In 1994, Dr. Jernigan spoke to a gathering of leaders in the field of work with the blind. His message was that programs for the blind and blind consumers must recognize the power and value that each of them possesses. When we work together, there is the possibility for much greater progress than would be reachable if we insist on attacking problems alone. This is how Dr. Jernigan put it:


An Address Delivered by Kenneth Jernigan
At the Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute
Washington, D.C., March 3, 1994

When Mr. Augusto asked me to appear on this panel, he told me that almost all of the people in the audience would be professionals, rehabilitators and educators; so my remarks are principally aimed at those of you who are professionals. Today we are talking about how to save specialized services for the blind and what kind of partnership can or should exist between the blind and service providers. The fact that we are considering this topic and that the discussion is being led by the consumer organizations and the agencies in the field implies that we think specialized services are in danger, that they are worth saving, and that the organizations of the blind and the professionals can work in partnership, and that the partnership can make a difference. There is no question that programs for the blind are in danger, but whether the professionals and the consumers can effectively cooperate to save the situation is still being determined.

Partners must be equals. You who are professionals need, in the modern lingo, to internalize that. You need to internalize something else, too. If an organization of the blind is not strong enough and independent enough to cause you trouble and do you damage (that is, jeopardize your budget, create political problems for you, and hurt your public image), it is probably not strong enough and independent enough to do you any good either. Likewise, if you as a professional don’t have enough authority to damage the lives of the blind you are hired to help, you almost certainly don’t have enough authority to give them much assistance.

Fifteen or twenty years ago you heard very little talk in our field about consumerism. Today that has all changed. The organized blind movement has now developed enough strength and presence that it must be taken into account in every decision of any consequence. How you as professionals react to that new reality may very well determine whether specialized services for the blind will survive.

Some time ago I was asked to speak to a group of agency professionals on the topic "Blind Consumers: Chattels or Choosers." It is not only a catchy title but a real issue, for we can’t meaningfully consider the relationship between the blind and the agencies established to give them service without taking into account current public attitudes about blindness, and even more to the point, the truth or falsity of those attitudes. With all of our efforts to educate the public, the average citizen’s notions about blindness are still predominantly negative; and since all of us (whether blind individual or agency professional) are part of the general public, we cannot help being influenced by public opinions.

Even so, we in this room (or at least most of us) profess to know that the blind (given equal training and opportunity) can compete on terms of equality with others; that the average blind child can hold his or her own with the average sighted child; that the average blind adult can do the average job in the average place of business, and do it as well as a sighted person similarly situated; that the average blind grandmother of eighty-four can do what the average sighted grandmother of that age can do. Of course, the above average can compete with the above average, and the below average will compete at that level. Blindness does not mean lack of ability, nor does it mean lack of capacity to perceive beauty or communicate with the world.

The techniques may be different, but the overall performance and the ability to experience pleasure are comparable. There are blind mathematicians, blind factory workers, blind dishwashers, and tens of thousands of just ordinary blind citizens to prove it. This is what I as a blind person, representing the largest organization of blind persons in the world, know and it is what you, knowledgeable professionals in the field, also know. Or, at least, this is probably what we would say we know if asked. But do we know it? Down at the gut level, where we live and feel, do we really believe it? As the poet Tennyson said, "I am part of all that I have met," and he was right.

Whether we are blind person or agency professional, it is very hard for us to contradict what our culture has taught us and what it reinforces every day. As the German scientist Max Planck said, "A new truth usually does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

On this critical issue we cannot afford to engage in sophistry or deceive ourselves. If blindness is as limiting as most people think it is and as many professionals have traditionally said it is, then we should not deny it but face it. On the other hand, if the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight but the misunderstandings and misconceptions which exist, we should face that, too, and deal with it accordingly. In either case the need for the professional in the field will be equally great, but the services and the objectives will be different.

Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I was interviewed by a rehabilitation counselor. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. After changing the subject and talking about other things, he returned to the question and asked me to tell him three or four careers I might like to consider. With the brashness of youth I told him I didn’t need to do that, that I knew what I wanted to be-I wanted to be a lawyer.

He trotted out rehab jargon and told me that, while he wouldn’t say it was impossible for a blind person to be a lawyer, he would say it wasn’t feasible. A blind man, he said, couldn’t see the faces of the jury, couldn’t handle the paperwork, couldn’t do the traveling. I argued-but I was a teen-ager; and he was the counselor, who controlled the funds. He finally said (gently and with big words, but very clearly) that I could either go to college and be a lawyer, and pay for it myself-or I could go and be something else, and the agency would help with the bills. I didn’t have any money, and I was only a teen-ager-so I went and was something else.

I know now that he was wrong. I am personally acquainted with at least a hundred successfully practicing blind lawyers, and many of them are no better suited for the profession than I was. But I would not want you to misunderstand my point. That rehabilitation counselor was not being vicious or deliberately arbitrary. He was acting in what he believed to be my best interest. He was well disposed toward me and generously inclined. He simply believed (as his culture had taught him to believe) that a blind person couldn’t be a lawyer.

What, then, should be the relationship between the blind and the agencies, the consumers and the professionals? As I see it, the answer must be given at two levels-the individual, and the institutional. The issue is easier to deal with at the individual level; for the choices are more personal, the alternatives more clear-cut, and the short-term consequences more obvious. If, for instance, a blind youngster should come to one of you today and say that he or she wanted to be a lawyer, I seriously doubt that you would resist or discourage. Law is now generally accepted as a suitable profession for the blind.

This does not mean that each of you in this room who is an educator or an agency employee will always make the right decision concerning careers and other life situations involving the blind persons with whom you deal. But make no mistake: You will and must make decisions. Money is not unlimited, and by funding one project you necessarily choose not to fund another. You have the responsibility for making decisions and for being knowledgeable enough to give correct information and advice to the blind persons who need your help. I have no doubt that, in most instances, your motives will be good, but your decisions will be wise only to the extent that you have a correct understanding of what blind people can reasonably hope to do and be, and what blindness is really like-what the limitations of blindness are and, perhaps even more important, what they are not.

Obviously this kind of decision making concerning individuals is not easy, but as I have said, it is far less difficult than the other sort, the institutional. Moreover, despite the fact that the decision making concerning individuals leads to successful lives or blighted dreams, it is not as important (even to those personally involved) as your institutional decisions. In the long run every blind person in this country will be far more affected (more helped or hurt) by your institutional than your individual decisions. For purposes of today’s discussion I want to talk about your institutional decision making concerning the kinds of consumer organizations you will encourage or inhibit. And I urge you to resist the temptations of sophistry, for you cannot avoid making decisions in this area. You will make them whether you want to or not-and, for that matter, whether you know it or not. If in no other way, you will make such decisions by your daily attitudes and your subconscious behavior. Therefore, it is better to make them consciously and deliberately.

Of course, you cannot create an independent organization of blind consumers, for if the organization depends upon your permission and financing, it is by definition not independent. Freedom cannot be given by one group to another. It must either be affirmatively taken by the individual or group alleging to want it, or it cannot be had. It must be self-achieved, and the process must be ongoing and constant. But if you cannot create an independent organization of the blind, you can and will establish the climate that will encourage or inhibit it. And the stake you have is not solely altruistic or professional. It is also a matter of self-interest, and possibly survival.

In today’s climate of changing values and hard-fought issues, the best possible insurance policy for an agency for the blind is a strong, independent organization of blind consumers. Regardless of how much blind individuals may like the agency and support its policies, they cannot achieve and sustain the momentum to nurture and defend it in time of crisis. That is the negative way of saying this: If there is a powerful, independent organization of the blind and if the members of that organization feel that the agency is responsive to their needs and sympathetic to their wants, they will go to the government and the public for funding and support. They will be vigilant in the advancement of the agency’s interests. Its friends will be their friends. Its enemies will be their enemies. If it is threatened, they will feel that they have something to lose, and they will fight with ingenuity and determination to protect it.

Chattels, on the other hand, have very little to lose. They are at best indifferent and at worst resentful, always waiting for a chance to rebel in periods of crisis. In good times they rarely criticize, but they also do not imaginatively and effectively give support. In bad times they not only fail to defend-they cannot defend. They have neither the strength nor the know-how. Moreover, they lack the incentive. Having been taught that agency policy is none of their business, they cannot in time of danger suddenly become tough and resourceful. As many an agency has learned (the same is true of nations), chattels do not make good soldiers.

The agencies cannot have it both ways. Those that encourage independence, and help the blind achieve it, will prosper-and those that defensively cling to yesterday’s power base will perish. If a sufficient number of agencies fail to recognize the new realities, then the whole blindness system may well be destroyed.

And what are these new realities, these vital issues of which I speak? There are at least three, inter-related and inseparable: funding, generic as opposed to specialized programs, and empowerment of clients.

There was a time (and not long ago at that) when agencies for the blind pretty much got all of the money they reasonably wanted, and sometimes more than they reasonably needed. Today, budgets are tightening; the environment is deteriorating; population is rising; and resources are dwindling. In addition, other disability groups (once disorganized and invisible) are finding their voice and reaching for power. Some say they took their lessons from the blind. Be that as it may, they are now a growing force to be reckoned with, and there is no turning back. The argument they make is deceptively alluring. Give us, they say, a unified program for people with disabilities-no special treatment for any segment of the group. We are one population. Despite superficial differences, our needs are essentially the same. Save money. Eliminate duplication.

You and I know that the logic is shallow and the promise false, but it will take more than rhetoric to save our programs. In the general melting pot of the generic disability agency the blind will have no useful training, no meaningful opportunity, no real chance. If the special training and rehabilitation needs of the blind are to continue to be met and if our programs are to survive, there is only one way it can be done. The agencies for the blind and strong, independent grassroots organizations of the blind must work together to make it happen. And the partnership cannot be a sham. It must be real. It must be a true partnership of equals-each giving, each supporting, and each respecting the other.

This brings me to the empowerment of clients. By this I do not mean that the clients should administer the agencies. This would not work, and it is not desirable. Rather, I mean that clients should be respected, that they should be given meaningful choices, that they should have access to information, and that they should be encouraged (not pressured but encouraged) to join independent organizations of the blind-organizations which are not company unions but which have both the power and the inclination to serve as a check and balance to the agency, to act in concert with it, to pursue reasonable complaints against it, to refuse to pursue unreasonable complaints against it, and to work in every way as a supporter and partner. Let these things be done, and both the blind and the agencies will prosper. Let them not be done, and I think the blindness system will perish.

There is something else: Workers in the blindness system must resist the growing tendency to hide behind the term "professionalism" and must stop treating "professionalism" as if it were a sacred mystery. There is a teachable body of knowledge which can be learned about giving service to the blind; but much of that knowledge is a matter of common sense, good judgment, and experience. Most thinking blind persons (certainly those who have been blind for any length of time and have had any degree of success) know at least as much about what they and other blind people want and need from the system as the professionals do, and it must also be kept in mind that not every act of a "professional" is necessarily a "professional" act or based on "professionalism." Just as in other fields in America today, the professionals in the blindness system must be judged on their behavior and not merely their credentials.

Whether you believe that the type of partnership and cooperative effort I have outlined will work depends on whether you believe in the basic tenets of democracy. It also depends on whether you believe the blind are capable of real equality. I do believe these things, and I hope you do, too. Otherwise, programs for the blind are probably doomed.


In 1996 the World Blind Union, the world organization focusing on the needs of the adult blind, held its Fourth General Assembly in Toronto, Canada. The keynote speaker was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. In 1997 the International Council for the Education of the Visually Impaired, the world organization focusing on the needs of blind children and youth throughout the world, held its 10th World Conference in São Paulo, Brazil. Its keynote speaker was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. In 1998 the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind gave its first-ever lifetime achievement award. The recipient was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. In 1998, the American Foundation for the Blind International Leadership Award was established. It was presented to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan.

In the span of a quarter of a century a remarkable transformation had been achieved. A field once torn by bitter strife and confrontation had come to understand its unqualified need to combine forces in a common effort.

This is the text of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind award and the comments of Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder, the federal Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, regarding the striking new landscape that characterized the new reality:


The National Council of

State Agencies for the Blind, Inc.

with honor

presents this

lifetime achievement award


Dr. Kenneth Jernigan

in recognition of more than four decades

of exceptional leadership, advocacy and unwavering

dedication to promoting the capabilities and fortifying

respect for the rights of individuals who are blind worldwide.

This award is given in celebration of the life of one who embodies the attributes of courage,
spirit and devotion.

Know the man-know the legend.

Jamie C. Hilton, President

April 22, 1998


Comments of Fredric K. Schroeder:

Dr. Jernigan’s selection as the first-ever recipient of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind’s Lifetime Achievement Award represents an historic moment in the affairs of blind people in America.

Not so very long ago blind people and agencies for the blind found themselves on opposite sides of many, perhaps most, major issues.

But that was twenty years ago, and that time is past. A transformation has occurred in work with the blind, and that transformation is due in no small part to Dr. Jernigan’s leadership in bringing cohesive, focused action to formerly disparate elements in the blindness field.

Much of what is central to rehabilitation philosophy today is ideas (often unpopular at the time) which he pioneered decades ago. Indeed it is very nearly impossible to overstate the key role Dr. Jernigan has played in our field. His influence has been and continues to be immeasurable.

I know that it must have touched Dr. Jernigan very deeply to know that his many years of service, of pressing the system to do more, of faithful determination to fight for the rights of blind people (even when his views were unpopular) have resulted today in unprecedented harmony and cooperation in the blindness field.

By honoring Dr. Jernigan, you have honored the individual, and you have recognized the emergence of a new day, full of promise, in the lives of blind people everywhere.


So, what had changed? Quite simply, nothing and everything. Certainly not the National Federation of the Blind, whose constitutional purpose clause (authored in its current version by Dr. Jernigan in 1986) says in part:


The purpose of the National Federation of the Blind is to serve as a vehicle for collective action by the blind of the nation; to function as a mechanism through which the blind and interested sighted persons can come together in local, state, and national meetings to plan and carry out programs to improve the quality of life for the blind...


No, it is not the Federation, our vehicle for collective action, that has changed; but we ourselves. We the blind are a different people. No longer on the outside looking in. No longer in abject poverty. No longer without hope or belief. No longer without a literature which defines the nuance of our understanding and belies the nonsense of the naysayers. No longer without a corps of leaders hardened on the picket lines and tempered in the trenches. No longer without the possibility of training at superior centers. No longer without the right to have our blind children be taught Braille. No longer without the material resources of superb physical plant and cutting-edge technology. No longer the passive recipients of yesterday’s charity but the active architects of tomorrow’s promise. No longer without the legacy of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and the tools he left us to finish the journey to full freedom and integration.