A Brief History of the Braille Monitor
by Gary Wunder
Note: This article appeared in the Braille Monitor January 2011, and was originally from a speech given by Gary Wunder on October 30, 2010, at the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado Convention.
When President Maurer announced that I was taking over as editor of the Braille Monitor, a number of people came to offer congratulations and ideas for articles and to find out what changes I envisioned in our magazine. This started me thinking that perhaps change was what was expected, so I began looking for new and untried ideas to use.
People are always saying that they don't understand statistics, so, when I came across a statistic I hadn't heard before, I thought, "This might be my first big break to make an impression as the editor." So what was the statistic? It was this—try not to miss it now: one out of three Americans weighs more than the other two. That thought really sent me. If it's true for Americans in general, is it also true for the blind. If not, why not? If one out of three blind Americans doesn't weigh more than the other two, why not? Have we been discriminated against yet again? Either way there should be a story here, and I'd make it happen.
Working closely with Barbara Pierce as I do and respecting her long years of extraordinary service, I tried passing the idea to her—you know, the editor giving an assignment. It felt so good. Her reaction went something like this: "You know, I don't think I really see a story line here, but President Maurer appointed you as editor, so, if there's an article in this, I think you ought to get the credit for it." I thought this very generous of Mrs. Pierce, though her motive was transparent. She could have taken this idea as her own, used its full potential, and left me out completely, but no, she put me first—I could trust her to look out for me, and what a vote of confidence she had given me.
Still I felt I needed more guidance. This time I turned to another friend. I ran my idea past Diane McGeorge, who listened patiently and then said: "Well, Gary, I just don't know. Now it may be that numbers just aren't my strong suit—never have been—but I just wonder if there's really enough here for an article." Realizing she was trying to mask her excitement and not spoil whatever was to come, I next talked with Mrs. Maurer. She was busy tabulating donated services forms, but she seemed to be flattered that I had consulted her. I pitched the story idea, and she didn't take long to think it over.
"You know, Gary, I think you should give this some thought because it seems dangerous to me. When you say one out of every three blind Americans weighs more than the other two, you can just bet that two out of three of our Monitor readers are going to think you're talking about them, singling them out, and they're not gonna like it much." I thanked her, said I'd be cautious about how I phrased things, and finally went where I should have gone all along—straight to the boss.
He had already gotten wind of my story idea—I think there's a little more than interoffice communication between those two—so, when I came to report that I was trying to spread my wings and make the Monitor even more interesting, he was ready. "Gary, how long have you been thinking about this numbers story?"
"Four or five days, sir," I said. "I'm finding it elusive. Maybe I just need to give it a bit more critical consideration and apply a little more mental machinery to it—what do you think?"
Missing not a beat, he said, "Now Gary, I think that, if you've been thinking about this story line for four or five days, I'm afraid you've probably given it all the time it deserves, and I'm even more afraid you've already exhausted all the mental machinery you have."
Now, even though the vote whether or not to run with this story idea was close, I decided to go another way. For the first issue with my name on it, I decided we would more subtly innovate. So subtle was the change that few noticed it. Our innovations included a convention roundup and carrying the presidential report and the banquet address. Then we focused on awards and other convention speeches. In October we did a tribute to Ray McGeorge, a feature on the law entitled, "SWEP and the Bars of our Prison," and in November we focused on the fight to bring Baby Mikaela home and printed a part of a brochure entitled "Parenting Without Sight: What Attorneys and Social Workers should know about Blindness." People seemed to like this just fine, but I can't help grieving still for the story that never was and perhaps never will be. Maybe it will be the gift I give to our next editor.
In truth I find our Monitor's history absolutely fascinating. When I came to the Federation, our magazine was clearly the largest, most talked about, and most controversial publication in the field. When I read those Braille volumes and heard those recordings which captured the words and sounds of conventions I hoped one day to attend, it never occurred to me that the Monitor actually began, not as a magazine belonging to the blind speaking for the blind, but as a magazine to print stories for the reading enjoyment of blind people. The magazine was the All Story Magazine, and, though we do not have a complete set, our best guess is that it started sometime in the early 1930s. Certainly it was around when Dr. Jernigan attended the Tennessee School for the Blind. The All Story ran until July of 1957 and was published by the American Brotherhood for the Blind.
As the Federation grew and we made progress in changing the lives of blind people, we decided we cared less about a magazine that would tell us a story and more about creating one that would let us write our own story. The facts we would begin reporting in August of 1957 would chronicle the progress of the blind as we moved from spectator to active participant in the game of life. Other programs and magazines could help us get stories, but only this one could help us spread the message of the Federation and write the story we wanted life for blind people to be.
When Scott LaBarre asked me to come to talk about the history of the Monitor, I realized that I knew only a small part of it because I didn't subscribe to the magazine until 1972. Flashing back to my training as a student, I saw that the only way to deliver what Scott wanted was to act like a student and study. This speech would be my book report, my chance to stand before the class and show how smart I was. If I was invited to stay for lunch, it would be clear that my report had gotten a passing grade.
Enthusiastically I scanned the table of contents from every issue beginning in 1957 and coming forward, went to the Internet to get all of the magazines we had already made available online starting in 1987, and then found that our work with the Internet Archive has made available every issue of the Monitor dating back to August of 1957. I downloaded each and every magazine from 1957 to the present and started to read like the wind.
Now think just a moment about the absolute absurdity and sheer stupidity of this. In three weeks I was going to give a twenty minute speech and in preparation somehow thought I could read most, if not all, of the material it took more than fifty years to compile. Thank goodness I came to my senses, decided what I was trying to do was foolishly impossible, and was overcome by an epiphany. The trouble with an epiphany is that you can't control when it comes: mine came the day before yesterday.
Let me just give you a brief taste of what has been chronicled in the Monitor since 1957. I have to crow a bit about my state’s having the largest delegation at the 1957 convention in New Orleans. We got to be number one by bringing forty delegates to the meeting—a far cry from what it takes to be number one today.
If you look in the Monitor produced in April of 1958, you will find an article about a member of the NFB's executive board who had just been appointed to head the Iowa Commission for the Blind. There was faith that young Ken could do some good there and make the programs espoused by the Federation real, but there were also agencies that were downright gleeful at the prospect of one of these Federation dreamers actually having to work with real blind people in an agency setting.
In a later issue you can read about Dr. tenBroek's tribute to his mentor and teacher, Newel Perry. Did you know that the reason Jacobus tenBroek got through school was that, when Social Security and the Rehabilitation Services Administration could not agree on whether a blind person should have sufficient means to better himself and get an education, Dr. Perry helped to pay Dr. tenBroek's college expenses? Did you know this battle, for Dr. tenBroek and many blind people along with him, was a primary reason for the creation of the National Federation of the Blind—the need for a national organization to deal with programs that more and more were coming from the national government?
Our magazine tells the story of how, at one time in this country, blind people could not buy life or health insurance. The idea of insuring us was considered so foolish that the industry said it was just common sense that no reasonable company would insure "this class of people." Through long negotiations, legislation, and changes in regulation, this policy has changed as a result of our work, and the reason for the change is captured in our history.
A reader of our history will learn about the creation of what is called the Twin Vision® book, which got its start back in 1961. Our reader will find that much of our work in the late fifties focused on the Kennedy Baring bill and will see that our very right to organize was questioned by the agencies when we became a threat to the way they did business. The confidentiality we all take for granted today came only after our people were publicly persecuted and punished by the agencies whenever they did anything to indicate interest in or support of our organization.
As the strength of the Federation grew, the Monitor records that the agencies banded together against us, and, in addition to fighting our efforts to organize, created a weapon they would attempt to use against us. That weapon was accreditation, but not the kind you and I think of when we look for good hospitals and schools. This accreditation was created by the very agencies from which we were demanding change. These regressive agencies would create their own accrediting body and dress it up with a name, a staff, and some fancy letterhead. They would write the standards; they would appoint the teams to review compliance; but more important than their standards or their teams was the fact that they had already decided that standards and reviews didn't matter. All they wanted was a shield to use against the National Federation of the Blind, so the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) was created. For years we fought to expose NAC—both for what it was and, equally important, for what it never could be.
Our magazine tells the story of blind sheltered-shop workers seeking our help in going before the National Labor Relations Board asking to be considered as part of America's labor force with all the rights and responsibilities that implies. The Monitor shows how the government at first embraced our arguments and said we were workers, but, when challenged by the big money from the shops and the lobbyists they employed, this same government less than a decade later would declare we had no rights, were not employees, and simply existed because of the charity of the donors, the managers, and those who contracted for our work. If you didn't give up in despair but kept reading, the Monitor would tell how we lived to fight another day and how the NLRB would reverse itself once again and we would fight to organize the shops in working to see that every blind worker would receive at least the minimum wage.
Our history shows that, when I was ten years old, our country was still in the middle of a fierce debate about whether blind people were entitled to some form of public assistance or whether we were to remain the responsibility of our families for our food and shelter.
The reader of history will find familiar names—names like Jim Gashel, who headed the student division in 1970 and thought members should again get together at the convention. History also records a gentleman named Marc Maurer, who would cut his teeth as a student leader and later emerge in our magazine as a primary writer of articles involving blind people’s pursuit of our rights in the courts. Today he is a major force in shaping our debates and the challenges we undertake and orchestrating the events of the day which will become tomorrow's history.
The Braille Monitor was around before our Model White Cane Laws came to the country state by state, and it is full of reasons why these laws were needed. It was around before there were Sections 503, 504, and 508 in the Federal Rehabilitation Act, and in its pages you can read about how these sections came into being. The Monitor was around before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and put forward the concerns of blind people about it that had to be addressed before the legislation could become the law of the land.
Our Monitor describes how we came to tangle with the airlines and had to fight to keep our canes on the airplane.
Time dictates that I stop before long, so let me tell you about some thoughts I have about the future of the Monitor. I want our Braille Monitor to be true to its tradition of telling the story of blind people. I want it to continue to be the place to share our hopes and dreams, the place we share our successes and the way we achieve them, the place we expound on our problems, and a forum for figuring out how we will solve them. The Monitor should be the place where the blind learn about new technology and where we balance our enthusiasm for it with a respect for the old, time-tested attitudes and techniques that are the foundation of success for blind people. It should ring out loudly with the words that explain our philosophy and our view of life as blind people, while it continues to reflect the ever-changing world in which we live.
Let me close by saying that the Braille Monitor wants and needs you. We want you as a subscriber, whether you want your copy of the magazine in Braille, in print, in a recorded form, or through email. The Monitor wants your contributions as you work day by day to change what it means to be blind. The Monitor is the way we share our message; our message is life-changing, and the best way to get that message out is to see that people get and read our flagship publication.
I thank you for your time, for your commitment to read and learn, and for your commitment to help in carving out and writing about the future of blind people. For, you see, fifty years from now people will read your words and know that your work has brought them ever closer to living lives as people who are treated equally and who enjoy first-class status in America. In doing this, we will all grow.