University of Louisville Honors President Maurer

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From the Editor: The University of Louisville conducted its 1999 commencement ceremonies in Freedom Hall on the afternoon of May 8. The weather was cool and sunny, and observers would have noticed an unusual number of white canes among the thousands of guests who took their seats in the huge facility.

Before the more than two thousand degrees of various kinds were presented to the graduates, honorary degrees were bestowed by UL president John W. Shumaker. The first of these was to Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind. He was introduced by Carol Z. Garrison, University of Louisville Provost, and presented for the honor by Hilda Caton, professor in the Department of Special Education. Here is the text of Dr. Caton's citation which accompanied the diploma, followed by the text of the certificate:

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Marc Maurer, an exemplary American, you have served the blind of the nation as their elected leader, standard bearer, source of inspiration, and advocate for social equality, economic opportunity, and first-class status in the larger society. You have received wide recognition as a scholar, author, orator, educator, and counselor to the blind, their families, friends, and the general public. You have represented your community, your state, and your country with distinction in all levels of public service. Your leadership role in the establishment of NEWSLINE(R), providing a growing number of national and local newspapers to the print-handicapped population through the use of a touch-tone telephone, and your role as legal representative in numerous issues of equality for the blind clearly illustrate the extraordinary ability and commitment which have earned for you the profound respect of your peers. Known as a man of integrity, a man of honor, and an accomplished attorney, you continue to serve the blind of the nation and the world with distinction. Your record as President of the National Federation of the Blind, as well as President of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union, continues to elevate the status of the blind and to increase public awareness and understanding of their role of equality in society. For the truly outstanding skills you have demonstrated, the University of Louisville is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa).

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Certificate

To all to whom these letters shall come, greetings: the Trustees of the University of Louisville on the recommendation of the Graduate Faculty and by virtue of the authority in them vested have conferred upon Marc Maurer the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa with all the rights, privileges, and honors pertaining thereto given at the University of Louisville in the Commonwealth of Kentucky on the eighth day of May in the Year of our Lord the one thousand nine hundred ninety-ninth, of the City of Louisville the two hundred twenty first, of the Commonwealth of Kentucky the two hundred seventh, and of the University of Louisville the two hundred first.

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Following the ceremony and an early dinner, NFB officers and their spouses; representatives from eighteen states; Kentucky Federationists; leaders in the blindness technology field; and dignitaries from city and state government, the Kentucky School for the Blind, the American Printing House for the Blind, and the University of Louisville gathered in a ballroom at the Galt House Hotel for an evening of good food, good music, and celebration. Betty Niceley, President of the NFB of Kentucky, served as mistress of ceremonies, and the acting mayor of Louisville presented Dr. Maurer with a key to the city. Those who spoke made clear their pride in Dr. Maurer and their respect for the NFB and the accomplishments of the organized blind in the state and around the world. It was truly an evening for celebrating the progress made during this century by the members of the National Federation of the Blind. Here are the remarks Dr. Maurer made during this memorable evening:

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Landmarks of the Twentieth Century

by Marc Maurer

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Many people believe that the blind are peculiar. Some think that we are particularly musical, that we have a better sense of smell than the sighted, that our hearing is superior to that of others, and that our sense of touch can feel what the sighted cannot. At the same time we are thought to be essentially immobile, without the capacity for social interaction, supersensitive about our blindness, possessed of a limited capacity to learn, without access to the printed word, and mostly uninformed. With all of these characteristics we are also sometimes regarded as especially blessed. If all of these characteristics were true, it would be astonishing if we the blind were able to accomplish much of anything at all. So what have the blind done? What are the attainments of this particularly visible group?

During the twentieth century there have been two distinct periods of history for the blind. One could speculate that a third period is fast approaching, but that will necessarily be left to the historians of the future. However, the two different times for the blind are the period before 1940 and the time after that pivotal date. Before 1940 there were a number of organizations established to serve the blind, but the blind themselves had not yet come to take a hand in determining their own destiny. The blind were people for whom things were done or to whom things were given. Even though a few blind people had become a part of the structure of the agency system, these few did not represent the blind. Rather they represented either themselves or the agencies by which they had been employed or with which they had become associated.

When the National Federation of the Blind was organized, it was soon evident that, in order to represent the interests of the blind, a person had to be elected by the blind. It was not sufficient to lack eyesight--that is, to be blind. To speak for a particular group, a person must be selected and supported by that group. In 1940 the National Federation of the Blind came into being, and in that year the future of the blind changed forever. This is so because we who are blind decided that we would make the future what we wanted it to be. We recognized the fundamental truth that nobody can win freedom for somebody else. Each person must win his or her own freedom or go without.

Great changes must have leaders to make them come true. Nothing great has ever been accomplished without passion, and at least one notion of what makes people great is that they have the spirit and the dedication to follow a set of principles over a substantial length of time. Dr. Cranmer has already mentioned the leader of the organized blind movement who possessed the wit and courage to persuade others to join with him to form the Federation. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek was the founder of the National Federation of the Blind. He, a brilliant blind professor, led the movement from the time of its beginning until his death in 1968. I never met him, but I met and came to have the closest and most harmonious friendship with the man who was his successor.

That was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who became President of the Federation in 1968. Dr. Jernigan possessed the passion to believe in a future that is better than the present, and he worked to bring that future into being. What did he and Dr. tenBroek have for building materials? In the early years there were only a handful of blind people who (responding to the teaching of Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan) could dream of a bright day when the talents of the blind would be recognized for what they are rather than being interpreted as special, different, and odd. These few blind people were the nucleus of the organization that would eventually spread over the United States and capture the hearts and minds of the blind.

From this small beginning a national organization was created with affiliates in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Fund-raising programs were instituted to permit the operation of this nationwide organization. The largest circulation magazine in the field of work with the blind was founded to report on occurrences dealing with blindness from the point of view of blind people themselves. Philosophical writings were published that changed the expectations of blind people in this nation and in other lands. Practical plans were created to bring programs of rehabilitation and training to the blind that would give maximum emphasis to the talents of blind people. Increasingly blind people were encouraged to become a part of the administration of educational programs for the blind. Educational systems to offer support to the parents of blind children and to encourage better training for blind children themselves were founded.

The National Center for the Blind was put into place, and the remodeling was pursued to make this once faded and deteriorating building in Baltimore into the practical and impressive facility it is today. Cooperative efforts between the blind and agencies to serve them were brought into being. The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind was planned and put into operation. A campaign to increase Braille literacy for blind children and adults was carried forward throughout the nation. The first fifteen of the Kernel Books (those small volumes that contain first-hand accounts of the lives of individual blind people) were edited and distributed to well over three million people. International cooperation between the blind of the United States and blind people from a number of other countries became possible. The NEWSLINE(R) for the Blind network (the system that reads the text of seven major newspapers and dozens of local ones to the blind) was conceived, built, and disseminated to tens of thousands of blind people throughout the country. And there were dozens of other accomplishments. Perhaps the most dramatic alteration in the pattern of our existence is the change in the point of view of the blind themselves. We who are blind began to expect much of ourselves, and we planned to make contributions to the world in which we live.

I came to the Federation myself in 1969, and I heard the inspiring words of these two leaders, but I couldn't quite believe that they meant what they said. They told me that a blind person could do anything that a sighted person could do except see, and I hoped that they were right, but I had my doubts. I even voiced some of them, but I was afraid to press too hard because I thought the beautiful myth might disappear. But Dr. Jernigan wouldn't let me alone. He insisted that I express my doubts and that I examine them in detail.

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I told him that I knew better than to believe what he said because I knew about blindness. "Blind people cannot do everything that sighted people do except see," I said; "the examples are everywhere."

"Show me what you mean," he said.

To which I responded, "Blind people are unable to drive. Furthermore, I have been in a chemistry laboratory, and blind people cannot see the color changes in the test tubes. Consequently," I said, "they cannot be chemists."

"We will take them in order," Dr. Jernigan told me. "With the technology we have today, blind people cannot operate an automobile alone. However, is the operation of a car essential for independence? Take the President of the United States, for example. The President never operates an automobile. Does this signify that the President is not independent? Independent travel means you get where you want to go when you want to get there with minimal inconvenience to yourself and to others. With a little imagination and planning any blind person in the ordinary circumstance can do this.

"Now for the chemistry," he said. "Were you in the chemistry laboratory because you were studying chemistry?" he wanted to know.

"Yes," I admitted.

"Did you pass the course?" he asked me.

"Yes, of course," I responded. "I got good grades in chemistry."

"Did they give you the grades as a gift, or did you earn them?" he asked me.

"I earned the grades," I told him. "During part of the chemistry class I assisted with the teaching of other students."

To which he said, "You have demonstrated the point. It may be important at times in the study of chemistry to use vision (yours or somebody else's), but it is not essential to the acquisition of knowledge that the chemist have sight. Somehow in the chemistry laboratory you learned about the changes of the color in the test tubes. Beyond that," he said, "I can today name for you several people who are working as chemists for the government of the United States, for the Exxon Corporation, and for some less well known chemistry firms." That conversation with Dr. Jernigan was one of the major elements in my training. I had begun to learn a new method of thought.

I studied under Dr. Jernigan's direction for a little more than a year. Then he helped me get the money to go to college. Sometimes I would sit alone in my dormitory room at the University of Notre Dame wondering what Dr. tenBroek did to lift his spirits and give him perspective on the days when he was told constantly (as sometimes happens to a blind person) that he had to be realistic and accept his limitations.

When I became discouraged, I listened to the uplifting addresses of Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan as they had been delivered to past conventions of the National Federation of the Blind. But what was it that inspired Dr. tenBroek? Perhaps today, with the perspective of thirty years of wondering and work, I have an inkling of how he felt and what he did. When I joined the organization thirty years ago, I could not have believed what I now accept as a matter of course.

Can a blind person become a mechanic? Yes, of course; I have done it myself. Can a blind person install a roof on a house? I have done this also. Can a blind person build a piece of furniture? Many of us have done this as well. Can a blind person become a scientist? Or a lawyer? Or a teacher of the blind or the sighted? Or a translator of foreign languages? Or a politician? Now that I begin listing the possibilities, I reflect that it would be easier to list the professions that are not available to the blind than it is to register the ones that are.

What was it that caused so many blind people to become so many different things within the last fifty-nine years--since the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940? It was the inspiration and example of other blind people. Great movements need leaders, but this is only half of the equation. They must also have rank-and-file members who, when they learn of the new ideas and the innovative plans, recognize within them a reflection of reality. No great change can happen within a group or an element of the social structure unless there is something the social order comes to feel is better about the new method of thinking from the one that went before. Within a movement leaders are important, but the members are at least as important. The progress comes not from the one or the other, but from the combination of the two.

And so I thank you for all of the kind words you have said about me today. And I return them to you. To all of you who are mechanics, farmers, teachers, newspaper reporters, lawyers, homemakers, businessmen and women, insurance salesmen and women, automobile sellers, furniture builders, stockbrokers, students, and the rest. You have challenged and inspired me. As I look at the National Federation of the Blind, I recognize the driving force that impelled Dr. tenBroek--it was the great family of the Federation in all of its diversity and enthusiasm. It was the people who pledged their minds and hearts, their time and resources, their hopes and faith in the goodness of what we can build together.

I too am inspired by this same family. It brings joy to my heart and a boost to my spirit. I cannot come to the Federation without knowing that we possess something of a special order. We believe in one another; we have the faith to trust in our brothers and our sisters. We have the knowledge that we will build our own future and that the task of creating the pattern of tomorrow will demand all that is best within us--but that we are equal to the challenge. This mutual caring and commitment is, I am absolutely convinced, the intangible element that makes us the family that we are.

We the blind have come a long way together, and we have found many thousands of sighted friends who glory in our progress and give us their utmost support. I have no doubt that we will complete the task of achieving independence; I have no doubt that working together we will find the strength to make the future our own.

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