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Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Susan Spungin

Tribute to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan
    by Susan J. Spungin, Ed.D.

From the Editor: Dr. Spungin is Vice President of the National Programs Group of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Here are the remarks she delivered at the memorial service:

I would like to begin with a tribute to Dr. Jernigan from Carl Augusto, President of the American Foundation for the Blind, who unfortunately cannot be with us today:

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was a leader's leader and had an unwavering belief in the capabilities of blind people. He was someone I have always respected and grew to admire as I got to know him better over the years. His presentations sometimes made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, made me happy, made me sad, but always stimulated my thinking and rekindled my passion for work on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired.

This past summer, at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind, it was my pleasure and privilege to present Dr. Jernigan with the American Foundation for the Blind's first International Leadership Award. This award was given in recognition of his lifelong commitment to enabling blind people to be all they can be. His leadership in this country and throughout the world is unparalleled. He has inspired blind and visually impaired people to reach for the stars and not allow their blindness to be an obstacle in the way of success.

He was, as I am and know Dr. Maurer is, committed to working to bring the field of blindness together so we all can redouble our efforts in improving the lives of blind and visually impaired people everywhere.

Dr. Jernigan's leadership will be sorely missed, but his legacy will live on.

Now my remarks to my good friend Mary Ellen Jernigan and her family and to President Maurer:

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a giant in the field of blindness, has left us. There are others in the field that may fit that description, but, whether you agreed with Dr. Jernigan or not, his impact on changing the meaning of blindness for the public; the professionals and providers of service; and, most significantly, blind people themselves has made a major impact on the twentieth century.

I was privileged to know Dr. Jernigan for approximately twenty years, first at the professional level and later as a friend. In both relationships I received more than I gave, and I will always consider him a great teacher. A teacher of strategy, of debate, of literature, and of letters—an orator, an advocate, a philosopher, a connoisseur, and a humorist.

This great teacher has always been an enigma for many of us, which perhaps explains the vast differences of opinion on the actions of this man. I dare you to find someone who has known Dr. Jernigan and has no opinion about his words and deeds.

Perhaps the first verse of this sonnet, written by Kenneth Jernigan, best explains this man many of us were privileged to know and love.

To Heisenberg

Perhaps my final breath will gently go

In restful sleep or age or other way,

As uneventful as the close of day

When only soft and quiet breezes blow

To mark the undramatic ebb and flow

Of all that lives and turns again to clay.

But just as like, my life may end in fray.

We dream and speculate but cannot know.

When I first met Dr. Jernigan, it was during a period of time when the demand of consumer involvement and empowerment were becoming more of a reality rather than rhetoric. It was during a period of time when Bill Gallagher, then Executive Director and President of AFB, had the foresight to see the political potential and demand for provider/consumer partnerships in order to save categorical programs for the blind, seen by many in the 1980's, as now, as redundant and too costly for too few of the larger and increasingly more vocal disabled community. Of course, having been in the field as a teacher of blind children since 1965 and with AFB since 1972, I certainly knew of Dr. Jernigan and the NFB movement but, unfortunately, only in the context of the conflict between AFB and NFB on standards and the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind, which in retrospect speaks volumes about the beginning of the consumer empowerment movement for blind people in our country.

However, trying to move past that, Bill Gallagher and Kenneth Jernigan agreed to select a small number of their respective staffs to meet together in order first to agree to disagree on issues but second, and more important, to define those issues AFB and NFB agreed on, and to work together toward their resolution. Due to these two men many meetings were held and later expanded, after a hiatus, with the help of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union, to a committee known as JOE—the Joint Organizational Effort.

Well, I was privileged to be part of those many meetings, which afforded me the opportunity of getting to know Dr. Jernigan in action, so to speak. When I think back to my feelings about working and getting to know Dr. Jernigan, I come up with a laundry list of emotions. The top of the list was fear and terror, followed by curiosity, guilt, anger, frustration, hope, determination, and commitment—a commitment to the participatory rights of all disabled individuals and, I underscore, for respect for the providers of services which the blind must depend on, improve on, and honor.

I have been privileged to be invited to address three of NFB's National Conventions in 1989, 1994, and 1997. The first two on the topic of Braille, and the third on perhaps Dr. Jernigan's greatest challenge for me, numbers and statistics—go figure! And, during those years from 1989 to 1997, I have enjoyed getting to know many of the NFB friends gathered here today. Together we have collected the infamous convention mugs, clicked glasses for the same celebrations, sung the songs, and clapped the rhythms that have hopefully helped toward changing the meaning of blindness for blind people themselves, the professionals who work with them, and the general public.

If we see further than our predecessors, it's because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and what a giant Dr. Jernigan was and always will be. Happily, he has left this world a better place and has left us his writing, which serves as some of the best information about him as a person and about blindness.

The speech which will always stay with me and allow me to remember the importance of the past spent together with Dr. Jernigan, Kenneth or Ken, is his last address delivered at the Annual Banquet in New Orleans on July 4, 1997, and I quote:

"If a minority lives too long in an armed camp atmosphere, that minority becomes poisoned and corroded. We must move beyond minority mentality and victim thinking. This will be difficult— especially in today's society, where hate and suspicion are a rising tide and where members of minorities are encouraged and expected to feel bitterness and alienation and members of the majority are encouraged and expected to feel guilt and preoccupation with the past. Yes, it will be hard to do what I am suggesting, but we must do it. We must be willing to give to others as much as we want others to give to us, and we must do it with good will and civility. We must make the hard choices and take the long view.

"Let me be specific. If a blind person tries to exploit blindness to get an advantage, or tries to use blindness as an excuse for failure or bad behavior, we must stand with the sighted person that the blind person is trying to victimize. This will not be easy; it will not always be politically correct; and it will frequently bring criticism, not only from those blind persons who claim to want equality but are not willing to earn it, but also from some of the sighted as well. But we must do it anyway. If we want equal treatment and true integration, we must act like equals and not hide behind minority status. Yes, blind people are our brothers and sisters, but so are the sighted. Unless we are willing to have it that way, we neither deserve nor truly want what we have always claimed as a birthright.

"That birthright, equal responsibility as well as equal rights, is the very essence of the NFB's philosophy. It is what we set out to get in 1940; it is what we have fought for every step of the way; it is what we are now close to achieving; and it is what we are absolutely determined to have. Equal rights—equal responsibility.

"We are capable of working with the sighted, playing with the sighted, and living with the sighted; and we are capable of doing it on terms of complete equality. Likewise the sighted are capable of doing the same with us—and for the most part I think they want to. What we need is not confrontation but understanding, an understanding that runs both ways. This means an ongoing process of communication and public education."

I believe Dr. Jernigan's words and thoughts should stand as a vision or strategic goal for all of us as we enter the twenty-first century.

Finally, what is it about this man that will always stay with me? Perhaps it was his love of play, with paper airplanes flying and wet-lipped wine glasses singing on absolutely, or so I thought, the most formal occasions. Perhaps it was the absolute joy he had creating wordplays that danced across his tongue to the delight of all onlookers. Perhaps it was his need to account meticulously for and understand every aspect of life from the best wines to construction of elevators and roof gardens. Perhaps it was his love of Braille as the gateway to equality for all blind people. Perhaps it was his lack of concern for person-first language. His complete involvement with life and the effective use of every minute of it, is an accomplishment I continually envy. I will never forget you, Dr. Jernigan, but I have to admit I miss you already.