From the Editor: Last month we reprinted an address by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek about the Federation on its twenty-fifth anniversary. This month we’d like to reprint an address delivered at the 1990 National Convention in Dallas, Texas, by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan on the Federation at fifty. Of course, next month in our August/September convention issue of the Monitor there will be speeches about the Federation at seventy-five, allowing us to track the course of our amazing organization. Here is what Dr. Jernigan said in 1990:
If the engineers of 1800 had possessed complete drawings for a transistor radio (one that could be bought today for $10), they couldn't have built it, not even if they had had billions or trillions of dollars. They lacked the infrastructure, the tools, the tools to build the tools, and the tools to build those; the plastics, the machines to make the plastics, and the machines to make the machines; the skilled work force, the teachers to train the work force, and the teachers to train the teachers; the transportation network to assemble the materials, the vehicles to use the network, and the sources of supply. All of this is generally recognized, but it is far less well understood that what is true of material objects is also true of ideas and attitudes. In the absence of a supporting social infrastructure of knowledge and beliefs, a new idea simply cannot exist.
So far as I can tell, there are only three possible reasons for studying history: to get inspiration, to gain perspective, or to acquire a basis for predicting the future.
In 1965 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and leader of our movement, spoke at our twenty-fifth banquet, reviewing the first quarter century and charting the road ahead. We were meeting in Washington, and more than a hundred members of Congress were present. I was master of ceremonies, and some of the rest of you were also there. Tonight (twenty-five years later) we celebrate our Golden Anniversary, and the time has once again come to take stock. Where are we, where have we been, and where are we going?
In a sense the history of our movement begins in the distant past—in the medieval guilds and brotherhoods of the blind in Europe, in the tentative stirrings of organization in China, and even earlier—but the National Federation of the Blind is essentially an American product. Its genesis is native. Although (as we all know) Dr. Jacobus tenBroek presided at the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940 at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he had a teacher (Dr. Newel Perry), who laid the foundations and served as precursor. And Dr. Perry, in turn, had a teacher, Warring Wilkinson.
Most of what we know about Wilkinson is contained in the eulogy which Dr. tenBroek delivered at the time of Dr. Perry's death in 1961, but our knowledge is sufficient to tell us that Wilkinson was a worthy teacher of the teacher of our founder. He was the first principal of the California School for the Deaf and Blind. He served in that capacity for forty-four years, from 1865 to 1909. He not only loved his students but also did what he could to move them toward the main channels of social and economic participation. Particularly, he saw the potential in young Perry, sending him from the California School for the Blind to Berkeley High to complete his secondary education. To do this Wilkinson (who was ahead of his time both in his understanding of education and the needs of the blind) had to overcome numerous obstacles.
I was fortunate enough to know Dr. Perry, meeting him when I moved to California in 1953. He was then eighty, and he spent many hours with me reminiscing about what conditions for the blind were like when he was a boy. He came to the California School for the Blind when he was ten—“penniless, blind, his father dead, his home dissolved. Two years earlier he had lost his sight and nearly his life as the result of a case of poison oak, which caused his eyeballs to swell until they burst and which held him in a coma for a month.” It was at the school, of course, that he first met Warring Wilkinson.
While going to high school (from which he graduated in 1892) he lived at the California School for the Blind. He also lived there while attending the University of California from 1892 to 1896. His admission to the University (as had been the case with high school) had to be secured over strong resistance. Again, Wilkinson was the pathfinder, young Perry his willing and anxious instrument. “Wilkinson's role in Perry's life as a youth can hardly be overestimated: father, teacher, guide, supporter, in Perry's own words, ‘dear Governor.’”
After graduating from the university, Dr. Perry devoted himself to further education and to the search for an academic job. “He took graduate work at the University of California, meanwhile serving successively as an unpaid teaching fellow, a paid assistant, and finally as an instructor in the department of mathematics. In 1900, following a general custom of that day, he went to Europe to continue his studies. He did this for a time at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and then at the University of Munich in Germany. From the latter he secured in 1901 the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics, with highest honors.
“He returned to the United States in 1902, landing in New York, where he was to remain until 1912. He had about eighty dollars in capital, a first-class and highly specialized education, and all of the physical, mental, and personal prerequisites for a productive career—except one, eyesight.
“During this period he supported himself precariously as a private coach of university mathematics students. He also applied himself to the search for a university position. He displayed the most relentless energy. He employed every imaginable technique. He wrote letters in profusion. In 1905 he wrote to 500 institutions of every size and character. He distributed his dissertation and his published article on mathematics. He haunted meetings of mathematicians. He visited his friends in the profession. He enlisted the aid of his teachers. He called on everybody and anybody having the remotest connection with his goal.
“Everywhere the outcome was the same. Only the form varied. Some expressed astonishment at what he had accomplished. Some expressed interest. One of these seemed genuine—he had a blind brother-in-law, he said, who was a whiz at math. Some showed indifference, now and then masked behind polite phrases. Some said there were no vacancies. Some said his application would be filed for future reference. One said ironically: ‘For what—as an encouragement to men who labor under disadvantages and who may learn from it how much may be accomplished through resolution and industry?’ Some averred that he probably could succeed in teaching at somebody else's college. Many said outright that they believed a blind person could not teach mathematics.
“Many of these rejections may, of course, have been perfectly proper. Many were not. Their authors candidly gave the reason as blindness.”
Dr. Perry failed not because of lack of energy or qualification but because the necessary infrastructure of attitudes and beliefs did not exist to allow it to be otherwise—so he did not find a job in a university. Perhaps it was better for the blind (for those of us gathered here tonight) that he did not—but for him what pain! What absolute desolation and misery! And he had to face it alone—no family, no supporting organization of the blind—only himself and the bleak wall of continuing rejection year after year. He might have quit in despair. He might have become embittered. But he did not. Instead, he returned to California and settled down to build for the future. If he could not have first-class treatment for himself, he was absolutely determined that at least the next generation of the blind would not be denied.
He taught at the California School for the Blind from 1912 to 1947—and day after day, month after month, season after season he exhorted and indoctrinated, preached and prepared. He was building the necessary infrastructure of ideas and beliefs. Those who were his students went on to become his colleagues, and as the number grew, the faith was kept. There would be a state-wide organization of the blind in California. It did not happen until 1934, but when it came, it was built on a solid foundation. And there would also be a National Federation of the Blind—but not yet.
Dr. Perry was to that generation what Warring Wilkinson had been to him. In the words of Jacobus tenBroek, his most brilliant student and the man who would lead the blind in the founding of their national movement: “We were his students, his family, his intimates, his comrades on a thousand battlefronts of a social movement. We slept in his house, ate at his table, learned geometry at his desk, walked the streets interminably by his side, moved forward on the strength of his optimism and confidence.”
Dr. tenBroek graduated from Berkeley High School in 1930 with, as he said, “plenty of ambition but no money.” He was prepared to enter the University of California but was denied state aid to the blind, a program then newly instituted as a result of Dr. Perry's efforts in sponsoring a constitutional amendment, which had been adopted by the voters of California in 1928. In Dr. tenBroek's words, “The reason for the denial was not that my need was not great. It was that I intended to pursue a higher education while I was being supported by the state. That was too much for the administrative officials. Almost without discussion, Dr. Perry immediately filled the gap. Just as Warring Wilkinson had earlier done for him,” said Dr. tenBroek, “he supplied me with tuition and living expenses out of his own pocket for a semester while we all fought to reverse the decision of the state aid officials.
“It was,” Dr. tenBroek said, “ever thus with Dr. Perry. The key to his great influence with blind students was, first of all, the fact that he was blind and therefore understood their problems; and second, that he believed in them and made his faith manifest. He provided the only sure foundation of true rapport: knowledge on our part that he was genuinely interested in our welfare.”
So the new generation came to maturity, and Jacobus tenBroek was to be its leader. Born in 1911 on the prairies of Alberta, Canada, he was blinded by an arrow in a childhood game and moved to California to enter the school for the blind. He went on to earn five academic degrees—from the University of California at Berkeley a bachelor's in 1934, a master's in 1935, a law degree in 1938, and a Doctorate in Jurisprudence in 1940; and from the Harvard Law School a Doctorate in Jurisprudence in 1947. There is no need for me to talk to this audience about Dr. tenBroek's brilliance—his learned articles and books, his chairmanship of the California Board of Social Welfare, his scholarly pre-eminence and national acclaim, his writings on constitutional law that are still the authoritative works in the field. Rather, I would speak of the man—the warm human being who fought for acceptance, led our movement, and served as my mentor and role model—the man who was my closest friend and spiritual father.
When Dr. tenBroek was first trying to get a teaching position in the 1930s, the climate of public opinion was better than it had been a generation earlier, but he faced many of the same problems which had confronted Dr. Perry—and sometimes with identical letters from the same institutions. “It was,” he said, “almost as if a secretary had been set to copying Dr. Perry's file, only changing the signatures and the name of the addressee.”
Here is what Dr. tenBroek wrote to Dr. Perry in March of 1940. At the time he was studying at Harvard:
Last November a large Midwestern university was looking for a man to teach public law. Having read my published articles but knowing nothing else about me, the head of the department in question wrote a letter to the University of California inquiring whether I would be available for the position. Cal. replied that I would and accompanied the answer with a considerable collection of supporting material. However, when the department head learned that I was blind, the deal was off although none of the competing applicants had as good a paper showing.
This incident seems to me of particular interest because, although I have been refused other jobs, this was the first instance in which blindness could be traced as the sole explanation for rejection. Of course, in other cases blindness was also the determining factor, but the fact could not be demonstrated as well.
There were other letters and other rejections—but on June 8, 1940, Dr. tenBroek was able to write to Dr. Perry:
We have justification for hanging out the flags and ringing the bells. I have been offered and have accepted a job at Chicago University Law School. The job pays $1,800, is denominated a half-time position, and lasts for only a year. But it is a job nevertheless. And the Harvard people, who exerted no end of pressure to get it for me, regard it as an excellent opportunity. The position is designated ‘tutorial fellowship’ and consists in supervising the research of the first-and second-year law students. It involves no actual classroom teaching, except possibly by way of an occasional fill-in job.
This was how Dr. tenBroek (the man who fifteen years later was to win the Woodrow Wilson Award for the outstanding book of the year in political science and who was always the most sought-after professor at the University of California) was to begin his teaching career. Yet, even today there are sighted people (and also some of the blind—people who ought to know better) who tell me that the blind are not victims of discrimination. Yes, the tenBroek job search was fifty years ago, but you know and I know that we have not yet come to first-class status and equal treatment in society. The framework of ideas and beliefs to make it possible, though long in the building, is still not complete. Warring Wilkinson, Newel Perry and his students, Jacobus tenBroek and the founders of our movement, and the Federationists of succeeding decades have worked year after year to improve the climate of public acceptance and make opportunity available for the blind, but the job is not yet finished. Each generation has built on the work of the one before it. Each has fought and hoped, dreamed and drudged for the one to follow—and also for the blind then alive.
What we have done must be seen in perspective; for no act of the past (no gain or denial) is irrelevant, and no present behavior of ours can be divorced from tomorrow. We are close to freedom, and we must finish the journey.
1940 was notable for something else besides Dr. tenBroek's debut at the University of Chicago. It was also the year of the founding of this organization. With the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 the federal government had supplanted the states in providing assistance to the blind. In 1939 Congress and the Social Security Board combined to pressure the states having the most forward looking programs (chief among them California but also Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Wisconsin) to repeal their progressive laws. This supplied the immediate impetus for the formation of the Federation, but of course the momentum had been building for a generation. The event occurred at Wilkes-Barre on November 15 and 16, 1940, coincident with the convention of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Blind.
In a letter to Dr. Perry dated November 19, 1940, Dr. tenBroek said in part: “The confab at Wilkes-Barre gave birth to an organization, the National Federation of the Blind—of which you, vicariously through me, are president. The long-range aims of the organization are the promotion of the economic and social welfare of the blind, and its immediate and specific aims are the sponsorship of the principle of Senate Bill 1766 and an amendment of the Social Security Act.
“Seven states were represented at the organizational meeting--Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. We arrived in Wilkes-Barre in the middle of Friday afternoon....
“On Saturday morning, while the Pennsylvania state meeting was going on, I had several back-of-the-scenes conversations with Pennsylvania leaders.... In the afternoon... we drew up a skeleton constitution, which we presented to a meeting of all of the delegates to the national meeting, beginning about four o'clock and ending about the same time twelve hours later.... The meeting was interrupted at 5:30 in the afternoon long enough to give the other delegates a chance to eat dinner, and the Pennsylvania leader (Gayle Burlingame) and me a chance to appear on the local radio, where we lambasted hell out of the Social Security Board.”
On January 4, 1941, Dr. tenBroek wrote to Dr. Perry concerning the details of getting the new organization started. “With the National Federation of the Blind not yet two months old,” he said, “its permanence is definitely assured. The factor guaranteeing that permanence is the closely knit nucleus composed of Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and California. We three have now had enough experience with each other to know that we can make a go of it.... We can add to this trilogy the state of Wisconsin.
“I had a letter from Minnesota yesterday to the effect that they are ready to pay their assessment but that they wish assurance that Pennsylvania and California are also ready before they mail their check. I also had a letter from Pennsylvania stating that it is ready but wishes assurance that Minnesota and California are ready. I have written to both of these states requesting them to make out their checks, payable to the Treasurer of the National Federation, and to send them to me, with the stipulation that I shall not forward them to the Treasurer until I have the dues from each of the states of California, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Consequently, if California is ready, I suggest that you follow the same procedure….”
But the new president did not limit himself to procedural matters. The Federation immediately assumed its present-day role of working to improve the quality of life for the nation's blind. In a letter to Dr. Perry dated March 15, 1941, President tenBroek described the efforts he had been making to get changes in the administration of public assistance to the blind. Here, in part, is what he said:
“After a week in Washington I have more unsocial exchange to report than specific accomplishment.... Gradually working our way upward, Gayle Burlingame and I first presented our case to Jane Hoey, director of the Bureau of Public Assistance, and her associate, a lawyer named Cassius. Next we went to Oscar Powell, executive director of the Social Security Board; and finally to Paul V. McNutt, administrator of the Federal Security Agency. Hoey is simply another social worker of the familiar type but with a higher salary than most. Cassius has lost none of his qualities since Shakespeare described him, except that his wit has been sharpened by a little legal training. Powell is a very high caliber man with a fine sense of argumentative values, a considerable store of good nature, and unusual perception. He simply is not a believer in our fundamental assumptions. McNutt, on the other hand, is a lesser Hitler by disposition and makes our California social workers look like angels by comparison.
“Hoey and Powell had argued that the new ruling of the Board did not necessarily result in a reduction of a recipient's grant by the amount of his earnings or other income. McNutt took the position that it did and, moreover, that it should. `Are you saying to us,' I asked McNutt, `that blind people should have their grants reduced no matter how small their private income and no matter how great their actual need?' His answer was that he was saying precisely that. I formulated the question in several other ways, only to get the same reply. I can't say that I wasn't glad to get this official declaration from McNutt since it provides us with an official declaration by the highest administrator of them all that ought to be of immense propagandistic value to us. Moreover, McNutt's conduct during the conference has provided us with the most perfect example of the arbitrary and tyrannical methods of the Board that we could hope to have.
“In the remaining week that I shall stay in Washington, we shall attempt to carry our appeal to the last administrative step. Senator Downey of California and Senator Hughes of Delaware are attempting to secure for us appointments with Mrs. and President Roosevelt.
“As things stand, the only course open to the blind of California is to urge the legislature to retain the blind aid act in its present form and tell the federal government to go to hell. Even if we can get a favorable amendment to the Social Security Act, it certainly will not be until after the California legislature adjourns.”
This is what Dr. tenBroek wrote in 1941, and although we have often said in this organization that the first task which the Federation faced after its founding was to help the blind of the nation get enough money for bare survival, I sometimes wonder if we have made the point with sufficient clarity to convey the desperation of it. The report which was prepared following the 1941 convention of the Federation in Milwaukee says in part:
“Mr. Stephen Stanislevic of New York City reported as follows: ‘The blind population of New York State is roughly estimated at 13,000. Of these, more than half are in New York City. A very small number of our people, a few hundred in all, are at present employed in sheltered industries, on government projects, at newsstands, or in miscellaneous enterprises. The majority depend for sustenance either upon private bounty or upon Social Security grants. The average monthly grant per individual is $27 in New York City and $23 in the up-state counties. This is the paltry pittance which the wealthiest state in our Union sees fit to dole out to those of its citizens who are blind.’
“Mr. Hugh McGuire explained that in Indiana there are approximately 2,600 blind and that between 2,200 and 2,300 are drawing assistance with the monthly average of $20.”
That was forty-nine years ago, and much has happened in the interim. Not that it happened by chance, of course. Mostly we made it happen. How many times since 1940 has the National Federation of the Blind led the way in social reform in this country, not only for the blind but also for others? To mention only three examples, we pioneered exempt earnings for the recipients of public assistance; we pioneered fair hearing procedures in rehabilitation and other public programs; and we pioneered jobs for the disabled in government service.
As I have already said, our first task as an organization was to initiate programs to enable the blind to get enough to eat. In 1940 and the decades immediately following, most of the blind of this country were desperately poor, and there were almost no government programs to help. When people are hungry, little else matters. Later (although many of us were still in poverty—and, for that matter, are now) we worked on rehabilitation and employment, and today we emphasize civil rights and equal participation in society. But essentially our role is what it has always been--seeing that blind people get equal treatment and a fair shake.
It is not only in basics but also in detail that our operation today is often much the same as it was in past decades. Let me give you a rather specialized example. I have made a lot of banquet speeches at these conventions, and certain key ideas are central to them all. I can sum up the essentials in a few sentences. The real problem of blindness is not the blindness itself but what the members of the general public think about it. Since the agencies doing work with the blind are part of that general public, they are likely to possess the same misconceptions that are held by the broader society. The blind, too, are part of that broader society, and if we are not careful, we will accept the public view of our limitations and thus do much to make those limitations a reality. The blind are not psychologically or mentally different from the sighted. We are neither especially blessed nor especially cursed. We need jobs, opportunity, social acceptance, and equal treatment—not pity and custody. Only those elected by the blind can speak for the blind. This is not only a prime requisite of democracy but also the only way we can ever achieve first-class status.
These are the essential points of every banquet speech I have ever made. The banquet speeches are meant to be widely circulated. They have the purpose of convincing those in work with the blind and the public at large that they should rethink their notions about blindness. They also have the purpose of stimulating our own members to increased activity and added vigor. Hopefully the speech will be sufficiently inspiring, entertaining, and literate to make people want to listen to it—and later (when it is distributed) to read it. The difficulty is that just about the same thing needs to be said every year, but it has to be restated so that the listeners (and ultimately the readers) will feel that it is different—and maybe even new. After a while, putting it all together becomes quite a problem.
I don't think I ever talked about this matter with Dr. tenBroek, and I certainly did not attend the 1949 convention at Denver. With this background let me share some correspondence with you. Kingsley Price was a Californian, who became a college professor and was living in New York in the 1940s. In a letter dated April 8, 1949, Dr. tenBroek wrote to urge him to attend the Denver convention. “The problem does not arise,” Dr. tenBroek said, “out of an unmixed desire to enjoy your company. I would like to get you to give the principal banquet address. This is something that I have not been able to dodge very often in the seven conventions that we have had. [Conventions were not held in the war years of 1943 and 1945.] The banquet address,” Dr. tenBroek continued, “is a kind of focal point in which the problems of the blind, their peculiar needs with respect to public assistance, employment, and equal opportunity are formulated and presented both with an eye to rededicating and stimulating the blind persons present and an eye to enlightening and possibly converting the many sighted persons who have been invited to attend. For me, this has always been a job of rehashing and repeating certain central ideas. My imagination and new methods of statement have long since petered out. The next alternative is to get a new `stater.' This is what I would like you to be.
“We would, of course, introduce you as a New Yorker since there are far too many Californians in the limelight as it is. We also, if we thought hard, could find one or two other chores about the convention for you to do.
“Please think this matter over as long as you want, but let me have an immediate answer.”
Among other things, Dr. tenBroek obviously wanted to get Price to become more active in the movement, and he probably thought the banquet speech might be a way to do it. There has always been a tendency for the successful members of a minority to try to avoid involvement. The only trouble with this behavior is that it won't work. At an earlier period many blacks tried to straighten their hair and hide in white society, but then they realized that it was better to make it respectable to be black. The corollary, if I need to say it, (and every one of us had better know and understand it) is that it is respectable to be blind. That's what the National Federation of the Blind is all about.
No blind person in this country is untouched by our successes or, for that matter, our failures—and no blind person can avoid identification with the rest of us. This is true regardless of how the blind person feels about it and regardless of how we feel about it. Blindness is a visible characteristic, and all of us are judged by each other whether we like it or not. The feeling I have toward those blind persons who try to hide in sighted society is not anger but pity—and, yes, I am talking about those who are regarded (and who regard themselves) as highly successful.
When Professor Price replied to Dr. tenBroek, he said that he might be able to come but would probably do a bad job making the banquet speech. He should not have been deceived by the light tone of Dr. tenBroek's letter of invitation, for Federation presidents take banquet speeches seriously. In a letter dated April 21, 1949, Dr. tenBroek set him straight:
I am not now, nor on June 20th shall I be, in the least inclined to accept a bad job in the banquet address. If I were willing to accept a bad job, I can think of at least a hundred persons of assured competence to satisfy the requirement.
The banquet address is the focal point of the whole meeting. It has come to be regarded as the most important thing that is done at a convention. Many people of influence in the community are invited to hear it. The Governor of the State often is present, and the occasion is used to give him instructions as to what his policy should be towards the blind. The address is expected to be of such a character that it can be published and circulated the nation over with some advantage to the blind.
The address must be on the subject of the nature of the problems of blindness, and the discussion should be frank and forthright. Amplification of points by way of personal experience is always helpful and attractive. One conclusion that must always be reached is that the blind should speak for themselves because they are the only persons qualified to do so.
I enclose a copy of my Baltimore address, which may give you an idea of what needs to be said. The same truths have to be retold, but the hope is that they will be dressed up in a new and fresh style, even to the point of appearing to be different truths.
One further word: It may be that the address will be broadcast direct from the banquet hall. Consequently, both speech and delivery need to be well in hand.
I hope these admonitions are solemn enough to convince you of the importance of doing a good job and yet not so solemn as to scare you away. We are desperately in need of a new voice and a new brain to do this job and a man from New York has geographical advantages as well.
In considering our past I am mindful of the fact that except for inspiration, perspective, and prediction, there is no purpose to the study of history. Certainly we can find inspiration in the lives of Warring Wilkinson, Newel Perry, and Jacobus tenBroek. Often in lonely isolation they worked for a distant future which they knew they would never see but which is our present. Using meager resources that they could ill-afford to spare, they fought to build a framework of opportunities and benefits which constitute the underpinning and foundation of what we have today. How can we be unmoved by their story? It speaks to us across the years—calling us to conscience, giving us strength for the battles ahead, reminding us of our heritage, and underscoring our duty to those who will follow.
Yes, there is inspiration in our history, and it also gives us perspective. Otherwise we might become discouraged. Even today, with all of our work, more often than not when we come to one of these conventions and talk to the press, they assign their medical reporters to deal with us. They want to write stories about our guide dogs, the causes of blindness, and how capable we are because we can do the ordinary tasks of daily living, like cutting our food or finding our way.
But the balances are shifting. Each year a few more reporters are beginning to understand that our story is not one of physical loss, or courage in the face of deprivation, but lack of opportunity and denial of civil rights. A perfect example is the recent story in the Wall Street Journal about the blind who are running their own businesses. It contains not a scrap of pity, nor a wasted word about those who (though blind) are valiantly struggling to earn a living. Of course, it contains drama—but it is the drama of a people fighting to rise to first-class status in a society which treats them like children and wonders why they object.
Recently I went to the White House and talked with the President of the United States about the problems we are having with the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration. We are being excluded from exit row seats on airplanes, but year after year the Federal Aviation Administration has said that there is no issue of safety in our sitting there. Now (because of pressure by the airlines) they have changed their minds. As we have become painfully aware, the issue of seating is only one tiny part of an overall pattern of bullying and harassment which blind persons face today in air travel. The difficulty which always confronts us when we try to discuss this issue is the talk we get about compassion and how commendable it is that we are trying to be independent—all of which is a bunch of nonsense. If we pose a hazard in exit row seats, we shouldn't sit there—and we wouldn't want to. If we don't pose a hazard in exit row seats, then we have as much right to sit there as anybody else, and to try to make us move is an infringement of our civil rights. In either case compassion has nothing to do with it.
When I tried to convey these ideas to President Bush, his response made it clear that he had been thoroughly briefed—and by somebody who hadn't the faintest idea about the issues. In answer to my question the President said that if there was no evidence that we constituted a greater hazard than others in exit row seats, he would put an end to the rule if he had the power to do so—which, of course, he has. I wasn't very hopeful about the outcome because of two things. President Bush kept avoiding the word blind, gingerly referring to us as the non-sighted, and he said that Secretary of Transportation Skinner had personally tested an airplane door to see whether an individual without sight could open it—which is comparable to my going (with my lack of experience) to a hospital to see what can be done with surgical instruments.
The President assigned his lawyer, Boyden Gray, to look into the matter and get back to me. The results were what might have been expected. Mr. Gray did not talk to us, nor did he look at the video tape of our test evacuation of an airplane. Instead, he talked with Secretary of Transportation Skinner, who told him that we constituted a safety hazard—which data he ceremonially transmitted to me.
So was it just an exercise in futility? Not at all. This is where perspective helps. In 1940 Dr. tenBroek was not able even to get a hearing from President Roosevelt even though two United States senators tried to help him do it. Moreover, my talk with President Bush was only one brief skirmish in our long airline fight, and the history of our past efforts tells us that we will ultimately win. It is true that Dr. tenBroek did not get to talk with President Roosevelt, but it is also true that most of the Social Security reforms for which he fought have been adopted—and mostly they have been adopted through the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind.
Likewise, we lost the recent motion to cut off debate on our airline bill in the United States Senate, but we had fifty-six votes. And when has any other group in the blindness field ever been able to bring a bill of its own to the floor of the United States Senate and have it be the pending business of that body for several days? Never—and never with the number of votes we mustered. Again, this was only a single skirmish in an individual battle in a long war—a war which has been going on for more than a century, a war which we are winning, and a war which we intend to finish.
Yes, our history provides us with both inspiration and perspective—and it also gives us the basis for prediction. Of course, no individual can be sure of what will happen tomorrow, but I feel absolutely certain that this organization will continue to grow and lead the way in improving the quality of life for the blind. The outward appearance of the issues may shift, but the basics will not change—not until we have achieved equal treatment and first-class status in society. And we will achieve it.
In examining our past I have not attempted to assess my own role and contributions. How could I? I have been too close, loved too deeply, put too much of my life into the process. All I can say is this: When Dr. tenBroek was dying, I made certain pledges to him. I have tried to keep those pledges. I shall always try to keep them. And when in 1986 I thought the time had come that the movement would best be served by my leaving the presidency, I did it. The decision was not easy, but I think it was right. I believe that President Maurer was the best person we could have chosen for the position and that he will lead this organization into the twenty-first century—stronger, more vibrant, and more committed than it has ever been. And there is something more: I think the new generation that is on the horizon will provide leaders and members who will be present fifty years from now when we meet for our hundredth anniversary. We must never forget our history; we must never dishonor our heritage; we must never abandon our mission. With love for each other and faith in our hearts we must go the rest of the way to equal status and first-class membership in society. Let us march together to meet the future.
1. All of the material concerning Dr. Perry except what I got from my own discussions with him is taken from “Newel Perry: Teacher of Youth and Leader of Men,” by Jacobus tenBroek, Braille Monitor, February, 1976. The quotes from Dr. tenBroek are taken from letters in the files of the National Federation of the Blind.