by Marc Maurer

Abraham Lincoln wielded and axe, and he also became a lawyer. Although Marc Maurer has never been elected President of the United States, he has followed Lincoln's footsteps with the axe and the lawbook. Living in different centuries, both Lincoln and Maurer had hardships to overcome—and both succeeded when they might have despaired and given up. No, Marc Maurer has never been elected President of the United States—but he has been elected President of the National Federation of the Blind, a position he holds today. And the lives of countless blind people are better as a result. Here is how he tells the story of his development.

Many of the toys I was given as a child were mechanical. Toy cars and trucks often contained mechanisms attached to the wheels that made a noise when the vehicle was pushed across the floor. I wanted to know what was inside, and I took them apart. But this was not all. Alarm clocks, mechanical ice-cream dippers, egg beaters, door knob assemblies, electric motors, our family lawn mower, the vacuum cleaner, and anything else I hadn't been forbidden to touch—I took them all apart.

Then came the question of putting them together again. Those who have taken an alarm clock to pieces know how difficult this can be. The spring shoots out, and the pieces go everywhere. Even if you can find all the parts, it is hard to tell which tiny wheel or spring goes where.

The first time that I dismantled a piece of machinery which was not working and reassembled it so that it functioned properly, I was delighted. I began to examine everything with the idea that I might "fix it."

Although I was then—as I am now—blind, I became the fixer for our family. My father was the principal fixer, but he was a traveling salesman, and he was often away from home. If an electrical cord needed a new plug, if a curtain rod needed hanging, if a hinge on a door had become loosened, if the washers in a faucet needed to be replaced—I was the one to be called upon to put it right.

I even got to work on our second car, a nineteen fifty-four Plymouth. My Dad forbade me to monkey with the internal mechanisms of the new car. He drove that one for work, and he did not want me fiddling with it. He would let me change the tires if they were flat or put the new license plates on. He would even let me look at the engine if I wanted to. I just couldn't do anything to it.

My father had many tools, and he shared them with me and taught me to use them. But he had very little experience with blindness, and he did not know how blind people use power machinery. He gave me an electric drill, and he let me use his disk sander, but he did not encourage me to use the power saws. He thought that using them was beyond the capabilities of a blind boy, and I agreed with him.

In 1969, I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was then serving as President of the National Federation of the Blind. I was a student in Dr. Jernigan's program for training blind adults. In that program there was no prohibition against blind students using power tools.

There were hand tools, of course, but there were the big ones, too—a table saw, a planer, a radial arm saw, a joiner, a wood lathe, a metal lathe, a vertical mill, a drill press, and more. And best of all, I was not prohibited from using them. I was expected to make them function. I was expected to learn how to use the machines and to demonstrate my knowledge by building something. During the time that I was in the program I hoisted an engine out of a car, tore it to pieces, and rebuilt it. One cold winter day we traveled to a wooded area. I took one end of a two-man cross cut saw, and before the day was through we had cut down a tree more than three feet thick. It was exciting and fun.

Although I was a student in Dr. Jernigan's program, I knew that the time was approaching for me to go to college. The fun that I had had manipulating tools made me wonder whether I should study engineering.

Dr. Jernigan encouraged me not to be limited by a single perspective. How mechanical things fit together can be interesting, he told me, but there are other fascinating ideas as well. How do organizations accomplish their goals? How do governments achieve their objectives? What is it that makes people persuasive? What are the characteristics that cause an individual to be a leader? How is opportunity created? What are the driving forces behind social change? How are the decisions reached within society to select one direction over another? Not only did Dr. Jernigan pose these challenging questions, but he also introduced me to a startling new idea.

I, as a blind person, could—if I possessed the ability and the willingness to work—help to decide the answers. If I could learn how social structures worked, and if I could discover how change was created, I might be able to help contribute to the building of a nation.

Before I became a part of the National Federation of the Blind, I believed that I might be able to replace a broken leaf spring or to balance a flywheel. But I never imagined that I would be able to participate in determining broader questions. With the help of my friends in the National Federation of the Blind, I enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. After graduating with honor from Notre Dame, I entered law school. For many centuries the law has been among the honored professions.

In law school I learned that the law, the courts, and the judicial system are not mysterious or unknowable—not beyond the mental capacity of a blind student—not an unattainable goal. The law is a tool to be used to achieve a stable and a civilized society. It changes to meet the demands of that society. In the hands of a skillful artisan the law can be used to bring about the most worthwhile results. And it possesses a great deal of power.

Early in my legal career I learned that a seventy-six year old woman had (four years earlier) been declared criminally insane. Agnes had been placed behind bars in the mental hospital for criminals. When I questioned the doctor about her case, he told me that Agnes was perfectly sane. I asked for permission to interview her in the hospital, and she asked me to represent her in the courts.

Agnes had been good friends with her neighbor Clara—a woman somewhat younger than she. To Agnes' amazement, Clara stole Agnes' husband. There was a fight, and Agnes was hauled off by the police. Clara told the arresting officer that Agnes was having strange hallucinations, and she repeated her testimony in the court. Agnes was adjudged to be insane.

Unless something could be done to change the circumstances, Agnes would live out the remainder of her life in the mental hospital. I prepared a petition of habeas corpus and presented it to the court. The prosecuting attorney refused to consider an adjudication without court proceedings. The matter came on for hearing, and I prepared witnesses to present evidence. The doctor repeated under oath what he had told me in our private conversation. Medical evidence indicated that Agnes was sane.

After the evidence had been presented it was time for argument to the court. Locking a person who is sane in a hospital for the criminally insane is the same as putting that person in jail. Our law states unequivocally that no person may be put permanently in jail unless that person has been convicted of a crime. Even if a conviction has occurred, a judge must decide how long the sentence will be.

Agnes had already been in the hospital for four years and she was facing the real possibility of life behind bars. I asked the court to release this seventy-six year old lady. The judge gave the order that we wanted.

Although I have handled many different kinds of cases in my career, most of the legal practice that I do today involves individuals who are blind, or corporations established to assist the blind. The diversity of experience I have had in the courts has helped to give me perspective and understanding in the things I do today.

As I think about the tools that I have used in my lifetime (both those that are mechanical and those that are not), I am astonished and pleased to note that the learning never stops. In 1993 my son David joined the Cub Scouts. A new pack was being formed at the church we attend. Despite my inexperience (I had never been a Scout), I was asked to serve as an assistant leader. As a part of my responsibility, I participated in the 1994 fall Camporee.

In this event the scouts go out into the woods, set up tents, build fires, cook their meals, and practice outdoor skills: recognizing and following tracks, tying different kinds of knots, building shelters with the materials at hand in the forest, learning to load a backpack, and chopping wood. The wood chopping exercise demands precision. A wooden match stick is placed on the chopping block with its striking end up. The Scout is expected to split the match with a hatchet. Extra points are given (they say) if the match lights as you cut it.

I was the leader, so I was not asked to perform this feat. I was glad not to be expected to perform in public. Even though I have a great respect and a great appreciation for good tools, I had never used a hatchet or an axe.

I thought about why this was so. I remember quite well the story of the tin woodman from the Wizard of Oz. He made a number of mistakes with his axe. One at a time he cut off each of his legs and each of his arms. They had to be replaced with tin. Then he slipped once more and cut his body so that it had to be replaced as well.

I came to understand that using an axe was a dangerous thing to do. Although I would probably not have said so, I thought it was too dangerous and too impractical for a blind person. Consequently, I never tried. All of this is what I thought on that camping trip. How often we create our own limitations and restrict our activities because we don't believe there is any possibility of doing otherwise.

Later in the fall of 1994 I borrowed a hatchet and, working with my son David, chopped out a stump in the yard of one of my neighbors. I have always liked physical work with tools. Perhaps this is because I spend most of my working days in an office, meeting with people and managing documents. The fireplace in my house needs wood to make the evenings pleasant. Each fire requires kindling. I suppose it is possible to buy it, but my son and I have begun making it ourselves. He uses the hatchet he got for Christmas, and I use an axe. Neither one of us is very good at it yet. But we enjoy being with each other; we enjoy the outdoors; and we enjoy the physical exertion. We also feel good about learning a new skill. We hope to become competent at using the tools that helped to clear the forests from our nation to give us the productive farm land that has fed this country for so many years, and we like to have kindling for the fire.

We keep the tin woodman in mind. We don't want to have artificial legs, so we play it safe. But we don't let the worries about safety keep us from using the tools. In the National Federation of the Blind we offer hope and encouragement to blind people who believe that the possibility for having a full life is ended by blindness. We know that blind people can perform most jobs that are done by the sighted. We know that blindness is not the thing that will stop a blind person but that negative attitudes about blindness are. I learned this when I joined the organization in 1969, and I have had this learning reinforced from time to time throughout the years.

In the fall of 1994 with an axe in my hand, I learned it again. I may never spend a significant amount of my time using an axe, but it isn't because I'm blind. I thought that it couldn't be done—that my muscles might do many things, but they would never feel the bite of the axe blade in the wood. Because the Federation taught me to explore what I thought I could not do, and because my son wanted to go camping, I have learned to swing an axe.