by Joanne Wilson
Joanne Wilson has beautifully intertwined the life and accomplishments of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan with the message she received from him and the way she has tried to adopt that message as her life's work. Here is her tribute, her story, and the power of two human beings determined to make the world a better place for blind people.
The year was 1966; I was a young college student struggling with the problems of how to function as a blind person. I was dragged to my first encounter with blind people, a student seminar held at the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
After the day's events the students were invited to a fancy restaurant to relax and enjoy each other. I was seated next to Dr. Jernigan. I sat in awe listening and knew that something important was about to happen. As I was leaning over the candle in the middle of the table trying to read my bill so I could pay, Dr. Jernigan suddenly asked me, "Joanne, are you blind?"
I said, "No, no, I'm not blind--I just can't see very well."
He held up his hand and said, "How many fingers do I have up?"
I said, "Well, I can sort of see your hand there, but I can't exactly tell how many fingers you have up."
He said, "Joanne, you're blind." The talk that followed was like nothing I had ever heard. That night and in the months and years to follow, he put a voice to all the confusion and funny notions about blindness that I had in my mind. I was taught to define philosophy. I was given knowledge, belief, and most of all hope.
I was a student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and I learned many things. I learned skills. I learned a philosophy about blindness, but I also learned how to get political influence and how to build an organization, how to be a leader, how to get elected and stay elected, how to give a speech, how to be an advocate, how to have discipline, and how to work hard. I learned how to play, I learned how to love, and I learned how to give.
Dr. Jernigan was always teaching. Everything that he did--from the ordinary to the spectacular, from ordering a meal to giving a banquet speech--always seemed to have a purpose and to be a part of something bigger. It was all a part of building a great movement. All of Dr. Jernigan's actions and all his works were directed toward large accomplishments.
He taught me how to make my day-to-day activities count and to be a part of a bigger cause as well. I remember one day, when we students were sitting in our discussion group, Dr. Jernigan came into the room and started telling us about a legislative banquet that we were going to have in a couple of weeks. He started assigning jobs to us--explaining how we were going to help set up the tables and get things organized and mix and mingle with the legislators. Then he told us we needed to buy our tickets and pay for another person's ticket. We said, "What? We don't have any money--why, we ought to get our meal free. We're going to do all this other work." Well, a discussion ensued. It was the first time I heard the words, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." At that legislative banquet we all stood with pride and dignity when Dr. Jernigan got up and said to the legislators, "Your meal has been bought by a blind person."
I remember another time. It was about 5:30 in the morning. I was sound asleep in my dorm room at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and suddenly there was a rap at the door. My heart pounded, and I heard Dr. Jernigan out there saying, "Hurry, hurry, Joanne: come to my apartment immediately. It's urgent." I heard him go up and down the hall, knocking on other students' doors, saying, "Hurry, hurry, come immediately to my apartment." We all rushed down there. We had our robes on, and I had big rollers in my hair and my flip flops on, and night cream was dripping from my face. We ran in there with our hearts pounding. He gathered us in his living room and said, "Surprise, come as you are party."
We learned, and we began to live what we learned. Where were you when you heard of the death of Dr. Jernigan? On that October 12th, I was in a fancy restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, relaxing after a hard day of rock climbing with the students at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. My cell phone rang; I went to a quiet part of the restaurant and heard the news. On my way back to my table I felt confused and sad. I felt empty and uncomfortable. What should I do next?
I sat down and looked around. There at my table were college students and others struggling with the problems of how to function as competent blind people. I thought, "Dr. Jernigan, even at this moment you are teaching me a lesson." I had a flashback to my first dinner with him, and I knew he was telling me to pass it on. We had made the full circle. I was there to give the knowledge, the belief, and the dreams to these blind students. I was there to be their guide and to give them a defined philosophy about blindness. As Dr. Jernigan did for me, I did my best to help my students set their sights high and learn the skills and confidence to reach their goals.
The NFB had come a long way in Louisiana since I first arrived there in 1978. I was proud of what we had accomplished, and I think Dr Jernigan was proud too. I could not have done what I did without the foundation he gave me in Iowa. I was thrilled to be able to carry it across the country to yet another generation of blind people, both young and old.
When I was in Iowa, working in the NFB was safe and comfortable because there were so many people involved. Dr. Jernigan had been building there for eight years before I ever met him. He had found and trained a great many people--those who worked in the blindness field and blind people who lived and worked all over the state. I was president of a new chapter and for a time vice president of the NFB of Iowa, but my activities and actions did not seem critical to me.
My husband got a job in Ruston, Louisiana. I had three children, including a brand new baby. I knew I had been fortunate to live in Iowa because things were better for the blind there. But I had no way of really knowing how fortunate until later.
When we moved to Louisiana, I received a dramatic dose of reality because of the differences. The NFB in Louisiana was both weak and fragmented internally. I did not find a national focus; no one was really dedicated to the organization; there was no depth of commitment, nor even the understanding of blindness that I had learned in Iowa from Dr. Jernigan. In Louisiana blind people were not using white canes or traveling independently, and most were not employed. I realized that the blind here were years behind and lacked positive leadership.
At my first state convention Dr. Jernigan was there and asked the hotel manager to donate to the national organization. In order to motivate the members of the affiliate, Dr. Jernigan told them that he had asked for and received this contribution. The majority of the members were embarrassed that he had done that. They actually voted to return the donation to the hotel manager.
The NFB of Louisiana was receiving some gambling money from the state, and most of its time was spent arguing about how to spend the money. I started going to state board meetings which lasted an entire weekend. Most of the time was spent fighting. I decided to try to bring new members into the organization, so I volunteered to recruit new people in Ruston. The old-timers thought I couldn't do it; however, we had forty people at an organizing meeting. The leaders of the NFB of Louisiana came to the meeting, and they were shocked.
Before long Dr. Jernigan asked me if I had considered running for office. I had learned in Iowa that you have to count the votes before you run. I got the old leadership to permit me to organize new chapters. They thought they knew all the blind people, but I was able to find new members and organize chapters in other parts of the state, just as I had in Ruston. I made phone calls during my kids' nap time. When I went to meetings, I took the kids with me, even to the first meetings of new chapters. I had no one to leave them with. I brought toys and books for them, and many of the blind people seemed glad to meet them. I mentored the members in these new chapters, mostly by telephone. Of course my manner was different from Dr. Jernigan's, but I didn't even think about it. The blind people I met understood that I cared and that I understood something about blindness that they needed to know.
I also worked on making friends with some of the long-time members. At the next convention we were able to make some changes in the constitution of the NFB of Louisiana, changes that required a two-thirds majority vote. And I was elected president. The people I wanted on the state board were also elected. Not everybody was happy about all this change. One of the large old chapters from Lafayette walked out shouting and cursing, and they never came back.
After I was elected, we still had too many fights. I had to lead a series of expulsions of people who were stealing money. Those people took this problem to court, and it was hard on both old and new members. Unfortunately some racial prejudice was involved, but that was not the primary issue. I was proud of many who made sacrifices to help the blind move forward.
It took about two years for us to have peace, unity, and loyalty to the NFB in the Louisiana affiliate, and it has been peaceful ever since. We also experienced phenomenal growth. The members were ready to focus on progress for the blind. We kept organizing new groups--a student division and a parents of blind children division were two of the first groups we organized. Then we kept organizing new chapters in new cities. All the time we were also working to strengthen the existing chapters.
There was an effort in the state to build a huge building to house all programs for blind children and adults. The NFB knew that the people in charge of this project would not provide the kind of services that blind people needed. I got people all over the state to help write letters and talk to their legislators about what was really needed, which was a high-quality rehabilitation center modeled after the one in Iowa, where I had received training. Our members also traveled to Baton Rouge to meet with legislators in the capitol. We made friends with state senators and representatives, such as Mary Landrieu, who later ran for governor and now serves as U.S. Senator from Louisiana. When Senator Landrieu was new in the Louisiana legislature, she went with a bunch of Federationists to Governor Edwin Edwards's office to tell him what we needed. When we left, she stayed with the governor a little longer. When she came out, she told me that we needed to write an amendment to the governor's budget, which we did immediately. At the NFB convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1985, I received the message that Governor Edwards was recommending more than a quarter million dollars for the establishment of a training center for the blind in Louisiana.
Then I looked for a center director, but no one wanted to do it because we had funding for only one year and we would not be able to pay large salaries. I was not going to let this opportunity pass. I had taught elementary school, but I didn't think I had the administrative experience needed for the job. Still I decided to start the center myself, just until we could find somebody else. We had learned about the money in July. Less than three months later, on October 1, we opened the center. By the end of October we had five students. I hired teachers from South Carolina, California, Iowa, and Louisiana. The staff saw the opportunity, and the students soon understood as well.
We knew we were breaking ground and doing something important for both the blind of Louisiana and the whole country. The support of the National Federation of the Blind gave us the strength and determination to do what we had to do. We really believed that we were making a difference and expanding the dream of making rehabilitation better in Louisiana and far beyond. Our mission was to carry forward the dream first articulated by Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan, the dream of putting Federation philosophy and ideas into a training center that would ultimately improve all rehabilitation for the blind everywhere. And I think what we did in Louisiana and what continues there today has made a difference to blind people. It has helped to set a higher standard for programs in other states.
We all made sacrifices. At times I had to ask the center staff to do what nobody should have to do. Salaries were not large, and our teachers often worked day and night. Sometimes I had to ask for volunteers to take a delay in getting their paychecks, because state officials were dragging their feet in getting money to us, money that was already authorized. Students also had to make sacrifices. We had to drive two-hundred miles to hearings in Baton Rouge numerous times in the process of securing second-year funding. That meant leaving Ruston at 4:00 a.m. to be at hearings by 8:00 a.m. We called ourselves the pioneers because we knew that our sacrifices would be a part of changing rehabilitation. For us it was a cause, a mission of the National Federation of the Blind. We felt we were a part of the nationwide effort. Louisiana just happened to be where the effort was needed at that moment.
Directing the Center was one kind of activity that had its own crises and accomplishments. It is extremely rewarding to help blind students become more competent, learn to believe in themselves, learn new skills, learn to think differently about blindness, and sell themselves to employers. Dealing with the budget and legislators was another kind of activity, important and intense. There were criticisms and threats from people who did not understand the value of what we were doing, people who did not want us to succeed.
On Mother's Day of 1986 I remember NFB members from all over Louisiana sitting at an appropriations hearing in which they were discussing our second-year budget. One of the representatives asked, "Where are our critics?" They were not there, because it was Mother's Day. We were there, and they voted eleven to one to give us the funding. This kind of thing happened over and over again. With a few hours’ notice we would manage to let people know, and we would gather NFB members in large numbers at appropriations hearings.
By the third year the reputation of the Louisiana Center was good enough with many of the rehabilitation counselors that payment for the training was authorized by their agency. Payment by rehab then covered our costs. We took our students to the various rehab offices, where they told their stories about how the center had helped them. I was following what Dr. Jernigan had done when I was a student. I knew that people would be impressed by hearing what the students had to say, not just from me or other staff members, and they were.
After we rented facilities for the first two years, the governor helped us get funds to buy an office and classroom building that is currently the headquarters of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The city of Ruston loved having us. The more they learned about what we were doing, the prouder they were to have us. They saw the students learning to travel independently with their white canes, and they came to visit when we had open houses. The community became valuable to the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
It was also from Dr. Jernigan that I learned to sell the program to the community and the state. Dr. Jernigan gave tours of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, invited groups to have banquets in the commission building, and sent students and staff out to make presentations for all kinds of groups. We did the same thing in Louisiana. Then the community would help us with the governor and the legislature. Local senators and representatives in the Ruston area wanted to help us. Dr. Jernigan was a master at building this kind of support, and I learned the strategy from him.
At the Ruston Civic Center we had the largest banquet ever held in the city. Governor Edwards was there. Before he spoke, I had all the students talk about their experiences. The governor threw out a prepared talk and wrote a new one on a napkin. He said the things we wanted him to say. This helped us get funds for the classroom and office building. Then we got money to buy apartments where students could live during training, so we did not have to rent living space for them. Once we asked the community of Ruston for help to build an activity center for meetings and social get-togethers, people from the community volunteered and donated their expertise and materials to build an entire building.
When I left Louisiana, the Center included a large classroom and office building; another classroom building, including a shop; a career center; the activity center; and two apartment complexes. One day one of our students, Barry Adkins, came in with a big old school bell and a cross-stitched plaque that said, "When the bell sounds, all of us have gained new ground." Starting that day, whenever a student would achieve something he or she didn't believe a blind person could do, we would ring what we dubbed the Freedom Bell. We would ring the bell when someone crossed the street, finished the first Braille book, cooked a meal for forty, graduated from college, or got married. We did this for current students. Past students would call us and ask us to ring the bell and announce their accomplishments. Not only was this a great way to share information, it also gave hope to the new students who heard about the achievements of their predecessors. We heard when our graduates traveled across Europe, had babies, got new jobs, bought their first homes, and more. Ringing the Freedom Bell became an important way to congratulate those who made progress.
Then we started giving a smaller version of this bell to each of our graduates engraved with their names and date of graduation, followed by the words "Louisiana Center for the Blind, Together we are changing what it means to be blind." All of these small accomplishments together are opening doors and changing what blindness is like for this generation. Other NFB training centers liked this practice and inaugurated it as well. Now these bells sound across the country and symbolize what we are doing whenever the blind accomplish something new.
Governor Buddy Rohmer came to one of our banquets. When he got up to talk, he said that he had diabetes and expected to be blind one day. He was very supportive of our center. We gave him a Freedom Bell, which he displayed in his office. I believe it remained there as long as he was governor of Louisiana.
The Louisiana Center expanded into summer programs for blind elementary school children and another program for blind teenagers. We sought and received a grant for the early intervention programs for blind infants and toddlers throughout the state. Every blind infant and toddler in Louisiana is supposed to be referred to the Louisiana Center. Half a dozen staff members contact parents and work with blind and visually impaired children throughout the state. That work also continues today.
Then we did the same thing for blind seniors. We got a grant and hired people to go to the homes of seniors who were losing vision, and there are a great many more seniors than children. These newly blind people now receive instruction in the techniques and attitudes that will make it possible for them to live more productively and independently.
Louisiana was the first state to set up newspaper accessibility by telephone through a service called NFB-NEWSLINE®. The NFB created the service, and we were able to start it in Louisiana. Now three-hundred newspapers and two dozen magazines are accessible to the blind by touchtone telephone in most parts of the country. Dr. Jernigan worked hard to build this program in the 1990s. All we had to do was to find a little money to provide the service.
We started the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. It began with two master's degree programs, one degree in O&M (orientation and mobility) and the other in teaching blind students. The center was well enough established in Ruston that I called Dr. Dan Reno, president of Louisiana Tech University, and I got an appointment. I proposed starting a degree program there. He liked the idea. We agreed to seek funding and to get it started, which we did. We both liked building new programs and reaching out to people who needed them. Dr. Reno's background was in medical programs, but he was glad to help and to offer these new degrees. He understands that this is an important way to change rehabilitation for the blind. Every year between five and fifteen people, both blind and sighted, receive degrees in orientation and mobility. The graduates are employed at training centers around the country. Some of them work for programs that were already doing work the way the NFB does it. Other graduates are employed where the NFB approach has not been popular. The graduates of Louisiana Tech are effective teachers. Their travel students become more independent than those who are taught by teachers with degrees from other programs. This is another very exciting way to help blind people become independent and employed.
After George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, I received a phone call from NFB President Marc Maurer asking me if I would be interested in applying for the Rehabilitation Services Administration Commissioner position in the federal Department of Education. This is a political position appointed by the president of the United States. It had been formerly held by Federationist Fred Schroeder. The thought of such a thing had never entered my mind. I was shocked at the very idea. I told Dr. Maurer that I would think about it. Then I received phone calls from other Federationists, including Mary Ellen Jernigan, who also urged me to apply. I talked to my family and thought about what would be necessary to get appointed and how it would benefit the Federation and the blind, and I decided to apply. All this took a week or two.
I began to gather support from other organizations of people with disabilities, congressmen and senators whom I knew, the governor of Louisiana, state legislators, and prominent contributors to President Bush's campaign. Federationists around the country were helping in their own states to gather support for my nomination. I learned in April that President Bush intended to nominate me, but I could not say anything about it. Bush actually announced publicly that he would send my name to the U.S. Senate for confirmation in July. The Senate confirmation occurred early in August. I had been looking at houses in Virginia and after the confirmation had to finalize the arrangements and move as quickly as possible. My youngest daughter Jennica had one more year of high school to complete, so she needed to be enrolled in Arlington, Virginia. My husband Harold found employment in Virginia as well.
August 27 we had a swearing-in ceremony attended by Federationists and Senator Mary Landrieu and Representative John Cooksey, both from Louisiana. I would be working under Secretary of Education Rod Page, who conducted the swearing-in. That was the first time that I met a lot of the RSA staff and other top officials of the Department of Education. It took a little time for me to learn to know the people I would be working with and the processes I would need to follow in this position. Lots of different organizations and rehabilitation agency directors from around the country came to meet with me and to share their priorities and agendas.
My philosophy was that my most important opportunity was to offer to the rehabilitation field a strong message--the one that Dr. Jernigan taught me. He stressed that, if you want a strong agency, you need to have strong consumer organizations. Many of the directors were worried about the continued existence of rehabilitation. I insisted to them that, if they gave service to their consumers, those consumers would in turn support and protect the agencies when that was necessary. Most of the directors had not really understood the value of strong organizations of consumers. I wanted to put in place a pattern that rehabilitation personnel would work closely with consumers and consumer organizations of people with disabilities. I started talking about this with everyone I met from the very beginning of my work in Washington.
We faced pressure to submerge all of rehabilitation in the Department of Labor. That would have been a great disadvantage for the blind. In the Rehab Act there are provisions for assisting blind seniors and blind businessmen and women. It calls for specialized training for the blind in Braille, independent travel, and adaptive computer technology. It is possible to have two rehab agencies in each state, one for the blind and another for general rehabilitation. It is difficult enough under the current system for the blind to receive the assistance that makes it possible to have the kind of life I have had and the kind of life I have worked so hard to help my students achieve. Putting the federal vocational rehab program under the Department of Labor would definitely make it more difficult for the state programs to offer what is needed. In the long run it would cost a lot of money if blind people were not self-supporting, a huge step backwards. Now I was a federal official. I could not lobby publicly, but I knew consumers could and would support the program.
I had learned long ago from Dr. Jernigan that good-quality training includes mentoring and being exposed to positive role models. This was a missing element I found in most rehabilitation agencies. I was successful in getting grant funding to set up mentoring programs that allowed people with disabilities to be mentored by successful and competent role models who had the same disability. Organizations of the disabled and rehab agencies all over the country could apply for grants to establish this program. During my tenure as RSA commissioner, there were two different requests for proposals for these grants. I know that the agencies that received these grants were strengthened by them, and so were the services they provided.
Another project I created was a national conference for administrators and staff who run residential training programs for blind adults. The first three-day conference was in Albuquerque and was well attended. Immediately after it, I began receiving requests for another one that occurred in Nashville a year and a half later. There are about ninety residential training programs for the blind in the country, and all were invited. About 200 people participated in each conference. Many of the participants were members of the NFB, who led quite a few of the discussions. This was another chance for us to pass on Dr. Jernigan's concepts about good rehabilitation training and high expectations for the blind. Our speakers talked about independent travel with a long cane, which we have come to call the “structured discovery” method. We discussed the need for philosophy class to explore students' needs and expectations about blindness.
The tone of the conferences was that expectations of blind people should be higher than they have traditionally been. Use of blindfolds for people with partial vision was a major topic. Another popular topic was techniques for adults who are new Braille readers to use so they can become effective in Braille reading and writing. Dr. Jernigan proved the value of this approach in Iowa, I proved it in Louisiana, and it is now believed and practiced more widely than ever before. A controversial issue was training staff under sleepshades (blindfolds) in order to help them be more effective teachers. We discussed the role of confidence-building activities outside the classroom such as rock climbing, whitewater rafting, waterskiing, and cutting wood with chain saws.
Each day at the conferences there were multiple workshops and general sessions to explore all the components of training centers for the blind. I welcomed participants to the conferences and gave a presentation at the beginning. Former RSA Commissioner Fred Schroeder made the final presentation for both. The feedback I got was very positive.
In 2005 at the NFB headquarters, Dr. Maurer decided to establish a Department of Affiliate Action. He offered me the opportunity to direct this department. It sounded very exciting to me because I would have the freedom to help the Federation grow. I felt good about what I had done for the federal government, but I was tired of the processes I had to follow. My husband and I moved to Baltimore in 2005. Now I have the opportunity to continue to develop and find new ways to help blind people grow and become integrated more completely into society.
I appreciate what I learned from Dr. Jernigan, and I have done my best to pass it on to the next generation. If I have added to it, I am glad to have done so. My outlook for the blind in the future is very bright. We still need time to reach more people and to train more staff to work in more places. But we are making progress, and I am fortunate to know well many younger people who are ready and eager to continue the work. Dr. Maurer is a wonderful leader, but he cannot do it by himself, just as Dr. Jernigan could not. The National Federation of the Blind is bigger and stronger now than ever before, and I believe that our momentum will continue to increase as it has for the last half century or more.