by Jim Omvig
From the Editor: Jim Omvig is well known to readers of the Braille Monitor for the many roles he has played in the civil rights struggles of the blind. In the following article his knowledge of the history of the blind of Iowa takes center stage. He brings to the story the perspective not only of one who has studied our history but of one who participated in it. He served with Dr. Jernigan at the Iowa Commission for the Blind and was featured prominently in the film We Know Who We Are, which was produced in 1977. He is now a commissioner overseeing the programs of the Iowa Department for the Blind. Here is what he has to say about an event commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the building where Dr. Jernigan transformed rehabilitation for the blind:
In the magnificently rich history of the National Federation of the Blind, five street addresses stand out: 2652 Shasta Road, Berkeley, California; 524 Fourth Street, Des Moines, Iowa; 4206 Euclid Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland; 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland; and now 200 East Wells at Jernigan Place, Baltimore, Maryland.
On Thursday afternoon, September 13, 2012, the 524 Fourth Street address in Des Moines, formerly known as the Iowa Commission for the Blind building, was the scene of what will come to be heralded as one of the truly significant Jernigan events in our recent history. A beautiful bronze plaque was unveiled at the main entrance to the building to recognize the 100 years of its existence and the work done there by Dr. Jernigan. The recognition was given by the National Register of Historic Places, a program administered by the National Park Service, which in turn is a part of the United States Department of the Interior.
As part of the dedication of the building and the unveiling of the plaque, I was asked to participate in the event at the Department for the Blind to speak about our history. It was only when I arrived that I learned--to my grateful satisfaction--that it was not really the 100-year existence of the grand old building which some of us love so much that was being recognized. In fact the building itself is not necessarily majestic. It would not have been recognized at all by the federal government had it not been for the magnificent and life-changing work Kenneth Jernigan did there. Nor would it have been recognized had it not been for Ms. Shan Sasser of the Iowa Library, who worked for several years to complete the required federal paperwork.
The text of the plaque reads:
FOR THE WORK OF
DR. KENNETH JERNIGAN,
DIRECTOR OF THE COMMISSION FROM 1959 - 1978,
WHO MADE SIGNIFICANT AND LONG-LASTING
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE BETTERMENT
OF BLIND AMERICANS
If newer readers haven't figured it out yet, 524 Fourth Street in Des Moines is the address of what was in Kenneth Jernigan’s time known as the Iowa Commission for the Blind, now the Iowa Department for the Blind. It was the site of the Iowa experiment and the miracle of Iowa. It is where Dr. Kenneth Jernigan first worked his magic and proved once and for all the soundness and validity of the Federation's philosophy and our ideas about what proper training can and must be.
Although the history of what is being recognized by the Department of the Interior is laid out in great detail in my book, The Blindness Revolution, Jernigan in his Own Words, I believe it would be helpful to review the history so that readers can have a true understanding of just what really happened in Des Moines on September 13. Many will have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through this highly detailed volume. Therefore I'll offer a simple review here which summarizes the many separate facts and circumstances which fell together and let the Iowa experiment happen: an unconnected set of facts and circumstances which I refer to as serendipity in revolution.
First, just to tickle your fancy, hear this: In 1968, just ten years after Dr. Jernigan's arrival in Iowa, Harold Russell, the head of the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, presented a presidential citation to him from President Lyndon Baines Johnson and said, "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than in any other place in the nation, or the world!"
Now here is how it all happened. In 1940 a young Des Moines woman named Dorothy Kirsner became a certified Braillist. Sighted people, mostly women, learned and became expert in Braille writing using the Perkins Brailler. These volunteers were known as Braille transcribers, and their primary mission was to provide reading material to blind people who were in need of Braille. Imagine this: certified Braillists were considered at that time in our history to be so valuable that their certificates of capability were signed by the president of the United States. Mrs. Kirsner's, which she displays proudly, was signed by FDR.
Mrs. Kirsner was so passionate about her desire to help blind people that she gathered together several of her friends and organized a Braille transcribers group in Des Moines. They became known as the Temple B'Nai Jeshurun Sisterhood.
In 1943 a young blind man by the name of Norman Kenneth Jernigan (he was born in 1926) graduated from the Tennessee School for the Blind. He immediately entered Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville, Tennessee, and graduated from that institution in 1947. Also in 1947 he applied for a scholarship from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) based in New York City. Perhaps the most interesting and glowing recommendation of all for that AFB scholarship came from the dean of Tennessee Tech's College of Education and Psychology, and it is fun to reprint it here. It offers us an amazing introduction to Kenneth Jernigan--the man. The dean wrote:
"I am glad to reply to your letter concerning Mr. Norman Kenneth Jernigan of Route 1, Beech Grove, Tennessee, who is an applicant for a scholarship to assist him in his preparation for teaching.
"Mr. Jernigan is the most remarkable young man whom I have ever taught. Although totally blind from birth, he is a brilliant student. He has a straight A record with the exception of two Bs which he made the first quarter of his freshman year when he was forced to enter six weeks late on account of an appendectomy.
"Unlike most handicapped students whom I have known, he does not pity himself or appear different from normal students. On the other hand, he is one of the happiest and most cheerful students on the campus. He participates in many extra-curricular activities. He is a member of the Christian Association Cabinet; Parliamentarian of the Tennessee Tech Chapter, Future Teachers of America; a member of the local chapter of Pi Kappa Delta, national honorary forensic fraternity, with an outstanding record in public speaking and debating; he served for two quarters as president of the International Relations Club; and in a recent popularity election he was chosen by the student body as Prince of Personality for 1946-47. I understand that other campus honors are likely to come to him in the near future.
"He is neat in appearance, always appropriately dressed, makes friends easily; he has the better qualities of both introvert and extrovert and is very ambitious for his professional career. Incidentally, he reads Braille with unusual facility and has read more widely than the great majority of our students. He takes voluminous notes in class and rarely forgets anything he hears or reads. I believe that he will make an excellent teacher.
"In my opinion he is worthy in every way of any aid which he may receive. I know that he needs help and hope that you see fit to award him a scholarship."
Of course Dr. Jernigan won the scholarship. As I said, he graduated from Tennessee Tech in 1947 and began immediately to plan for the master's which he would earn at Peabody College in Nashville. But he ran into a problem: He couldn't find the Braille materials he needed.
In 1948 Jernigan and Kirsner met, but from a distance. Jernigan was in urgent need of Braille transcribers who could produce the tremendous amount of Braille the English and literature major would need, and he was unable to find anyone in Tennessee to do it. The record does not reveal how it happened, but he found Mrs. Kirsner and her enthusiastic Braille group in Des Moines, Iowa. They set to work, and over the next several years an astonishing amount of Braille was produced for the young scholar.
Mrs. Kirsner tells me that the most ambitious and challenging project the dedicated group of women ever took on for Jernigan was an English anthology, which four women produced in three years. The result was a fifty-four-volume Braille book that Kenneth Jernigan prized for the rest of his life.
Kirsner and Jernigan never met in person during this most productive period of both of their lives, but they became well acquainted through letters. Jernigan was very courteous and kind. He wrote frequently to thank the ladies for their relentless supply of Braille pages, and they truly became friends through letters. These friendships played a pivotal role in what was to come.
The adult state/federal vocational rehabilitation (VR) program for Americans with disabilities had been adopted by the Congress in 1920, but it did not include the blind within its programs. Apparently the 1920 Congress assumed the blind could not be rehabilitated at all. But the VR law was amended to let us in in 1943. Even so, the fact is that the VR system for the blind was an abject failure, and in far too many instances the programs hurt rather than helped the blind.
In 1940 the National Federation of the Blind was organized by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and other blind leaders from California and six other states. One of the major reasons for the self-organization of the blind was the need for us to speak out concerning the nonexistence of VR services and to offer positive solutions. But the reaction of the professionals of the day was to reject our offers of assistance out of hand. As they put it, "We are the professionals! We know what is best for you. You are blind! What could you blind people possibly know or contribute?"
In 1949 Kenneth Jernigan did not go on to work on his doctorate as he had planned. Instead he went back to the Tennessee School for the Blind, where he taught until 1953. While at the Tennessee School, however, he became active in the National Federation of the Blind for the first time and became the local chapter president.
The 1952 NFB national convention was held in Nashville, and Kenneth Jernigan was key in its planning and execution. While they had corresponded by mail previously, this was the first time Kenneth Jernigan and Jacobus tenBroek met in person. Their affinity and mutual respect was immediate. Dr. tenBroek was so taken with Jernigan that he proposed that Jernigan be elected to the NFB's national board of directors at his very first convention. It is the only time in our history that an individual has been elected to our national board at his or her first national convention.
Things began to move quickly in the blind civil rights movement and the work to improve VR programs for the blind of America. By 1953 it was decided that young Jernigan should leave Tennessee and move to California to work in the newly established California Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Adult Blind. This, of course, put Jernigan on the scene where he could begin to work directly with the NFB's giants: Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Newel Perry, Perry Sundquist, Lawrence Marcelino, and others.
Within a short time these giants had clarified and begun to articulate what was coming to be described as the Federation philosophy. It can be summarized simply and straightforwardly in modern language as follows:
But even though NFB members became excited about these newfound truths and what it meant to bring freedom, high expectations, normality, and equality into their lives, the so-called blindness professionals of the day did not. In fact, the more the NFB promoted and pushed these marvelous truths about the blind and what state services should be, the more the regressive professionals pushed and fought back. They began to say that Federationists were crazy, that we were radicals, that we were troublemakers, and that our ideas would ruin the VR system for the blind. Just think of it, what a terrible thing it was for the Federation to go to work with vigor all around the country to convince the blind that they were normal people!
I'm not sure whose idea it was (I suppose Dr. tenBroek's), but in 1955 and 1956 several of our state affiliates convinced their state governors to embrace a plan to do something to improve the agencies. The governors would invite the Federation to come into their states to review and study the programs and activities of their VR agencies for the blind, and then the reviewers would make official findings and recommendations which would be submitted directly to the governors. These would contain proposed changes to improve the state agencies and make them useful to the blind. The young Kenneth Jernigan was sent to participate in some if not all of these studies. When you want some entertaining reading, dig out a copy of the report he wrote to then Governor Orville Faubus concerning the Arkansas program. As you might suspect, a little more hatred toward the blind was stirred up by these state studies.
By the mid 1950s, some professionals in the blindness field had declared open war on the NFB. Many told their blind clients, "You stay away from that National Federation of the Blind, or you will receive no services at all from this agency!" This, of course, frightened many blind Americans away from the organized blind movement. Incredible as it now seems, the hatred for the members of the organized blind movement on the part of certain agencies was so profound during this black hole in American blindness history that some blind clients were physically beaten by agency staff members.
This outrageous hostility toward the blind by some of the blindness professionals prompted us to take dramatic action. We contacted then United States Senator John F. Kennedy and got him to introduce and promote our "Right of the Blind to Organize" bill.
With this background we come to the real significance of Kenneth Jernigan's coming to Iowa, what he did at 524 Fourth Street, and what was actually celebrated here on September 13, 2012.
Now to wrap up all of the preliminary information that led to the Jernigan arrival in Iowa, look at 1957 and 1958. An amazing number of serendipitous facts and circumstances finally came together in one neat package:
The Iowa Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Blind opened officially on July 1, 1960. The tenBroek instruction, "Ken, we must conduct an experiment," was drawing ever closer to fruition. Now it was up to Jernigan, the state director, to go the rest of the way and prove that the philosophy worked.
Of course the rest is history. The validity of the National Federation of the Blind's philosophy and what it could do in a state agency for the blind was proven beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The elements of proper training, what later Dr. Alan Dodds of Great Britain called "structured-discovery learning," were validated. Before long, with our newfound philosophy of normality, blind Iowans were finding new areas of employment: newspaper reporter, electrical engineer, public school teacher, attorney, and many others. Because of the Jernigan success in Iowa, the lives of hundreds of thousands of blind people in America and all around the world have been changed forever.
As a kind and loving side note, in 1966 the conference room adjacent to the director's office was formally named the Dorothy Kirsner Conference Room in order to recognize and memorialize the tremendous contributions she has made to the blind of Iowa, the nation, and the world.
In April of 1968, just ten years after he arrived in Iowa with the weight of this momentous assignment resting on his shoulders, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was given an award from the president of the United States. This presidential recognition helped solidify the understanding and recognition that Jernigan had been unquestionably successful in finishing the weighty tenBroek assignment. At a magnificent celebration at 524 Fourth Street the president's stand-in spoke those memorable words, "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than in any other place in the nation, or the world!"
Finally we return to September 13, 2012, and what this celebration actually memorializes. The fine new plaque on the grand old building declares that the building will stand as a monument to what Kenneth Jernigan did here, and, for what he did here, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan will stand forever as a hero to the blind.