by Jennifer Kennedy and Steve Jacobson
From the Editor: If ever you wanted to get lost on a desert island with two friendly, intelligent, and helpful people, these authors would be good choices. Together, they have tackled a difficult task in trying to sum up the life and work of a major Federation leader, one who was also their friend and mentor.
When I got really active in the Federation, Joyce Scanlan was in the middle of most everything that mattered. She was a good writer, an excellent speaker, and her passion came through in everything she did. Here is what those who knew her better than I did have to say:
How can one describe in words a person they have known for almost fifty years? All of us who knew Joyce Scanlan were aware of the fact that she had a previous heart attack four years ago. We were nevertheless surprised when we heard, on December 29th, that she had passed away from heart failure.
Joyce Hoffa attended her first national convention in Minneapolis in 1970. Shortly after that convention, she became a member of the Minnesota Organization of the Blind beginning her journey in the Federation. To better understand her journey, though, we need to look back further.
Even as a young person with some remaining vision, she had encountered the limitations of the rehabilitation system. Her first dream after finishing high school at the North Dakota School for the Blind was to attend the University of North Dakota and become an English teacher, but her first counselor thought that she would be an excellent Dictaphone operator. These were devices upon which letters and documents were recorded to be typed on paper later. Joyce resisted this suggestion, and her wishes prevailed. However, after teaching English and Latin in North Dakota and Montana for a time, glaucoma claimed the rest of her vision. Since she did not have the necessary alternative skills to remain in that position at that time, Joyce decided to move to Minneapolis and go back to the rehabilitation system to chart another course for her life.
Although Joyce admitted she was angry and very discouraged, the rehabilitation system again let her down. In an interview Joyce explained that her counselor during the late 1960s suggested that if she worked hard to learn the skills of blindness, they might be able to secure a position for her in a sheltered workshop. She apparently did spend a short time working in the shop at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind.
With this as her life experience to that point, the 1970 convention was a life-changing event for Joyce. She found blind people who were successful. There were even meetings of blind teachers. She met people who were bringing her dreams to life, and it is accurate to say that this experience lit a fire within her to make things better for blind people.
In 1971 Joyce Hoffa together with Tom Scanlan, Mary Hartle, and others started a students' division in Minnesota, which became a forum for change. In 1972 she became the vice president of the Minnesota Organization of the Blind, winning that election by two votes. The Minnesota Organization of the Blind also changed its name that same year to the National Federation of Blind of Minnesota. One year later she became the state president by a slightly wider margin, a position she held for thirty-four years. In 1974 she married Tom Scanlan, who had just been elected treasurer, and they worked as a team throughout her presidency. Tom served as treasurer for forty years.
As a newly elected president, Joyce had a difficult job. The major focus of the organization she now led was operating a home for the blind. When the Home and Industrial Center for the Blind was established in the late 1920s, it was a vibrant place for young blind people to get a start in the world as adults. For most of its existence, there were no laws that protected blind people from discrimination in housing and finding a place to live was difficult. By the 1970s though things had changed for the better for blind people, and operating the home successfully was much more difficult and much less important. Still, it had been the focus of the organization and many of its members for more than forty years. As president she had to ensure that it was operated safely while working to move away from operating such a facility. Little did she know at the time that learning how to hire staff and to contract to repair a leaky roof would be very useful to her in the future. It took seven more years to convince members that the Home needed to close and to successfully find alternative living arrangements for the residents. At the same time, many other things were occurring that required her attention.
Under her leadership there were successes in the Minnesota legislature. A law was passed that required that insurance companies could not charge more to insure blind persons without actuarial evidence to justify any higher rates.
Disabled people were added to the protections offered by Minnesota's human rights laws but not without a struggle. The NFB of Minnesota, led by Joyce, introduced the first legislation to make this happen and were told by others that nobody would oppose such a law. However the legislation failed, but she and the NFB of Minnesota went back a second time with additional support and were successful.
In the 1980s a combination of threatened legislation and negotiation led to the transfer of State Services for the Blind from its more than thirty years in the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Jobs and Training, which is known today as the Department of Employment and Economic Development or DEED. Around the same time there was a strong move to completely close the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School, even though many rural school districts did not have adequate special education services. Joyce was very active in pushing to keep the school open and also to move it from the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Education, where it still exists today as the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind.
As one who struggled with reading print and then switched to Braille has her method of reading, Joyce understood through her own life experience how important it was to learn and use Braille. For that reason and others, she led the effort to pass legislation that raised the visibility and the priority of teaching Braille in the education of blind children. Far too often it was felt that reading by audio or magnified print at twenty words per minute was adequate.
If you were able to ask Joyce, she would tell you with conviction that she did not accomplish these things on her own. She would tell you that several long-time members of the affiliate, particularly Ingwald Gunderson, taught her a great deal about the legislative process. Yet perhaps beyond what she understood, her strength, persistence, and a long view of what had to be done carried the rest of us well beyond what we would have managed on our own.
Drawing again from her life experiences, Joyce led the NFB of Minnesota to become more involved in advocating for blind people who were not getting a fair deal. In 1974 she reported to the national convention the story of Lawrence Kettner. His time studies had been manipulated to justify paying him less than the minimum wage in the sheltered workshop operated by the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. She not only brought this situation to light, but she was able to help him get a job in private industry even as he was forced to sign a waiver that he could not work competitively. Lawrence went on to win awards as a successfully employed person with a disability. It would be impossible to list the numerous other advocacy cases in which Joyce played a significant role, but the tradition of advocacy work that she helped to establish within the NFB of Minnesota lives on.
A significant part of Joyce's ability to lead came from her honesty and ability to learn. Judy Sanders, a longtime member in Minnesota, remembers meeting Joyce at the first Leadership Seminar back in 1973, well before Judy moved to Minnesota. Part of that and many other seminars which were conducted by our national President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, included going to a restaurant where one grilled their own steak over a large charcoal pit. Judy did not feel comfortable sharing her opinion that she could not manage this and was not sure how to handle the situation. However she remembers that Joyce did express her reservations regarding her ability to take on this task. Dr. Jernigan assured both of them that he would not force them to grill their steaks, but in the end both Judy and Joyce cooked their steaks. Judy says it is the best steak she ever ate, and it happened partly by watching Joyce confront a somewhat frightening situation openly and then overcoming it.
One of the challenges in the 1970s was preserving the image of blind people while running a home for the blind. Many residents did not have the alternative skills of blindness that would have allowed them to travel more independently, so there were gates at the top of each stairway. Joyce decided to remove those gates and teach the residents how to travel more independently. The residents and many of the members of the NFB of Minnesota protested loudly. Dr. Jernigan reminded Joyce that some of the residents did not have the benefit of good training. He also pointed out that her margin of victory as president was narrow, and she needed all of the votes she could get to achieve long-term success in other areas. Joyce considered all that was said and returned the gates while offering to help residents to improve their ability to travel independently. It is reported that Dr. Jernigan said something like "When you have the votes, you can afford to be gracious. When you don't have the votes, you must be gracious."
This combination of honesty together with her willingness to learn gave her credibility. When she talked of the importance of Braille, we knew that she had worked hard as an adult to increase her reading speed. When she spoke of the unfairness of practices in sheltered workshops, we knew she had seen examples at close range. When the campaign to get representation on the board of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind seemed impossible, her credibility as a leader and her long-range view carried us forward.
Joyce was elected to our national board in 1974. She went on to serve as national secretary in 1988 and became first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind in 1992. There she served until 2006. While serving in those positions, she was the national representative at many state conventions throughout the country. As a result she had the opportunity to meet many of our members, including Joanne Wilson.
During her time as the national representative at the 1985 state convention of the Louisiana affiliate, Joyce began to learn about a plan to open a regional training center for the blind. She was familiar with the Jernigan model of blindness skills training, the term used to describe the training that students received from the Iowa Orientation Center. She met many former students of the Iowa program and recognized such training was very limited throughout the country. Many of Dr. Jernigan’s students believed training infused with Federation philosophy should be available nationwide, and as a former student herself, Joanne Wilson shared that view. Joyce had much in common with Joanne. Both women understood their respective state training services were inferior to those that had been available in Iowa. Neither woman had been satisfied with their efforts to change what existed at present from the inside. In 1973 the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota even hired a home teacher to provide quality training to blind Minnesotans. Joyce obtained a contract with the state to pay for it, but lack of referrals from rehabilitation counselors caused the discontinuation of the project in only two years. By 1982, when it became apparent that changing the Minneapolis Society for the Blind from within its board was not going to succeed, the NFB of Minnesota was again considering its options to improve adjustment to blindness training.
Joanne went one step beyond employing one person as was done in Minnesota to make changes within the current system. She reported to the 1985 state convention about the design and recruitment of employees for a regional center to be opened in Ruston, Louisiana. The center would be based on experiences often referred to as the Jernigan Model, now known as Structured Discovery. Joyce had not considered a regional center as an option before attending the Louisiana convention and hearing Joanne describe her plan. She stated in an interview conducted with Ryan Strunk in November 2020 that she had a lot to think about after hearing about Louisiana’s plans. She stated, "We had a bit of funds available to us from the selling of the Minnesota Home for the Blind, but those funds wouldn’t carry us long. But, unlike anything ever tried before, this was our chance to really build something with Federationists and our beliefs at its foundation."
On December 31, 1986, Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) Inc. was incorporated with a board of directors comprised of NFB of Minnesota members with Joyce as its executive director. The name of the organization intentionally wanted the word "blind" to be the most prominent word in its title. Joyce had spent many years relying exclusively upon her remaining vision. She was even told that vision was what would make her successful, and this destructive message was delivered by rehabilitation professionals. Through her involvement in the National Federation of the Blind, she learned that it was respectable to be blind and felt the name for the training center was a good way to help others identify as blind. In 1987 an RFP went out from State Services for the Blind seeking providers of blindness training program contracts. BLIND Incorporated was awarded the grant that allowed the hiring of staff and the recruitment of students to proceed. The first two students began their training in January 1988.
Joanne Wilson said she remembers the early days of the three NFB training centers and the bond she shared with Joyce and Diane McGeorge of the Colorado Center for the Blind. Joanne stated, "We were these three women with strong personalities and big ideas. Back in those days you had to pay a fortune to talk on the phone via long distance, and mail was slow. We shared so many of the same experiences and emotions, bringing us closer together. I took comfort, especially when the hard days came, just knowing Joyce and Diane were right there with me."
BLIND Inc.’s programs were first held in two adjacent apartments, then relocated to an office building in downtown Minneapolis. The office of the NFB of Minnesota was within walking distance, facilitating Joyce's roles as NFB of Minnesota president and executive director of BLIND Inc. Tom recalls the effort it took to find a place where there was enough room to house all the programs Joyce wanted to undertake. Office spaces did not easily accommodate such things as a kitchen in which to teach home management techniques. Adequate space was very expensive. Minneapolis had several old mansions built in the early 1900s on the market at the time, making the pricing more competitive. Tom said the open floor plans of such mansions could be renovated to fit the training activities and even expand in later years. Office space for the NFB of Minnesota might also fit nicely into such a facility. Joyce was once recorded as saying having a training center in the mansion would help extend the feeling of family to all its students and visitors. The Pillsbury mansion located at 100 East 22nd Street was purchased in 1993 through a joint venture between the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and Blindness, Learning in New Dimensions. Its occupants moved in the following year after several upgrades including an elevator in the back that had to conform to requirements of being an historical site. The mansion today is still the affiliate headquarters and the primary building for BLIND Inc.’s programming.
Under her supervision the center’s programming grew from adjustment to blindness training for adults to programs for seniors, college-bound students, immersion training for rehabilitation professionals, and an extensive program for English Language Learners (ELL). The ELL program was designed to meet the needs for the large immigrant and diverse population of Minnesota. Joyce served as executive director from 1986 until she retired in 2003. Jennifer Kennedy, its current executive director, said, "There’s a sense of overwhelming gratitude in holding a position that was built by a woman who left an enormous impact on so many, paving the way for women like me."
After Joyce retired from BLIND Incorporated she served as president of the NFB of Minnesota for another four years. After that she founded the NFB of Minnesota's Seniors Division. She helped run several "Possibilities Fairs," and she taught classes for seniors at BLIND Incorporated. Finally, Joyce and Tom welcomed many members into their home throughout her presidency and beyond. Her Christmas dinners and St. Patrick's Day parties touched hundreds of people over the years.
We are very fortunate in the National Federation of the Blind to have many top-quality leaders, and Joyce was certainly among that group. We worked with her as a human being with strengths and weaknesses, something we all find in each other when we go beyond acquaintances, beyond friends, and become a family in every respect except biology. We remember her for what she gave us through her leadership, and the very least we can do in her memory is to try to take what she gave us as a leader and pass her gift forward to the next generation. This is our commitment to her legacy and to the future she would still be working to build were it not for the mortality that claims every body that temporarily houses every fine and giving spirit.