up, I did not know what a long white cane was. In those days blind children did not have an opportunity to learn to use the long white cane. I did not touch a cane until I was sixteen years of age. The attitudes of educators of the blind concerning the use of the long white cane by young blind children have undergone a profound change. I had a negative attitude about using a cane, which I believe was directly attributable to the fact that I was denied the opportunity to use one until I was sixteen. In reality I was ashamed of being blind. Somehow I thought that, by not using a cane, I could hide my blindness. No one told me about the importance of independent travel and using a long white cane. I thought I was independent without using a cane. It took me several years to figure out that nothing was wrong with using a long white cane.

As a matter of fact, it took me several years to learn that nothing is wrong with being blind. What was wrong was my attitude towards my blindness, an attitude that the system had fostered by denying me the use of a cane. I did not recognize my negative attitude about blindness until I joined the National Federation of the Blind. Through the NFB I became aware of a new attitude about blindness, an attitude that conflicted with that fostered by the educational and rehabilitation system. I learned that nothing was wrong with using a long white cane. I learned that nothing was wrong with being blind. I learned a concept of blindness which liberated any blind person who accepted it at face value--that blindness is not a hindrance. With the proper training and attitude, blindness is not an obstacle to our independence as blind people. The system taught me something different. I was a client of California Vocational Rehabilitation, which sponsored me for undergraduate and graduate degrees; yet the only job referral they gave me was to be a darkroom technician.

Independent travel is fundamental in this society, whether you are blind or sighted. In the case of blind people, for the most part, independent travel depends on using a dog guide or long white cane. While technology and the adoption of civil rights legislation concerning the disabled opened doors for blind people, it is the use of the alternative skills of blindness and a positive attitude about blindness that lead to first-class citizenship. Only through the collective action of the NFB and our individual acceptance and understanding of Federation philosophy can blind people be liberated from the age-old discrimination and repression. It is essential for blind people to believe in themselves in order for new opportunities to become reality. Not only must we exercise our rights under the law, but we must also believe in our capacity to achieve first-class citizenship. Not only do we need training in the skills of blindness, but we need also to believe in ourselves as blind people. Not only do we need the education to qualify for a job, but we also need to believe that as blind people we can do the job.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was a leader in the blindness field for nearly half a century, spoke about a ”Triple Revolution” in the blindness field nearly thirty years ago. In his speech Dr. Jernigan said: "In the field of blindness and the world of the blind a revolution is in the making. In fact, it is not one revolution but three--a triple revolution--which aims at nothing less than the overthrow and reconstruction of three great bastions of our society. They are the bastion of public opinion; the bastion of official ideology; and the inner bastion, or state of mind, of the blind themselves."

As blind people our own negative mind-set about blindness is a major barrier to achieving first-class citizenship. I am one who had that mind-set. Certainly this is a tough world to compete in, and being blind does not make it any easier. This mind-set concerning blindness is a challenge which every blind person faces. This negative mind-set sometimes returns. I know because sometimes I still grapple with it. But I recognize it for what it is--a self-defeating attitude, a negative mind-set that I reject because I know differently and because I have learned a new, positive mind-set about blindness, a mind-set that I have learned from the National Federation of the Blind.

During the past thirty years I have had the opportunity and privilege to participate in the collective action of the NFB and to change what it means to be blind. Public opinion about blindness is changing. The agencies for the blind are changing. The National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC) served as a shield for the most regressive and reactionary agencies for the blind during the 1960's, '70's, and '80's. The National Accreditation Council has been diminished to a symbol of a repressive past. In the field of work with the blind NAC and those disgraceful agencies that persist in their adherence to the policies of NAC are destined to become relics of the past and condemned to the trash heap of historical oblivion.

As an organization we are proud and willing to work with progressive agencies, as demonstrated by our cooperative efforts with the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB), the Department of Services for the Blind (DSB), and the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library (WTBBL). We work well with those agencies for the blind that are progressive and wish to work with us. We will fight those agencies which are committed to the past, to NAC, and to the unfair treatment of the blind, whether they be clients of vocational rehabilitation or employees of the workshop.

Some (even in this state) call us radical and disseminate disinformation about the NFB and what we stand for. I ask you: Is it radical to believe that blind children should be literate in Braille and that they should be taught to use the long white cane? Is it radical to believe that shop workers should be paid a decent wage and afforded an opportunity to transition out of the shop if they desire? Is it radical to believe that blind people with the proper training and opportunity can function independently in this society? Is it radical to change the public attitude towards blindness? Is it radical to expect agencies for the blind to be responsive to the needs of blind consumers? In my judgment the answer to all these questions is clearly no.

Before joining the National Federation of the Blind, I knew very few blind people. While Vocational Rehabilitation paid for my university education, I have found another rehabilitation tool since leaving college, a tool not offered by the rehabilitation agencies, but a rehabilitation tool that is very personal--the National Federation of the Blind. I have come to know successful blind people because of my participation in the National Federation of the Blind. I have met and learned from people who achieved success beyond anything that I thought was possible. I have met blind people who overcame unbelievable obstacles. I have met blind people who inspired me and supported me. I have found out that, while I had received a good university education, I had learned nothing about life and being an independent blind person. I did learn from the blind lawyer, the blind teacher, the blind scientist, and from other blind professionals as well as from the blind auto mechanic, the blind machinist, and the blind homemaker.

I have been very fortunate. I have a family that has been supportive of me. My parents believed in my ability to achieve. I have a sighted wife and children who believe in the capacity of blind people to achieve first-class citizenship. Since college I have had the opportunity to have some very good jobs and an opportunity to work with many great people, the overwhelming majority of whom were sighted. But never would I have gotten these jobs without changing my mind-set and without the support of my family and the members of the National Federation of the Blind.

In my judgment the future for the blind in the United States is very bright. We will meet the challenges. Blindness will not smother our dreams, nor will blindness limit our capacity as individuals. Our growth as blind people has paralleled the growth of the National Federation of the Blind. It is the National Federation of the Blind that offers blind people the greatest rehabilitation available and liberation from social and psychological confinement based upon a negative mind-set about blindness, a negative public attitude towards blindness, and regressive agencies for the blind. While vocational rehabilitation may have financed my education, it is the NFB that encouraged and supported my travel to first-class citizenship.

In the history of blind Americans, there certainly has been a tremendous escalation in the achievements of blind people since 1940. I think that, if Henry Adams were to look at the blindness field, he would recognize the impact of the Triple Revolution. I believe that he would agree with Dr. Jernigan about the necessity of the Triple Revolution in the field of blindness. More agencies are becoming sensitive to the needs and desires of the blind consumer because of the National Federation of the Blind. Small children are now given the opportunity to use the long white cane because of the National Federation of the Blind. Public opinion about the blind is changing because of the National Federation of the Blind. Today individual blind people are achieving goals which we used to think were impossible, because of the National Federation of the Blind. The attitude towards blindness is changing, and it will continue to change. Our individual mind-set about blindness is changing because of our attendance at meetings like this. We bond as Federationists, whether we are blind or sighted. What we have achieved has been great, but our achievements will serve only as a catalyst to achieve more.

The Triple Revolution broke out in 1940 with the founding of the NFB. Under the leadership of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and Dr. Marc Maurer, that Triple Revolution has continued for sixty-one years and will continue into the foreseeable future, until the last barrier to first-class citizenship for the blind has collapsed.


Charitable Remainder Trusts

A trust is a plan established to accomplish goals for the individual making the trust and for the beneficiary. The donor creates the trust, appoints a trustee (the donor, a family member, a bank trust officer, etc.), and designates a beneficiary. In the case of a charitable remainder trust, money or property is transferred by the donor to a charitable trust. This trust pays income for life. After the donor's death the funds remaining in the trust go to the National Federation of the Blind.

There are two kinds of charitable trusts. The first, a charitable remainder annuity trust, is set up to pay income to the donor based on a fixed percentage of the original gift. The second is a charitable remainder unitrust. The income from this trust is based on the annual assessed value of the gift. Both types of charitable remainder trust are common and relatively easy to set up. Appreciable tax deductions are available, depending on which type of trust is selected.

The following examples demonstrate how trusts work, but the figures are illustrative, not exact:

Michael Brown, age sixty-five, decides to set up a charitable remainder annuity trust with $100,000. He asks his brother John to manage the trust for him. During Michael's lifetime John will see to it that Michael is paid $5,000 each year (5 percent of $100,000). In addition, Michael can claim a tax deduction of $59,207 in the year the trust is established.

Mary Ellen Davis, age sixty-five, sets up a charitable remainder unitrust with $100,000. She asks her attorney to act as trustee. During Mary Ellen's life her attorney will pay her an amount, 5 percent, equal to the annual assessed value of her gift. If the $100,000 unitrust grows to $110,000, Mary Ellen will be paid $5,500. If it grows again to $120,000, she will be paid $6,000 in that year, and so on. Also Mary Ellen can claim a tax deduction of $48,935 in the year she establishes the unitrust.

For more information on charitable remainder trusts, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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