Dr. Jernigan tends the grill outside the Jernigan home
while Fred Schroeder looks on.]
Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
From the Editor: Dr. Schroeder serves as Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education. He delivered the following remarks at the memorial service.
In 1920 the Smith-Fess Act created the Vocational Rehabilitation program in the United States. It began with a small budget and was initially limited to providing counseling, training, prostheses, and placement services to people with physical disabilities. From the years 1920 to 1943 the rehabilitation program provided little in the way of employment services for the blind. During that period federal policy categorized blind people as having "no rehabilitation potential"; therefore, state rehabilitation agencies were not obliged to assist blind people at all.
In the early days of the rehabilitation program only a small number of blind people benefited from rehabilitation services. In the years 1935 to 1943 only 1,779 blind people (or fewer than 4.5 blind people per state per year) were assisted in finding work by state rehabilitation agencies. The prevalent belief was that the blind could work in only a limited number of occupations, such as broom or basket making, rug weaving, or chair caning. Occasionally a blind person was selected for piano tuning and, in rare instances, assisted in pursuing a professional career in music.
During that period Congress passed two pieces of legislation to assist blind people in securing at least some work. In 1936 the Randolph-Sheppard Act was adopted. It allowed blind people to operate vending stands on federal property. This provided blind people the opportunity to sell items such as cigarettes, packaged foods, and newspapers and periodicals in government buildings. In 1938 the Wagner-O'Day Act made it mandatory for the federal government to purchase specified products made in sheltered workshops for the blind. These two programs constituted most of what was available in the way of employment opportunities for blind people at that time.
That was the condition for blind people when Kenneth Jernigan was growing uplittle hope for much of an education; little hope for employment beyond the sheltered workshop; and virtually no hope for a life of dignity and self-respect. He grew up in a world and at a time when little, if anything, was expected of blind people and when it was assumed that blind people would require the care of their families for all of their lives.
Today opportunities for blind people are much different. Yet can it be said that Dr. Jernigan has been responsible for this change? Indeed the answer is yes. His life and work changed the face of vocational rehabilitation in America. He forever expanded opportunities and hope for an entire class of people, in large part because of his unwillingness to live as others expected.
In 1949 he went to work teaching English at the Tennessee School for the Blind. Whatever the quality that allowed him to challenge society's assumptions about blindness, including the assumptions of the professional rehabilitation system, he shared his belief in blind people with others. He worked to instill in his students a belief in themselves and a belief in their potential. He taught by stimulating their intellect and by demanding excellence. He taught by example and through his incomparable powers of persuasion.
That same year he found the National Federation of the Blind, or perhaps it could be said that the Federation found him. His innate belief in the fundamental equality of blind people was the ideal complement to the philosophy of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and the relatively young organization he had founded.
In 1953 Dr. Jernigan moved to California to work with the newly established Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center. It might be said that this was his first step into the field of rehabilitation, but it was by no means his first step into the work of helping blind people acquire the skills they needed to break free from poverty and isolation. It shortly became clear to Dr. Jernigan and Dr. tenBroek that, if they were to be successful in changing opportunities for blind people and, in particular, employment opportunities, they needed to inject Federation philosophy into the work of an entire state rehabilitation agency. In 1958, at the age of thirty-one, Dr. Jernigan left California to assume the position of director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
In his professional life Dr. Jernigan forever changed the face of vocational rehabilitation in America. He developed a program of rehabilitation for blind people that endures today as the model for effective adjustment training. Yet to view Dr. Jernigan's accomplishments as purely professional is to underestimate the man and his life.
Dr. Jernigan believed in blind people. Of course others have and do, but Dr. Jernigan believed in blind people in a way that was truly unique. He meant it when he said that he believed that blind people are simply normal people with the same range of talents and abilities as others. He meant it when he spoke about the right of blind people to live normal lives as normal people, and he meant it when he spoke of the right of blind people to have opportunities free from discrimination.
He believed in us, and he showed us how we could begin the journey toward first-class status. He taught us the importance of collective action. He taught us that each time we work to open new opportunities, each time we stand together to battle discrimination, we expand opportunities for all blind people while strengthening our own belief in our individual ability to live as normal people. Said another way, he taught us that blind people need to band together in support of a common belief predicated on the right of blind people to live full and productive lives with dignity and self-respect.
I am one of the countless blind people whose lives have been changed by Dr. Jernigan. Sometimes I say that my life has been changed by the National Federation of the Blind, and of course that is true. But the Federation is, in some respects, an abstraction, a philosophy, a set of beliefs; Dr. Jernigan was the manifestation of Federationism. To say the Federation changed my life is to say Dr. Jernigan changed my life, and to say Dr. Jernigan changed my life is to say the Federation changed my life. They are truly the same. Sometimes that change was made more gently than at other times. I remember speaking to him about an idea I had about a change in career direction. After listening patiently, he finally said that it was the most chuckle-headed idea he had ever heard.
While Dr. Jernigan knew that belief in ourselves was the foundation, he also knew that confidence alone could not bring us full equality. He recognized that we, as blind people, must have the skills necessary to function competitively in a competitive and demanding world. To work competitively alongside the sighted, we needed to be able to travel independently, read and write Braille, and care for our daily needs. These skills became the core of the Iowa Orientation Programskills coupled with his unfailing belief in blind people.
Many of you knew Dr. Jernigan during his time in Iowa. There are many things that might be said about the Iowa program and what made it work. But the things that made the Iowa program work are the same things Dr. Jernigan did with each of us. He told us that we were important when we did not feel important. He told us that he needed our help and that other blind people needed our help. At the Iowa Commission he would hold luncheons and receptions for legislators and others, and he would have the students in the orientation program prepare and serve the meal. He made them a part of the success of the program, and, by so doing, he took people who had never before been needed and convinced them that the very future of programs for the blind in Iowa and the nation depended on them.
I can remember visiting Dr. Jernigan in his home, where he would always have something for me to help do. As a blind child growing up, I do not remember being needed much at all, but Dr. Jernigan always seemed to need me, and for that I will always be grateful. But this was not just some kind of psychological trick; it goes to the very heart of Federation philosophy, the understanding that our efforts, when organized around common goals, elevate us individually as well as collectively.
Dr. Jernigan's entire life was one of building. He developed model training programs for the blind. He founded the National Center for the Blind, the finest facility of its type in the world. He established the International Braille and Technology Center, bringing together all known Braille and speech technology from throughout the world. He created NEWSLINEŽ and later JoblineŽ. And he built unprecedented harmony and cooperation in the blindness field.
He led the struggle for civil rightsfrom the-right-to-organize legislation to union organizing of sheltered-workshop workers. He led the battle for educationfrom Braille bills in the individual states to a federal presumption of Braille for blind children. He battled discriminationfrom the court room to the statehouse. He built many things, but his legacy is not simply one of past accomplishments. He left us the foundation and the tools we need to continue the work.
His life was one of building, but not just for the present. His life was one of building according to today's need and with tomorrow's needs clearly in mind, and that long-term perspective he instilled in us is his true legacy. He left us with pride for what we have accomplished, and he left us with the resolve to accomplish still more. He left in place a system of democracya system of self-government rooted in self-determination. And he left us a system for supporting and strengthening today's leaders and a system for finding and developing the next generation of leaders and generations beyond them.
And, above all, he left us with a leader, a man like himself and not like himself, a leader who can and will continue the work Dr. Jernigan began, yet a man who has his own combination of strengths and priorities, perspectives and abilities, a leader, unique unto himself; and yet a man who, like Dr. Jernigan, is committed to and driven by the belief that one day we will fully emerge from isolation and exclusion and stand with the sighted as equals.
As I look at all that we have built and at all that remains to be done, I can think of no one more capable, no one more committed, no one more worthy of our trust and confidence than Marc Maurer. Dr. Maurer has earned our trust as he earned Dr. Jernigan's trust. He is a man of great ability, of great energy, and a man of great integrity and commitment. Perhaps most important, he is a man of great compassion, a man who cares deeply for all blind people and who is willing to give all that he has to continue the work. I am proud to know Dr. Maurer and to call him a friend. I am proud, as I know you are, to look to him as the leader who will take us well into the next century, and I know that Dr. Jernigan is proud of him too.