Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006

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The New Book—The Blindness Revolution: Jernigan in His Own Words

by James H. Omvig

Jim Omvig poses with his cane.
Jim Omvig

From the Editor: Thursday morning, July 7, delegates to the 2005 NFB national convention had the opportunity to hear author and longtime Federation leader Jim Omvig discuss his book, The Blindness Revolution: Jernigan in His Own Words, which was for sale at the convention. Dr. Jernigan and Mr. Omvig were friends and colleagues for almost forty years. Researching and writing this book was clearly a labor of love by a devoted student for his dedicated teacher and brother in the revolution of which he writes. This is what Jim Omvig said:

If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than in any other place in the nation or the world!”

These stirring and inspiring words were spoken in Des Moines, Iowa, in March of 1968 by a federal official who was honoring Kenneth Jernigan on behalf of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The honor was being bestowed by President Johnson because of Dr. Jernigan’s pioneering and life-changing efforts in work with the blind and the implications his cutting-edge blindness work in Iowa would offer generally for the broader field of vocational rehabilitation.

Why would such a signal honor be given to Kenneth Jernigan by a president of the United States? What had happened in Iowa that was unique—so revolutionary? Just who was this legend, this man, Kenneth Jernigan?

As I was preparing these remarks, an interesting thought crossed my mind: if I were asked to define Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, my mentor and teacher, in a sentence or two, what would I say? After reflection, I concluded that the following two sentences filled the bill: Kenneth Jernigan was a human being of extraordinary talents and abilities who was driven by a passion for justice for the blind and suffered from chronic enthusiasm.

Incidentally, he happened to be blind.

Before turning specifically to the new book, The Blindness Revolution, let me offer what one might call a very, very capsulated summary of the history of services for the blind, including certain relevant parts of the noble history of the National Federation of the Blind. This brief history sets the stage for Kenneth Jernigan’s Iowa experience and what I have referred to in Freedom for the Blind as “the Iowa experiment.”

To begin at the beginning, those of us who are involved in the National Federation of the Blind understand full well that throughout recorded history the blind have been perceived by society as inferiors: we have been looked down upon and rigidly set apart from others by virtue of our distinguishing characteristic, blindness. We have been and continue to be a minority group, with all of the negativity which this phrase conjures up. We have all too frequently been thought of, not as unemployed, but as people who are unemployable. Far worse, in certain cultures blind men were sent into galley slavery; blind women were sold into prostitution; and blind babies were left on cold and lonely hillsides to die.

Historically the public has assumed the blind to be helpless, incompetent, and irrelevant—these public attitudes about blindness of course have not been based upon accuracy and truth but upon myth, misconception, and superstition about the true meaning and implications of blindness.

Viewing the blind from this bleak historical perspective, society would inevitably try to do something to offer help to what it perceived to be an unfortunate group. In the early days—drawn together because of sympathy and pity for the blind—a group of sighted volunteers began to do what they could to offer assistance. They formed themselves into societies, and, based upon erroneous public attitudes about the capabilities of the blind, they established themselves as custodians and protectors. These volunteers did their charity work (helping the blind) in their free time and out of the goodness of their hearts.

Later paid employees were added, and they gradually assumed leadership and control over the volunteers and also over the blind, whom they considered to be their wards. Eventually these paid workers developed certain services for the blind and also established enclaves and retreats in which the blind could escape embarrassing contact with normal society. The blind were taught simple tasks from which they could derive some small measure of satisfaction. These tasks, of course, were not seriously competitive with
the ordinary pursuits of the larger (normal) community.

By 1905 many of these workers and other interested people joined together in an organization known as the American Association of Workers for the Blind. Through this organization the workers aspired to achieve a kind of professional status; they then assumed the self-assigned roles of interpreters of the needs and protectors of the blind, and they developed their own methods and standards for programs in work for the blind.

Unfortunately for the blind, however, these new professionals viewed blindness as a disaster—a tragedy—and as a medical problem, and they sought medically-oriented solutions to that problem. The public’s erroneous myths and superstitions about blindness had actually crept into the very service programs set up to offer assistance, and a serious disconnect developed between the blind and those assisting them.

The American Foundation for the Blind was established in 1921 by the American Association of Workers for the Blind and the American Association of Instructors of the Blind. Although the Foundation certainly did some worthy work, it too soon came to look upon itself as having a duty to take care of and speak for the blind.

The National Federation of the Blind, the authentic spokesman for the blind, was established in 1940 when Jacobus tenBroek led the blind in a nationwide movement toward self-organization. Although many of the Federation’s early years were spent in securing financial support to provide the barest necessities of life for the blind, it was not long until Dr. tenBroek and other great leaders like
Kenneth Jernigan also turned their attention to services for the blind. They were concerned that the agencies failed to understand that the blind are a minority and that the services which were being provided were far too custodial, serving to keep the blind down and out rather than helping to lift them up and in. They were also concerned that the service programs had been established using a medical model and that expectations for what the blind could accomplish were much too low.

Throughout the forties and fifties the Federation’s leaders also began to articulate what we refer to today as Federation philosophy. Dr. tenBroek reasoned that the blind are simply normal people who can do what normal people do, given proper training. He also began to assert with vigor that the blind could and should speak for themselves and that the principal problems faced by the blind were social and attitudinal—the problems of a minority group—not physical or medical.

In the early years of the Federation, the traditional workers virtually ignored the organized blind as nothing more than a tiny and insignificant group of malcontents. By the middle 1950’s, however, the Federation had grown substantially and had begun to have influence generally and also in the political arena: so much so that in 1955 and 1956 the governors of three states—Nevada, Colorado, and Arkansas—invited Federation representatives to come to their states officially to study programs for the blind and to make
recommendations for improvements. By this time Federationists had also developed ideas about how blindness training should be delivered.

When this new, elevated status was achieved by the Federation, dislike on the part of many agency leaders turned from casual dismissal to fear, hate, and seething rage. In some states agency officials actually tried to destroy Federation affiliates. This reactionary hostility on the part of some agencies motivated the Federation to join forces with then Senator John F. Kennedy to work for passage of what was known in the late 1950’s as the Right of the Blind to Organize Bill.

Even though some of the blindness workers of that day were friendlier to the Federation than those who hated it, these friendly leaders too continued to believe that the Federation’s ideas about what good services for the blind should be could not possibly work in the day-to-day operations of an agency for the blind. As they put it, “Your ideas about the normality and capability of the blind sound great, but you are dreamers. These ideas won’t work in a service program. You don’t have to work with those people on a daily basis as we do.” It is safe to say that virtually all of the professionals of that day rejected the Federation philosophy as unsound and unworkable in a program for the blind.

One more thing happened in the early 1950’s which led to an even more extreme disconnect between the blind and the traditional workers who were trying to assist them: through the American Association of Workers for the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, workers in the blindness field tried even harder to make themselves appear to be more professional. They decided that professional workers in the blindness field should have master’s degrees, so that they would appear to be as professional as medically trained workers.

The clash between the traditional professionals and the blind themselves came to a head in 1956 in San Francisco when Jacobus tenBroek delivered his historic and insightful speech, “Within the Grace of God.”

In this speech tenBroek drew a line in the sand, and he spoke clearly and eloquently about the deficiencies in the attitudes about blindness expressed by many of the leaders of the agencies. He made it clear that the public’s erroneous myths and superstitions had become institutionalized in the blindness system itself. Dr. tenBroek knew that, when expectations for the blind are based upon myth and misconception rather than truth, those expectations will always be much too low, and the blind will unwittingly sell themselves short.

Some—even a few among the blind themselves—thought that tenBroek was too hard on and critical of these agency officials. Clearly these critics failed to understand the gravity of the situation in the blindness system, and they also failed to understand that, when tenBroek said that blind people are normal people who can do what normal people do, given proper training, he meant exactly that.
Some of these doubters also thought that the fact that those running the programs really had good intentions was sufficient and that they should not be criticized for what was clearly just poor performance. On the topic of good intentions, tenBroek wrote with his usual clarity and flare in San Francisco when he said, “Credit, I am told, must be given for sincerity and good intentions. This, however, but serves to raise the question whether, in social terms, sincere and upright folly is better or worse than knavery.”

The bottom line for tenBroek and the Federation was that the blindness system was broken and needed to be fixed. It was in this historical context, then, that Kenneth Jernigan went to Iowa in the spring of 1958 to foment a revolution.

By the mid 1950’s Dr. Jernigan was living and working in California as a teacher at the newly created California Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Adult Blind. John D. Rockefeller might well have been advising Kenneth Jernigan when he wrote: “In the choice of your profession, let your first thought be: ‘Where can I fit in so that I may be most effective in the work of the world?’”
The two giants—tenBroek and Jernigan—had developed what might be referred to as the Rockefeller Plan for Kenneth Jernigan. They had made extensive agreements just how his extraordinary gifts and talents might best be used to serve the blind in what Rockefeller called “the work of the world.” They had agreed that Dr. Jernigan should do one of two things: either he could settle down in some California congressional district and get himself elected to the United States Congress, or he could conduct an experiment: he could become director of an agency for the blind and prove the validity of the Federation’s philosophy and alternative training techniques in that venue.

Fortunately for thousands of us, a position in Iowa came open before Dr. Jernigan got himself elected to the Congress. He assumed his duties as director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind in April of 1958, and the rest is history: it was just nine years and eleven months later that the federal official presenting the Lyndon Johnson accolade proclaimed boldly, “If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than in any other place in the nation or the world!”

What happened in Iowa? How did it happen? That’s what the new book, The Blindness Revolution, is all about. I am sure that some have always assumed that the transformation of the Iowa Commission for the Blind from a regressive state agency to one of international preeminence was an easy task—just find a disgraced agency in need of an energetic leader, get yourself hired, infuse the Federation’s constructive philosophy about blindness into all of its programs, and, voilá, an outstanding agency will be the result.

Those who have made such assumptions were wrong. The task was monumental; it was epic. In addition to finding an agency in need of a director and getting hired, Jernigan was faced with virtually no funding, no qualified staff, no decent space in which to operate an effective program, no state library for the blind, a hostile state attorney general who later became a hostile state governor, a devastating fire, and an encounter with a traditional blindness professional who fought progress every step of the way. The details behind each of these stories—revealed in the book—are captivating.

As part of his regular duties Dr. Jernigan personally wrote the official minutes of Commission for the Blind board meetings. He also wrote voluminous reports to the commission board, governors, and state legislators along with letters and other documents which supported the arguments for the changes he was making. Many of these never-before-published Jernigan writings are used to tell the story of the revolution. It is said that, by reading the writings of a prominent figure in history, one may actually have a sense of carrying on a conversation with that writer. This book offers many opportunities for such personal conversations between Jernigan and the thoughtful reader.

Because of Kenneth Jernigan’s revolutionary work in Iowa, we now have a proven formula for success when it comes to empowering people who are blind: that is—in the jargon of today—there is a proven rehabilitation service model. This formula for success is widely known and available to all simply for the taking.

The programs developed and perfected in Iowa have been referred to variously as the Jernigan model, the Iowa model, the civil rights-based empowerment model, or the NFB model. Whatever one chooses to call it, however, the rehabilitation model developed by Jernigan demonstrated that skills training alone is not sufficient if the program objective is truly the complete integration and empowerment of blind customers. Iowa proved that services for the blind must be aimed at teaching the program’s customers a new and constructive set of attitudes, the truth, about blindness based upon an awareness that the prevailing socially constructed beliefs are wrong and harmful. Iowa proved that, once customers of a program come to know the truth about blindness, their expectations will rise in direct proportion to their understanding and emotional acceptance of that truth—that is, Iowa proved that minority-group thinking can be altered positively through effective adjustment-to-blindness training.

In other words, the Iowa experiment was successful—it proved that the Federation’s positive and constructive philosophy does work in the day-to-day operation of a program for the blind. Iowa proved that blind people are not defective sighted people, but normal people who cannot see—people who can compete on terms of complete equality with their sighted peers, given proper training. Iowa proved that it is respectable to be blind.

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