In the same year, 1996, Dr. Jernigan spoke to the Convention of the National Federation of the Blind on the topic of the revolution of the Kernel Books. Sometimes a very simple straightforward writing can make a dramatic change, and the Kernel Books have done just that.

In his address to the Convention, Dr. Jernigan included (along with other material) his "Editor’s Introduction" and the title article from the Kernel Book Old Dogs and New Tricks. This is what he said:



An Address Delivered By Kenneth Jernigan

At the Convention

Of the National Federation of the Blind

Anaheim, California, July 2, 1996

Revolution, the dictionary tells us, is "sudden or momentous change." It is "activities directed toward bringing about basic changes in the socioeconomic structure, as of a minority or cultural segment of the population." By these standards, what we have achieved during the past five years in writing, publishing, and distributing the Kernel Books is a revolution. We have brought about a "sudden" and "momentous change" in attitudes about the blind, our own attitudes and those of society. We have initiated "activities directed toward" causing "basic changes in the socioeconomic structure of a minority, a cultural segment of the population." And we have done it in half a decade.

We produced the first Kernel Book (What Color is the Sun) in 1991. In 1992 we published The Freedom Bell and As the Twig is Bent. In 1993 it was Making Hay and The Journey. In 1994, Standing on One Foot and When the Blizzard Blows. Last year it was Toothpaste and Railroad Tracks, and Tapping the Charcoal; and today, we are releasing Old Dogs and New Tricks. The eleventh Kernel Book (Beginnings and Blueprints) is already written and ready for publication. It will be released sometime this fall. More than three million of the Kernel Books are now in circulation, and the demand for them grows every day.

These are the facts, the statistics, easily gathered and quickly told. But revolutions are made of more than facts. They consist of intangibles-burdens that tax the spirit, toil that has no drama, belief that buoys hope, and dreams that cross the night to span the day. Revolution? From these little books? Yes, revolution. Never mind that the tone is gentle and the message nonconfrontive. The effect is felt, and basic changes are being made in the socioeconomic structure. Here are samples of typical letters:

Fall, 1993

Dear Sir:

To read this valuable little book, The Journey, and to learn of the great accomplishments of the blind in spite of the odds, and to learn how we the members of the sighted public are sometimes unwittingly detrimental is a shock, but an eye opener. This should be read by everybody, and I am loaning my copy to various acquaintances. God bless the work you do.

November, 1994

Thanks so much for the books. As I sat reading Making Hay, nonstop with the use of my magnifier, I felt comforted as if by an old friend. I have lived with what I have called "eye problems" all of my life, but now I think I can begin adjusting to my blindness.

I’m not really familiar with NFB since it was only by chance that I got your address to begin with, so being new, I need all the help I can get. The NFB sounds like a wonderful family to belong to, an inspiration to all and a place where people can be understood. You speak of four books. May I now receive the others?

Thank you again for giving me hope.

February, 1992

I received a book called What Color is the Sun about six months ago, and since I have read it, my life has been changed. I wasn’t going to read it at first. I just tossed it onto the nightstand.

However, one night I decided to read a few pages to see what it was about. I started reading, and I was so interested in the different stories that before I knew it, I was halfway through the book. I have read it three times. And every time, I feel that I’m in each story. I was wondering if there is any other material like this that I can get. I never have liked to read, but these stories touch my heart. I’m only twenty-two years old, but after reading your books, I feel that I have lived in the thirties and forties.

May, 1995

Recently I discovered your little book The Freedom Bell. I picked it up from a table in a retirement home. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to discover somebody who cares enough to answer our questions. My sight has been deteriorating rapidly, and it is very scary. I am desperately serious. I need your help. I neglected to tell you my age. I am eighty-three, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sharp.

July, 1995

The course that I taught this past spring at the university was a real success. I had thirty-four students-most of them studying special education. The course was entitled: The Education of Sensory-Impaired Children.

I began each class period with a discussion of an assigned essay from What Color is the Sun. The discussions were lively and valuable. I felt that my students learned a great deal about blindness-mostly what blindness does not mean. I am sure that the articles had quite an impact upon their view of blindness. We read every article in the book.

Will I use one of your books next year? I certainly will-either the same one or another Kernel Book.

September, 1991

Thank you, thank you for the book What Color is the Sun. I am sighted but can’t find the words to describe what that book has done for me. It really opened my eyes!

Never again will I gaze upon blindness with a sort of indifference, which I am afraid I have done most of my eighty years. Sighted people NEED the exposure this book gives, and thank God it came my way.

September, 1991

My name is April, and I am twelve years old. I’m not blind, but I have read your book What Color is the Sun. I now think I should thank you for publishing it. Out of the one hundred twenty pages I learned a lot about blindness. I used to feel sorry for blind people. Now I realize that I made a big mistake.

I just felt I should thank you from the bottom of my heart. THANK YOU!

These are just a few of the many letters that we are increasingly receiving. They tell, as nothing else could, of a new way of thought about blindness that is sweeping the land, and they speak of the effectiveness of the Kernel Books. Since we are releasing the tenth Kernel Book today (Old Dogs and New Tricks), let me use its introduction and first article to show you how the revolution is being accomplished. Here is the introduction:

With this volume we publish the tenth Kernel Book. The first nine have been well received. No, they have been more than that. The comments have been nationwide and enthusiastic. I think it is not too much to say that these little books are playing a significant part in changing what it means to be blind in America in the last decade of the twentieth century.

And what are the Kernel Books about? They deal with blindness, but not in a medical or professional way. They are a departure from what is usually written, an attempt to take the mystery out of blindness by giving firsthand accounts of how blind people live on a daily basis. Other firsthand stories about blindness have been written, of course, but not in such large numbers and not in this format.

Year after year and book after book we are building a picture that shows what blind people are really like and how they feel. The details differ, but the pattern is the same. In effect, the people who are writing in these pages are saying:

Blindness is not as strange as you may think it is, and it doesn’t have to be as terrifying. I am blind, and this is how I lead my daily life-not just in broad terms but in my activities. Here is how I know whether a light is on when I enter a room-how I cook my food, raise my children, and participate in church activities. Mostly my life is just about like yours. It has more detail than drama about it, being a mixture of joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

I don’t spend most of my time thinking about blindness. It is simply one of the facts of my life. I remember it when I need to, but that’s about all. I think about who is running for president, last night’s dinner, and today’s discussion with a friend.

This is what the people who appear in this book are saying. I know them. They are friends of mine, colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind. Some have been my students. I have met others in a variety of ways. But by and large, our common bond is the National Federation of the Blind.

In fact, the National Federation of the Blind has been the vehicle for improving the quality of life for blind people throughout the country. It has certainly changed my life, teaching me to think about my blindness in new ways and helping me understand what I can do and be.

The Federation is a nationwide organization primarily composed of blind people. It is a self-help and self-support organization, believing that blind people should take responsibility for their own lives and that what they need is training and opportunity, not dependence and lifelong care. The Federation believes that blind people can and should do for themselves, that they should work with each other and cooperate with their sighted neighbors to make the world a better place than it was when they entered it.

As to the specifics of the present Kernel Book, the title pretty much says it. It is never too late to learn new techniques and new ways of thought. This is true for the blind as well as the sighted, the old as well as the young. We hope you will enjoy these stories and that whether your goal is to climb a mountain or knit a sweater, you will succeed-and that along the way you will learn new tricks.

Kenneth Jernigan

Baltimore, Maryland


That is the introduction. Now, let me share with you the first article. It is written by me (editors take such prerogatives), and it is the title story of the collection. Here is what it says:

Old dogs, we are told, can’t learn new tricks. Maybe-but dogs aren’t human. What about humans? Can they learn new tricks? Specifically, can a person who becomes blind in adult life learn to function independently? And what about children? A blind child grows up in a world designed for the sighted. If the child is to learn to get along, he or she must find different techniques from those used by sighted associates and friends.

Can it be done? Of course it can. It happens every day. The question is not whether but how. Make it personal. What about you? If you became blind tomorrow, could you manage? How would you handle the hundreds of details of your daily life?

When I was a child, I had a little sight-not much, but a little. If it wasn’t too bright or too dark, I could see step-ups. I couldn’t see step-downs, but I could see the lines and shadows of the step-ups. I could see the contrast between a sidewalk and grass, and I could see the difference between the country road that ran by the farm where I lived and the vegetation on either side of it. At night I could see the moon if it was full, but not the stars.

It wasn’t much, but it helped. I could go into a room at night, for instance, and immediately tell whether the light was on; and in the daytime I could tell whether there was a window, and where it was. Under the right lighting conditions, I might be able to see an open door, and I might be able to tell where a person or a tree was. Sometimes yes-sometimes no. It was deceptive, and it caused me bumps and bruises-but I managed.

When I was in my early thirties, I lost all sense of dark and light. It happened so gradually that I wasn’t aware of it until I thought back a few weeks and realized what I wasn’t seeing. For all intents and purposes I was totally blind from childhood, but shortly after I became thirty, there was no doubt about it. I was-and almost forty years later, I still am.

With that background, let me talk about techniques. How do blind people function? How do they manage the nuts and bolts of daily life? More particularly, how do I do it? I can’t give you a complete catalogue, of course, but I can give you a sample.

Let’s begin with whether a light is on in a room. When I was a boy on the farm in Tennessee, it was a kerosene (or, as we called it, a coal oil) lamp. Today in my home in Baltimore it is an electric light. But the problem is the same. How do I know whether the light is on?

In most situations there is a switch on the wall, and if it is up, the light is on. If it is down, the light is off. But there are three- and four-way switches, allowing a person to turn a light on in one part of the house and turn it off in another.

I have just such an arrangement in the house where I now live. You can turn the hall light on at the front door, at the back door, or on the stair landing. The ceiling is too high for me to reach the light bulb to know whether it is giving out heat, so unless I come up with some kind of non-visual technique, I won’t be able to tell. Yet, there are times when sighted people visit me and then leave without telling me whether they have turned off the light. If my wife has gone to bed (which sometimes happens), I either have to have some way to know whether the light is on, or else take a chance on letting it burn all night.

The technique I use is really quite simple, and it is quick and efficient. Several years ago a friend gave me a set of musical teacups for Christmas. If you pick one of them up, it plays You Light Up My Life. When you set it down, it stops. I was curious about this and, after experimenting, found that when light hits the bottom of the cup, it starts the music.

I think the cups cost six or seven dollars apiece, and I have a half-dozen of them. I also now have a perfect light detector. I have stored five of the cups in the attic and have left one of them sitting on the kitchen counter.

Now, if I want to know whether a light is on anywhere in the house, all I have to do is pick up my teacup and walk through the rooms. It’s quick, and it works. There are fancy light detectors that have been invented for the blind (detectors that cost a good deal more than six dollars), but I don’t need them. My teacup works just fine.

Before leaving the kitchen, let me deal with carrying liquid. If the glass or cup isn’t full, there isn’t any trouble. It doesn’t matter if the container isn’t exactly level. But if you want a full glass of water as a measure for cooking rice or something else, it does matter.

In such cases I used to have difficulty in carrying the container level and keeping the water from spilling. But not anymore. The technique I use is amazingly easy, and I think it will work for anybody. I wish I had thought of it sooner. I pick up the glass in one hand with my thumb on one side of it and my index finger across from it on the other side of the glass. I am holding the glass at the top, outside of the rim. My hand is above the glass, and I hold it loose enough for it to find its own level. It works well, and I rarely spill a drop. Try it.

There isn’t any magic about these techniques. It is simply a matter of thinking them up and doing a little experimenting. I know a blind woman, for instance, who doesn’t pour vanilla or other similar liquids into a quarter teaspoon-or, for that matter, a teaspoon or a tablespoon. She puts the liquid into a small jar, bends the spoon handle until the bowl of the spoon is parallel with the floor, and then dips the liquid. It gives a perfect measure, and it’s no trouble at all. Of course, if your measuring spoons are plastic, it won’t work. Get spoons that are metal.

Then there is the matter of cooking eggs. If you want them scrambled, there isn’t any problem, but what if you want them fried? The same woman who taught me about the measuring spoons also taught me about egg frying.

Take a tuna can, or some other can about that size, and cut both ends out of it. Get your frying pan to the temperature you want; place the open-ended can or cans in the pan; and break the egg into the can.

You can touch the top of the can to tell where it is, and when you get ready to turn the egg, slide a spatula under the bottom of the can, and pick the egg up. It will be perfectly formed, and you can turn it without difficulty.

I understand that blind persons are not the only ones who sometimes have trouble turning the eggs they are frying. Some sighted persons have the same difficulty. Egg templates are sold commercially, I am told, using essentially the technique I have described-but why bother? The tuna can works just fine, and there isn’t any point in wasting money or going to extra trouble.

Some commercial gadgets are really an advantage in cooking. Earlier, I mentioned rice. Commercial rice-cookers solve a lot of problems-at least, the one at my house does.

My wife is sighted, and I am blind, but we both use and like the rice-cooker. You put twice as much water as rice into it, and you turn it on. You don’t do anything else. When the rice is done, the cooker knows and it turns itself off-no sticking, no stirring, no wondering about how long to cook or when to take it up.

That rice-cooker also knows other things, and it has a mind of its own. Once I was cooking oatmeal, and the cooker turned itself off before I thought the oatmeal was ready. I turned it back on, but it dug in its heels. It turned itself right off again. The cooker was right. The oatmeal was done.

As I think about it, I suppose the cooker has a thermostat, which begins to show a rise in temperature when a given quantity of the liquid has boiled away. At that stage it probably turns itself off, but I really don’t know. After all, I am not interested in the mechanics of rice-cookers. I just want to get a good bowl of rice or oatmeal or whatever else it is I want for breakfast or dinner.

Sometimes the techniques I devise almost get me into trouble. Last summer is a good example. As you know I plan conventions and make hotel arrangements for the National Federation of the Blind. The meeting I have in mind was to be held in Chicago last summer.

A lot of hotels have stopped using regular metal keys and have gone to a plastic card with a magnetic strip on it. I can see their point. The cards cost almost nothing while metal keys are expensive, and if somebody carries a hotel key away or loses it, the hotel has to go to the expense of changing the lock and replacing the key.

The combination on the magnetic lock, however, can be changed from the hotel’s front desk by a computer that is connected to all of the rooms. It is inexpensive and efficient. But the card must be inserted into the door lock in exactly the right way, the proper end and the proper side being placed just so.

The card is shiny plastic, so how does a blind person know which side of it to place up and which end to insert? One way to do it, of course, is by trial and error. After all, there are only four ways it can go-but sometimes even if you have the card right, it doesn’t work on the first try. So the whole thing can be a nuisance if you can’t tell which side of the card is which.

But in most cases you can. Ordinarily the magnetic strip is slightly slicker than the rest of the card, and quite easy to feel. Usually it goes on the bottom and toward the right. Even if you couldn’t tell by this method, any enterprising blind person would make a little nick in the card or do something else just as simple.

When I was planning for last summer’s convention, I met with the hotel staff to talk to them about the do’s and don’ts. Mostly I wanted to put them at ease and help them realize that they didn’t need to go to extra expense or trouble just because they were dealing with blind people.

In this context I told them about the hotel keys and showed them that the magnetic strip was easy to identify by touch. I said that they didn’t need to spend any time or money making extra marks on the cards for those attending the convention. They said they understood, and we passed on to other things.

When the date of the convention arrived and I checked into the hotel, the man behind the desk handed me a magnetic key and told me with great satisfaction that he had specially marked it with tape so that I could tell which side of it was which. What was I to do? If I told him that I didn’t need the marking and showed him how easy it was to feel the magnetic strip, he would likely be embarrassed and maybe even angry. If I didn’t tell him, the hotel would spend time and money on marking the keys and doing similar things, and then probably feel that our meeting was less valuable than others because of the extra trouble and expense.

I handled it as gently and as well as I could, talking again to all of the hotel staff the next day and mentioning the matter in general terms. In one form or another this is a problem that blind people face again and again. It has no easy solution.

Most people have great good will toward us. They think that if they were blind, they wouldn’t be able to do anything at all, so they try to figure out ways to help us. The situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes the help is needed, but very often it isn’t. I don’t know of any way to deal sensibly with the matter except to try to get people to approach us straight on and without a lot of emotion. If somebody wonders whether we need help, ask us. If we say no, accept it. If we say yes, accept that too.

As a further complication, what happens if a blind person is rude or touchy when help is offered? Most of us aren’t, but unfortunately (just as with the sighted) a few of us are. Whether sighted or blind, not everybody is an angel-or, for that matter even a responsible, everyday citizen.

My answer is that we who are blind should be treated the way you would treat anybody else. How would you deal with a sighted person who behaved rudely toward you? Deal with the blind person the same way. Hopefully, most of us (blind or sighted) will treat each other with consideration and respect.

The techniques to permit a blind person to function on a daily basis are worth knowing. No, they are more than that. They are key to real independence and comfortable daily living. But they are not the most important thing that a blind person must learn. This brings me to the reason I have devoted so much of my life to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. In my opinion the National Federation of the Blind has done more than any other single thing to make life better for blind people in this country in the twentieth century.

I first became acquainted with the National Federation of the Blind in the late 1940’s when both it and I were a great deal younger than we now are. It and its brilliant president, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, helped me learn a whole new way of thought about what I was and what I could be. Dr. tenBroek taught by example. His blindness did not keep him from earning graduate degrees and being a respected college professor and Constitutional scholar. The same was true of others I met.

The National Federation of the Blind meant then (as it means today) that it is respectable to be blind, that blindness will not keep you from doing what you want to do or prevent you from being what you want to be if you have reasonable training and opportunity and if you do not think of yourself as a victim.

A core principle of the organization is that we as blind people do not want or need custody or paternalistic care, that we can and should do for ourselves, that we should not ask others for assistance until we have done all we can to solve our own problems, and that we (not the government) should have prime responsibility for our welfare and support.

Does this mean that we do not want or need help from others? No-quite the contrary. If we are to go the rest of the way to full participation and first-class status in society, it is true that we must do for ourselves, but it is equally true that we must have help and understanding from our sighted friends and the larger public. Without it we will fail.

Meanwhile, we will do what we can to help ourselves. And despite the old proverb, we think that (whether we are old or young) we can continue to learn.

That is the first article in the tenth Kernel Book. The others are: "The Sliding Board," "Tending to My Knitting," "Roller Coasters," "Serving Communion," and "Loving Elizabeth." Six articles plus the introduction, ninety-one pages. A little book-a revolutionary message.

When we think of the revolution of the Kernel Books and look back through the years to understand the present and reckon the future, we need to consider the accuracy of our past predictions. The exercise may give us both insight and humility. In 1973 (at that time I was still President of the Federation), I spoke at our convention banquet in New York City. The subject was blindness and history, and those who were there will remember that I ventured a prediction. I was talking about future historians and what they would say about our movement.

In the context of that ‘73 Convention my prediction seemed unlikely and far from the mark. Dr. tenBroek had died five years earlier, and the second generation of the movement was just coming to maturity. NAC (the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped) had been established in the mid-sixties, and with more than a hundred accredited organizations, it was threatening to sweep all before it. The agencies dominated the field-and we (unlike today) had scant resources, few friends, and many opponents. In such an atmosphere the prediction I made at the 1973 banquet seemed nothing less than visionary. This is what I said:

While no man can predict the future, I feel absolute confidence as to what the historians will say. They will tell of a system of governmental and private agencies established to serve the blind, which became so custodial and so repressive that reaction was inevitable. They will tell that the blind ("their time come ‘round at last") began to acquire a new self-image, along with rising expectations, and that they determined to organize and speak for themselves. And they will tell of Jacobus tenBroek-of how he, as a young college professor, (blind and brilliant) stood forth to lead the movement.

They will tell how the agencies first tried to ignore us, then resented us, then feared us, and finally came to hate us-with the emotion and false logic and cruel desperation which dying systems always feel toward the new about to replace them.

They will tell of the growth of our movement through the forties and fifties and of our civil war. They will tell how we emerged from that civil war into the sixties, stronger and more vital than we had ever been; and how more and more of the agencies began to make common cause with us for the betterment of the blind. They will tell of our court cases, our legislative efforts, and our organizational struggles-and they will record the sorrow and mourning of the blind at the death of their great leader Jacobus tenBroek.

They will also record the events of the 1970’s when the reactionaries among the agencies became even more so, and the blind of the second generation of the NFB stood forth to meet them. They will talk of how these agencies established the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC), and with it tried to control all work with the blind, and our lives. They will tell how NAC and the other reactionary agencies gradually lost ground and gave way before us. They will tell of new and better agencies rising to work in partnership with the blind, and of harmony and progress as the century draws to an end. They will relate how the blind passed from second-class citizenship through a period of hostility to equality and first-class status in society. But future historians will only record these events if we make them come true. They can help us be remembered, but they cannot help us dream. That we must do for ourselves. They can give us acclaim, but not guts and courage. They can give us recognition and appreciation, but not determination or compassion or good judgment. We must either find those things for ourselves, or not have them at all.

That was 1973 (twenty-three years ago), and in broad terms the prediction has come true. The century draws to a close, and there is unprecedented harmony among agencies and organizations of and for the blind. But what about the future? What will our situation be like when we meet twenty-three years from now, in 2019?

By then the members of the first generation of the movement will almost certainly be gone, and so will many of those of the second, my generation. Even the numbers of the third generation will be thinning, and the fourth generation will be coming to dominance. And the fifth generation will be knocking at the door. The Federation will be seventy-nine years old, approaching the end of its first century. If I am still here, I will be ninety-two, undoubtedly more symbol than substance. Marc Maurer will be sixty-eight, either no longer President or coming close to the end of his time in office.

So what will the movement be like when we meet in 2019? The past five years have taught me that there will be undreamed-of surprises, for no one could possibly have foreseen the two most important events of this decade-the establishment of the Newsline Network and the coming of the Kernel Books. But if I am not sure of specifics, I am absolutely certain of the general direction our organization will take. Our mutual faith and trust in each other will be unchanged, and all else will follow. I never come into the convention hall without a lift of spirit and a surge of joy, for I know to the depths of my being that our shared bond of love and trust will never change and that because of it we will be unswervable in our determination and unstoppable in our progress.

As I said in 1973, we have come a long way together in this movement. Some of us are veterans, going back to the forties; others are new recruits, fresh to the ranks. Some are young; some are old. Some are educated, others not. It makes no difference. In everything that matters we are one; we are the movement; we are the blind.

And through the Kernel Books we are telling our story, in our own voice and our own way. My brothers and my sisters, let us continue to make it come true!