Braille Monitor                                                     December 2007

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Parnell Diggs
Attorney, Musician, Family Man

From the Editor: This seems a good place to print the biography of Parnell Diggs that appears on the NFB Website as part of the online version of the publication, “Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind.”

Parnell Diggs was part of the initial generation of Braille-reading students to enter first grade in the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 1975, and the president of the United States had just signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark legislation guaranteeing all disabled children the right to a “free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment.”

Diggs had been born blind because of detached retinas, and two things were absolutely certain. First, public school officials in Charlotte at the time did not want to admit him into a classroom with sighted children, and second, they had no choice but to do so if the school system was to qualify for public funding. Further complicating the matter was the fact that Bill and Nancy Diggs simply refused to accept the limitations for their son that society ordinarily placed on blind children.

Young Diggs did not disappoint. He unequivocally demonstrated that he could acquire the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic alongside his sighted peers. But he always looked forward to the end of the school day. In the yards, woods, and streets of his childhood, he climbed trees, rode bikes, shot BB guns, and played quarterback on the neighborhood Pop Warner football team after his family relocated to Columbia, South Carolina.

He taught his younger brother Holland how to play first base, how to step out of the batter’s box until he was ready for the pitch, and how to wrestle. Holland was sighted, and he taught Parnelli--his family called him Parnelli--the things in life most of us take for granted: how to dance, shrug his shoulders, and give the thumbs-up sign. They remained close until Holland’s untimely death in 2005 at the age of thirty-three.

In high school Diggs participated on the varsity wrestling team and made the South Carolina Honors All-State Chorus, and, while his friends were earning spending cash bagging groceries, he was earning good money singing and playing the guitar in Columbia area restaurants.

In 1989 Diggs met Kenneth Jernigan and Donald Capps, two leaders who had dedicated their lives to helping their blind brothers and sisters. Jernigan and Capps shared a message of promise and achievement for the blind and talked about how the blind could accomplish more through collective action. Diggs quickly embraced their reasoning and passion.

Before long Diggs recognized that the full integration of blind people into society would be his life’s work; and though he was busy double majoring in political science and religious studies, working, and maintaining a social calendar, it seemed to him that the best way to help himself as a blind person was to become a member of the National Federation of the Blind.

In 1991 Diggs was invited to participate in an NFB leadership seminar, where he received intensive instruction from NFB President Marc Maurer. Diggs was strongly influenced by Maurer’s leadership style and has put much of what he learned during that seminar into practice in carrying out his own leadership responsibilities since that time. It was also in 1991 that Diggs attended his first National Federation of the Blind convention during the week of July 4. Before arriving in New Orleans that summer, he had read Dr. Floyd Matson’s eleven-hundred-page history of the first fifty years of the National Federation of the Blind, Walking Alone and Marching Together, in its entirety and any other related materials he could find.

Diggs was learning that other blind people thought as he did: that blind people could exceed society’s expectations. But the key to full integration was acceptance by society into the places where sighted people lived and worked. In short, he came to know that complete social acceptance of the blind lies at the intersection of training and opportunity.

By the summer of 1992 Diggs had completed his first year of law school and was working as a law clerk at the South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, the state agency responsible for handling criminal appeals and post conviction relief applications for indigent defendants. There he acquired the skills of legal research and oral argument and learned to interact with clients in the facilities of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Walking into the Edisto Unit of the Broad River Correctional Institution was perhaps the most memorable experience for Diggs during his time at Appellate Defense.

This was where they housed death row inmates in the early nineties, recalls Diggs. “There is nothing like walking through five or six sets of heavy metal electronic doors, each set slamming behind you as you move deeper into the facility, and never more than one set is open at a time. It created the feeling that any attempt to escape would be futile.”

Diggs accepted a position as a law clerk in a private firm in 1993 and continued to hold this position after he was hired as a page in the South Carolina Senate. At one point in 1994 Diggs, a newlywed, was juggling his final semester of law school with two part-time jobs. He had married Kimberly Dawn Gossett (his high school sweetheart) on May 22, 1993. The couple relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1995 when he accepted a full-time position with the South Carolina Commission for the Blind. Diggs was given the responsibility of administering rehabilitation programs for the agency in a four-county area. In 1997, at the age of twenty-eight, he opened a private law practice in Myrtle Beach, where he remains in practice today.

Diggs was first elected to the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina board of directors in 1992, and he has been reelected every two years since. He was appointed by Governor Jim Hodges to the governing board of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind in 1999 and again in 2002 and was twice confirmed by the State Senate. This appointment made him the only person ever to have been a client, an employee, and a member of the governing board of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind.

In 2000 Donald Capps announced that he would not seek reelection as president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina and recommended that Diggs be elected in his stead. Diggs was elected unanimously and has held the presidency ever since. In 2007 the nation’s blind community elected him unanimously to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.

As a private practitioner Diggs has argued before the United States Court of Appeals in the 4th and 8th Circuits and has represented some three hundred clients in federal administrative proceedings. While he is no longer playing requests in local restaurants, music continues to be an important part of his life. He sings first tenor in the Carolina Master Chorale in Myrtle Beach and serves on the organization’s board of directors. Diggs sang the role of Remendado in the Carolina Master Chorale’s production of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen in June of 2006.

The Diggses have one son, Jordan, born on January 12, 2000. As he pondered his son’s future, Diggs made the following observation: “Jordan will be told that he is less fortunate than other children are because his dad is blind—but, thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, he won’t believe it. Blindness is not a tragedy. With proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. I am determined that this is the message of blindness that my son will hear most.”

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