by Kenneth Jernigan
Everybody knows that change is probably the only constant in life, but I think we dont fully understand what that means until after were fifty. At least, that is how it has been with me.
As readers of the Kernel Books know, I grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee in the 1920s and 30s, and it seems to me that almost nothing today is the way it was then. Since I have been blind all of my life, I am not talking about how things look but how they smell, taste, sound, and feel.
Start with smell. The world smells different today from what it did then. Nowadays I spend much of my time indoors, breathing conditioned air, whether heated or cooled. But that wasnt the way it was when I was a boy.
Since we didnt have electricity, we couldnt have had air conditioning even if we had been able to afford it. So in the summer the windows were open, and usually so were the doors. The air was rich with odorsthe smell of growing things, of the barnyard, of the dust and gasoline from an occasional passing car, and of creeks. These were the smells of summer, but there were also the smells of winter wood burning in the fireplace, the smell of the unheated portions of the house, and the smell of the country in winter.
And it was not just the odors of that time but also the soundsthe mixture of stillness, bird songs, distant cattle, and the aliveness of the land. Today, whether indoors or out, one thing is always presentthe sound of motors. There are automobiles, office machines, fluorescent lights, power tools, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, air conditioners, and heating units. When I was a boy on the farm, I might go a whole week without hearing a motorbut not today. In the world of the 90s, there is never a minute without a motor. Sometimes it is an avalanche of noise, and sometimes only a vibration in the backgroundbut it is always therealways a motor.
And I mustnt omit taste and touch. At first thought, it might seem that there would be no difference between then and now, but there is. It isnt necessarily that I cant touch most of the things today that I touched in the 1930s. It is just that I dont. And as to taste, it may simply be my imagination or my aging taste buds, but it certainly doesnt seem that way. Food is prepared differently, and the ingredients take a different path from origin to table.
But what does all of that have to do with blindness? After all, that is what this book is about. Certainly blindness and blind people are not treated today the way they were sixty years ago. The blind of that generation had almost no chance to get a job, and very little chance to get an education.
In my case, I was allowed to go to college, but I wasnt permitted to take the course of study I wanted. I attended elementary and high school at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville, graduating in 1945. One day in the spring of my senior year, a state rehabilitation counselor came to the School to talk to me about what I wanted to do and be.
I remember it well. We sat in what was called the parlora room, incidentally, which deserved the name. The School was housed in an old southern mansion, and the front parlor, which was used as a general reception area for visitors, was the very essence of elegance.
The counselor and I sat on the elaborately carved sofa, and he asked me to tell him two or three areas of study that I might like to pursue when I went to college. I told him that I didnt need to pick two or three, that I wanted to be a lawyer. He didnt make a direct response but wandered off into a conversation about the weather and the world.
Then he circled back and asked me again to pick two or three areas. My answer was the same. I told him that I wanted to be a lawyer. He said that he wouldnt say that a blind person couldnt be a lawyer but that he thought it wasnt realistic. I would not be able to see the faces of the jury, he said, and I would not be able to do the paperwork and the travelling. I argued, but I was only a teen-agerand I didnt have any money.
Ultimately he told me (with big words and gently, but with absolute finality) that I could either go to college and study law and pay for it myself, or I could go and prepare to be something else and be assisted by the state. Since I was a teen-ager and didnt have any money, I went and prepared to be something else.
Of course, I now know that he was wrong. I am personally acquainted with at least a hundred successfully practicing blind lawyers, and most of them are not noticeably more competent than I am. But I would not want to create the wrong impression. This man was not trying to do me harm. Quite the contrary. He truly believed that what he was doing was in my best interest. He was trying to help me. He was acting in the spirit of the times and doing the best that he knew.
Today it wouldnt happen that way, for although there are still roadblocks and failures to understand, any blind person who is otherwise qualified can go to law school. And there are other opportunities, a whole range of options and possibilities for the blind that simply didnt exist in the 1930s.
Many things have made the difference, but principal among them is the National Federation of the Blind. Established in 1940 by a handful of blind men and women from seven states, the Federation has conducted a never-ending campaign to educate the public and stimulate the blind. I joined the organization in 1949, and it changed my life.
Today the Federation is the strongest and most constructive force in the affairs of the blind of this country, but its work is by no means finished. The job that still has to be done is not so much a matter of legislation or government assistance as of handling the interactions of daily life. We have come a long way in public acceptance, but sometimes the attitudes of sixty years ago are still with us.
Let me illustrate by what at first may seem to be trivial examples. Over fifty years ago, when I was a boy on the farm in Tennessee, I often found time heavy on my hands during the summer months when I was not in school. To relieve the tedium, I would sometimes ride with a truck driver, who collected milk from local farmers to take to a nearby cheese factory.
The days were hot, and when we could afford it,
we sometimes bought a bottle of Coca Cola. (Incidentally, it cost five cents.) I
didnt have much money, but now and again I had a little, and I wanted to pay my
share. One day I said to the driver (a young fellow about twenty), "Ill buy a
coke for each of us."
"Okay," he said, "stay here. Ill go in and get it."
"No," I said. "Ill go with you."
He was obviously uncomfortable and didnt want me to do it. Finally he said, "I cant do that. How would it look if people saw a blind person buying me a coke?"
I was a teen-ager, not yet accustomed to the ways of diplomacy. So I told him in blunt terms that I would either buy the Coca Cola publicly or I wouldnt buy it at all. After greed and pride had fought their battle, he decided not to have it, and we drove onafter which I was not welcome in the truck.
But that was more than fifty years ago. It couldnt happen today. Or could it? Well, let me tell you about an incident that occurred less than six months ago. My wife and I were entering a restaurantan upscale, classy place with plenty of glitter and lots of manners.
It so fell out that another couple and we reached the door almost simultaneously. I happened to be positioned so that it was natural for me to open the door and hold it while the other couple entered, but the man was obviously ill at ease. He insisted that he hold the door and that my wife and I go first. Since I already had my hand on the door and was holding it open and since I was not in the mood to be treated like a child or an inferior, I dug in my mental heals and stayed put. It was all done on both sides with great politeness and courtly manners, but it was done. As I continued to hold the door, the other couple preceded us into the restaurant. But the man was obviously uncomfortable, showing by his comments and demeanor that he felt it was inappropriate for a blind person to hold a door for him and behave like an equal.
Trivial? Not related to the daily lives and economic problems of the blind? Not a factor in determining whether blind people can hold jobs or make money? Dont you believe it! These incidents (the one fifty years ago and the one this year) typify and symbolize everything that we are working to achieve.
But again I must emphasize that we are not talking about people who are trying to cause us harm. We are talking about people who, almost without exception, wish us well and want to be of help. Our job is not one of force but of giving people facts.
And key to it all is the National Federation of the Blindblind persons coming together in local, state, and national meetings to encourage each other and to inform the public. Sometimes we are tempted to believe that our progress is slow, but in reality it has been amazingly rapid. We have made more advances during the past sixty years than in all previously recorded history. And there are better days ahead.
It is true that the smells, sounds, touch, and taste of today are not what they were sixty years agobut it is equally true that despite occasional nostalgia, we wouldnt want them to be. We wouldnt because today is betterand not just in physical things but also in the patterns of opportunity and possibility. I say this despite all of the problems that face our country and our society. We who are blind look to the future with hope, and those who are sighted are helping us make that hope a reality.