Structured Discovery: A Belief in Blind People

Joanne poses with staff and students of the Louisiana Center for the Blind at the center's 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Structured Discovery: A Belief in Blind People

Q&A with Louisiana Center for the Blind's founder

By Joanne Wilson

Editor’s Note: Joanne Wilson is the founder of the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, Louisiana. The following is an excerpt of a question and answer session between her and President Riccobono, the rest of which can be found on our Presidential Release page.

I founded the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) officially on October 1, 1985. A group of Louisiana Federationists went to see Edwin Edwards, the governor of the state, and he, along with Mary Lander (a state senator) gave us money to start LCB. The idea for LCB, though, began much earlier than that, in 1940. A group of blind people got together and said "we know what we need for blind people.” and started the National Federation of the Blind. In the 1950’s, they started thinking about how to put their ideas into practice.

In 1958, Kenneth Jernigan took over the Iowa Commission for the Blind, which became our first training center. I was a kid in Iowa, and in 1966, I was a scared teenager who would pray every day to get her eyesight back. I spent most of my time trying to fake sight and I really didn't even want to say the word "blind." I went to Dr. Jernigan's center.

I learned skills there which we still teach at all of our centers today. We were expected to do things that we didn't believe we could do. We did what we now call “structured discovery.” We were surrounded by blind role models. Most importantly, we learned a new way of thinking about blindness. We were taught to raise expectations of other blind people, and of ourselves. We learned the Federation philosophy!

We learned that the real problem with blindness is not losing your eyesight, but rather the misconceptions that exist about blindness. We learned that with the proper training and opportunity, we could become independent, normal blind people and do what our sighted counterparts are doing.

You are part of this too, because you are a part of the Federation. Dr. Jernigan taught me, and I taught my students, and Pam and our other centers teach their students, the importance of getting involved with the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation provides a continuing support group of people who will tell you about the latest technology, what jobs are available, what we can do in education, and how we can advocate for ourselves and each other. The Federation gives you all of this, and it also gives you something to give back to.

I’m getting to be an old lady now. I look back at my life and I ask what my purpose was. I bet some of you do that too. The Federation gave me purpose as a blind person, and as a human being. The Federation can do the same for you. That's the secret that we need to pass on to our students.

It’s natural to want to belong to something, to give to something that's beyond us, to make our own place in history. After I left the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 2001, Pam and Roland Allen were there to take over the center. It's the same with the other centers. Their first leaders moved on and the next generation of leaders took over. I am thankful every day to Pam and Roland and the other heroes at the Louisiana Center for the Blind for keeping our dream going—the dream that started in 1940 and continued on in 1985, and continued on in 2001, and still thrives today. That dream still changes the lives of blind people across the country.