Braille Monitor                          July 2019

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Dr. James Nyman: An Unconventional Man Embracing Unconventional Solutions

by Fredric Schroeder

From the Editor: When I heard about the death of Dr. James Nyman and saw nothing in the way of a tribute, I decided to write one myself. I interviewed about four people and begged others for a brief submission. One of those I asked was Fred Schroeder. He gave me much more than a few thoughts; he provided a tribute that I cannot match. I am grateful to those who gave me interviews and will briefly summarize what you told me.

People who worked for Dr. Nyman or who were students while he was the director remember him as a challenging man. At times he seemed more like the questioning, demanding professor he had previously been and less like an agency administrator. Words such as argumentative and curmudgeon are frequently used to describe him, but these characteristics have a positive side as well. They relate having to argue hard for what they wanted, sometimes being frustrated when they got less than they thought they had won through agreement, but everyone I talked with is unanimous in their belief that Dr. Nyman must be judged on the result of what he created. In that light he wins unanimous support. He hired the first blind mobility instructor and liked the results so much he did it again. He started the orientation center in Nebraska, and he staffed it with people who believed in the Federation philosophy. Though he excelled in and respected academia, he rejected the idea that his instructors must have a master’s degree. Instead he hired blind and sighted people based on their potential to be trained to instill a positive view of the students in themselves. His accomplishments can easily be seen through those who have gone on to be positive agents of change in the field and whose names are well-known to Monitor readers. Some of the changes were subtle: a woodshop that was never used before Dr. Nyman came to the agency that became the confidence-bolstering facility it was meant to be. The criticism he took for requiring staff to train under training shades and having students use them throughout their stay was significant, but he held firm. While he was not what many would consider a smooth traveler, using a shorter cane than many of his staff and students, on most days he ran the two-and-a-half miles to work. In so doing, he generated positive press about the mobility of blind people and helped establish a number of contacts through others who were running enthusiasts.

Here is what Fred has to say:

Dr. Nyman became director of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (at that time, Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired) in 1974. He brought Federation philosophy to the work of the agency at a time when the Federation was viewed with suspicion and outright hostility by other rehabilitation programs for the blind. The level of animus toward the Federation cannot be overstated; it was pervasive, intense, and deeply personal.

A decade and a half earlier, Dr. Jernigan had taken over the Iowa Commission for the Blind and set a new and dramatic standard in the rehabilitation field. In short order Dr. Jernigan developed a program of services rooted in Federation philosophy that completely eclipsed the work of other programs for the blind. By the mid-70s, we had Iowa and (to a far lesser extent) California and finally, with Dr. Nyman’s appointment, we had Nebraska—that was it.

So, what did Dr. Nyman do? At one level what he did was simple. He set about injecting our philosophy into the work of the agency in much the same way Dr. Jernigan did in Iowa, but it was not easy. It took courage and a deep and abiding belief in the ability of blind people to live as others.

In 1978 I graduated with a master’s degree in special education and was completing my professional training to teach orientation and mobility. At the 1978 national convention, Dr. Nyman sought me out and offered me a job. That took courage. He did not know me, and his agency was still in its early stage of development with critics on all sides. Yet, he hired me to teach cane travel at a time when the orientation and mobility profession would not certify blind people to teach cane travel; and I was not the only blind Federationist he hired. He hired me and others because he believed in blind people and was prepared to put his beliefs into action, even when it was not popular, even when it caused conflict and hostility.

One day Dr. Nyman called me into his office. He said he had received a call from the governor’s office. The governor’s chief of staff told Dr. Nyman that a state car was seen entering a large parking lot at a high rate of speed, performing a number of figure eight turns and leaving. Of course, Dr. Nyman knew I had taken a student on a drop route, an exercise in which students are deliberately disoriented and dropped off to find their way back to the agency. The figure eights were to heighten the drama, to make the whole experience more daunting so when the student made it back safely it would mean something profound. Dr. Nyman asked me what I thought he should tell the governor’s chief of staff. I said he should say we had a blind client lying on the back seat of the car and were trying to get him as lost as we could so we could drop him off and tell him to find his way back without assistance.

I knew Dr. Nyman understood what we were doing and why, but I did not realize at the time what he was up against. The agency was still relatively new, and we had critics. While it is hard to imagine, I am sure Dr. Nyman had to wonder how to balance our philosophy against the need to maintain our fragile support. In other words, it would have been so much easier to say, let’s take things a little slower, let’s not be quite so aggressive. Let’s take a safer and far less stressful approach and not be quite so radical. But, of course, that is not what he did. He believed in blind people, and he supported blind people in every way he could.

When Dr. Nyman hired me to teach cane travel, I had not finished the master’s program in orientation and mobility. He granted me leave with full pay for two consecutive summers to finish my master’s program even though I did not need the master’s to teach at the agency. He did it because he believed in me and because he believed that we needed to support one another in standing up against discrimination. Again, I did not need the master’s degree to teach in Nebraska, but blind people needed to stand up to the established orientation and mobility profession—a profession that believed it knew better than we what blind people could and could not do.

Dr. Nyman’s legacy endures. Nearly a half century later, the Nebraska Commission for the Blind continues to be a leader in rehabilitation of the blind, but that speaks only to professional accomplishment, not to his personal human qualities.

Many who knew Dr. Nyman were terrified of him. He was a crusty and sardonic fellow who enjoyed mental sparring to the point of intellectual gymnastics. But that did not mean he was unkind or uncaring; just the opposite. One day many years later, I called Dr. Nyman, and when he answered the phone, I said, “Dr. Nyman, I presume.” He retorted something to the effect, “That is quite a presumption and one you would be hard put to defend.” I said, “You presume I wish to defend my presumption, an indefensible presumption if I ever heard one.”

It is easy to look at where we are and forget how we got here. Dr. Nyman’s life reminds us of the power of courage and the power of justice. It reminds us that change is born of pain and strife. It reminds us that our obligation is to do what we can, do what is right, not just what is easy. I do not remember Dr. Nyman ever praising me, but I felt his kindness and support and feel it to this day. He gave me a job when I had none, and he gave me his friendship and loyal support for all of my adult life. Would that I could do as much!

Rest in peace.

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