by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: The following article is reprinted with gratitude from the Winter 2016 edition of Future Reflections. Here is how it was introduced by Editor Deborah Kent Stein:
Peggy Chong is a longtime Federationist who has developed a deep interest in the lives of everyday blind people from the past. She says she draws renewed energy for her Federation activities by looking back at the struggles and triumphs of blind people who came before us:
When my daughter was six, she told me that when she grew up she wanted to be a cowboy, a nun, and a mommy. As most moms would, I told her that was great!
My daughter is sighted. The adults around her assumed that, when she reached the age to think seriously about her career options, she would realize on her own that being a cowboy, a nun, and a mommy all at once might present some problems. As it turned out, I did not have to explain why her career could not be all of the above. She is now a successful computer guru, like her dad.
Something different tends to happen when a blind child announces her future occupation. If a blind girl says to her parents, "I want to be a bus driver when I grow up," Mom or Dad is likely to say, "That sounds nice, dear. But you know, you can't get a driver's license. You're blind."
How is a parent to talk with a blind child about careers? What jobs have blind people chosen throughout history? In what careers can a blind person succeed today?
Over the past several years, I have researched the lives of blind men and women in the United States from the 1700s through the early years of the twentieth century. I have gathered some surprising information.
"But newspaper work is all print oriented!" you might say.
Francis O. Edgecomb was born in 1864 to a well-to-do family, and he obtained a college education. He and his family had great hopes for his future. In 1890 Edgecomb became a banker in Rulo, Nebraska. He rose quickly, not only in his local bank, but in the financial community in general. Then, in 1892, Francis Edgecomb was injured while he was out hunting prairie chickens. A friend shot him accidentally, and as a result he lost his sight.
Not knowing any other blind people, Edgecomb assumed that he could no longer run the bank. Because he had a wife and small children to support, he determined to find another line of work. The bank owned and operated the local newspaper. Edgecomb decided that he would become a newspaper editor.
At first Edgecomb performed all the tasks necessary to run the paper. Through the bank he had easy access to the news of the town. He also had a network of connections with businesses that would take out ads. He was so successful that he and his friends began to buy up other newspapers in the area. Soon Edgecomb was operating his own paper, the Geneva Signal.
Francis Edgecomb did not have training in the skills of blindness. However, he had a supportive family and the drive to succeed. If one strategy did not work, he tried another. He had a thirst to learn. Though he could not read print himself, he found people who could read to him. When he could not travel to the news, he found creative ways to make the news come to him. Today his great-grandson runs the Geneva Signal and all the other papers that Edgecomb purchased.
Was Francis Edgecomb an exception? Well, then there was William Cramer, who was deaf as well as blind. For seventy years he owned and operated a newspaper that is now the Wisconsin Journal. Robert Gust and his wife, who was also blind, ran one of the local newspapers in the new and growing town of Cyrus, Minnesota, for about ten years in the 1920s. Max Frost edited and ran the Santa Fe New Mexican for more than ten years, until his retirement in 1908. B. F. Ervine edited The Oregon Journal for many years and was a powerful political figure. Franklyn Bruce Smith worked for more than fifty years in the Saginaw, Michigan, area as a salesman, reporter, editor, and finally as the owner of a newspaper.
Thomas Muir of Plainfield, New Jersey, became blind as a young man while working as a reporter for a New York paper. He did not think that blindness would interfere with his career. In fact, he went on to become the editor of the Plainfield Record in New Jersey. He was elected to the state house of representatives and served for twenty-six years.
We do not have space to look at the lives and accomplishments of the many other blind newspapermen and women I have found. Here is a brief list: Siver Serumgard, North Dakota; Raymond Blackmer, Minnesota; Edwin Frost, Wisconsin; and Henry Belk, North Carolina. The list goes on.
Not so shocking!
Thomas Nicholson was the first blind electrician I ran across. Born in 1877, he lived in San Francisco. By the time he was fourteen, he and his sister were on their own. Nicholson became a messenger for the local phone company, where his sister also worked. He asked a lot of questions, wanting to learn all he could about the new invention, the telephone. At the age of seventeen he was blinded when a piece of copper wire broke off and struck him in the eye.
After he healed from his injury, Nicholson received blindness training, probably at the Home for the Adult Blind in Oakland. He learned to be a piano tuner, but he went back to the phone company and asked to become an electrician. It took a bit of convincing, but the company finally hired Nicholson to build telephones. The job required considerable knowledge of wiring and other electrical work.
Years later, also in California, a man named Jack Polston received wide publicity. Polston was established as an electrician when he was blinded in an explosion. He attended the blindness orientation center in Oakland, where he studied under Kenneth Jernigan and regained his confidence. After completing the program, he returned to his work as an electrician. Polston later testified before the US Congress, demonstrating that blind people can work successfully in the skilled trades.
Due to the labor shortage during World War II, many blind people obtained good jobs. They proved their ability and did well. Nevertheless, most of these blind workers were laid off when the sighted veterans came home. Irwin Herschkowitz was one of the fortunate exceptions. He got his first job as a radio mechanic during the war, and he kept his job with the air force for many years. He also worked as a telephone repairman.
Other blind electricians include Pat Knowles of New Jersey, Mike Mineweaser of Pennsylvania, and Joseph Remington of Michigan. I am sure there are even more that I haven't found yet.
Edward Max is the best documented blind barber I have discovered. Born in New York, he moved to Michigan and established a successful barbershop. When he was thirty-seven years old, he began to lose his sight very rapidly. At first he tried to ignore his vision loss, but soon he began to explore new ways to cut his clients' hair. His skills as a barber had long been sought after by clients in Detroit. Now he modified those skills so he could keep on shaving clients and cutting hair. He trained himself to listen to the many different sounds in his shop. As the boss, he managed the till. He could accurately charge a client for the services rendered by the barbers who worked under him. I have found references to at least four other blind barbers.
Yes, they made house calls.
We have all heard of Dr. Jacob Bolotin, who practiced medicine in Chicago from 1912 until his death in 1924. Well, there was yet another blind doctor in the Chicago area, Dr. Robert H. Babcock. Babcock became a renowned heart specialist. Born in 1851 and blinded at age thirteen, he set out to get a good education, beginning at a school for the blind in Philadelphia. He found out that several blind people had become lawyers, so for a time he studied law. However, his true love was medicine. He took the necessary courses and then, with his strong personality, he got to know the right people. He volunteered to serve in many capacities in medical associations, doing all that needed to be done. He wrote many papers and articles, and he addressed medical conferences around the United States.
Babcock kept in touch with blind people around the country, including other blind doctors. He promoted opportunities for blind people and served on the board of Outlook for the Blind, a publication of the American Foundation for the Blind. His intimate knowledge of the workings of the heart made him a sought-after consultant for other doctors.
Several blind people have worked in the field of chiropractic medicine. Henry Schluntz, a blind chiropractor from Iowa, hired a driver and visited all of the farms in the area. He provided home treatments to anyone who was interested, sometimes offering his services free of charge. In this way he built a loyal clientele, and eventually he became a millionaire.
In the past, traditional fields for blind people included piano tuning, chair caning, and weaving. Like Henry Schluntz, blind piano tuners found creative ways to recruit and keep clients. Several blind piano tuners in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, rode bicycles around town to transport their equipment, moving as fast as their sighted counterparts. Following the wagon ruts, they rode straight down the streets.
This is only a short summary of the inventive, enterprising blind workers whose stories I have uncovered in my research. I hope these accounts show that the choice of a career for a blind person is wide open. What matters is the person's drive and determination to do whatever the job requires and to do it well. The individuals I have described built successful and meaningful lives for themselves and their families. Some had blindness training, and others did not. None of them had the gadgets that make our lives so much easier today.
Back to the blind child who wants to be a bus driver, or an Uber driver, or an airplane pilot: why not? The self-driving Google car is now on the streets. Technology is advancing so fast that things we think are impossible today may be taken for granted next month. Still, technology doesn't have all the answers. Ingenuity is where it all begins.
For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax-deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.
With your help, the NFB will continue to:
Plan to Leave a LegacyCreating a will gives you the final say in what happens to your possessions and is the only way to be sure that your remaining assets are distributed according to your passions and beliefs. Many people fear creating a will or believe it’s not necessary until they are much older. Others think that it’s expensive and confusing. However, it is one of the most important things you will do, and with new online legal programs it is easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do decide to create or revise your will, consider the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary. Visit <www.nfb.org/planned-giving> or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2371, for more information. Together with love, hope, determination, and your support, we will continue to transform dreams into reality.