Braille Monitor                                                                                May-June 1986

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No External Evidence is Required

Baltimore, Maryland
April 4, 1986

Dr. Walter Stromer
Mount Vernon, Iowa

Dear Dr. Stromer:

Since last October, you and I have been exchanging letters. You have asked that I print your January 25, 1986, letter in the Monitor, and I am doing it. However, I am doing something more. I am printing the entire correspondence--all of it--each and every word (misspelled or otherwise), each and every punctuation mark, and each and every phrase and clause (those that are transposed, as well as those that are not).

As you know, the whole thing began with the banquet speech which I made at the National Federation of the Blind convention last summer. In that speech I said in part:

Dr. Walter Stromer is a blind professor. He lives in a small town in Iowa and teaches at the local college. He is thought of by his colleagues and students as successful, quite successful--and he doubtless shares that opinion. But do his associates think of him as successful measured by others on the campus, or only by the standard of what they think a blind person can do and can be expected to do? Which standard does Dr. Stromer use? For that matter, does he even know that there are different standards? Does he perhaps enjoy being thought of as remarkable, unusual, inspiring, and brave--failing to realize that he has made a bad bargain and that the eye is not freedom's passport to the soul?

A number of years ago Dr. Stromer appeared on a panel to discuss the meaning of blindness, and as a result he published a paper entitled "One Day In The Life of Me." Speaking of his early morning radio listening, he says: "Fortunately the station I listen to most is near the end of the dial. Finding stations in the middle of the dial can be a problem unless you know exactly what program to listen for."

Progressing to the time of departure for work, he says: "Just before I leave for class I remember I forgot to have my wife record the grades for the speeches made yesterday. I could do it in Braille, but it would be most tedious and time-consuming."

In further reference to Braille he says: "Looking for one sheet of paper in a stack is not bad when you can see; it's maddeningly slow when you have to run your fingers over the first dots of every sheet to figure out what it is." As he leaves the house, he says: "But finally I'm off to school, after pausing in the door for a minute to try to remember if I've got everything. Others do that, too, but they can see things lying on the chair or table, to remind them to take along; with me it has to be a more conscious mental effort. Which explains of course why I'm so alert, because I have to use my brain more, which is what keeps it sharp, or wears it to a frazzle."

His thoughts as he goes from home to campus are in the same vein: "Walking to school is fairly relaxing," he says. "At least once a week I try to remember to be grateful for not having to fight the noise and congestion of the city." What a melodramatic piece of self-pity! Many people prefer small towns to cities, but I wonder how many of them are able to work blindness and pathos into it. After all, the city has advantages, too--and you could probably get blindness into that as well if you put your mind to it.

And how does Dr. Stromer feel about his teaching? He says: "In a few minutes I'm in class. After twenty-two years I'm fairly comfortable."

After all of this tension and heavy introspection, it is only natural that Dr. Stromer feels tense and a little weary. A counteractant might be in order. "Home to lunch now," he says. "Just a good eight-minute walk, downhill all the way. A small glass of wine, a short nap, maybe only five minutes, and then lunch and I'm ready for the afternoon.... I stretch out for a nap before supper. I wonder if all blind people need those naps as much as I do. I think I'm fairly relaxed, but I'm sure an average day takes more nervous energy out of me than it does out of somebody with good vision, because so many things that sighted people can do without thinking, I have to do with a good bit of conscious effort."

Stromer is not a phony. He believes it--and his associates believe it. But it is false to the core. It is what I call "The Stromer Syndrome." His neighbors think (within the limits, of course, of common sense and what they believe a blind person can do) that he is wonderful. They make of him a conversation piece. They tell him, each other, and anybody else who will listen that he is witty, accomplished, and inspiring. He uses the same words we use--independence, understanding, realistic approach to blindness, full participation in society, and all of the rest--but he does not mean what we mean. In his daily life and thinking he exemplifies almost every misconception about the inferiority and helplessness of the blind that I have ever heard: Blind people have difficulty tuning in radio stations. Braille is tedious and ineffective. It cannot be scanned. Blind people have more trouble than others remembering what to take to work. This makes their minds alert. They meet their problems with humor. They are grateful to live in a small town to avoid the congestion of cities. After twenty-two years they are fairly comfortable teaching. They have more tensions than others and, therefore, require more naps, and a little wine.

Dr. Stromer undoubtedly feels that his attitudes and behavior are a plus in the struggle of the blind for advancement, but every day his influence is negative. Society (knowing nothing about blindness) has made him what he is and taught him its values. Now, he returns the compliment. He reinforces the misconceptions and teaches society. If his situation were unique (if the "Stromer Syndrome" were personal to the man), it would hardly be worth our attention. We would simply turn our heads in pity and embarrassment and let it go at that. But it is not personal. It is endemic and generic. It has dogged the heels of every minority that has ever walked the road to freedom.

That is what I said in my banquet speech, and I did not regard it as an attack. If you will reread the whole thing in the August-September, 1985, Braille Monitor, you may (if you consider the matter objectively) agree with me. Be this as it will, you wrote to me to make a complaint. Among other things, you said that I had attacked you by name in a speech which I gave in the 1960's. I believe you refer to an address which I gave at the 1963 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Entitled "Blindness--Handicap or Characteristic," it said concerning you:

In a recent issue of The New Outlook for the Blind Dr. Walter Stromer (a blinded veteran, who now teaches in Iowa) puts forward a notion of blindness radically different from this. He sets the limitations of blindness apart from all others and makes them unique. Having done this, he can say that all other human characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, belong in one category--and that with regard to them the blind and the sighted individual are just about equal. But the blind person also has the additional and unique limitation of his blindness. Therefore, there is really nothing he can do quite as well as the sighted person, and he can continue to hold his job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

What Dr. Stromer does not observe is that the same distinction he has made regarding blindness could be made with equal plausibility with respect to any of a dozen--perhaps a hundred--other characteristics. For example, suppose we distinguish intelligence from all other traits as uniquely different. Then the man with above one hundred twenty-five IQ is just about the same as the man with below one hundred twenty five IQ--except for intelligence. Therefore, the college professor with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ cannot really do anything as well as the man with more than one hundred twenty five IQ--and can continue to hold his job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

"Are we going to assume," says Dr. Stromer, "that all blind people are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by loss of sight? I think not." But why, one asks, single out the particular characteristic of blindness? We might just as well specify some other. For instance, are we going to assume that all people with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by lack of intelligence? I think not.

This, Dr. Stromer, is what I said about you in two banquet addresses, and I think you will have to search with great diligence to find any rancor in it. It seems to me that your letters contain within themselves the proof of the truth of what I have said. No external evidence is required. You are defensive without cause. Also, as I said in the 1985 banquet address, you are a product of the system and the society which created you, and I bear you no ill will. Our correspondence speaks for itself, so here it is for all to read. However, I have the feeling that you will be no less pleased with it than you were with my remarks.

Just one more thing, I will not take the time to analyze your letters line by line and sentence by sentence to point out the problems and inaccuracies. One example will suffice. You say that I agreed to publish your reply to my banquet speech in the Monitor. Search the correspondence, and see whether that is what I really said. The mistake is typical of the misinterpretations which I believe you make.

Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

 

Mount Vernon, Iowa
October 24, 1985

Dear Sir,

Will you please have someone send me a print copy of the Braille Monitor for August-September, and also a print copy of your speech at the convention this summer. Both those items were in the same sound sheet package of the Monitor.

Also, could you send me a photo copy of the piece "A Day in the Life of Me", from which you quoted. Or if not, at least tell me where I can get a copy of it. I do not have a copy in my files and do not remember when or where I said those things. They sound authentic me, but I don't remember the time or place.

Finally, if I wanted to respond in public to your public comments on me, what would be the best way to do that?

Sincerely,
Walter F. Stromer

 

Mount Vernon, Iowa
November 3, 1985

Dear Mr. Jernigan,

I wrote to you about two weeks ago, but I will assume my letter got lost somewhere.

1. Will you please have someone send me an inkprint copy of the Braille Monitor for August-September, 1985. Also an inkprint copy of the speech you made at the convention this summer, the speech in which you mentioned me.

2. Will you also please send a photo copy of the article A LIFE IN THE DAY OF ME, from which you quoted. I do not have a copy of this in my files and don't even know where it was printed. At least, send me the print source from which you were quoting.

3. If I wanted to respond in public to your public comments about me, what would you suggest as an appropriate way to do that.

Sincerely,
Walter F. Stromer

 

Baltimore, Maryland
November 11, 1985

Dear Dr. Stromer:

Under separate cover I am sending you a print copy of the August-September, 1985, Braille Monitor. It contains the speech to which you refer. If you should wish to respond to the comments concerning you, we would be glad to consider publishing them in the Monitor I believe they accurately portray what you said and that they point up the difference in philosophy which you and I have.

Very truly yours,
Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

P.S. When I get the opportunity, I shall try to hunt up "A Day in the Life of Me" and send it to you.

 

Mount Vernon, Iowa
November 16, 1985

Dear Mr. Jernigan,

1. Thank you for sending the ink print copy of the Braille Monitor.

2. I do hope that within the next week you will be able to locate a photo copy of the article A DAY IN THE LIFE OF ME or that you can at least tell me exactly where I can also get a copy of that article.

3. You mentioned that you might consider publishing a reply from me in the Braille Monitor. What length do you have in mind. Would I be permitted about as many words of reply as you used to comment on me in your speech to the convention in July? Also, do I have any assurance that my reply would be printed in full, without editing?

4. Would you care to comment on the basis for your comments about the way the faculty and the community talks about me here?

Sincerely,
Walter F. Stromer

 

Baltimore, Maryland
December 10, 1985

Dear Dr. Stromer:

If you should care to respond to the things I said in my speech, we would certainly give every consideration to publishing them in the Monitor. If we did publish them, there would be no limit as to how much you could write, and your comments would appear absolutely unedited. They would not be cut; they would not be rearranged; they would not be repunctuated; they would appear precisely and absolutely as you sent them to us, regardless of what you might say or how you may say it. This is not to say that I might not choose to respond. I don't know whether I would or not since I have said about all I think I can on the subject.

The basis for my comments about how faculty and students feel about you is the testimony of former students at Cornell. However, their testimony only corroborates what my own observation and common sense would indicate. As I said in my speech, I am firmly convinced that you are not a phony, that you believe what you say, and that you do great harm by precept and example. Surely the tone of my remarks should tell you that I hold no ill will toward you. I say this despite personal attacks which you have made upon me from time to time in the past. Holding the views that you do, I would expect such attacks and certainly do not blame you for them.

Very truly yours,
Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

 

Mount Vernon, Iowa
December 14, 1985

Dear Mr. Jernigan,

1. Thanks for your letter offering to let me reply in the Braille Monitor. I will do that fairly soon.

2. I still would like to know the source of that article A DAY IN THE LIFE OF ME. I do not have a copy and have no idea where it was published. So I would like to know where it was published and what panel it was a part of.

3. You worry that I am doing so much damage with my views. I did not know I had so much influence. At the moment I can think of only one speech that expressed some views on blindness, that got published, within the last 5 years or so. And I don't recall any articles in which I expressed my general views on the subject. I almost never discuss it with any of my classes, nor with any faculty collegagues, though I suppose you would argue that I am somehow indirectly conveying my attitudes of negativism. So I'm not quite clear on how my views, if they are wrong, can be doing much damage since I am not communicatint publicly very much at all. So I really am surprised that I should be much of a threat to you or to anybody else In my last public speech on blindness, I concluded with a quotation from Otto von Bismarck. Would you consider him a negativist and one who pities himself? Also I have published more than 30 articles in which blindness was not mentioned and in which the editors did not know that I was blind, but accepted the articles simply on their merit. Where does that fit into playing on sympathy for blindness? Well, again, I'm surprised, maybe a little pleased that I should have so much influence, but you will need to prove that to me.

But DO send the source of the article and if possible, a photo copy.

Sincerely,
Walt Stromer

PS: You say I attacked you. When you were being interviewed by Gov. Ray's commission, I did write to the Register, both praising and criticizing you. BUT 9 years earlier in VITAL SPEECHES you attacked me, by name. In that same speech you also quoted somebody else you criticized, but you did not give the name, probably Father Carrol. Why the difference? That was 1969.

 

Baltimore, Maryland
January 2, 1986

Dear Dr. Stromer:

This will reply to your letter of December 14, 1985. If you choose to write an article for the Monitor, it will (as I have told you) be given consideration. If it is published, it will be unedited. If I choose to comment on it, I shall do so.

If you will read my speech carefully and objectively, I believe you will conclude that I was not making an attack upon you. You may not like the way I perceived your attitudes, but that does not mean that I am attacking you. I did not say that you constituted a major threat, either to me or the United States or mankind. Above all, I do not propose to engage in arguments with you about what I said. It speaks for itself and either stands or falls on its merit. If you choose to write an article, it must stand the same test.

As you know, some of your comments concerning me in the past have been personal and bitter. This, too, is irrelevant. Whether you like or dislike me, whether you feel humiliated or flattered at the attention I gave you, or whether you simply feel abused or misunderstood has absolutely nothing to do with what we are discussing. My speech attempts to show certain attitudes about blindness and certain traits of human behavior. It either does or does not do this, and it is either accurate or inaccurate in its conclusions. I bare you no ill will, and I never have.

One more point: You keep asking me to send you a copy of an article which you yourself wrote. I should think that one might feel some embarrassment in having to make such a request. Ordinarily a college professor retains copies of the material he publishes. I hasten to add that it is your own business if you do not do so, but the present instance demonstrates the questionable wisdom of such a practice.

If you should wish to submit material to the Monitor for publication, I shall be happy to review it. In the meantime I think there is little point in our sparring with each other through the mails. Both of us believe what we believe, do what we do, and are what we are. We are not likely to change each other's opinions by thrusts and counter thrusts through the mail.

Sincerely,
Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

 

January 25, 1986

Dear Mr. Jernigan,

I'm still waiting for that footnote.

Walt Stromer
Mount Vernon, Iowa

 

Mount Vernon, Iowa
January 25, 1986

Dear Mr. Jernigan,

Here is my response to your convention speech. You will recall that you agreed that I could reply at any length and that you would print it without editing, but that you might comment on it. Fine.

Dear Editor,

I've always thought it would be neat to have something named after me, such as a comet or a vaccine. It finally happened. At the convention of the N.F.B. last July in Louisville, Mr. Jernigan named a syndrome after me, the Stromer syndrome. He has graciously agreed to let me respond to his comments here in the Braille Monitor.

He based his comment on me largely on some things I said in a panel some years ago. He does not say where or when the panel took place, and I don't remember either, though the things he quotes sound like something I may have said. I have written him four letters asking for the date and place of the panel, but he has not responded to my request. He says I later had this material published. I don't think that is true. To the best of my knowledge I never had a tape or print copy of the panel speech and I'm sure I never submitted it for publication.

In one of his letters Mr. Jernigan says he did not attack me in that speech in Louisville. The text of it shows that he did accuse me of melodramatic self pity, he says I'm not a phony but that my views are false, and that I don't expect my colleagues at Cornell College to take me seriously as an equal but that I just want to be thought of as a witty wonderful blind man. To me that sounds like an attack. Also as you listen to the recording of the speech you notice that he got at least half a dozen laughs out of the audience while commenting on me. Mr. Jernigan is well known as an orator and is skillful at speaking and I think most of those laughs came because of the way he used voice inflection and phrasing. I must say I feel somewhat attacked when somebody gets laughs from an audience at my expense.

I asked Mr. Jernigan how he found out that I am self pitying and that I want pity from others. He says he got it from former students. In 32 years, I have had about 3,000 students in my classes and I have had contact with other thousands. Since Mr. Jernigan does not say who said it, or exactly what they said, I think the legal term for such comments is "hearsay." Last term I asked the students in my speech class to write answers to two questions, without signing their names. I asked did they think I pity myself, and do I invite pity from others. All 18 of them said no to both questions. If Mr. Jernigan has better specific evidence, present it.

Mr. Jernigan got a laugh from the audience by pointing out that I felt only "fairly comfortable" about teaching after 20 years. He should know that each term students rate the faculty and the results are public information. It is a statistical fact that each term half of the faculty is above average and half below average. Sometimes I'm above average and sometimes below. That keeps me, and many of my colleagues from boasting too much about supreme self confidence.

Mr. Jernigan got another laugh from people pointing out that I find Braille slow and tedious. I'm not alone in that. The fact is that the average blind person reads Braille at 105 words per minute. The average college freshman reads print at 250 words per minute, or twice as fast. I'm very thankful for Braille and find it very useful, but it is still slower than print reading for almost everybody.

Finally, why was it necessary for Mr. Jernigan to mention me by name in his speech? He could have made his point about self pity by paraphrasing what I said, and by quoting from other nasty people, without mentioning names. Might we say that is part of the Jernigan syndrome to attack people by name? If I wanted to talk about sarcasm, would it be better to cite examples without names, or should I cite Peg Pinder's attack on the airline bulletin and then call this the Pinder syndrome of sarcasm? I don't think such labels are necessary or desirable, I think it would be better to deal with the issues, to skip the personal name calling, and to get on with the problems of finding jobs and getting equal treatment for all people.

Sincerely,
Walt Stromer

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