Braille Monitor                                                                  November 1985

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The Impact of the Organized Blind Movement: A Personal Perspective

by Sharon Gold

(The following address was presented at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico on April 13, 1985. As Federationists know, Sharon Gold is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of California.)

Forty years ago a blind person could not obtain a credential to teach in the public schools of California. This was because there was a requirement that teachers be sighted. Because of the National Federation of the Blind, qualified blind persons in California and across this nation became credentialed to teach in the public schools. Today, blind persons are teaching every subject and at every level and have been doing so for many years.

In 1953 I was a student at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. One day, while my fellow students and I were sitting in class, a former teacher entered the classroom. She had come to speak to our instructor about a blind man who wished to be a teacher and teach math to students in the public schools. We all sat quietly while she spoke of how this man was trying to find someone, a teacher, with whom he could student teach. She said that although the law had been changed to allow blind persons to obtain a teaching credential, the state was refusing to implement the law. I didn't think much about it at the time. I don't think my fellow students did either. We didn't think much about the fact that a blind person was being told he couldn't teach. We didn't think much about the fact that this gentleman was being discriminated against and that the law allowed such discrimination. It wasn't until years later when I had joined the National Federation of the Blind that I put the pieces of this conversation together and realized what it all meant and how my blind brothers and sisters of the National Federation of the Blind had changed the direction of my life as well as this man's. During those days at the school for the blind discrimination was not a word in our vocabulary. The teachers didn't discuss discrimination with us. We were not taught about blindness and the public attitudes toward us as blind people. We were not told of the National Federation of the Blind even though there were teachers on the faculty who were members, and the President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, was a blind professor of speech at the University of California, which was within walking distance of the school for the blind. What a role model Dr. tenBroek could have been for us as young blind children whose minds were fresh and impressionable. Instead, we grew up not knowing about the National Federation of the Blind and the value of collective action.

Throughout my high school and college days I was oblivious to discrimination. Of course, this did not mean that I didn't experience discrimination. It was that I did what blind persons who are not in the Federation do. I turned my back on public attitudes and escaped to safer ground. An example is that I was in a college studying to be a teacher. By this time I knew that I could get a teaching credential but I didn't know why I could, or who had made it possible, and when it came time for me to student teach, the college refused to allow me to do so. Instead of facing this discrimination head on, I sought what was called a provisional credential from the state and began looking for a job. That is what I call safer ground.

This was 1962, and all over California blind people were breaking into the teaching profession. In the spring of that year I was offered a job teaching blind children in Stockton, which was the city in which I lived while in college. In this district it was customary for the personnel director to interview prospective teachers and to issue the contract on behalf of the district. The superintendent was presented with the contract for signature only after the contract was signed by the new teacher. I was offered the contract and I signed it; but when my contract went before the superintendent, he refused to sign it saying that his district wasn't a "welfare district" and didn't hire blind people to teach. The parents of these blind children became very angry, and although it was 1962 and before demonstrations became the vogue, these parents staged a sit-in in front of the superintendent's office. Of course, I was very shaken by this rejection of me simply because I was blind. Instead of dealing with this man's attitude in an open manner as I should have, I was ashamed and thus I turned the whole incident inward and didn't think of it or discuss it for years.

In the fall of 1962 I got a job teaching elementary school for the Murdoc Unified School District at Edwards Air Force Base, where I remained for twenty years. Just before I began to teach that September of 1962, I had the privilege of spending a day with a blind teacher. She talked with me about public attitudes toward blindness and about the importance of dealing with the blindness and with the children to develop a good attitude toward blindness in my classroom. Now, this teacher was a member of the National Federation of the Blind, but she didn't tell me about the National Federation of the Blind. She helped me channel my philosophy, leading me in the way of Federationism. But isn't it sad that this blind teacher didn't also lead me to an NFB chapter meeting? However, once again I was being influenced in my life by the National Federation of the Blind.

I was not fortunate enough to learn about the NFB, however, until the early 1970's. By then, like most of us who are blind, I had experienced much discrimination, yet if you would have asked me, I would have denied it. Discrimination was something that happened to others, not to me. When I became active in our NFB, I was sure that I had gotten my teaching job on my own and without anyone's help. Was I surprised when I began reading our history and discovering the NFB had gone to the California legislature in 1945 and had convinced the legislators that blind people could teach and that the law requiring a teacher to be sighted should be changed. Although this law was changed at the request of our organization, it took more than ten years before it was implemented and it was only implemented then because the NFB forced its implementation.

In 1955 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan did a survey of school districts to determine whether there were blind persons currently teaching and to learn whether school districts would be receptive to hiring blind teachers. This survey raised the consciousness of some school administrators to the idea that a blind person could teach. At this time, Dr. Jernigan was at the California Orientation Center for the Blind. He encouraged teachers who had gone blind while in tenured positions to return to their teaching jobs. He encouraged blind students to seek teaching as a career. All of this effort resulted in many jobs for blind people, including a job for me in 1962. I thought I made it on my own.

During the twenty years I taught I held all types of positions in the elementary school--from a self-contained classroom teacher, to departmentalized programs, to being the reading specialist. Before I go on, I want to tell you about my last year before I retired. At Christmas time I was giving my reading students puzzles and games, and one of them was a thing about Christmas. It said in it "Santa has a long white blank," and my children wrote cane. Seventeen years of hard work by my blind brothers and sisters preceded that day I signed the contract and set foot into a classroom as a blind teacher.

Seventeen long years of paving the way step by step so that I could have a job and take my place as a responsible citizen and public servant. Although it was the mistreatment of a blind person by an airline that drew me to the NFB, I quickly realized the impact the National Federation of the Blind had on my life and how much and how long my blind brothers and sisters had been carrying me on their backs. Some of you in this room have been in the NFB longer than I have, and it is you I thank for your part in carrying me. I am very thankful I found the NFB when I did, for you have taught me that there isn't shame when facing discrimination and that it is respectable to be blind.

The organized blind movement has indeed had a great impact on my life as it has on yours. The NFB does not discriminate in its touching of our lives as blind people. As you and I travel the road to the future, we shall carry the load of those who do not yet know about us or of those who do not yet choose to travel the road with us. We gladly carry the load for we are changing what it means to be blind in every state of this great nation, and we shall never stop until we have attained first class citizenship for all of the blind.