Braille Monitor                                                                November 2006

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A Hard Road and a Thankful Heart

by Bill Morgan

Bill and Lynda Morgan

From the Editor: In the June 2006 issue of the Braille Monitor we reprinted material first published in the Oregonian in early March. These articles were part of a larger exposé on the excesses of facilities in the nation's sheltered workshop system. Bill Morgan, an Idaho Federationist and Randolph-Sheppard vendor with whom you will become better acquainted in the following pages, was moved by the Oregonian series to put down on paper his story because of the perspective his experience provides on the exploitation practiced by these workshops. In this season of thankfulness we might all benefit from looking back over our sometimes difficult personal histories and taking stock of our efforts to improve our own lot and that of our neighbors, blind and sighted. Here is Bill's story, edited somewhat for inclusion in the Monitor:

I am fifty-nine years old and have been blind for fifty years. I became legally blind from the hereditary eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, which can skip generations. It frequently begins with night blindness, can progress slowly or quickly, and can begin in early childhood or up into adulthood. Thousands of people have RP.

I lost 95 percent of my sight in my third grade school year. By the close of that school year, what a person with good vision could see at twenty feet, I could see at one foot, sorta. To complicate things further, my third grade teacher wouldn't believe that I was becoming blind. She believed that I was trying to get attention by pretending to be like my parents, both of whom were blind. My father was legally blind from RP (his mother and five of his six brothers had it as well), and my mother became blind by contracting spinal meningitis at fourteen months from a dying baby who was brought into her cabin in North Dakota in 1921.

That third-grade year I thought I was going crazy. I wondered if I really was imagining that I could not see just to get attention. I would slip from the back row to the front of the room to try to see the board. If it has not happened to you, you can't conceive the doubts a young child can have in such a situation.

But in April my teacher committed suicide, and another teacher was brought in to finish the year. Within two weeks I was in an eye doctor's office, where he discovered that indeed I was almost totally blind. I had only 5 percent of my sight left. The next thing I knew, I was enrolled in the Oregon State School for the Blind in Salem, Oregon, where I attended third through eighth grade.

After my parents were divorced when I was about five years old, my mother started playing her cello and an accordion on street corners. She had learned to play at the Washington State School for the Blind and Deaf. I led her from corner to corner and block to block in the downtown areas of several cities in the Northwest, where she would play. But we kept getting kicked out for begging. This was my first experience of blind people's determination to work, no matter what the conditions.

I guided my mother from age five to ten and held the basket or bowl for collecting the coins that were thrown to us. Before I lost most of my sight, I could see the looks of pity and disgust on the faces of the passersby. I heard their comments and could see them pointing at us. My mother, God bless her, was doing everything in her power to earn a living for us.

In the 1950's we received a welfare check called "Blind Aid." It was $90 a month, I believe. We had very little and lived in the ghetto of each new city. We had so little food that at the school for the blind I was caught stealing and hoarding canned food from the kitchen in my room. After this discovery school officials made arrangements for me to go home with other students on the weekends.

At the age of ten I started looking for jobs. I would cut lawns, rake leaves, clean up yards, and pick up after dogs even though it meant bending far over to see the ground. I collected soft drink and beer bottles for the deposits, cleaned out basements and garages, and picked beans and berries with my face almost inside the plants to try to see what I was picking; and I did anything else I could come up with to make money. I was willing to work. I was known as "Billy, the kid who could hardly see, with the blind parents."

Work was very important to me. Mother had shown me that you should do whatever is possible, no matter what. When I was fifteen, I got a job in the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) sheltered workshop for the blind on 12th and S.E. Washington in Portland, Oregon. It was called the Oregon Industries for the Blind with fifty to seventy-five people working there when I started. I earned the state minimum wage of 50 cents an hour and thought I had died and gone to heaven. This place was filled with people just like me, blind or unable to see very well. The work was broom- and mop-making and all kinds of assembly jobs from the simple, like putting cardboard dividers together, to the complicated, like assembling fireplace glass doors systems.

I was overjoyed to have a job that paid more than I had ever dreamed of, to have a place to work every day, to be one of the crowd, and to have something to look forward to besides getting up each day with people saying, "No you can't because you can hardly see." We hated to see each project end with the inevitable lay-offs. We worked our guts out to out-perform each other, so it would be the other person who was laid off. I asked the men I ate lunch with how they could make brooms and mops for twenty or thirty years, standing at those machines all day, every day. The answer was simple: "Kid, the alternative is absolutely nothing, but nothing to look forward to the next day, and that's the real Hell!"

At the time I had no idea that I should have been paid more. When I married in 1967, I was earning 85 cents an hour, and when my first child was born in 1968, I was earning $1.15 an hour and glad to get it.

I worked in and outside the sheltered workshop from age fifteen to thirty, finally making foreman of the assembly section of the workshop. I was desperate to work, as all of us were. Work was everything. Without it what do people do? I believe it's especially important to the blind and disabled. Without being able to work, many of us have nothing to look forward to except a day of existence with little or no meaning. I think this is the same for most Americans. People say that we are not defined by our work. However I don't know very many people, disabled or not, who really believe that.

As bad as the workshops are and as little as they pay, in my opinion they are a godsend for those who cannot get work any other way. We keep hearing that 70 to 80 percent of blind people are unemployed, and many of the 20 to 30 percent who are working are earning very little. As Dr. Kenneth Jernigan frequently said, if this were the employment statistic for any ethnic population in America, we would face revolution in the streets. However, no one has ever questioned whether minorities had the ability to work; that has always been a given and then some. In the early days of our country we tried our best to work the ethnic populations into the ground. But if you're blind or disabled, the frustration is that for the most part you are automatically dismissed as unable to do the job. Blind and disabled people are mostly treated as large, slow, fragile children. Most of us live one day at a time, hoping against hope that someday the world will give us a chance to prove we can perform too.

These workshop managers and directors do a terrible, even criminal thing when they collect the salaries and perks they award themselves on the backs of the disabled employees who work hard every day for very little. I couldn't have made it on my minimum wage job if it hadn't been for food stamps, subsidized medical care, and low-income housing. My last Social Security income report, when I was forty-two, said that the most I had ever earned in the workshop was $6,400 in one year. My wife and I raised three children on this amount or less. I heard an instructor at the Oregon workshop yell at the top of his lungs in an argument with staff, "These guys don't need our pity or some damn head doctor! They need a lunch bucket and a place to take it every day!"

I have now made it out of the workshop. Beginning at forty-two until today at fifty-nine, my workaday world has totally turned around. Three things had to take place for me to become the business operator and middle-class citizen I am today. First, in the rehab training centers for the blind in Oregon and Idaho I learned the alternative skills of blindness: cane travel, Braille, home management, woodshop, and computer skills. Second, National Federation of the Blind members have taught me that it is respectable to be blind. This meant I could develop the confidence to become the man I always wanted to be. From 1940 till today other blind people who have gone from shame to self-respect have led the way one day at a time to full participation.

I drank from age twelve until age thirty. By the time I was fifteen, I was a maintenance beer drinker. By thirty I weighed 265. My liver was enlarging and turning yellow orange, and I was smoking two packs of Camels a day. Though my drinking had dropped from a case of beer a day to a six-pack or less (because of reduced liver function), I was hammered most of the time. The doctor told me that, if I did not stop smoking and drinking, I would be gone in six months or less, but that news didn't stop me or even slow me down.

However, sitting in a bar in Bend, Oregon, on New Year's Eve of 1976 I prayed the prayer of all drunks, "God, if you are real, please help me." I haven't had a drink since. It took five years to get sober, regain my health, get my weight back down to 185, and establish the habit of exercising regularly. But in the end I felt great. One day I asked God what I could do to give back. The message I received was to educate everyone about what I had been taught by other blind people and to share my story of alcoholism when I could to help other drunks. So I decided in 1982 to walk across America and educate the world that it is respectable to be blind. I set a world record that still stands today. I walked on behalf of Christian Record Braille Foundation and as a member of the NFB, one step, one day at a time. My wife and three children accompanied me, living in a small motor home. The sign on its side read: "Stepping out for life and the NFB. I believe in life. I believe in challenges. I believe in God. Come walk with me, Bill Morgan." I walked 3,615 miles in 318 days, educating the world about blindness and the abilities of blind people.

In 1983 President Reagan met with Bill Morgan and his wife, legislators from Idaho, and leaders of the National Federation of the Blind in the Oval Office. Pictured here (left to right) are President Ronald Reagan, Bill Morgan, Lynda Morgan, then-NFB-of-Idaho-President Ramona Walhof, Senator Steven Symms, NFB President Kenneth Jernigan, Senator Larry Craig, Representative George Hansen, and NFB Director of Governmental Affairs James Gashel.

On September 30, 1983, I met President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. Standing there in the White House presenting my wonderful wife Lynda and the leaders of the blind to President Reagan, I found it hard to believe that I was the same person who had stood on city streets holding the basket that passersby threw their coins into while my blind mother played music on the corner so we could survive. This was what it meant to say that it is respectable to be blind.

The third and final step in my turnaround involves a federal and state program to train blind and visually impaired people to operate food service businesses, usually cafeterias, snack bars, and vending machine routes. Established in the 1930's, mostly to help veterans, the program was created by the Randolph-Sheppard Act, named for the senators who introduced it. In Idaho we have about twenty-five operators. Our combined sales for 2005 were $1.3 million. In this program the blind train the blind to become successful businessmen and women. What could be better? The Randolph-Shepherd program is one of the best, if not the best, rehabilitation programs in the United States. More than 2,500 blind business operators are working across the U.S. Moreover, we all pay taxes as well.

After being trained by legally blind food service operators, I was able to enter the BE Program and run a vending machine route. I have been at this now since 1987. By the time I retire in 2016, I will have paid an estimated $750,000 in taxes and related fees. I will have worked twenty-nine years in this program, earning my own living. How is that for a healthy return on investment! Moreover, here in Idaho vendors pay 10 percent of our gross profit back in to the BE Program for repairs and maintenance on the equipment at our locations. My vending route covers 825 miles in the rest areas on I-84, from the Idaho-Oregon border to the Idaho-Utah border, and a couple of other highway stops.

This wonderful program has given me the opportunity to become a middle-class citizen, a dream of a lifetime. I have truly experienced and lived the American dream. As they say, "You have come a long way, baby."
Note: Bill Morgan is looking for a published author who would be interested in writing his biography or ghost writing his story. He also wants readers to know that he is an inspirational public speaker. His email address is <billmorgan124@cableone.net>.

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