Blindness: The Corner of Time

An Address Delivered By Kenneth Jernigan
President, National Federation of the Blind
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Baltimore, July 9, 1981

The man was old and senile, and he ate without manners or grace. His daughter was ashamed and ordered him to eat in a corner apart from the others. There came a day when he broke his plate, and the daughter was angry. "My son shall not see such disgusting behavior," she said. "Since you eat like a pig, you shall be treated like a pig. In the future you shall eat in the yard from a trough." Her son was five, the thing in life she loved most. He asked for a hammer and boards.

"For what purpose?" she asked.

"To build you a trough," he said, "so that I may feed you when you are old."

So it has been through the generations, each teaching the next and then doubling back on itself for reinforcement—change coming slow and learning difficult. Yet, there come bends in the road, shifts in direction. It is not inevitable that each generation take hammer and boards to build troughs for the next. Among times there is a time that turns a corner, and everything this side of it is new. Times do not go backward.1 For the blind the corner has been turned, and the time is now.

When the National Federation of the Blind came into being in 1940, its means were limited, but its mission was clear. There were already many organizations and groups in the field (residential schools, Braille and talking book libraries, sheltered shops, and governmental and private agencies)—and some of them had blind directors. But their mission was not our mission; their purpose was not our purpose.

The National Federation of the Blind was altogether different. It did not operate service programs or provide training. It served as a monitor for those who did. It was a check and balance, a watchdog. And it was something more: it was a means whereby the blind could come together in local chapters, state assemblies, and national convention to discuss problems and take concerted action. Underlying everything else was a single, overriding article of faith and belief, so compelling as to focus our purpose and cement our unity. It was this: We as blind people have the right (even if we make mistakes) to speak for ourselves; and no other group or individual—no governmental agency, no private service organization, no charitable foundation—has the right to do it for us.

The founders of our movement recognized that our principal problem was not the loss of eyesight—not blindness but what people thought about blindness. In other words, the problem was not physical but social. It manifested itself in the misconceptions and mistaken ideas of the general public, and since the professionals in the agencies were part of the public, it manifested itself in their behavior, as well. The blind, also, were part of the public; and they, too, were affected. They saw themselves as others saw them. They tended to accept the public view of their limitations, and thus did much to make those limitations a reality. The problems envisioned by the founders of our movement are still very much with us. But we have turned a corner of time, and there is a newness.

Last year the California Franchise Tax Board (the arm of government which deals with state income tax filings) rejected the forms of many blind taxpayers. Sharon Gold, our California President, demanded an explanation. She was first told that the form had been changed and that many sighted people had checked the wrong box. The blind of California (as is true in many parts of the country) receive an extra state income tax exemption. Whether this is good or bad, it is the law, and there is a box on the form for appropriate checking. The Tax Board officials said that the boxes had been shifted and that the sighted had not been observant.

As Sharon probed further, the explanations became less and less satisfying. When she told the Board that it did not seem reasonable to reject the tax forms of the blind because of the carelessness of the sighted, the officials explained that they had done nothing of the sort. They had, as they put it, used care and "logic." They had examined the face sheet of each tax form on which blindness was checked and had rejected only those showing an occupation or profession which would obviously be impossible for the blind. In cases of doubt (and presumably these were few) they had applied still further "logic." They had, as a board official put it, checked the signature to see "if it appeared to have been signed by a blind person"—whatever that may mean.

Whether Sharon's form was rejected because she is a teacher (one of the impossible professions) or because she cannot legibly write her name, the board did not say. Whichever it was, it had about the same effect. Although we who are blind do not insist on having our cake and eating it too, we are not willing to go to the other extreme and pay for our cake and then not have it. If we must suffer damage to our image (and many feel that we do) because of the millions of tax forms which proclaim that we need an extra exemption simply because we are blind, that should be enough. We should not have to go further and be illegally denied the right to take the exemption, be charged interest for claiming it, and then have to submit to false and demeaning statements about us in the press into the bargain.

Sharon protested to the Tax Board and the newspapers, and we took the matter to court, where it is still being litigated and is now on appeal. Some will say that we are quibbling; others that we are over reacting; and still others that we are militant and radical. Well, let them! If it is true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is equally true that the beginning of that road is usually paved with what are called quibbly incidents. The big ones come later when the direction is clear, the pattern well established, and the highway broad and irreversible. We have turned the corner of time, and we are simply no longer willing for our road to hell to be paved with other people's good intentions. The days of second-class status are behind us.

The California Tax Board's notion that the signature of a blind person is different from the signature of a sighted person (and presumably less legible) is widely held. Probably most people (including many in this room) would accept it without question, simply as a matter of common sense. Not long ago I stood at a counter in a bank. I signed a document. My sighted associate said to the teller, "Maybe I had better print his name below the signature, so that you can read it. "Then, my associate put her signature on the document. After a moment of embarrassed hesitation, the teller said, "Perhaps you wouldn't mind printing your name, too. I can't read your signature any better than his." My associate has perfect eyesight. if she had been blind, her unreadable signature would have been attributed to blindness. Mine might have been due to haste, lack of attention, poor training, or any of a dozen other things, but it was automatically chalked up to blindness. Moreover, the bank teller probably surrounded the incident with connotations of inferiority, and I doubt that she changed her opinion because of the actions of my associate—or, for that matter, even remarked or remembered them. Blind people cannot write legibly. Sighted people must print their names for them. She has proof.

Under date of May 22, 1980, the Des Moines Register printed an article captioned, "Woman Opens Cut, Bleeds to Death." The article says: "A 59-year-old woman bled to death in her home Wednesday after she accidentally reopened an incision she received while undergoing kidney dialysis. Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. R.C. Wooters said she did not realize how much blood she was losing because she was nearly blind." The human body contains several quarts of blood. Do you really think an individual (sighted or blind) would bleed quart after quart and not know it because of blindness?

Mike Cramer is the President of our Chicago Chapter. On September 2nd, 1980, he went to work for the Chicago Transit Authority as a Customer Assistance Coordinator, handling calls and complaints from the public. On September 4, he received a call from a woman who said she had a complaint. That morning, while she was riding the bus, she had observed a blind man standing up. The driver had not made any of the other passengers get up and give him a seat. Mike listened until she had finished. Then he told her that he was the blind man—that as a company employee he rode to work on a pass and could only sit if all of the paying passengers had seats. This was standard policy and posed no problem for him. The woman was at first surprised, then indignant. She had no intention of giving up her image of blindness or her preconceptions. "All right!" she said. "Then I want to speak to your supervisor."

In January of this year the Christian Science Monitor News Service sent out a release deploring the evils of gambling. The headline was a grabber. Calculated to capture the fancy and stir the imagination, it read: "Now, Braille Slot Machines for Blind Gamblers." The article (complete with facts and statistics) is a rather standard piece, indicating that the nation in general and gamblers in particular are going to hell in a hand basket. Despite the titillating headline, the only mention of blindness comes in the last two sentences, which read: "At one Atlantic City casino, slot machines are coded in Braille for the blind gambler. Is there a dreadful symbolism here for all of us?" Yes, there is a "dreadful symbolism," but it is not in the slot machines. It is in the mistaken notions and false assumptions of the author and his readers.

On May 13, 1980, the National Enquirer carried the headline: "Because Both Mom and Dad are Blind, Five-Year-Old Angel Is Raising Her Baby Brother." The article is a drippy account of a brave and wonderful little girl who gives up normal play and almost all other activities of childhood life to raise baby brother--everything from diapers to feeding. Mommy and daddy are blind. The blind couple (who, incidentally, are members of this organization) were furious. The article, they say, was a total distortion and a misrepresentation. With devastating logic, they ask: "Who the hell do they think raised the five-year-old?"

And where does all of this nonsense come from—this drivel about angel sisters, rejected tax forms, Braille slot machines, blind bus passengers, and the rest? Of course, much of it comes from the primitive past when light meant safety and dark meant danger. Eyesight and light were equated, as were blindness and darkness. Light was pure and good. Darkness was evil and fear.

But there is something more, an added element which skews the picture and poisons the public mind. I speak of the governmental and private rehabilitation and social service agencies, the libraries and schools, the lighthouses, the workshops, the dog guide facilities, and the various other institutions established to give service to the blind. Not all of them, to be sure, are negative and bad. In fact, a growing number are turning the corner of time and working with us in the newness, espousing our cause and marching with us to freedom and progress. They stand by our sides as partners and equals.

Unfortunately such agencies are not in the majority, nor are they the most powerful or wealthy. Contrary to public belief, most of the agencies do us more harm than good. Some are a mixed bag, providing certain helpful services while, at the same time, doing things which hurt us and hold us back. Others (and it may as well be bluntly and directly said) are so bad and so destructive that, regardless of the occasional good they do, the blind would be better off if they were closed down and put out of business.

This is hard for the average person to accept or understand. How can it be? Why? The answer requires perspective. At first the agencies were few and scattered. They saw their role as one of benevolence and charity—taking care of people who could not do for themselves—giving meager subsistence and a ray of sunshine, adding a little cheer.

Then, in the 1930's, the agencies proliferated. They became big business. The casual volunteer and the friendly visitor began to be replaced by a burgeoning army of so-called "professionals"—rehabilitation counselors, social workers, directors of development (a high-toned term for fundraisers), peripatologists, evaluators, and other such. There were also administrators and a hierarchy of supervisors. As the staffs and the budgets mushroomed, so did the feeling of something to protect, the defensiveness about critical the sense of self-importance, and the rationalization of whatever it took to keep the blind in their places so as to justify the elaborate bureaucracy, the ballooning expenditures, and the growing myth of special knowledge and mysterious "professionalism." The second-class status and dependency of the blind were absolutely indispensable to the survival and continued expansion of the system. It is not hard to see why. If the blind need only correct information, a brief period of training in techniques, an initial boost, and a reasonable chance to compete, the agencies (while performing a useful service) cannot be the center of existence. Their role is diminished. On the other hand, if blindness is an unmitigated tragedy (fraught with psychological disturbance and requiring complex and long-term professional care) the agencies necessarily become the dominant element in the life of every person who becomes blind—not for just a day or a month or a year, but forever—from the cradle to the grave.

Seen in this context, the establishment of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940 was a threat of total disaster. If the organization flourished and the contagion spread, if the blind began to act independently and plan their own lives, if they convinced the public and themselves that they could function as equals and compete with others, the custodial agencies would be held in check and viewed without mystery or awe. Their role would be important, but not godlike. Their power would be limited, not infinite.

Real life is not like a textbook, and most events are not clear-cut or immediate. At first the Federation was small and ignored. Most of the agencies tried to deny its difference, pretending that it was simply another of themselves, one among many. In some parts of the country our chapters were weak and our purpose blurred. Sometimes the agencies took control of an affiliate, bought off the leaders or bribed or threatened. There were partnerships, alliances, joint efforts, confrontations, maneuverings, and realignments.

But the direction was certain and the trend unmistakable. The blind kept joining—first by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands. In the beginning we were weak and divided. Then came accelerating power and unity. Ultimately we were fifty thousand members—clear in our mission, sure in our purpose, and firm in our unity: the strongest force in the affairs of the blind.

Likewise, there was change in the agencies. They began as a scattering, local in purpose and differing in view. They constituted no national force. Then, the most reactionary of them (led by the American Foundation for the Blind and its creature the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped, NAC) sought to join forces and pool effort. Hard though it is to comprehend or believe, their purpose (which became a veritable obsession and a principal endeavor) was to make war upon the blind, the very people they were pledged to serve. Not all of the blind—not the meek or the passive or the ones they could control: these were needed for show and fundraising. Only the trouble makers—the independents—the members of the National Federation of the Blind. Above everything else, they wanted to destroy the National Federation of the Blind and its leaders.

Through the years the agencies have become wealthy—tremendously wealthy. Our best information indicates that the top fifteen or twenty of them have combined resources of more than half a billion dollars. There are several hundred of them in the country, and (despite the efforts of NAC and the American Foundation for the Blind), they are not a monolithic force with a single purpose. They are diverse and varied in goals, attitudes, effectiveness, and behavior.

This brings us to the present, to 1981. As I have already said, a growing number of the agencies have turned the corner of time and are sensitively working with us to achieve better lives. They are partners and allies. Some of the others are not vicious but only shackled by old ideas.

Consider, for instance, the Christian Record Braille Foundation. Many of its projects are worthwhile, and (so far as I know) its motives are good. Yet, recently it produced a brochure which (though it may be well-intentioned and excellent for fundraising) hurts our image and slows our progress. Entitled "At Ease With A Blind Person," the brochure says:

IN TAKING LEAVE: End your conversation in such a manner that the blind person knows you are leaving. Ask if he needs assistance to get to his destination, and take him there if possible. ... IN GETTING INTO A CAR: "Susan we're taking you for a drive into the country. This is the back seat of the car, and you'll be sitting behind the driver."

As you approach the car, tell her whether she will be sitting in the front or back, or give a choice. When you reach the car, open the door, place her hand on top of it, allowing her to sit down by her own efforts. Make sure she is comfortable, with everything she needs in reach. Make sure your blind passenger is sitting far enough away from the door so that when you close it, it will not bump her in any way ...

IN PARTICIPATING IN CHURCH OR COMMUNITY PROJECT'S: Give the blind person some project that will help him feel important such as being a member of the program committee, or phoning members to alert them to the next meeting.

The problem with the brochure is not meanness but condescension. The blind person is treated like a child or a pet, not an equal human being. The blind are perceived as passive, with things being done to them or for them-not active or participating—not giving, but only taking.

Then, there is the newsletter put out last year by the St. Louis Society for the Blind. (2) Again, it is not meant to be harmful at destructive. Quite the contrary. But it does us real damage and lessens our opportunities. It says:

The Spring of the year can be extremely depressing and threatening to those who cannot see.

This is so because the weather is breaking, travel conditions are improving, and the people who can see, who have been 'locked in' for the winter with those who cannot see, are now getting out and moving about independently. This Springtime freedom for them leaves you alone once again. Now you must fend for yourself. It's no wonder that depression can set in when the Spring of the year can be seen in this light.

The important thing to bear in mind is that you can and will make it through this depression. There are those of us out there who want to see you enjoying the freedom, the warmth and the loveliness of Springtime in a way that is meaningful to you.

If you feel a little 'down' or 'blue' please don't hesitate to call me so that we can talk over your feelings. Remember, I'm here if you need me.

What a distortion! What condescension and misapplied charity! It is enough to make you ill—but it is not vicious or said with malice. It is meant to be helpful and constructive, but it blights our chances and limits our opportunities just as much as if it sprang from evil motives.

So much for those agencies which have turned the corner of time and work with us, and for those which mean well but are misinformed. What about the others? What about the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) and its principal allies? They are not misinformed or confused, and they are not motivated by good intentions. They know exactly what they are doing. They have deliberately and cold bloodedly set out to ruin our movement and destroy the reputations and careers of our leaders—and if they can get the job done, they will do it.

I know something about this firsthand, for as far back as 1975 a blind lawyer told me (in the presence of a witness) that he had been called to New York and offered money by leading agency officials to embark on a campaign to destroy my reputation and ruin my career. He repeated the story to Jim Gashel, our Director of Governmental Affairs. Jim tells me that a sighted lawyer told him that he had received the same offer. These things are a matter of public record in testimony before a committee of Congress.

There is more! As Federationists know, I was director of Iowa's agency for the blind for twenty years, establishing programs which brought a special citation from President Lyndon Johnson, appointments to national committees from President Ford, and a host of other awards and recognitions: Advisor on matters affecting blindness to the Federal Commissioner of Rehabilitation, Special Consultant to the Chairman of the White House Conference on the Handicapped, Consultant on Blindness to the Smithsonian, recipient of an award from the American Library Association for building and directing the biggest and best library for the blind in the nation, honorary doctorates from Drake and Seton Hall Universities, and a variety of others.

Yet, in 1978 and '79 I found myself under such vicious and unreasonable attack as to boggle the mind. The Des Moines Register, which had always been uniformly supportive, suddenly started a massive campaign of personal vilification, innuendo, and downright falsehood, which continued day after day. There were literally hundreds of articles. The National Federation of the Blind as an organization and I as an individual were put under investigation by the Federal District Attorney. Every record and paper was subpoenaed and studied, probably at hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost to the taxpayers. There were no charges from the Federal Attorney—only hints and silence, followed by scurrilous articles of innuendo and suggestion in the newspaper. Yet, the Federal Attorney did not give back our papers or admit that she had acted on false information. She simply waited. All of this started in the spring of 1978. By the fall of 1980 it had long since been clear that there was nothing to investigate, no basis for charges, and no possibility of further delay without extreme embarrassment to the federal officials. The Federal Attorney quietly wrote a letter saying that she was closing her file and returning all of our papers—no accusation, no attempt to indict, no slightest suggestion of any wrongdoing or inappropriate action. Also, of course, no expression of regret for any damage to reputation or career. Did the Moines Register report it all and apologize for its defamation? Not on your life! it did not make a peep.

And why do I bring all of this up? We know that NAC was in contact with the Des Moines newspaper. We know that NAC (using publicly contributed funds) reprinted the articles and circulated them by the thousands throughout the country. We know that Dr. Bleecker, the Executive Director of NAC, was in touch with the newspaper when he went to the Federal Department of Labor in his unsuccessful attempt to destroy our program of Job Opportunities for the Blind. We know that Dick Johnstone, the President of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, publicly boasted that the NAC forces had participated in the Iowa campaign to try to destroy me and the Federation—only regretting, as he said, that they had "let the matter die on the vine." Did NAC and its allies attempt to incite the Federal Attorney with false information? We are not currently prepared to surmise, but under the Freedom of Information Act we have requested all relevant documents from the files of the FBI and other appropriate federal departments. The emerging pattern is not pleasant.

If I were the only Federation leader to receive such treatment, I might chalk it up to fluke or coincidence, but I am not. Don Capps, our First Vice President, is a respected citizen in his community. He is a high official at the Colonial Life Insurance Company, a past President of Rotary, a prominent member of his church, and a civic leader of statewide note and importance. Yet, he was subjected to the humiliation of publicly being called a "paranoid son of a bitch" by the director of the agency for the blind in his state. When a reporter asked the director if he had said it, there was no retraction or apology, only the comment that he believed that he had not called him a "paranoid son of a bitch" but a "paranoid bastard." The director in question had concerted his efforts with the NAC supporters in a variety of battles against our movement.

Our Second Vice President, Rami Rabby, is a man of culture and learning. He holds a graduate degree with honors from Oxford University. Because he dared express himself at a public meeting, the director of the American Foundation for the Blind and the head of NAC wrote letters to the Citibank of New York (where he was employed) and tried to jeopardize his job.

There is more! Last year there was a break-in at my home. Silver and other valuables were thrown on the floor and not taken. Papers had obviously been rifled. Mrs. Anderson, my assistant, visited her parents in Des Moines last year. That very day there was a break-in at their home—little taken, papers rifled, same pattern. Ralph Sanders, our Immediate Past President, has had at least three break-ins during the past year—a suitcase taken on one occasion and nothing on the others—papers rifled, same pattern. Duane Gerstenberger, our Director of Job Opportunities for the Blind, and Ramona Walhof, the Assistant Director, have both had break-ins during the past few months—papers rifled, same pattern. John Cheadle, while doing a tour of duty in the National Office, and Marc Maurer (another of our leaders) have both had the same experience. Our Denver office was recently rifled--nothing apparently taken. Harold Snider, who has repeatedly gone to NAC meetings as our observer, has had two break-ins during the past few months. Cassettes of NAC meetings and similar items were taken. Our Headquarters building in Baltimore has been broken into, and a bottle of gasoline containing a wick was found by our boiler room door. During the past year both Harold Snider and Rami Rabby have had acid thrown at them on the streets. Recently Rami received in his mail box a cardboard with his initials formed in Braille dots made of eight live riffle bullets.

Is all of this coincidence? Perhaps—but I don't think so. Does that mean that I am accusing NAC or its allies of the illegal break-ins and the hooliganism? Not at all. But I do say that the climate of hate and bitterness which they have created can inspire such actions, and I also say that the rate of attack and harassment upon Federation leaders far exceeds any reasonable possibility of happenstance.

While we are exploring these matters, another question presents itself. Why would certain agency officials hate the Federation and wish to destroy us? The answer is not difficult. In Cleveland we helped blind food service operators bring a lawsuit for a million dollars against the Cleveland Society for the Blind and its director for illegally withholding money from the blind operators and for other acts of repression. In Minnesota we brought a suit against the Minneapolis Society for the Blind for illegally excluding blind persons from membership and participation. I personally testified in that case. We also exposed and publicized the fact that Dick Johnstone, the so-called volunteer head of the Society (and the Chairman of its Building Committee) was the owner of a company which received a lucrative plumbing contract for remodeling the Society's building. In Alabama the former head of rehabilitation recently went to the federal penitentiary for extorting public money and automobiles from those receiving grants from his agency. We helped expose him. A workshop official in Alabama was also convicted of theft. We helped in that one, too. The Alabama institute for the Deaf and Blind (a NAC-accredited agency) had a psychologist, one Tandy Culpepper, who double dipped in his travel expenses early this year and was about to be permitted quietly to resign. We sniffed the matter out and brought it to the newspapers. He is now likely on the road to prosecution and conviction.

In February of this year our magazine, the Braille Monitor, exposed irregularities in the audit of the Utah State Agency for the Blind. A janitor at the Agency, accompanied by one of the top officials, came to our Salt Lake City President (who is employed in the agency workshop) and publicly cursed and abused him. Later that day the janitor attacked and physically beat him. This was in February. We immediately sent representatives to protest to the Governor, and we took the matter to the press. Neither the janitor nor the official was fired. In March our Salt Lake President (Premo Foianini, who is in this room tonight) was struck in the back by the janitor with a broom handle with such force that the handle was broken. He was compelled to be off work and take treatments for contusions of the spine. The janitor was brought to court by the Salt Lake City Attorney and convicted of criminal assault. So far as I know, he has not been fired but is still employed by the Utah Agency for the Blind.

We encouraged the investigative reporting which led to the Wall Street Journal articles exposing abuses of blind employees in sheltered workshops, and we played the same part in the program carried by Sixty Minutes. In May of last year at the meeting of workshops for the blind held in San Diego, Joseph Larkin (one of the powers in the workshop establishment and a principal leader of NAC) laid it on the line, whistling to keep up his courage and belligerently expressing his fear and desperation. Much can be read between the lines of what he said.

"Can our values ever really flourish," he asked, "in an arena where we continue to fight with rear guard actions? ... the NFB could become the most powerful force.

"What can we do to move toward a reassessment and reassertion of our traditional position? The first step is to acknowledge that we do not have the same ability to influence or control events that we once had. There is a new set of circumstances; and friends, foes, and neutrals are all more powerful than they used to be.

"But that does not mean that we must remain deprived of a fully effective intelligence mechanism or the will to move aggressively when the need arises or that the NFB must be allowed to become a dominant power ...

"We and our allies still make up the mightiest assembly of technological, professional, and economic resources in the delivery of human services within our field. The idea that we cannot afford a given amount of defense to meet NFB activity is simply hokum."

So spoke Joseph Larkin. This is the much vaunted "professionalism" of the NAC agencies, the dedication to service, the accountability for the use of publicly contributed funds, and the concern for the dignity and rights of the blind.

Yes, I think I know why NAC and certain agencies in the field hate the Federation and try to discredit its leaders. Yet, some people tell me that they don't see why we can't all get together. After all, they say, you are all dealing with blindness, and you are all working for the same thing. To which I emphatically answer: No, we are not!

Whenever our representatives go to a state legislature or appear in the halls of Congress, they can almost invariably expect to be met by agency-inspired attempts at character assassination and wholesale distribution of the outdated and discredited articles from the Des Moines Register. Apparently, this is the only way the agency officials know to try to divert attention from their shortcomings and hide their failures. It has happened here in Maryland. (Ask the Governor and the members of the Legislature. They can tell you.) We must expect it to happen every time we speak out—and not just here but everywhere in the country. But it is beginning to wear thin. It is having a reverse effect.

Where do we go from here? In the climate of block grants, budget cuts, and pleas from the agencies that (strictly in our own self-interest, of course) we unconditionally support them, we must avoid ill considered actions, hasty judgments, and unwise commitments. The agencies know our power, so (in their time of need) they are urging us to make an alliance with them and present a common front. Regarding this matter, our course is clear. When the interests of the blind coincide with the interests of the agencies, we should support them. Otherwise, we should not.

Some of the agencies have tried to bring us into line by scare tactics and false information. For instance, when the present Administration took office, the story circulated that the mailing of free reading matter for the blind was about to be lost and that, therefore, we were going to lose our library service. A lot of blind people were stampeded into writing letters supporting the agencies. It is now clear that no such thing was ever contemplated, either by President Reagan or anybody else in a position to count. On the other hand, there are budget cuts and administrative changes which can cause harm and do damage.

We must avoid simplistic solutions. We do not want (and I doubt that the Administration wants) to eliminate needed services to the blind or any meaningful program; but more money for an agency does not necessarily mean more help or a better life for those who are supposed to be served by that agency. Witness Alabama, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Utah, and NAC. We should seek sufficient funding for services to the blind, but we should also take advantage of the present opportunity to reform, improve, and restructure the agencies. With a revamped and diminished bureaucracy (one with enough personnel to carry out legitimate duties but not enough to conduct wars against the blind) we might actually get more and better programs with less expenditure.

Most important of all, we must see our present situation in perspective. We have come a long way since 1940. We are now united and powerful, but we are also mature enough to use our power selectively and responsibly.

When dealing with the public, we can show muscle when necessary. Last year, for instance, when a blind mother in Washington was told that she must give up her children because she was blind, and this year in Florida when the same thing occurred, we had the resources and the know-how to put a stop to it. We went to the courts. Both mothers now have their children and can raise them in peace.

But more and more frequently we do not need to use muscle. Persuasion and discussion are sufficient. The public has great goodwill toward us, and as they learn of our capacity and normality, they are not only willing but glad to accept us as partners and equals. Of course, some are not. But most are—and the number is growing daily.

As to the agencies, many of them have already turned the corner of time and are with us in the newness. They believe as strongly as we that their proper role is partner, not custodian. They are friends and allies.

With respect to those other agencies, the ones who still try to custodialize and control us, their time is fast running out. They will either learn to respect us and treat us as equal human beings, or they will go out of business. It is that simple, that definite, and that final. If they cannot turn the corner of time and share the newness, they will cease to exist.

I want to address my final words to the active members of this organization—to the blind, and to our sighted brothers and sisters who have made our cause their cause. I also want to speak to those of you who are new to our movement, perhaps with us for the first time. To all of you I say this: We are not helpless, and we are not children. We know our problems, and we know how to solve those problems. The challenge we face is clear, and the means of meeting that challenge are equally clear. If we fail in courage or nerve or dedication, we have only ourselves to blame.

But, of course, we will not fail. The stakes are too high and the need too great to permit it. To paraphrase the Biblical statement: Upon the rock of Federationism we have built our movement, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! For the first time in history we can play a decisive role in determining our own destiny. If there was ever a time for dedication and commitment, that time is now. What we in the Federation do during the next decade may well determine the fate of the blind for a century to come. To win through to success will require all that we have in the way of purpose, dedication, loyalty, good sense, and guts. It will also require love and an absence of bitterness. We have turned the corner of time, and we live in a newness. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours! Come! join me on the barricades and we will make it all come true.


1. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1944), page 62.

2. Highlights (St. Louis Society for the Blind, February, March, April, 1980), page 7.

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