by Nancy Burns
From the Editor: Nancy Burns is a woman who knows the history of our organization and not just as a reader or an observer. She has been an active participant, and her distinguished service as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of California is a testament to the love felt for her and her ability to carry on the administration of fast moving and complex programs. Here is what she has to say about our history and what it suggests for our future advocacy when it comes to letting agencies speak for us:
Much of the history of our country has been created and was focused on a single and totally unique idea. In 1776, the words of Thomas Jefferson boldly proclaiming that “All men are created equal” resounded through our new country. Wars and unrest have followed and still occur as a result of this seemingly simple proclamation. This unique idea, however straightforward, is still being fought not only in the judicial system but in our very own streets. As our new country moved forward, a huge westward push emerged. Hundreds of early settlers grasped the idea to expand our new country westward. Wagons were supplied with food, clothing, and utensils of all kinds as the call of land, gold, or simply the idea of a new way of life called to the hearty and adventurous souls.
As this infant country emerged, many creative thinkers invented the radio, telephone, and even a horseless carriage. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries an explosion of progress in many areas became evident.
In 1886 the Statue of Liberty was erected on Ellis Island and welcomed immigrants to this growing nation. Landowners began using slaves to plow their vast plantations, to pick cotton, and to serve their masters. These practices clashed with the concept of equal rights. The question of civil rights began to loom on the horizon and conflict arose. War and controversy spilled over in our nation.
As agricultural issues were becoming over-shadowed by manufacturing, civil rights and issues of equality began to appear. Little attention was given to those citizens who were blind or otherwise disabled. In 1940 another forward thinker set forth a new and innovative idea about the role of the blind in this country but has received little acknowledgement in the history books. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, a young, blind professor, set forth the unique notion that the blind should have a voice in their own affairs. This thought-provoking proclamation has also created ripples throughout the country. Agencies established for the sole purpose of caring for the blind have been not only unhappy with this belief but have attempted to thwart such thoughts on the part of the public.
In 1940 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek brought together a group of sixteen blind people from seven states and organized the National Federation of the Blind. The seven states represented were California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This meeting was somewhat miraculous considering that in this time of our history blind people were considered to be either indigents or paupers and were mostly closeted with no voice in their affairs. Jacobus tenBroek was a true visionary and much like Martin Luther King, both had a dream of equality. He realized, even at this early time, that the plight of the blind was primarily the result of discrimination and untrue belief systems shared by the general public.
Since those early days, the NFB has encountered resistance from many but has steadily grown stronger and more influential. Agencies for the blind flourished and attempted to determine the path that blind citizens should follow. Sheltered workshops sprang up under the guise of employment for the blind. Blind workers were given menial tasks such as broom-making and basketry, and they were never encouraged to gain meaningful employment. These workers were paid disgraceful sub-minimum wages regardless of their actual abilities. Conditions were deplorable, and the issue of self-confidence was never addressed.
Unfortunately, there are still some agencies for the blind that have the mistaken idea that they know what is best for those of us who happen to be blind. Attempts continue to be made that these agencies should monitor, establish guidelines, and control agencies providing services for the blind. Little if any consideration is given to those successful agencies operated by blind professionals. Does it not seem reasonable that blind professionals have the knowledge and expertise to operate such training facilities? How is it that many sighted professionals are unable to understand the benefits of such programs?
The National Federation of the Blind has been strengthened by continued outstanding leadership. Following the incredible leadership of Jacobus tenBroek, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was elected president in 1968. The Jernigan administration launched the NFB into a new era of education. The goal to educate the sighted as well as the blind was enhanced by the creation of Kernel Books in 1991. He believed that these small books, written by blind people, would assist in the effort to educate the general public.
Dr. Jernigan did this and much more. A factory building in the south Federal Hill area of Baltimore was transformed into the National Center for the Blind. Leadership seminars, technology training, the aids and appliances programs, public service announcements, and the International Braille and Technology Center evolved within this building. Three residential training centers for the blind were established by the NFB in three states.
Dr. Marc Maurer, an attorney, was elected to the position of national President in 1986 and revealed his visions for the future. Ensconced in the philosophical foundations laid by tenBroek and Jernigan, Marc Maurer projected a renewed enthusiasm. The Jernigan Institute was established with an incredible ribbon-cutting ceremony. At his instigation the KNFB Reader was developed.
In his 2010 banquet address, he outlined the progress of the National Federation of the Blind and referred to himself as the third generation of the organization. He considered Dr. Jacobus tenBroek as the first generation; Dr. Kenneth Jernigan as the second generation; and that the fourth generation of Federationists was already handling much of the work of the Federation with the fifth generation on the horizon.
In 2014 yet another dynamic leader emerged. Mark Riccobono believes that we blind people have the right to live the lives we want. Live music and enthusiasm set the stage for this young, energetic leader.
Throughout the history of our nation, as well as that of the NFB, not all ideas are perceived to be good ideas. It is early in President Riccobono’s administration, but he is being challenged with troubling actions. Once again, agencies comprised of mostly sighted people seem to be intent on creating standards for programs that train blind individuals. Historical evidence points to the fact that the National Federation of the Blind will simply not allow these attempts to succeed. If necessary, we will again take to the streets with our message. This organization, aided by the profound leadership of blind men and women, will not allow blind people to be treated as second-class citizens. We have come too far to allow this to occur. It is imperative to maintain the high profile and professional standards that have been established by decades of devoted efforts. President Riccobono has proudly picked up the gauntlet and will lead the battle to allow blind citizens to live the lives we want.