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A Story Never Told

There is no lack of books about blindness and the blind. They are about evenly divided in number between what might be called the generic and the personal the former ordinarily purporting to be scientific and objective, and the latter being generally literary and impressionistic. The so-called objective studies are usually specialized and rather abstruse, bearing titles like Blindness as a Socio-Psychological Problem or A Stress Analysis of a Blind Nonwhite Caneless Traveler. The personal and impressionistic volumes are typically inspirational in nature, with names like My Eyes Have a Cold Nose; Keep Your Head Up, Mr. Putnam; To Race the Wind; and so on.

Among the generic books many undertake to deal with one aspect or another of blindness and the blind that is, with the background and evolution of various things done to the blind or for the blind, such as charities and corrections, poor laws and public assistance, special education, vocational rehabilitation, sheltered workshops, white canes, guide dogs, vending facilities, psychological adjustment, and the like. Most of these books, for all their claims of scientific discovery and objective information, tell us little about the blind themselves except for those blind persons who work professionally in the field. What they do tell us about is the blindness system that far-flung network of agencies, institutions, and charities dispensing services to the blind. And even then such studies are mostly of limited and temporary value yielding place successively to newer texts with fresher studies and reports and brighter graphics.

These historical and sociological studies of blindness and the blind are, so to speak, like  Hamlet  without the prince like a history of modern industry without mention of the labor movement like India without Nehru or Ghandi. Even Richard S. French's classic study of sixty years ago,  From Homer to Helen Keller, tells us more about the achievements of sighted benefactors like Samuel Gridley Howe or blind professionals in the blindness field like Robert Irwin than about the deeds and thoughts of blind persons themselves and their elected leaders. In short, the blindness system has, quite understandably, written and reflected and biographized largely about itself.

During the past generation the three books dealing with blindness that have probably received the most attention and discussion are Thomas J. Carroll's Blindness: What It Is, What It Does, and How to Live With It  (1961), Robert A. Scott's The Making of Blind Men  (1969), and Frances Koestler's The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States (1976). The first two of these books almost entirely ignore the existence of the organized blind movement (despite the impression of exhaustive coverage of the field); and the third, by far the most comprehensive and highly touted, gives only scant and slighting reference to organizations  of  the blind while attending in scrupulous detail to the story of the largest of all American agencies  for  the blind. It is true that the title of Koestler's book promises to give us a history of the blind in America. But the promise remains a promise, and the very title takes on unintended irony; for when we have finished this long treatise, the blind the unseen minority remain unseen. They also remain unheard. Although we learn a great deal about the establishment of the American Foundation for the Blind and its appointed leaders the professional elite of the blindness system we learn next to nothing about the democratic movement founded by the blind themselves and built by leaders of their own choosing.

Let it be emphatically said that the roster of leaders in the institutional history of the American Foundation for the Blind and its sister agencies embracing (among others) such well known names in the field as Major M. C. Migel, Robert Irwin, M. Robert Barnett, Peter Salmon, Louis Rives, and William Gallagher carries a freight of substantial impact upon the lives of blind Americans. Theirs is, indeed, an important story and appropriately it is one that has been well and thoroughly told.

But it is only part of the story. What has been lacking is a history of what blind people have done for themselves, what they have accomplished together, what they have thought and felt and said and aspired to be and do. This book seeks to correct that omission and to provide that history to relate a story never told. In order to give the most accurate account possible and to provide a public file for future reference, the narrative relies extensively upon spoken and written landmarks the original texts and documents left upon the record by those who made the history, carried the struggle, and fought the fight the very good fight of the organized blind movement in America.

Theirs is a roster of distinction one that balances, by any standard which can be imagined, the honor roll of agency luminaries already cited. Accordingly, it is to these statesmen in the American democracy of the blind leaders like Newel Perry, Jacobus tenBroek, Raymond Henderson, Perry Sundquist, Lawrence Marcelino, Isabelle Grant, Kenneth Jernigan, Donald Capps, and Marc Maurer (to name only a few among many) that this book is properly and gratefully dedicated.

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