TO PARK OR NOT TO PARK

by Kenneth Jernigan

As those who have read previous Kernel books know, I have been blind since birth and grew up on a farm in Tennessee. After attending the state school for the blind and going to college for undergraduate and graduate degrees, I returned to the Tennessee School for the Blind for four years as a teacher, hoping not only to teach something useful to blind youngsters but also (if I could) to serve as a role model and a stimulus to accomplishment.

Then, from 1953 to 1958 I taught at California’s training center for blind adults-again, trying to act as a role model and provide stimulation and encouragement. In fact, my primary task was to help those who came to the Center to examine blindness and their attitudes about it; to understand that they could still be competitive, productive members of society; and that they could not have the privileges of full citizenship without also assuming its responsibilities.

In 1958 I went to Iowa to become director of the State Commission for the Blind, which administered a training center and other programs. Once more, I found myself examining with my trainees and students what blindness was really like, not just what it was thought to be like. How many special privileges should we take-or, for that matter, even want? What did we owe to society, and what to ourselves? How important was it to avoid offending well-intentioned sighted people who offered help that we felt we didn’t need and what long-term effect would our actions have upon us and other blind people, as well as upon the members of the sighted public? Such discussions led to difficult soul searching-especially as we related them to our daily behavior. Of course, I was not just dealing with what my students felt and did but also with my own attitudes and conduct. Self-deception is one of the easiest and most dangerous mistakes that a person can make.

As director of the Iowa State Commission for the Blind, I frequently had business at the State Capitol. Ordinarily there was no trouble finding a parking place quite close to the building. However, from January until some time in the late spring or early summer the legislature was in session, and the Capitol was always crowded. Correspondingly, the Capitol grounds and parking areas were filled with cars, and if one arrived after 7:30 in the morning, he or she was likely to have to walk several blocks. If one is not in a hurry and the weather is pleasant (as, for instance, in early May with the birds singing, the sun shining, and the appropriations settled), such walking may be good for both body and soul, evoking thoughts of a just providence and a well-ordered world; but if the time is January and the snow lies deep on the ground (with legislators to meet and appropriations to justify), the perspective changes.

Now, it so happens that in the Iowa of that day I was a public figure of considerable note, treated with respect and deference. Therefore, when I traveled by automobile to the Capitol to transact this or that piece of business, the security guards were pleased to see me and offer assistance. There was at the very door of the Capitol a parking place reserved for the handicapped, and I was a blind person. The security guards insisted that I take the parking place. More than that: They were hurt and offended if I indicated that I would park elsewhere and walk back in the snow like everybody else.

The problem was not the guards or my colleagues in government or the general public. All would have been glad to have me use the handicapped parking place. No, that is an understatement. They would have felt downright good about it.

The problem was not with them. It was with me. I knew that I could walk as well as anybody else and that (regardless of technicalities or public misconceptions) the intent which had led to the enactment of the handicapped parking permit law was to provide easy access to the building for those who had trouble in walking and truly needed it. Yet, I like comfort and approval as well as the next person. It was not pleasant to walk through the cold, wet Iowa snow in January, and it was not satisfying to hear the tone of disappointment and hurt in the voices of the security guards when I declined the use of the space, regardless of how courteously and appreciatively I did it. And it was not a matter which could be faced, settled once and for all, and then put behind me. It happened over and over-because, as I have already said, I had frequent business at the State Capitol in January, and the snow storms came with discouraging regularity. So my Federationism and my bodily comfort, my wish to be honest and consistent and my wish to be polite and thought of as a good fellow-in short, my spiritual aspirations and my bodily desires-were in continuous conflict.

What do you think I did? In the circumstances what would you have done? Whoever says that the world is not filled with temptations (for the blind as well as for the sighted) is either a naive nincompoop or a barefaced liar. Of such is humanity made-neither angel nor devil but somewhere between, and always becoming.