Braille Monitor                                                                  June 1985

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Front Lines

by Peggy Pinder

(Note: As Federationists know, Peggy Pinder is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa and Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind. The following article is reprinted from the March, 1985, Barricades, the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.)

It is now time to consider that question Iowans have discussed among themselves for seven years: What is the Iowa Commission for the Blind? The question is relevant in two senses. First, we who are blind must understand the essential nature of the agency funded to serve us. Second, this essential nature affects how we use Commission services, how we portray the Commission to friends, family, and legislators, and how we choose to work toward changing Commission policies with which we disagree.

What is the Iowa Commission for the Blind? To answer this questoin, we must study the leader of the Commission, its director Mrs. Nancy Norman, and understand the tone she sets for staff to follow. Whether she likes it or not, Mrs.Norman cannot delegate leadership. The staff tend naturally to follow her direction. A director knowledgeable about blindness will instill similar knowledge on the part of her staff. On the other hand, a director such as Mrs. Norman, who freely admits (and sees no problem in) her ignorance about blindness, and who is too lazy to do the hard work that would bring her ignorance to an end, will produce a staff that is similarly lazy and ignorant, even if the staff are the best people in the world.

An ignorant leader leads in the direction of ignorance; a knowledgeable leader, in the direction of knowledge. What is the Iowa Commission for the Blind? Let me give some recent examples of Commission staff behavior to depict common occurrences, then we will return to the main question. In discussing the Commission, blind Iowans must approach the subject with some profoundly meaningful history in mind.

Language in Iowa has been carefully used and carefully understood in the blindness field. We have long recognized that what you call a thing reveals what you think of a thing. The Employees Association of the Iowa Commission for the Blind recently published a newsletter with three revealing references in it. The first was in an article announcing the availability of a magazine of interest to staff, on cassette tape. The potential users of these cassette tapes were described in the headlines of the article as "visually impaired," and, in the article itself, reference was made to people with "visual problems." Second, a list of new staff persons and brief biographies were included. Three of the new staff are blind. This fact was never mentioned; though, from one biography listing education at a school for the blind, blindness could be inferred. Third, funding for staff to attend meetings of "organizations for the blind" was described.

In Iowa we have not distinguished between the "totally" and "partially" blind or between the "blind" and the "visually impaired." We long ago concluded that the degree of blindness is not relevant; either you are blind, or you are not. We also know that, once you start down the road of making distinctions among different degrees of blindness, social attitudes concerning blindness come into play and the more sight you have the better off everyone thinks you are. The term "visually impaired" has not been heard at the Commission and it is a disturbing development. Its worst feature is its open effort to avoid using the word "blind," a word which carries negative connotations for many, including the blind. The Commission, until recently, was trying to change what it means to be blind, not trying to cover up the fact of blindness by the use of catch phrases simply invented to avoid the word "blind." No more.

The Commission has, in recent years, been accused of not hiring blind persons often or willingly, although they insist that they do. It is therefore surprising to see a list of new employees whose blindness is not mentioned. Perhaps the writer thought the new staff would be sensitive about their blindness being publicly announced. Perhaps the new staff actually are sensitive about it. Either way, we have come a long way from the days when the Commission from the top down hired blind persons and consciously used this fact as an advertisement for the competency of the blind in employment. No more.

There is a long tradition in Iowa of distinguishing between organizations of the blind and agencies for the blind. One is democratically constituted of blind persons representing their own interests; the other is self-constituted, or brought into being as a result of legislation, and represents its own particular programs, which may or may not be in the best interests of blind people. Historically, staff at the Commission were taught that the distinction was one of importance, for only an organization of the blind had the right to represent the interests of blind people. Now the distinction is obviously blurred in the minds of the Commission staff, as the agency drifts further away from any real cooperation with the democratically-elected representatives of blind people themselves. Partnership? No more.

All three of these examples, drawn from the Commission staff's own publication, show a major shift in the use of language by the staff. But there is much more. A supervisory Commission staff member was recently heard to complain to another supervisor: "I am the only person here who has to work with two blind persons."

This attitude on the part of a Commission supervisor says more clearly than hiring statistics can, and says more clearly than unwillingness to identify new blind staff can, that blind employees are second-class at the Commission (where only one supervisory staff member is blind). Second-class status is a fact which many of the blind employees have bitterly asserted in private conversations, and for which they believe no public forum for complaint exists. What a shocking commentary on staff attitudes that a supervisor can openly complain about being burdened with blind employees. As a matter of fact, in one department of the Commission, a blind employee recently resigned because of mistreatment. Another blind person was not hired for a job in the agency because this job "required the ability to read print," even though he had been performing most of the tasks for months as a volunteer. And this from an agency which is charged by law with fostering and bringing about the employment of the blind.

And then there is the vending issue. For several years now, the commission staff has been complacent as threat after threat has been posed to the nationwide priority for blind persons to provide food service in federal buildings. Perhaps we should seek the root of this complacency problem close to home--among the Commission staff, for example. In recent years staff have not been encouraged or exhorted (as was previoulsy the case) to support blind employment opportunities by giving their business to the Commission cafeteria. There has been much grumbling about prices and limited food selection in the cafeteria. The grumblers apparently feel no responsibility to act personally as a part of their daily lives to support a blind person's effort to earn a living. Recently a Commission staff member was heard to say that the price for an upcoming luncheon at the Commission would "finally be reasonable," given the fact that Commission staff were going to do much of the preparation, service, and cleanup, including dishwashing. This callous remark leaves completely aside the fact that any blind person running the Commission cafeteria is a blind businessman or businesswoman just starting out in food service with the ongoing assistance of the Commission's own Business Enterprise Program. The blind cafeteria operator is learning how to run a business, make a profit, and work in very specialized circumstances--a building with a very small population which does not support the cafeteria very well. There is nothing wrong with the cafeteria manager's pricing and portioning decisions. Pricing ultimately depends on the business's sales volume; when more people patronize the cafeteria costs can come down and selections can expand. It is ironic that Mrs. Norman, the director of an agency that runs food service facilities throughout the state, has not taught this simple fact to her own staff, or exercised leadership in encouraging them to patronize their own cafeteria. It's one thing to give lip service to the concept that blind persons can be capable food service managers and workers; it's another to support the concept with your own money. Again, what a shocking set of attitudes from a staff hired to work to help blind people.

So what is the Iowa Commission for the Blind? Another way to answer this question is to examine what staff have been doing with their time. There are staff at the Commission who are so dedicated to serving the blind that they spend long hours traveling the state, and working evenings and weekends to make life better for blind people. But these staff members are not the ones setting the tone and making policy for the agency. The tone-setters are working on a celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. When this idea was first put forth, the reaction of most people was: "Well, who celebrates a 60th anything? A wedding anniversary, yes. But anything else? Not that I have ever heard." Commission staff are repeatedly told that they will, repeat will, participate in this celebration, scheduled for early September and already subject to more than a year's worth of planning. Hundreds of staff hours and thousands of dollars have already been lavished on this celebration. Many staff, much to their credit, failed to see the connection between their jobs and this enforced celebration. But they are repeatedly

told they will participate. It is defined as part of their work by their supervisors. Of what will this celebration consist? One day for employers, one day for other service provider agencies, and one day for "consumers." All three carefully separated and distinguished. Those employers in attendance will hear talks about blind employees and see demonstrations about blind employees. But, at lunch, what will they do? Listen to a speaker having nothing to do with blindness. Apparently celebration planners believe the subject of blindness cannot be made sufficiently interesting to draw and hold the attention of employers and potential employers. Perhaps these planners are right. They themselves do not see the subject as sufficiently interesting to communicate any enthusiasm about it to their fellow staff, let alone to busy, important movers and shakers in the community. Once, in Iowa, blindness was one of the most interesting topics, and opportunities to go to the Commission were gladly accepted. No more.

The staff can barely be induced to show interest in this celebration beyond the few who are daily involved in planning it. What will this celebration accomplish? One thing it is obviously intended to do is to rewrite history in Iowa. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan is the man who laid the foundations of a fine program for the blind in Iowa. He brought the philosophy, trained the staff, designed the building and the programs provided in it to achieve the best service ever provided to a blind community. The Commission today insists its philosophy "has not changed," words which almost leap out of most staff members when the subject is raised. Yet, one simple fact tells the whole story. With a year of planning already done, with repeated references to Iowa's history, with repeated solicitations for stories and memories of how Iowa used to be for a blind person, with repeated announcements that every present and former staff member is being invited to attend, Dr.. Jernigan has never been contacted by anyone at the Iowa Commission for the Blind concerning the anniversary celebration and has never received an invitation to attend, let alone an invitation to come and assume the prominent role in the celebration that his unequaled contribution to Iowa commands. So, what does all this tell us about the Iowa Commission for the Blind? Though individual staff members may disagree, the tone is clear. The blind are a group apart from the staff, totally separate and not to be confused with the staff. Those blind persons who happen to work at the agency are a burden or simply defined out of existence by not referring to them as blind at all. The cause of celebration is the existence of the agency, not the achievement of the staff. And any mention of the different tone which once existed at the Commission is carefully avoided, even to the extent of ignoring the great leader of the blind, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who first came to national and international preeminence during his days as Commission director.

The Commission is a state agency, a bureaucracy, with none of the cohesiveness or unity or common drive toward the independence of blind persons Dr. Jernigan created. Yes, the Commission has changed from the days of Dr. Jernigan. Why else would he be deliberately excluded from an anniversary celebration? Yes, the Commission has changed. Why else are the blind put to the side in employment and called by other words than the one which describes them? Yes, the Commission has changed.

Blind Iowans have often wondered why Mrs. Norman, a person admittedly ignorant of blindness, blind people, agencies for the blind, the issues confronting blind people, or anything else having to do with it, was hired over two well qualified applicants to run the Iowa Commission for the Blind. In the past three years, the answer has become obvious. Mrs. Norman was hired to rid the Commission of all but its bureaucratic character. She's done her job. The whole tone of the Commission reflects her ignorance of and lack of any real (except for lip service) concern for the problems and needs of blind people.

We, the blind of Iowa, can mourn the change. We can wish that the Commission still stood as a partner with the blind in that great struggle to free the blind. But we could recognize its present characteristics as we mourn its past. The Commission is now directed by Mrs. Norman, a woman who declares that the Commission cannot go out advocating positions in the Legislature and in Congress, a woman who declares that she need not know anything about blindness since that is what her staff is hired to know, a woman who sets the tone for the whole Commission by routinely bragging about Commission achievements, Commission activities, Commission greatness without mentioning the blind except as an after thought, the necessary but uninteresting context in which she and her great Commission work. In the end the 60th Anniversary, like all else at the Commission, embodies Mrs. Norman's tone. She thought it would be fun to throw a big party in her honor and invite the whole state to do the honoring.