October 13, 1998
I was deeply saddened by the news Curtis sent to us. I have known Dr. Jernigan personally and last met him at this year's Convention in Dallas. Though his bad cough worried me a great deal, I was hoping he might have a few more years left. I sent a fax to the NFB today in which I expressed my feelings of sadness and how much Dr. Jernigan has meant to me personally. Instead of copying that fax here [on the NFB's listserv, NFBtalk], let me give you its contents in more detail.
I first came to the States in 1983 as a participant in an international program for people in the social service field. I worked at the Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute for three months and after that at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind for nine months. Being active in our State Federation of the Blind in Germany, I was, of course, curious about similar organizations in the USA. Especially at the Lighthouse I was told about this crazy organization called the NFB, who said that blindness was not a handicap. And the craziest of the whole bunch, so I was told, was their President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who ruled the organization like a dictator.
One day I discovered a program on Chicagoland Radio Information Service (CRIS Radio) calledI thinkPathways; it was the program of the National Federation of the Blind. When they announced that they would broadcast a speech by Dr. Jernigan, I was curious. I think it was "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic." I definitely did not want to miss this, thinking I would have a good time laughing about the ridiculous things I would hear.
I had a wonderful time, but there was nothing to mock at. On the contrary, there was not one thought mentioned which I would have contradicted. As I wrote in my message to the NFB today:
"This man was thinking in the same direction I was thinking, but he did not stop at points where I had begun to take things for granted."
What really got to me in that speech was when he told how he at one time had to put the varnish on furniture. He said he thought this was impossible for a blind person. But then he noticed that there were ways he could do it. This really struck a chord in me. How often have we sold ourselves short, too short? Ilike so many other blind peoplehad often said things like "As blind people, we must accept our limitations!" But I had assumed my limits to be much more narrow than would have been necessary. I decided at that moment that the better way to find limits is to keep pushing them.
Two years later I experienced a very clear example of this. As a ham radio operator I found occasions when it would have been valuable if I could have soldered; however, I had always believed that this was not possible for blind people, at least not with a regular soldering iron. Then I heard about the Smith Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, where blind people could learn how to solder. So I went there, and they showed me how to do it. When I came back to Germany, I told another blind ham radio operator what I had learnt. He replied: "That is not possible!" He was so convinced of our narrow limits that he would rather not believe me than change what he had accepted for himself.
I first met Dr. Jernigan at the NFB convention in Denver in 1989, the first one I ever attended. After that I made it a point to visit him at every convention I attended. And after Larry Campbell told me Dr. Jernigan collects spirits, I tried to find brands for him which he might not yet have.
In 1995 I had the great opportunity to visit his home in Baltimore. I was curious about how I as a blind person could barbecue meat on a real charcoal grill. He showed me and also introduced me to barbecuing corn on the cob. What a great evening I had.
I feel fortunate for having known Dr. Jernigan personally. He certainly is one of the greatest leaders the blindness movement has ever had. Think about how he was despised only two decades ago, and then listen to what some of those same people say about him today.
I have stayed active in the self-help movement of the blind. One of my best sources for information has been the Braille Monitor. I remember the General Assembly of the World Blind Union in 1988 in Madrid. I did not go there, but I was eager to learn more about it. In other magazines I read what a great event it was and things like that. It was Dr. Jernigan's article in the Monitor, which presented a more critical view and which really carried information about the issues being discussed.
One of the strongest points about the Monitor is that one does not only read summary reports, but often documents of importance are enclosed in the articles as well. I have learned a lot through that. This helps me when I have to write letters or prepare statements concerning blindness affairs. Dr. Jernigan has shown us the direction in which we as a minority must travel, no matter where we live; and he has shown us a lot of tactics and strategies we can use and build on.
But he was not only the fighter for our affairs. I would never want to miss the wonderful articles in the Monitor and in the Kernel Books in which we saw the private Kenneth Jernigan. I loved to read about his childhood on the farm in Tennessee; about his love of reading; about his making furniture; and, last but not least, only a few months ago about writing sonnets. I do not know whether Dr. Jernigan had the time to write his memoirs; but if he did, I want to be among the first to read them.
I have just started reading Walking Alone and Marching Together. It was sad to read about the activities of the young Kenneth Jernigan, knowing there was a very high risk that we would not have him for long. It will be even harder to read on, now that he has had to leave us. So what we can do is learn from his life as much as we can. He can be our teacher, even if we cannot meet him in person any more.
Norbert Mueller, Secretary General
European Blind Union