by Barbara Pierce
As I sit down to write this retrospective of my years as associate editor and then editor of the Braille Monitor, it is three days short of the twenty-first anniversary of my first day on the job. That was Monday, October 31, 1988, and I spent a good deal of energy that day trying to convince myself, Dr. Jernigan, and everybody else that I was up to the challenge of learning how to edit a magazine. The fact that the magazine in question was the most important one in the world to me rendered me especially incredulous.
Before asking me to leave my position as assistant director of the Oberlin College Alumni Association, Dr. Jernigan had asked me to write two full-fledged reports on national conventions (1987 and 1988) and one investigative reporting exposé on the Associated Services for the Blind in Philadelphia. In hindsight I can see that he was attempting to decide whether I was teachable. I presume it is now safe to say that he concluded I was.
In the early years Dr. Jernigan tended to give me the assignments that would take time to research and write. When I recall these projects, they were chiefly about schools for the blind—though we by no means always went to print with the stories we received tips about. Sometimes our sources were questionable or we found that we could not get information from at least two sources. This is not the complete list of stories about schools in the early years, but here are the most painful stories I wrote: “The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind: A Dangerous Place for Children,” March 1989; “Of Chandeliers and Shoddy Practice in Alabama,” February 1990; “More Hanky-Panky at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind,” June 1993; “The Fall of Richard Umsted,” “The Pattern and Practice of Abuse,” “Food for Thought but not for Consumption at the ISVI,” and “Beyond the Fall: Aftershocks and Signs of Promise,” all in the May 1995 issue; and “Of Ostriches and the Temptations of Power: The Story of the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped,” October 1996. All these were stories that gave me nightmares and made me doubt the fundamental decency of some people who go into work with the blind. I had understood before beginning these disheartening and distressing stories that the NAC seal of good practice was more accurately an indicator of unreliability, but the fact that all of these schools were at the time of these scandals members in good standing of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving Persons with Blindness and Visual Impairment (NAC) and that NAC categorically refused to look into the allegations we brought to public attention convinced me that NAC would have to be made irrelevant in the blindness field if blind people as a group were ever to prosper.
Through the years we have published lots of articles about NAC. They have certainly had an effect on the so-called accrediting body, but it continues to stagger on, providing a fig leaf of respectability to mostly tiny local agencies looking for accreditation on the cheap and lacking all understanding or appreciation of what NAC is and, more important, what it is not. One of the more entertaining NAC articles followed our picketing of a NAC meeting in Chicago. The title captures the highlight of the event: “Grant Mack and a Chicago Paddy Wagon,” January 1991. Grant Mack was an ACB past president and NAC leader as well as being at the time chairman of the board of National Industries for the Blind. He was carried off by the cops after he attacked a Federationist and damaged his recording equipment. That issue also included several other articles about NAC, including one of the most famous, “NAC, NIB, and TANSTAAFL,” by Peggy Pinder. For those who have not read the work of Robert Heinlein, TANSTAAFL stands for “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Those wondering about NAC and the organized blind’s historical effort to rid the field of its unhealthy influence might do well to begin by reading the January 1991 Braille Monitor. Here are some other memorable NAC articles published by the Monitor in the last fifteen years, all written by Peggy Pinder Elliott: “NAC at 25,” April 1991; “NAC and Water Spouts,” October 1996; “Bang and Giggle,” December 1999; “Davy Jones Locker,” March 2002; and “NAC in Isolation,” February 2003.
As I was putting the convention issue to bed in 1995, Dr. Jernigan mentioned to me that he had decided that we needed to devote an entire issue to the questions and issues arising from the use of guide dogs. This turned into the most controversial Monitor issue in my years of editorship. Dr. Jernigan wanted it clear that publishing this discussion had been his decision, so he announced at the beginning of the October 1995 issue that he was reassuming the editorship for this one issue. I have no desire to open old wounds. I recognize that many guide dog users did feel abandoned by the organization they loved despite many protestations by writers that the NFB had always defended and would always defend the right of blind people to choose dogs as their primary mobility aid. I think that some things needed to be said and thought about, but I am very glad that for the most part the old wounds have healed.
My most hair-raising experience while editing the Monitor was being sued by Mary Ann and Tom Sember for two articles published in the March and July 1992 issues. The case dragged on for four years, but I don’t remember in which year I was deposed for eight hours. I do remember that it was in August and that it was an exhausting experience. Mr. Sember was a counselor in the Pittsburgh office of the Bureau for Blindness and Visual Services, and Mrs. Sember was a dealer selling technology products made by TeleSensory, Inc. Strangely enough, until our articles exposed the situation, almost no products sold by TeleSensory’s competitors were bought by counselors in the Pittsburgh office. After our articles appeared, other manufacturers began to get a piece of the action. That in itself is a pretty strong indication that fairness and client choice were not popular concepts in the Pittsburgh office of the Pennsylvania agency serving the blind.
The Sembers sued us for $100,000, claiming libel and defamation of character. Eventually their case was dismissed on summary judgment, and the decision was upheld in both the appeals court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Tom Sember was reported to have told a friend that he had an eye on an island that he planned to buy with the money we would be forced to pay him. In November of 1997 we published “He Can’t Buy an Island: Total Victory in the Sember Case.” I was deeply grateful that the courts vindicated the Braille Monitor and my reporting. I had known all along that we had done no more than to tell the truth, but one can never be sure what will happen when a case goes to trial.
In a completely different vein, during the nineties the National Center for the Blind hosted four U.S./Canada Conferences on Technology for the Blind. The proceedings for all the conferences were published in the Braille Monitors of January 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2000. These were demanding publications to assemble since I am far from sophisticated in my understanding of technology. On the other hand, I kept reminding myself that, if I could edit the papers so that I could understand what the speakers were saying and the questions they were answering, our readers had a better chance of doing so as well.
One of the most frustrating topics of Monitor coverage since the nineties has been the lengthy dispute between Independent Living Aids and Maxi-Aids. We devoted the entire March 1998 issue to the conflict between the two blindness-product mail order houses. In articles in the December 2001, January 2002, and July 2002, issues we reported on Maxi-Aids’s successful effort to purchase Perkins Braillers through an Israeli front that sent the Braillers to South Africa, where they were shipped back to the United States. The reduced cost of the equipment was subsidized by a Hilton Foundation grant to sell Braillers in the developing world for the use of blind children. Elliot Zaretski, the owner of Maxi-Aids, sold them instead in the United States, undercutting his competition and making lots of money, but doing nothing for the poor children around the world, who should have benefited from the Hilton Foundation grant. Through the years we did other stories about Maxi-Aids, but these were the most compelling.
In 2000 and 2001 we devoted a good number of pages to the activities of Erik Weihenmayer, the amazing blind mountain climber who finally summited Mt. Everest on May 25, 2001. The Monitor story that recounted the final stage of the adventure was “Weihenmayer Reaches the Top,” which appeared in the July 2001 issue. I wasn’t at Base Camp, but I was linked by email and satellite phone to the climbers and helped to keep them in touch with the thousands of people around the world who were following their adventure. President Maurer assigned me to work with the team, the PR firm marketing the climb, and those working on the Website. In my memory I can’t separate the various components of that responsibility. I only know that the relief I felt when I learned that nineteen members of the team had made it to the top and had all returned to the highest camp in safety, was like nothing I have ever felt before or since.
In December 2003 we first reported on the Pennsylvania state government’s effort to rid itself of the most effective director of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services the state had ever had, Christine Boone. It was a shocking story of mediocrity prepared to go to any lengths to rid itself of excellence. In January of 2006 it was gratifying to publish “Victory in the First Round of the Christine Boone Case.” As often happens in such struggles, blind Pennsylvanians never got Christine Boone back, but at least the officials who fired her were finally made to pay for their perfidy.
Perhaps my most satisfying series of stories in recent years has been the descriptions of the three NFB adult training centers that Dan Frye and I did in 2008 and 2009: Louisiana Center for the Blind, May 2008; Colorado Center for the Blind, October 2008; and BLIND, Incorporated, February 2009. We traveled to each center and spent several days participating in center activities, observing the program, and talking with the students and faculty. We came away with a profound respect for what the centers are accomplishing and the depth of the commitment to excellence of the staffs and affiliates.
With one major exception the foregoing are the stories and issues that come to mind when I cast my mind back over the past twenty-one years of reporting and editing. That exception is the January/February 1999 issue, which was the obituary issue for my beloved friend and mentor, Kenneth Jernigan. Preparing that issue was simply the hardest editorial work I have ever done. In part that is because I wanted it to capture the essence of the man, and nothing that anyone could have written could have done him justice. For me, as for many others of my generation, he represented the best in us. He embodied our highest ideals, our most determined and principled positions. He was my friend and the blind person whose good opinion has meant the most to me. He taught me to think politically and to write with clarity. I wanted that issue to represent all of that. I am certain that I fell short of my goal, but I also know that reading that issue will give anyone who did not know the man the best understanding of who he was and what he stood for.
In the April 1993 issue of the Braille Monitor Dr. Jernigan announced that he was stepping aside from the editorship and handing the magazine over to me. I had been editing it in all but name for more than a year, but the time had come to make clear that the transition had occurred.
Now the time has come for another transition. In my turn I am stepping aside and inviting Dan Frye to take my place as Monitor editor. I will continue to write and edit when I can be of use, but the day-to-day responsibility for decision-making and editing ceases to me mine. The Monitor is too important for us to make this transition lightly. Dan has been learning and growing in this work for almost two years. His political judgments are much sounder than mine were when I began. His commitment to our goals of honest reporting, accurate information, high interest, and true inspiration is deep and sincere. I am sure that he will do an excellent job and carry on the Monitor’s tradition of excellence as one “who advises, warns, or cautions,” as the July 1957 All-Story Magazine defined the role of a monitor. The generations change, but the role of the Braille Monitor endures.