Future Reflections Convention 1990, Vol. 9 No. 4

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Editor's Note: A panel presentation entitled: "The National Federation of the Blind: Five Decades of Progress," took place on Wednesday morning, July 4 of the 1990 convention. Moderated by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a panel often persons (two for each decade) shared their personal recollections of the decade in which they joined the Federation. Dr. Jernigan began the panel with taped excerpts from significant moments in the history of the Federation. This very personal and moving account of the emerging freedom and independence of the blind had everyone in the audience glued to his or her seat. It was both humbling and inspiring to hear of the obstacles encountered and overcome by Federationists throughout the past five decades. In 1940 freedom was a distant dream that only the boldest of the blind dared to strive for. Today, because of the National Federation of the Blind, it is a reality within the grasp of many. Below is the transcription of three of the presentations; Joe DeBeer representing the forties, and Michael Baillif (blind student) and Ruby Ryles (sighted parent of blind child) representing the eighties. The complete panel plus narration by Dr. Jernigan is printed in the October/November 1990 Braille Monitor. The tape that was played as part of the program is available for $2.00. Both the tape and the Braille Monitor issue (which is free) can be ordered through: National Federation of the Blind Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. For the Braille Monitor issue, please designate the format you desire: Braille, print, disc, or cassette tape.

Dr. Jernigan: Now we move to the next representative from the forties. Joe DeBeer was not present at the 1940 convention. Mrs. DeBeer was. Joe was unable to attend, but very shortly he was not only present at the convention but an officer in this organization. Many things happened in those early days. Before introducing Joe DeBeer to you, I want to give you some flavor of it. I have, as you will gather, dug through the files. I cannot speak from personal knowledge about the early forties. I joined this organization in 1949 and attended my first National Convention in 1952. However, I have, as I say, dug into the files.

During 1990 we've worked with the National Library Service and others, attempting to institute a system insuring that teachers of blind children will know how to read and write Braille and requiring proof that teachers really possess that skill. I didn't sit through all of the Resolutions Committee meeting, so I don't know whether we have a resolution on Braille competence or not; but, if we don't, we might have done one--oh, something like this:

WHEREAS, many teachers have been given positions teaching the blind without a knowledge of Braille: Now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED, by the National Federation of the Blind in annual convention assembled that we strongly recommend that no person be appointed in any school to teach the blind who has not successfully passed a rigid examination in the arts of writing and reading Braille Grade II and that this provision be made a statute in the several states.

We might write such a resolution, or perhaps we could just dig out the one that was passed in Baltimore in 1948, which is what I just read you. So the problem and the commitment have been with us for a long time.

In 1941 the files tell me that there were 104 persons present at the convention in Milwaukee. I believe that was Joe DeBeer's first convention. The files tell me that our best estimates as an organization were that in the entire United States only 5,000 blind people were actually employed in any way-- sheltered, whatever--that's all there were.

With that as a background, Joe DeBeer is from Minnesota. I want to introduce him to you now to talk about the Federation as he saw it in the early days. One of the early pioneers, here is Joe DeBeer of Minnesota.

Joe DeBeer

Dr. Jernigan, President Maurer, members of the Board, and Federationists: I would like to mention a few things about the changes that took place in the first ten years of the National Federation of the Blind. In 1939 we had a new governor in the state of Minnesota. He recommended that the blind get $21 a month for board and room. We went in to the governor and told him that was a cut in what we were receiving, and no person could live on it. He said, "I have no time for working with a bunch of blind people." So he told us to get out of the office. His secretary told him that was no way to do. So three days afterwards, we were there picketing the capitol for three days. We had papers printed saying exactly what the blind were receiving and what the governor recommended. In a few days someone told him that he'd better call in the blind because we had called the Associated Press, United Press, and all the radio stations we could get hold of. So he called and said, "Tell Mr. DeBeer we are ready for the committee." In the meantime, I had talked to the League of Women Voters. So we came with one hundred ladies of the League, twenty from organized labor, and seventy-five blind. They said, "How many are on your committee?" I said three hundred, so they had to open the sliding doors. It took a little longer to get the meeting started. The result was that, instead of getting a cut often dollars, we got a raise of twelve dollars.

In the beginning we worked very hard to get a White Cane Law passed. When companies were working on the sewer system, they never had barricades on the sidewalks. Several injuries resulted. It was the National Federation of the Blind that saw to it that they were compensated for their injuries. After that all the companies put up barricades when they were working on sidewalks because there was a great deal of publicity about it.

In the beginning it was very difficult to get an apartment because the sighted public had an idea that blind people were a fire hazard. So in big cities they would buy a hotel (an old, unfireproof building) that would house the blind. To the surprise of the public, no fires resulted, and in a short time you never heard any more that blind people are more of a fire hazard than the sighted public.

There was very little reading material available. Everything was Grade One or Grade One-and-a half. Grade Two Braille was entirely too complicated for blind people to learn. The blind did not agree. So in the late 1940s some Federationists and other people wrote in that they wanted more Grade Two Braille inserted in the magazine. It was the Matilda Ziegler Magazine, I believe, that was the first magazine in Braille; and I have been a subscriber to it for over sixty years. Today, everything is in Grade Two Braille.

Then came the first recorder. It recorded on a spool of wire a little thicker than a human hair; and, when that got tangled, it really was a big mess. I had a spool of wire one time that got tangled, and it took me two hours to straighten it out. The wire recorder didn't stay on the market too long. Then we got the first tape recorder. It played automatically. It had a little crank with it that you could insert in the cassette so you could rewind it by hand. Shortly after that a fully automatic recorder came on the market--a great improvement. Now, of course, the American Printing House for the Blind recorder plays six hours on a cassette, and the voices are very natural. The greatest improvement is the amount of material that is available from the Library of Congress. For the first time the blind have almost the same opportunity that the sighted have had for years.

I interviewed some of the blind--a new organization. I think they went into the investment business. Some Federationists are very successful at it. I play at it a little bit once in a while. I believe that the younger blind have much more of an opportunity to get into the mainstream of life than we had fifty years ago. Thank you, Dr. Jernigan.

Dr. Jernigan: The 1980s we now come to. As often happens with the junior members of families, you get the last of the shortest. We're going to cut each of you to about three to four minutes. It'll be closer to three. It is appropriate, by the way, that we have for the 1980s a student and a parent. We're going to begin with the president of the Student Division. He is a worthy part of the membership and leadership team of this organization. He's Michael Baillif. Michael started out in an uncomplicated way being a Californian, and I'm not sure where Michael says he's from now. Anyway, here is the president of the Student Division. Michael, demonstrate to me that you've got discipline as a student. You've got between three and four minutes, closer to three. Here's Michael Baillif.

Michael Baillif

Thank you Dr. Jernigan. It was 1984. I was seventeen years old. The NFB was forty-four years old. I was a very young and inexperienced scholarship winner. Very early one morning, I recall standing outside a Phoenix, Arizona, Hyatt Regency thinking, wondering who these people were. What was this organization all about? Everyone was wearing suits and making speeches. Particularly puzzling to me was this "Glory, Glory Federation" stuff everyone was always singing about. Well, then an event happened which seemed small but made a great impact upon me. Blind people began to walk out of the hotel. One by one, hundreds and hundreds of blind people began to issue forth from that hotel. Some were going to breakfast; some were going to the convention session early. All were traveling independently, laughing, talking about the convention and the day's events. I had just an inkling of the kind of incredible people's movement the NFB really was. Later that same morning I sat in the convention sessions and listened to the agenda items. I was struck by an amazing thought that had never occurred to me. There really was discrimination out there. As a blind person, I was a member of a minority group. And the National Federation of the Blind was the best, probably the only, way in which to address discrimination and move toward first-class citizenship.

I learned something else a couple of days later. One morning Sharon Gold, Sheryl Pickering, and I were walking to a session. I happened to be using a very short cane at the time and not doing it very well. So I bumped my head on a tree, cut my forehead open, and started bleeding all over the place. It was quite an event. But there was no hysteria. I didn't even get much sympathy. Sharon and Sheryl simply helped me find a Band-Aid for my forehead and suggested that in the future I might want to try using an NFB cane. We walked into the convention session just in time for the call to order.

These three perceptions of my first convention--that the NFB is a people's movement, that this organization is the only way in which we can move toward first-class citizenship, and that we are a community of people who truly teach and really care about one another--have been subsequently reinforced and re-emphasized over the years. To me the Federation decade of the eighties has symbolized an ever growing power and prestige and an ever increasing ability and commitment decisively to address the issues that face us as blind people--not only in the coming decade, but in the next century. I can't wait to attend our seventy-fifth and our one-hundredth conventions--not just to see the triumphs which we will achieve, and not just to see the challenges which will face us over the years, but also to perceive the glory that we contemplate when we sing our song: "Glory, Glory Federation."

Dr. Jernigan: Well, Michael, you show a proper discipline and some command of the language. So thank you very much. I see why you got elected.

Finally, we come to a person who sometimes is known because of her son, Dan Ryles, and sometimes Dan is known because of her. You know, it's a two-way street. A parent, a teacher, somebody who is as much a part of this Federation as if she herself were blind. And this is Ruby Ryles. Ruby.

Ruby Ryles

The eighties saw the organization of the Parents of Blind Children Division (POBC). We're the parents of the blind who will stand on this platform and lead the centennial celebration of the National Federation of the Blind. Our children will be the first generation to grow up under the strength, the power, and the guidance of an NFB family. They are learning early in life the power of the organized blind, the necessity of adult role models, and the value of having parents taught well by the adult blind in advocacy, attitude, and skill training. From Carbondale, Illinois, to Carthage, Texas, to Spokane, Washington, to Catonsville, Maryland, POBC parents are making noise in their local school districts; and the reverberations have been heard in state legislatures across the United States. Watch for our influence in Washington, D.C. in the nineties because POBC parents are fast learners. And my fellow Federationists, we've been taught advocacy by the best.

The eighties saw the phenomenal growth of state chapters of POBC. Our annual business meeting on Monday saw twenty-five states represented this year with other states organized but not in attendance. Among other activities, these chapters have produced exciting parent-training seminars, giving the benefit of their experience of the National Federation of the Blind's knowledge and training in advocacy to parents. As a parent and a teacher, I've been privileged to speak to POBC seminars around the country, and I'm always overwhelmed by the hunger of parents for our message. Parents of blind children around the United States are outraged with educational systems that will not provide our children with basic academic and travel skills. They are exasperated with professional jargon, reams of paperwork, negative, condescending attitudes regarding our children, and endless meaningless, intrusive testing. We are incensed by professionals in the field who do not understand that a young partially blind child needs a cane early in life. We are weary of listening to the insipid excuses for not teaching our children to read in Braille. Currently a child who is blind or partially blind in all probability will be functionally illiterate at high school graduation, due to the lack of specialized skill training specifically, Braille. Enough, we say. Our children grow up so quickly. We cannot wait for professionals, agencies, and school districts to get their acts together. We want that appropriate education guaranteed to our children by Public Law 94-142, and our children need it now! Our state president, Ben Prows, echoed other Washington Federationists at our POBC parent training seminar when he stated, "Professionals, if you want to listen to us and work with us, we want to work with you. If not, get out of our way."

The National Federation of the Blind's Parents Division was born in the eighties, and it is a force to be reckoned with in the nineties. We're changing what it means to grow up blind. National Federation of the Blind's Parents of Blind Children Division, POBC, remember our name. You'll hear from us in the nineties. Thank you.

Dr. Jernigan: Very shortly now, we'll bring this segment of the program to a conclusion. I remind you that the time capsule is being prepared for the hundredth anniversary. I also remind you that each chapter and each state affiliate is invited to send an item to the National Office for inclusion in the time capsule. You can send it either sealed or not, and mark it for the 2040 convention.

You have heard this morning the heritage, the fifty-year review of the Federation's growth, presented worthily.

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