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Today we are moving with a mighty force, said the President of the National Federation of the Blind in 1983: For 43 years we have worked and struggled to accelerate our movement and send it in a straight line toward freedom and independence. The efforts of tens of thousands of blind men and women have been spent for almost two generations to reach the current momentum.
Now, he said, there is no force on earth that can slow us down or turn us back or change our direction.He went on to declare that the organized blind would wait no longer for equality and opportunity to be granted or handed to them: Through the centuries we have yearned for acceptance, longed for opportunity, and dreamed of a full life. And too often we have waited. But no more! Never again! The waiting did not work. We have learned our lesson and learned it well. Equality will not (perhaps cannot) be given to us. If we want it, we must take it. So the waiting is over. The yearning and the longing are at an end. And not just someday or tomorrow but now! From this day forward it will be action. Let people call us what they will and think what they please. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. To the extent required we will meet pressure with pressure and force with force. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
It was not so much the message of Kenneth Jernigan's convention speech that was novel in the year 1983; it was rather the tone and spirit that struck a different note from past occasions when the organized blind movement was struggling to survive and embroiled in civil wars or uphill battles against powerful agency forces.
By 1983, when Jernigan spoke of the other half of inertia at the National Convention in Kansas City, the Federation had arrived at a new plateau of peace, prosperity, and progress. Peace came to the movement with the victorious ending of the California lawsuit in that year. The court action against Ammeter and the other members of her faction in Washington state had earlier been concluded, and the lawsuit to confirm by a ruling of the courts the Federation's right to govern the Iowa affiliate and discipline the dissidents in that state in accordance with national policy was (though it would not be finished until 1984) clearly on the way to a favorable decision. But in a deeper sense the Federation's well-being and harmony had not really been achieved through the courts but by a collective act of will on the part of the membership, rallying in convention to cast out the handful of embittered malcontents and to reaffirm support for the democratic structure and progressive goals of the movement. Peace for the National Federation of the Blind was not only the absence of war within it was also the presence of a new mood and temper throughout the movement, a prevailing self-assurance that spoke of solidarity and quiet strength, of prestige and unprecedented influence in the blindness system and the public at large.
We have found the other half of inertia,said the President in his banquet speech,and we are generating the force to make our dreams reality. Yes, we still experience discrimination, denial, and lack of opportunity; but the tide is running the other way. It can be seen in our victories in the sheltered shops; in our radio and television spots, which blanket the nation; and in the jobs which blind people are getting and holding. It can be seen in the hope, the determination, and the zest for the future which blind people now are feeling. It can be seen in the mood and the joy of this convention.
Following is the complete text of President Jernigan's address delivered at the banquet of the 1983 convention in Kansas City, Missouri: BLINDNESS: THE OTHER HALF OF INERTIA
Although the problem of the airlines did not begin in the concluding years of the second Jernigan presidency, it reached its full climax during that period, so this would seem to be the logical place to discuss it.
Throughout the first half century of the organized blind movement, with all its struggles and humiliations, no event has more vividly or cruelly exposed its status as a minority group than that chapter in its history known to blind people everywhere as the episode of The Unfriendly Skies. Likewise, no event would more plainly illustrate the fierce determination of this movement of blind Americans not to be treated any longer as inferiors or second-class citizens. Indeed, the dramatic confrontations between the airlines and the blind, individually and collectively, carried resonant echoes of another civil rights struggle in another era when another minority group, seeking to travel freely, held fast to their seats and refused to move to the back of the bus. ( I'm gonna keep my long white cane, and I'm gonna travel on this here plane! read a 1980 headline in the Braille Monitor.)
The humiliation and harassment of blind passengers in the wild blue yonder reached its crescendo in the decade of the eighties as individual airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration somewhat modified their policies or shifted positions in response to increasing protests by blind passengers. By 1984 the incidents of interference by airline personnel with the rights of blind travelers were so frequent as to seem almost commonplace. Accordingly one of the principal items on the agenda of the National Federation of the Blind at its convention that year in Phoenix was the issue of The Unfriendly Skies. Nearly 2,000 blind people participated in a convention symposium on the subject Air Travel and the Blind: The Law, the Policy, and the Practice. Chaired by National Federation of the Blind President Kenneth Jernigan, the symposium featured a survey of the issue by Marc Maurer (the future Federation President, who was then a lawyer in private practice), and presentations by a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration, J. E. Murdock III, and an official of Delta Airlines, Foy Phillips. These presentations were followed by questions and comments from the floor, which pointed up the differences of interest and attitude dividing the airline industry and the blind consumers of its service. Here is how some of the discussion went:
Karen Edwards of New Mexico said: On January 31 of this year I boarded an American Airlines flight in Dallas-Fort Worth destined for El Paso, Texas. After I seated myself, I proceeded to place my cane between the seat and the fuselage of the aircraft. As I buckled my seat belt, a flight attendant approached me and attempted to reach over me to retrieve my cane, saying that it would be necessary to have the cane stored during takeoff because of safety reasons. I informed her that the FAA regulations had been updated so that blind people's rights would be protected and that they could carry their canes at all times with them during the flight. I tried to explain the rationale behind the regulations, but to no avail. The flight attendant left and came back with another person, who said that their inflight manual had these regulations that canes and crutches had to be stored in overhead racks or in an enclosed space. In the meantime most of the passengers had already boarded the aircraft, and the attendants were becoming impatient with me; and finally they presented me with an ultimatum. 'Either you give up your cane now, or you'll have to deplane.' I was not a very experienced person on an aircraft. I'd flown a few times, but I was shaken up by this kind of treatment. I thought my only alternative really was to deplane. I think I could kick myself a few times now for doing it, but I did comply. I was stranded in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, because there weren't any other flights leaving that night. I didn't know anyone in the city, and having come back from the March on Washington, I only had a few dollars left. My ride had come more than fifty miles to wait for me at the El Paso airport, so he was still waiting there. It took me several phone calls to finally reach someone from the Federation who could make contact with someone in Dallas that I could stay with for the night.
I ended up having to spend more than sixty dollars in cab fare to get to and from his house. The next day I boarded another American Airlines flight and had no trouble at all. I took my cane with me, and I was expecting trouble but nothing happened. And I was so curious I had to ask what had taken place. I was informed that their supervisor said that if I wanted to make trouble and my cane became dislodged during flight and injured someone else, I would be liable. Mr. Murdock, I'd like to know first of all, do you approve of such treatment of blind passengers? If not, what can you do to remedy these situations? I can assure you it was extremely humiliating to have to deplane with all the passengers looking on, and I'd like to know if you can do anything. What will you do?
Mr. Murdock replied: Let me say first on behalf of the industry which I represent as a government official that I personally apologize to you. I think that's atrocious behavior by American. As to the solution, I think that the ultimate solution (the way to deal with it) is to do what Delta is doing and I will call Mr. Crandall when I get home (who is the chairman of American Airlines), relate to him the facts if we can get together and go over the details a little more and indicate to him I think that's pathetic behavior.
President Jernigan said: Mr. Murdock, we got hold of Mr. Crandall or tried to. We had letters written on this and other incidents. American sent somebody to my office a local official, not very high in the hierarchy, to talk to me; and I presume to try to soothe me down. I gave him details of many incidents. American has become one of the most insensitive, and has behaved as badly as anybody could. You've heard one incident. I want quickly to give you some others, and please, all of you, make it go rapidly. Brenda Williams, are you at a mike?
Brenda Williams said: On June 29 of this year when I was departing from Baltimore, Maryland, on TWA Airlines, I was going through security; and two guards grabbed me and took my cane from me. I tried to explain to them that the cane would not set the system off; but, anyhow, they said that they did not want to hear that. They just held on to me, refused to turn me loose, and snatched the cane away from me.
Charlie Brown then spoke: The incident that Marc Maurer referred to about not being able to sit on the upper deck of the 747 occurred to somebody who is well-known to a number of us and had nothing to do with safety, and was pure discrimination. You talk about calling this person or that person. What is it that you will or can actually do? You wouldn't like to get that kind of treatment.
President Jernigan: What really can you do if you decide something is wrong, Mr. Murdock? In all candor if an airline tells you, 'Look, old buddy, we appreciate your views, but get lost.' What can you do? Anything?
Mr. Murdock: The statutory power of the FAA, as I tried to spell out in my speech, is to decide whether things are safe and unsafe. If they are correct in their assumption that something is safe, that the procedure is safe (not safer or closer to an absolute) we're powerless.
President Jernigan: Look, it's safe to grab Brenda Williams and hold her and take her cane by force from her. That's safe. Yes, it is. And it didn't hurt her. Her pride may be bruised some, but she won't die. Can you do anything about that if you find that's true?
Mr. Murdock: We do not have enforcement authority in that kind of behavior.
President Jernigan: So there really isn't anything you can do about it. Is that so?
Mr. Murdock: That's right. That's correct, sir.
Joyce Scanlan of Minnesota said: I'd like to speak to Mr. Murdock. I do a good bit of traveling, and most of it by air; and I can tell you that that's one of the most unpleasant things that I do. That is because of the treatment that I get from airline personnel all down the line every step of the way on any trip. I have to worry about these folks descending upon me and custodializing me and making demands of me and so forth. I could give you a whole list of different kinds of things that happen but one incident, I think, is probably outstanding and that happened with United Airlines when a number of us from Minneapolis were on our way to the 1981 National Convention in Baltimore. We had a stop in Cleveland, Ohio. As we approached the next flight to board, we were confronted by this airline ground person who demanded that we pledge to give up our canes before we would be allowed to get on the airline. Can you imagine that? You know, we need our canes for safety and independence, and this individual insisted that we agree to give up our canes (our safety and our independence) in order to ride that plane. Well, of course, we had a long discussion about it, after which he didn't change his mind; and neither did we. I thought I was among the Nazis. This guy stood there and told us how he was only following orders. He said he was following your orders, Mr. Murdock, from FAA. It was an FAA rule that we had to do all this. So we were refused the right to get on the plane. The only option we had was to go the rest of the way by bus a twelve-hour ride. I can tell you that wasn't pleasant. But I can tell you that the whole thing was totally unnecessary, and it came about just because of the lack of understanding and the rude, insulting behavior by these airline people. Now, do you support that kind of behavior? And what can you do about it? I guess I'd like to know also what will you do about it.
Mr. Murdock: Well, as Mr. Maurer already indicated, you are allowed to take your cane on board, and it is to be available to you. That's been done for several years. What we can do in the future is really what Delta has done and several other carriers can do, which is to raise the consciousness of employees. United Airlines employs fifty thousand people. Not all of them are even nearly perfect, and it takes a lot of education by that management to get them to be responsive to your needs and to other travelers' needs.
President Jernigan: Mr. Murdock, we agree that the FAA did do what you say. It says we can have our canes, and yet a lot of the airline personnel come and straight lie to us and say FAA is now requiring us to do this; and then, they get insulted when we ask to see the regulations won't show us the regulations, and say you did it and it leads to confrontation. Marc Maurer said: Dr. Jernigan, the regulation that we have been talking about this morning, 14 CFR 121.586, contains a provision which states that if the administrator finds that in the interest of safety or if, in the public interest, it is necessary to change the airline's regulations, then the Federal Aviation Administrator has that power. I wonder if Mr. Murdock can talk to us about what the FAA will do to change these regulations in the public interest in our interest to have free and equal access to airlines.
Mr. Murdock: Public interest is, as Mr. Maurer as a lawyer probably knows, defined in the statute which we have; and unfortunately the Congress in 1938 when it wrote the statute and defined the public interest in Section 102 of the Act, which I'm sure Mr. Maurer has read, does not include the access you're talking about. Now, that doesn't mean I won't try to work for it; but statutorily we have very limited powers, and I'm sure Mr. Maurer knows that.
Mike Hingson of California said: Mr. Murdock, in September of 1980, I reserved passage and paid for a ticket on Pacific Southwest Airlines to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco. After arriving at the gate, I was told that most passengers had already boarded the aircraft and I would not be able to fly on that aircraft, because of the fact that I needed to be seated in a bulkhead seat. I was not allowed to fly on that aircraft and attempted to fly on the next scheduled flight on PSA from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I boarded the aircraft in plenty of time; was denied access to the aircraft beyond the bulkhead seat; and had discussions with the flight attendants, the captain of the aircraft, and the supervisor of ground personnel about the situation. I was eventually forcibly ejected from the aircraft. My left arm was bent behind my back. My thumb was injured. My watch was broken off my wrist. Subsequent to all that, we found that PSA's policy was, in fact, that a blind person with a dog guide could sit anywhere on the aircraft they wanted to. There were no bulkhead seating requirements. That policy was carefully researched by a representative from Pacific Southwest Airlines and had been made significantly before the time of my incident. Nevertheless, I was thrown off the aircraft in a very humiliating way. I ask essentially the same questions that have been asked before. Does the FAA support that kind of activity? Is there anything that you can do to prevent that kind of activity from happening in the future? And if so, what will you do about it?
Mr. Murdock responded: I sound like I'm repeating myself, but the answer to your first question is no. We do not condone or even accept that kind of behavior. Secondly, what can we do about it? I've outlined for you what I think is the way to go about it. PSA is liable to you for assault and battery, based on their own procedures. You have lots of legal recourse.
For the next four years the struggle of the blind to achieve equality in air transportation continued and escalated. At the convention of the National Federation of the Blind which occurred in Chicago in the summer of 1988 Kenneth Jernigan described in graphic terms the efforts of airline personnel to deprive blind travelers of basic, essential human rights. By that time the arrests had multiplied. The period of hostility which must be endured before any minority may achieve first-class status had come to be a reality for the blind. Progress was often measured in tiny increments, but the spirit of determination was undaunted, and the mood of the delegates was one of irrepressible confidence in the capacity of the blind to succeed in achieving equality.
Even though the right to fly without intimidation, harassment, and arrest was one of the most hard-fought battles of the Federation during the last decade of its first half-century, and even though at the fifty year mark this struggle had not yet been concluded, it welded the Federation into a unified whole and signaled a new direction. The blind had previously been almost universally ignored by much of society. Certain private agencies and governmental programs had been established to serve the blind, but blindness was almost never considered as a significant factor outside these special entities. Without understanding the implications, airline officials promulgated a set of rules for the treatment of the blind. It is not astonishing that these rules discriminated. However, blind people insisted on equal treatment. The organized blind movement declared that the entire airline industry must come to admit that it had no useful information about blindness. Airline officials, said the Federation, must learn to treat blind people as equals, and the teaching would be done by the blind. This is the message Kenneth Jernigan presented in his address delivered on July 6, 1988, at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Chicago:
by Kenneth Jernigan
When we met for our convention last year in Phoenix, the problems which blind persons are having with the airlines were a major topic of discussion. During the past twelve months the discrimination and abuse have grown worse. Today the situation is such that no blind person anywhere in the country can board a plane without fear of harassment, public humiliation, and possibly arrest and bodily injury.
The incidents involve almost every aspect of air travel insistence that blind passengers pre-board, insistence that we post-board, demands that we demonstrate our capacity to fasten or unfasten a seat belt, requirements that we sit (or not sit) in various sections of the plane, and even attempts to take our small children from us when we are boarding or leaving the aircraft. But the item which has unquestionably created the most heat and publicity centers around exit row seating. It is not that blind passengers have asked to be assigned to these seats but that airline personnel have repeatedly put us there and then insisted (with great public commotion) that we move. In these confrontations the wordsafety is always trotted out and made the excuse for every unreasonable and illegal act which anybody cares to perpetrate.
In May of 1987 Joseph Sontag and Nancy Kruger were arrested on a Simmons Airlines plane. Members of the Simmons flight crew insisted that Sontag and Kruger give up their canes instead of being allowed to keep them at their seats as permitted by federal regulations, and when Sontag and Kruger refused, the police were called. We filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation, and although almost a year has passed, nothing has been done about it and there is no indication that anything will be done about it.
In October of 1987 Bill Meeker (a blind employee of the U. S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs) was traveling on official business. He experienced what has almost come to be the standard airline treatment. He boarded a Midwest Express airplane for Milwaukee and took his assigned seat. He learned that it was an exit row, and almost immediately thereafter he was confronted and ordered to move, being told that he was violating a federal regulation. When he said that he knew the law, that no such regulation existed, and that he would not move under such circumstances, he was arrested. As is typical in these cases, the charges were later dropped.
Last November Robert Greenberg was refused transportation by American Airlines. He was assigned a seat (an assignment he had not requested) near an emergency exit and was then publicly and abusively ordered to move. When he refused, the flight was canceled and the passengers were told to leave the plane. Everybody but Greenberg was then reboarded. Not only was he not permitted to reboard, but he was also told that he could never ride another American Airlines plane again at any time in the future. He was also denied a refund on his ticket. Once more, we filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation and again nothing has happened.
In January of this year Congressman James A. Traficant introduced H.R. 3883, the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act. There are now 110 cosponsors of that bill, which is pending in the House of Representatives. In February Senator Ernest F. Hollings introduced the same bill, S. 2098. That bill now has twenty-four senate cosponsors. These bills by Senator Hollings and Congressman Traficant prohibit any special seating restrictions for blind air passengers.
Shortly before last year's convention we got a ruling from the Maryland Attorney General that it was unlawful for airlines to apply special seating restrictions to the blind. The effectiveness of that ruling was proved when Sharon Gold, who was flying from Baltimore to California, showed it to the American Airlines crew who were trying to make her move from her assigned seat before takeoff. She did not move, and she was not arrested or taken off the plane. As you will remember, we brought copies of the Maryland ruling to last year's convention and asked all of you to move quickly and firmly to set up meetings with every state attorney general in the nation, and with the manager of every airport. At that time I said to you: Show them the Maryland ruling, and remind them that their state has a white cane law, which has the same provisions that the Maryland law has. Get a ruling from your attorney general. Get an agreement from your airport manager. Once you get the ruling, make many copies of it, and see that every blind person who flies has one in his or her pocket.
Today the attorneys general of ten states have made such rulings, and since Chicago is a central transfer point for air travel, the ruling by Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan has special significance. Attorney General Hartigan is here today, and not only the blind but all others who believe in the rule of law instead of whim and special privilege owe him a debt of gratitude.
If we were really dealing with a question of safety, no one (blind or sighted) would object, but we are not. Consider, for instance, the opinion of an airline pilot. In an affidavit made in 1985, he says in part:
I, Jared Haas, being first duly sworn, depose and state: I have been a pilot for many years. I currently fly 727 aircraft, and I have been employed to do so since June of 1974.
I am familiar with a number of blind people, and I am generally familiar with the capacities of the blind. In an emergency situation there are circumstances in which it would be helpful to have an able-bodied blind person seated in an emergency exit row with a sighted person. In those cases in which there is smoke in the cabin, an able-bodied blind person, being used to handling situations without sight, would be able to assist with more facility in the evacuation. An able-bodied blind person would not hinder an emergency evacuation.
That is what a pilot says, and he is not just talking theory. I am aware of at least one case where it was put to the test. Everybody in this organization knows who the late Lawrence (Muzzy) Marcelino was. In the early 1980s he was flying home from Baltimore to California, and when the plane got ready to land in San Francisco, there was a problem. The landing gear wouldn't come down. The plane landed on foam, and the lights went out. An emergency evacuation occurred. It was night, and there was near panic. It was Muzzy who got to the exit and helped the sighted passengers find it.
So far as I have been able to determine, there is not a case on record in which a blind person has been involved in the blocking of an exit or the slowing of traffic in an airline emergency, and as I have just told you, I know of at least one instance (the one involving Muzzy) in which blindness was a positive asset. Yet, the airlines keep prattling to us about safety while, at the same time, knowingly doing things which diminish safety. I refer to the serving of liquor to passengers in exit rows and the practice of permitting excess carry-on luggage to be stowed with passengers at their seats. For that matter, serving liquor at all on a plane in flight probably reduces the safety margins, and so does smoking. I am not saying that these things should be eliminated but only that the treatment of the blind should be seen in perspective.
When I was participating in the regulatory negotiation process last summer to persuade the Department of Transportation to come up with rules to prevent discrimination against the blind in air travel, I personally heard officials of the Flight Standards Administration of the Federal Aviation Administration repeatedly say that they felt there was no safety question involved in blind persons' sitting in exit rows on planes. They said that if they had felt there was a safety question, they would long since have made appropriate regulations. The Flight Standards Administration is that branch of FAA which is responsible for determining questions of safety in air travel. Only when FAA attorneys began to apply pressure did the nature of the comments by Flight Standards officials change. Rather than oppose the airlines, the FAA apparently finds it easier to duck behind the safety issue.
The problem with the arguments being advanced by the FAA and the airlines is that those arguments are based on the false premise that sighted persons (excluding the elderly, the frail, the pregnant, and children) are uniformly capable and alert. The blind person (with whatever limitations and strengths he or she may possess) is compared with the ideal sighted person a person who in most cases does not exist. Last fall when Senator Dole promised to help deal with the airline problem, he said that it would not occur to anybody to suggest that he should not be allowed to sit in an exit row. Yet (because of his physical handicap), he would not, he said, be able to open the exit.
Several years ago when we were taking both sighted and blind people to the Baltimore airport to make a test evacuation of a World Airways plane, we had to eliminate from consideration many of the sighted that we might have chosen. One had back problems; another had foot problems; and still another had difficulties with heart and blood pressure. In the real world of everyday commercial air travel none of these people would have been excluded from the exit row. Why, then, should the blind be held to a different standard from the sighted?
The truth is that if you consider the scarcity of accidents in proportion to the number of miles which are flown and the relatively small number of blind people who are likely to be on a given flight at a given time, the potential risk would almost be zero even if all of the claims by the airlines about the unsafeness of the blind were true. The serving of liquor to passengers, the permitting of smoking, the carry-on luggage, the undetected emotional and physical problems of the average passenger, and a hundred other things are much more real as problems than the minimal risk potentially posed by the blind plus the fact, as I have already said, that in certain circumstances the blind would have an advantage in helping themselves and others. Nevertheless, the airlines persist in their phony game ofIt is all a matter of safety, and the FAA bows to the pressure and seeks to take the easy way out.
In truth and in fact we are not dealing with a safety issue at all but a matter of civil rights, and we simply will not be bullied and intimidated into submission. We will speak to the public and the Congress until we get results. And make no mistake about it we will be heard, and we will be heeded.
Two incidents this spring graphically illustrate the unreasonableness of the treatment which we are receiving from the airlines. On a Midway Airlines flight from Baltimore to Des Moines Peggy Pinder (the Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind and the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa) was arrested for refusing to move to a seat near an emergency exit; and only a few days later Jim Gashel (our Director of Governmental Affairs) was arrested and removed from a United Airlines flight for almost the exact opposite reason. He was sitting in his assigned seat (one he had not requested) in an exit row and refused to move. In Peggy's case the facts are thoroughly documented and particularly vicious and ugly, not to mention ironic.
She was going home to Iowa from Washington after a day of testifying before the Republican National Committee on ways of increasing participation of blind persons in the mainstream of American life and of eliminating discrimination against the blind. When she arrived at the airport, she was ordered to pre-board the plane. She declined but was told that she would either pre-board or not be permitted to travel. She submitted and did as she was ordered. The plane had open seating, so she went to the back and took a seat in the smoking section. She said she did not need a special briefing, but when she was publicly and abusively ordered to take one, she did it. Then, when she refused to change her seat (which was not in an exit row), she was arrested and bodily carried from the plane in a particularly offensive manner. In her own words:
The officer lifted me from my seat and physically moved me into the aisle. At this point I stood up and waited for the officer's next action. The officer positioned himself behind me and lifted me from the floor. He accomplished this by reaching his arms around me from behind and placing his hands on my breasts. From this position he lifted me from the floor and carried me off the plane, at one point saying, Jesus Christ.
While asserting my legal rights on board the airplane, I maintained a posture of calmness. I found the personal confrontation emotionally upsetting. I was also upset by being physically carried from the plane and having my breasts grasped. I did nothing to provoke this physical abuse and violation of my person; yet, the officer took control over my body.
The fact that Peggy Pinder was arrested for not moving to another seat is confirmed by statements made by Midway officials in the New York Times. The Times article, dated April 3, 1988, says in part:
A Midway Airlines spokeswoman, Sandra Allen, said it is the airline's policy to seat all handicapped people in the first row of the plane near where they can be easily evacuated. According to both the spokeswoman and Miss Pinder, after she refused to switch seats the airport police were called to remove her from the plane.
Not only the New York Times but also radio, television, and other newspapers throughout the land discussed the matter. Overwhelmingly the editorial comment was favorable to our cause. Apparently Midway thought it had better change its story. Maybe where Peggy was sitting had nothing to do with it. Maybe she had violated a federal regulation in some other way. Maybe she had refused to listen to a briefing about safety features of the airplane. Never mind that sighted passengers are not required to look at the demonstrations which flight attendants give and that Peggy can hear what the flight attendants say during those demonstrations as well as anybody else.
Under date of April 15, 1988, David Armstrong (Midway's Secretary and Vice President for Legal Affairs) wrote a letter to Matthew Scocozza, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs of the federal Department of Transportation. He began by very chummily scratching out Dear Mr. Scocozza and replacing it with Dear Mat. The story Mr. Armstrong told was one of virtue, long-suffering patience, and saintly behavior by Midway personnel. Peggy Pinder was not ordered to pre-board but politely asked to do so. She unreasonably declined and then was permitted to board with the regular passengers. In Mr. Armstrong's words: Ms. Pinder boarded the aircraft with the first passengers on the regular boarding queue.
Mr. Armstrong went on to portray Miss Pinder as unreasonable, petulant, and immature. In his words:Ms. Pinder indicated that she did not wish to be briefed because she 'had flown several times.' Mr. Armstrong went on to say that flight attendants continued (at least four more times) to try to get Miss Pinder to consent to be briefed but that she persisted in her refusal thus violating the federal law, endangering every passenger on the plane, and compelling the pilot to call the police.
This matter of a briefing is made to sound like a divine mystery instead of the routine speech and demonstration which it is. Passengers rarely pay attention to it. They do not stop their conversations or put aside their magazines, newspapers, books, earphones, or calculators especially after their first few flights; and nobody tries to force them or put them under arrest for their inattention.
But let us put this to one side and deal with the more basic question of the contradictory statements. Who is telling the truth Mr. Armstrong, or Miss Pinder? If Midway's statements to the press at the time of the occurrence are not sufficient, perhaps the police report will suffice. In his official statement the arresting officer said: I along with Officer M. Young responded to the dispute. We approached the suspect with flight attendant Freitag. Flight attendant Freitag again asked the suspect to listen to the handicap briefing. The suspect at this time listened to the briefing. The flight attendant then asked the suspect to move to the appropriate seat which is in accordance with Midway policy. The suspect refused. Officer Young and myself asked the suspect to move to the other seat. The suspect refused. Officer Young then assisted the suspect off the plane per order of the captain.
Peggy Pinder was, if you can believe it, arrested on charges of criminal trespass; but as is typical in these cases, the charges were dropped. Why? Out of kindness? Don't you believe it. Midway was wrong and they know they were wrong. Sooner or later there had to be a court case to put a stop to this kind of vicious abuse, and this seems about as good a one as any. We hereby serve notice on Midway Airlines that they should ready their defenses and prepare to justify their behavior before a jury. They have tried to forestall the problem by filing a lengthy petition asking the federal Department of Transportation to rule that what they did was in accordance with Department rules and that (take note, Attorney General Hartigan) the states are preempted in the matter by the federal government.
As to the Department of Transportation, it has now indicated that it will (at long last) make the rules which the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 required it to issue over a year ago. The proposed rules are a classic example of federal double talk and deceit. They say very piously and forthrightly that air carriers may not discriminate against any blind person in seating arrangements except in instances where the Federal Aviation Administration requires it for safety, but they will establish a list of required functions. With a straight face the chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration recently told me that no blind person could be excluded from an exit row seat but that if a person could not see, he or she might be excluded from such a seat. It is all a matter of function, he said, not blindness. And these are the people who are writing the rules and protecting the public.
As we consider what to do about our problems with the airlines, I want to remind you of some of the things which have been said about liberty and freedom.They that give up essential liberty, said Benjamin Franklin, to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Freedom,said Max Stirner, cannot be granted. It must be taken.
We hear, and we understand. We know what we must do, and we have counted the cost. Is freedom meant only for the sighted, or is it meant for us, too? Is it all right (even praiseworthy) for sighted Americans to resist coercion and fight for their rights but not all right for the blind? Can blind people hope to be free Americans? We gave our answer to that question almost fifty years ago. We formed the National Federation of the Blind and it is still here, stronger and more active today than ever before in it history.
The battle lines are now drawn on the issue of freedom in air travel for the blind, and we could not withdraw from the fight even if we would. We will either win or lose. We did not seek this fight, but we have no intention of running from it and we certainly have no intention of being beaten into the ground. We have taken our case to the Congress, and we will also take it to the public and the courts and we intend to prevail. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens.
Less than a year after this convention appearance Jernigan struck the same theme in testimony before the Subcommittee on Aviation of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He was appearing in his role as Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind and as the long-time leader of the organized blind of America. His testimony was a summation of years of experience with the airlines and a distillation of decades of experience with discrimination and prejudice. It is reprinted here as an appropriate commentary on the drama unfortunately still unfinished of the organized blind in the unfriendly skies.
Testimony: March 14, 1989
Mr. Chairman, I am Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind. This hearing concerns the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act (S. 341), introduced by Senator Hollings and others last month. We are pleased, Mr. Chairman, that you and Senator McCain are original co-sponsors of the bill. The Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act is necessary legislation. The blind, who have come here this morning from throughout the United States, can tell you from personal experience that this is so.
Today the situation is such that no blind person in this country can board a plane without fear of harassment, public humiliation, and possibly arrest and bodily injury. I have been riding on airplanes for more than thirty-five years, and I can say from firsthand knowledge that it was not always like this. Prior to the 1970s blind people almost never experienced problems in air travel. We bought our tickets, went to the airport, boarded the plane, traveled to our destination, got off, and went about our business just like everybody else. If one of us wanted help in boarding a plane or making a connection, the assistance was requested and given without a thought.
Then, things began to change. Ironically the problem was caused by the 1973 amendments to the federal Rehabilitation Act and the growing emphasis on affirmative action and prohibition of discrimination against the handicapped. One would have thought these things would have been positive steps, but they were not at least, not for the blind. Airline personnel and federal regulators didn't become knowledgeable overnight or lose their prejudices just because somebody told them to engage in affirmative action and nondiscrimination. Mostly with respect to air travel the blind didn't need any affirmative action. We were doing just fine as it was. But the airlines and the federal regulators wouldn't have it that way.
They began by lumping all of what they perceived to be the handicapped together wheelchair users, the blind, the deaf, the quadriplegic, the cerebral palsied, and everybody else including, very often, small children. Next they catalogued what they believed to be the problems, needs, and characteristics of these groups and then assumed that each item on the list applied to every member of every group they had included. The resulting mythical composite was a monstrosity, totally helpless, totally in need of custody, and totally nonexistent except in the minds of airline officials and federal regulators.
When we objected and insisted on our right to the same freedom of travel that other Americans enjoy, the airline officials and federal regulators reacted with anger and resentment. Since nobody wants to admit to prejudice and ignorance, they said their treatment of us was based on safety. After all, who can fight safety!
In 1986 Congress passed a law specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of handicap in air travel, and even that law has now been twisted into the exact opposite of what Congress intended. Today we are faced with a proposed regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration in response to the 1986 law, and it is not by accident that the regulation was published just prior to this hearing. Of course, the regulation is made in the name of safety, but it is not a question of safety at all but of human rights and the freedom to travel. More specifically the regulation prohibits blind persons from sitting in exit rows on airplanes, but much more than exit row seating is involved. If the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act is adopted, a signal will be sent to the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration. If the legislation is not passed and the FAA rule is allowed to stand, a signal will also be sent that the blind are fair game for any kind of treatment the airlines and the FAA wish to give us, as long as it is done in the name of safety.
If the abuse we are taking from the airlines had anything to do with safety, we wouldn't object, but it doesn't. The truth is that we are being made victims of a misdirected and misapplied federal policy that has irrationally gone wild. Let me give you examples and show you what I mean.
In early February of this year the blind were in Washington to talk to Congress about (among other things) the unreasonable treatment we are receiving from the airlines. Going home from that meeting Verla Kirsch, a blind woman from Iowa, was assaulted and publicly humiliated by Midway Airlines flight personnel. Even though Mrs. Kirsch's white cane was on the floor in the approved FAA manner, the flight attendant (over her protest) took it from her, returning it after takeoff. On the descent into Chicago two Midway flight attendants sneaked up on Mrs. Kirsch, hunkered down, grabbed and lifted her legs, (yes, I literally mean that) and in her words,yanked the cane from under my feet, bending the cane and nearly breaking it.
On the trip from Chicago to Des Moines (still on Midway) Mrs. Kirsch found that the word had gone ahead of her, but this time she was prepared and refused to be caught off guard. After publicly harassing her, flight personnel found in their own manual that Mrs. Kirsch was in the right and that blind persons (according to Midway's own policies) may keep their canes at their seats. But the damage was done. Imagine the spectacle, the embarrassment, and the public humiliation! This (and not just exit row seating) is what is really at stake with the proposed FAA rule, this hearing, and the passage of the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act.
Is it safe for blind persons to sit in exit rows? Are there, in fact, times when it would be a plus? Here is the sworn statement of a pilot:
I, Jared Haas, being first duly sworn, depose and state: I have been a pilot for many years. I currently fly 727 aircraft, and I have been employed to do so since June of 1974.
I am familiar with a number of blind people, and I am generally familiar with the capacities of the blind. In an emergency situation there are circumstances in which it would be helpful to have an able-bodied blind person seated in an emergency exit row with a sighted person. In those cases in which there is smoke in the cabin, an able-bodied blind person, being used to handling situations without sight, would be able to assist with more facility in the evacuation. An able-bodied blind person would not hinder an emergency evacuation.
That is what a pilot says, and he is not just talking theory. I am aware of at least one case in which it was put to the test. In the early 1980s Lawrence Marcelino, a member of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind, was flying home from Baltimore to California; and when the plane got ready to land in San Francisco, there was a problem. The landing gear wouldn't come down. The plane landed on foam, and the lights went out. An emergency evacuation occurred. It was night, and there was near panic. It was Marcelino who got to the exit and helped the sighted passengers find it.
So far as I have been able to determine, there is not a case on record in which a blind person has been involved in the blocking of an exit or the slowing of traffic in an emergency, and as I have just told you, I know of at least one instance (the one involving Marcelino) in which blindness was a positive asset. Yet, the FAA and the airlines keep prattling to us about safety.
What evidence do they have? I have carefully studied the FAA's proposed rule, and they rely heavily on tests made in 1973 by the Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI). The FAA's own words discredit the CAMI tests.
In their report CAMI said that blind passengers caused a slight slowing of the evacuation of an airplane. However, for the critical portion of the tests they did not use real blind persons but sighted persons who pretended to be blind. These sighted pretenders would have no experience in the techniques used by the blind, nor would they have the background to know how to function with skill and speed under blindfold. The real blind persons were not allowed to open the emergency exits or to go down the evacuation slides. It was a matter of safety, done for their own protection. They were allowed to walk from their seats to the emergency exits.
Moreover, the selection of the people who were to be tested is interesting. The sighted (the so-called nonhandicapped) were FAA employees or people recruited through the University of Oklahoma's Office of Research Administration. The blind (not the simulated but the real) were recruited from the Oklahoma League for the Blind, which operates a sheltered workshop. FAA employees are likely to be familiar with aircraft and probably are frequent flyers. In short, the sighted who participated in the test were selected for maximum success.
Federal statistics tell us that a large percentage of sheltered workshop employees are multiply handicapped. In addition, their low wages and limited opportunities make it unlikely that they are regular air travelers. In short, the blind participants (even when they were real and not simulated) were selected for poor performance. I am not suggesting that all of this was consciously done. Nevertheless, it was done. It is not very difficult to see what the results would have been if blind frequent air travelers had been tested against sighted sheltered workshop employees or, for that matter, against the FAA personnel who were actually used.
But we do not have to speculate about the competence of blind persons to perform in emergency evacuations of airplanes. On April 3, 1985, members of the National Federation of the Blind took part in the evacuation of an airplane at the Baltimore airport. The airplane was real, and the blind persons were real. They were not simulated, and they did not simply walk from their seats to the exits but went all of the way opening the emergency exit, deploying the evacuation slide, and jumping out. I know, for I was there. I jumped out of that airplane twice.
The test made by the National Federation of the Blind was much more realistic than the one performed by CAMI. We wanted approximately equal numbers of blind and sighted persons so that we could see whether there was any difference in their speed and efficiency. Our first problem was to find competent sighted participants. One person had back problems; another had a bad heart; another had foot problems; and so it went. But in the real world of everyday flying every one of these people would have qualified for exit row seating, without a question or a thought.
We videotaped that test evacuation, and I have the tape here with me today to submit as part of the record. If you run it once through at normal speed, you will see passengers seated in a plane, then moving to the exit, and going down the slide. Mostly you will not be able to tell the difference between the sighted and the blind. They move with equal ease.
When you run the tape slowly (stopping at critical points to study it), what it tells you is damning to the FAA's case. The airline personnel said we should move quickly in a double line, but a flight attendant was standing at the exit partially blocking it. I know, for I had to go around her. In a real emergency I would not have been slowed as I was in the test. I would have simply picked her up, placed her gently but firmly on the slide, and followed her.
Standing beside the flight attendant, you will see a male airline employee. He slows the flow of traffic by peeking around the flight attendant to look down the slide to see whether the blind are making it. The flight attendant also takes time out to peek, further blocking the exit.
You will observe that one of the passengers has a dog guide. He was moving quickly to go down the evacuation slide but was slowed by the male flight attendant, who insisted on trying to tell him how to do it. The female flight attendant kept reaching her arm back into the flow of traffic, presumably trying to help but in reality impeding the evacuation. In one instance it can be seen that she locks elbows with a female evacuee and then grabs at her, causing the passenger to lose balance. Nevertheless, the descent was made safely. As I have already said, in the real world the airline personnel would probably not have had the opportunity to slow the evacuation. In any case the tape speaks for itself.
Last week I had occasion to fly from Denver to Washington, and what happened to me is illustrative of the problem we are facing. Although on many other trips I have been harassed and threatened, nothing like that happened on this one. Everybody was friendly and good-tempered, and I am sure the flight attendants were not even aware that their actions were noteworthy. But you be the judge. Put yourself in my place.
I was traveling with my sighted wife. Shortly after we took our seats, a flight attendant came and very pleasantly and politely said that she must give me a special briefing. She asked me to feel the oxygen mask and then said that she would like me to fasten and unfasten my seat belt for her. Sighted persons are neither required to look at nor listen to briefings, and certainly they are not asked publicly to demonstrate that they are capable of fastening and unfastening a seat belt. Nevertheless, I complied with good temper and without protest.
But, you may say, what's the big deal? Such treatment doesn't really mean that you are being treated like a child, or thought of as one. Perhaps but a few minutes later a second flight attendant (again, a most pleasant individual) came to my seat and said to my wife: Has he had his special briefing yet?
I smiled and replied: Yes, he has had his briefing.
The flight attendant gave a small embarrassed laugh, and the rest of the flight proceeded without incident but what I have just told you has far more significance than superficial appearance would indicate. It translates into a general public feeling that the blind are incompetent and unable to compete. Put to one side the damage it does to the self-image of the blind who are still in doubt of their own worth or, for that matter, what it would do to any of us, whether blind or sighted especially, if the occurrence is not isolated but part of an everyday pattern.
This simple incident which seems so innocent and unimportant is the very essence of our problem. It translates into unemployment, lack of acceptance, low self-esteem, and second-class citizenship. Is it all right (even praiseworthy) for other Americans to insist on their rights but not all right for the blind to do it? Are human dignity and freedom meant for everybody else in this country but not for the blind? Is the American dream exclusively the property of the sighted or is it meant for the blind, too? I believe it is meant for all of us, and I think Congress and the public think so, too. I believe that as you learn the facts, you will not permit the airlines and the FAA to continue what they are doing to the blind.
Yes, we are talking about safety, but not the kind contemplated by the FAA in its discriminatory rule. That is why we are asking for your help. That is why we are asking you to pass (and pass quickly) the Air Travel Rights for Blind Individuals Act.
The decade of the eighties found the organized blind facing a new and complex issue one which brought the movement into conflict and debate with some of the educators and teachers of blind children. The issue was the use of Braille in the school curriculum, particularly in connection with students having some residual vision. On one side of the debate were those educators who regarded Braille as generally obsolete and not competitive with other reading methods; on the other side were some of the educators and the majority of blind people who regarded Braille as the essential means to literacy for blind persons.
The intensity of the debate over the teaching of Braille during this decade might seem puzzling to those unfamiliar with the subject and without the personal associations of memory and tradition which it calls up for many who are blind. As a preface to more systematic examination of the issue, here is an impressionistic narrative of one blind youth's encounter with the world of Braille, books, and boarding schools. Written by Kenneth Jernigan, the article appeared in the June-July, 1987, Braille Monitor:
by Kenneth Jernigan
When I was a boy growing up in Tennessee, Braille was hard to come by. At the Tennessee School for the Blind (where I spent nine months of each year) Braille was rationed. In the first grade we were allowed to read a book only during certain hours of the day, and we were not permitted to take books to our rooms at night or on weekends. Looking back, I suppose the school didn't have many books, and they probably thought (perhaps correctly) that those they did have would be used more as missiles than instruments of learning if they let us take them out. When we advanced to the second grade, we were allowed (yes, allowed) to come down for thirty minutes each night to study hall. This was what big boys did. In the first grade we had been ignominiously sent to bed at seven o'clock while our elders (the second and third graders and those beyond) were permitted to go to that mysterious place called study hall. The first graders (the little boys ) had no such status or privilege.
When we got to the third grade, we were still not permitted to take books to our rooms, but we were allowed to increase our study hall time. We could actually spend a whole hour at it each night Monday through Friday. It was the pinnacle of status for the primary grades.
When we got to the intermediate department (the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades) we were reallygrowing up,and our status and prestige increased accordingly. We were allowed (I use the word advisedly allowed, not forced ) to go for an hour each night Monday through Friday to study hall, and during that time we could read books and magazines to our hearts' content. True, the choice was not great but such as there was, we could read it. Of course, we could not take books to our rooms during the week, but on Friday night each boy (I presume the girls had the same privilege) could take one Braille volume to his room for the weekend.
Before I go further, perhaps I had better explain that comment about the girls. The girls sat on one side of the room, and the boys sat on the other; and woe to the member of one sex who tried to speak or write notes to a member of the other. Girls, like Braille books, were difficult to get at and all the more desirable for the imagining. But back to the main thread.
As I say, each boy in the intermediate department could check out one Braille volume on Friday night. Now, as every good Braille reader knows, Braille is bulkier than print; and at least four or five Braille volumes (sometimes more) are required to make a book. It is also a matter of common knowledge that people in general and boys in particular (yes, and maybe girls, too) are constantly on the lookout to beat the system. What system? Any system.
So on Friday nights we boys formed what would today be called a consortium. One of us would check out volume one of a book; the next, volume two; the next, volume three; et cetera. With our treasures hugged to our bosoms we would head to our rooms and begin reading. If you got volume three (the middle of the book), that's where you started. You would get to the beginning by and by.
Now, girls and Braille books were not the only items that were strictly regulated in the environment I am describing. The hours of the day and night fell into the same category. Study hall ended at 8:00, and you were expected to be in your room and in bed by 9:40, the time when the silence bell rang. You were also expected to be trying to go to sleep, not reading.
But as I have said, people like to beat the system; and to us boys, starved for reading during the week, the hours between Friday night and Monday morning were not to be wasted. (Incidentally, I should say here that there were usually no radios around and that we were strictly forbidden on pain of expulsion, and God knows what else to leave the campus except for a brief period on Saturday afternoon after we got big enough, that is, and assuming we had no violations on our record which required erasure by penalty.) In other words the campus of the Tennessee School for the Blind was what one might call a closed ecology. We found our entertainment where we could.
Well, back to Friday night and the problem of the books. Rules are rules, but Braille can be read under the cover as well as anywhere else; and when the lights are out and the sounds of approaching footsteps are easy to detect, it is virtually impossible to prohibit reading and make the prohibition stick. The night watchman was regular in his rounds and methodical in his movements. He came through the halls every sixty minutes on the hour, and we could tell the time by his measured tread. (I suppose I need not add that we had no clocks or watches.)
After the watchman had left our vicinity, we would meet in the bathroom (there was one for all twenty-six of us) and discuss what we had been reading. We also used the occasion to keep ourselves awake and exchange Braille volumes as we finished them. It made for an interesting way to read a book, but we got there and instead of feeling deprived or abused, we felt elated. We were beating the system; we had books to read, something the little boys didn't have; and we were engaged in joint clandestine activity. Sometimes as the night advanced, one of us would go to sleep and fail to keep the hourly rendezvous, but these were minor aberrations and the weekend was only beginning.
After breakfast on Saturday mornings most of us (not all) would continue reading usually aloud in a group. We kept at it as long as we could, nodding off when we couldn't take it any more. Then, we went at it again. Let me be clear. I am talking about a general pattern, not a rigid routine. It did not happen every weekend, and even when it did, the pace was not uniform or the schedule precise. We took time for such pleasantries as running, playing, and occasional rock fights. We also engaged in certain organized games, and as we grew older, we occasionally slipped off campus at night and prowled the town. Nevertheless, the reading pattern was a dominant theme.
Time, of course, is inexorable; and the day inevitably came when we outgrew the intermediate department and advanced to high school seventh through twelfth grades. Again, it meant a change in status a change in everything, of course, but especially reading. Not only could we come to study hall for an hour each night Monday through Friday and take a Braille volume to our room during weekends, but we could also check out Braille books whenever we liked, and (within reason) we could take as many as we wanted.
Let me now go back once more to the early childhood years. Before I was six, I had an isolated existence. My mother and father, my older brother, and I lived on a farm about fifty miles out of Nashville. We had no radio, no telephone, and no substantial contact with anybody except our immediate neighbors. My father had very little formal education, and my mother had left school just prior to graduating from the eighth grade. Books were not an important part of our family routine. Most of the time we did not have a newspaper. There were two reasons: Our orientation was not toward reading, and money was scarce. It was the early thirties. Hogs (when we had any) brought two cents a pound; and anything else we had to sell was priced proportionately.
I did a lot of thinking in those preschool days, and every time I could, I got somebody to read to me. Read what? Anything anything I could get. I would nag and pester anybody I could find to read me anything that was available the Bible, an agriculture yearbook, a part of a newspaper, or the Sears Roebuck Catalog. It didn't matter. Reading was magic. It opened up new worlds.
I remember the joy a joy which almost amounted to reverence and awe which I felt during those times I was allowed to visit an aunt who had books in her home. It was from her daughter (my cousin) that I first heard the fairy stories from The Book of Knowledge, a treasure which many of today's children have unfortunately missed. My cousin loved to read and was long-suffering and kind, but I know that I tried her patience with my insatiable appetite. It was not possible for me to get enough, and I always dreaded going home, finding every excuse I could to stay as long as my parents would let me. I loved my aunt; I was fascinated by the radio she had; and I delighted in her superb cooking but the key attraction was the reading. My aunt is long since dead, and of course I never told her. For that matter, maybe I never really sorted it out in my own mind, but there it was no doubt about it.
As I have already said, I started school at six and when I say six, I mean six. As you might imagine, I wanted to go as soon as I could, and I made no secret about it. I was six in November of 1932. However, school started in September, and six meant six. I was not allowed to begin until the next quarter January of 1933.
You can understand that after I had been in school for a few weeks, I contemplated with mixed feelings the summer vacation which would be coming. I loved my family, but I had been away from home and found stimulation and new experiences. I did not look forward to three months of renewed confinement in the four-room farm house with nothing to do.
Then, I learned that I was going to be sent a Braille magazine during the summer months. Each month's issue was sixty Braille pages. I would get one in June, one in July, and one in August. What joy! I was six, but I had learned what boredom meant and I had also learned to plan. So I rationed the Braille and read two pages each day. This gave me something new for tomorrow. Of course, I went back and read and re-read it again, but the two new pages were always there for tomorrow.
As the school years came and went I got other magazines, learned about the Library of Congress Braille and talking book collection, and got a talking book machine. By the time I was in the seventh grade I was receiving a number of Braille magazines and ordering books from three separate regional libraries during the summer. Often I would read twenty hours a day not every day, of course, but often. I read Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Zane Grey, Rafael Sabatini, James Oliver Curwood, and hundreds of others. I read whatever the libraries sent me, every word of it; and I often took notes. By then it was clear to me that books would be my release from the prison of the farm and inactivity. It was also clear to me that college was part of that program and that somehow I was going to get there. But it was not just escape from confinement or hope for a broader horizon or something to be gained. It was also a deep, ingrained love of reading.
The background I have described conditioned me. I did not feel about reading the way I see most people viewing it today. Many of today's children seem to have the attitude that they are forced, not permitted,to go to school that they arerequired, not given the privilege and honor, to study. They are inundated with reading matter. It is not scarce but a veritable clutter, not something to strive for but to take for granted. I don't want children or the general public to be deprived of reading matter, but I sometimes think that a scald is as bad as a freeze. Is it worse to be deprived of books until you feel starved for them or to be so overwhelmed with them that you become blas‚ about it? I don't know, and I don't know that it will do me any good to speculate. All I know is that I not only delight in reading but believe it to be a much neglected joy and a principal passport to success, perspective, civilization, and possibly the survival of the species. I am of that group which deplores the illiteracy which characterizes much of our society and distinguishes many of its would-be leaders and role models. I am extremely glad I have had the opportunity and incentive to read as broadly as I have, and I believe my life is so much better for the experience that it borders on the difference between living and existence.
It is interesting to contemplate how a particular train of thought can be
set in motion. The memories and reflections I have been recounting were called
to mind by a press release which recently crossed my desk. I want to share it
with you and then make a few comments about it. Here it is:
New York, March, 1987 With its March issue, The Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind completes eighty years as a free general interest magazine for blind and visually impaired persons. The Ziegler, as it is affectionately known by readers, was founded in 1907 by Electa Matilda Ziegler, wealthy widow of William Ziegler, founder of the Royal Baking Powder Company. The Ziegler has no print edition its ten issues per year are in Braille and on recorded flexible disc.
Since one of the main difficulties faced by blind people is lack of easy access to the thousands of print magazines and books published every year, the Ziegler gives its readers an informative, stimulating, and entertaining selection from these print materials. It reprints articles from newspapers and magazines, and includes short stories, poetry, and humor. While the Ziegler is not about blindness, it does devote space to news and information of special interest to people with vision problems. In Reader's Forum, readers have an opportunity to sound off on any subject and to discuss solutions to problems caused by lack of, or poor, sight. The Ziegler's highly popular Pen Pals section enables blind and visually impaired persons worldwide to get in touch.
It was a highly improbable sequence of events that led to the founding of the Ziegler. In 1906 Walter Holmes, a Tennessee newspaperman, was on a business trip to New York City, when he came across a newspaper description of a large bequest to charity. Irritated by the fact that no money was left to benefit blind people, he dashed off a note to the paper, pointing out how desperately blind people needed books that they could read with their fingers. Few books, he noted, were transcribed into a form that could be read by touch, and those few were far too expensive. The then popular Ben Hur, for example, cost only $1 in print, but an embossed version cost all of $30!
Walter Holmes' letter was published, and he received a response from one E. M. Ziegler, who asked to meet him. E. M. Ziegler turned out to be a woman, Electa Matilda Ziegler, and at their meeting she agreed to pay for a magazine for the blind, if Holmes would run it. To this serendipitous meeting the Ziegler Magazine traces its origins. Why was Mrs. Ziegler so interested in blind people? What was Mr. Holmes' interest? She had a blind son, and he had a blind brother.
True to her word, Mrs. Ziegler paid the expenses (some $20,000 per year) from her own pocket until 1928, when she set up an endowment. It is this carefully invested fund that has underwritten the magazine ever since.
The Ziegler's first issue in March, 1907, was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by blind and sighted people alike. Blind and deaf Helen Keller, then twenty-six years old, wrote to Mrs. Ziegler, I must send you my glad thanks for the pleasure and the facilities which you have placed within our reach. I have waited many years for such a magazine.
Mark Twain wrote: I think this is one of the noblest benefactions that has been conferred upon a worthy object by any purse during the long stretch of my seventy-one years.
Eighty years later readers are still full of praise and gratitude for the magazine. One old lady, who has been a reader since that first issue, recently asked to have her subscription changed from Braille to recorded disc since, at her advanced age, she could no longer read Braille as quickly as she would like, but she did not want to miss a single issue.
To mark the completion of eighty years, the Ziegler asked its readers to submit essays to a contest on the subject, An Unforgettable Journey.First prize was won by a reader in Jerusalem, Siranoosh A. Ketchejian, who described a 1909 journey as a small girl from her home in Armenia to a school for blind children in Jerusalem.
The second prize went to Virginia A. Reagan of Rogersville, Missouri. Her essay describes her continuing journey toward independence despite total blindness and orthopedic problems that oblige her to use a wheelchair. She points out, however, that her biggest battles were with the discouraging attitudes of doctors and others who believed she would never be capable of living independently.
James R. Stell of Glasgow, Kentucky, won third prize for his vivid recollection of a journey he made to New York City thirty years ago with the band of the Alabama School for the Blind. The band played at an international Lions convention.
By printing this press release I do not mean to imply that the Matilda Ziegler Magazine is (or ever was) the greatest thing since sliced bread or even that I think it is unusually well done. I have not read or even seen a copy of it for years, and I have often heard it snidely called the Lydia Pinkham Magazine an epithet which may elude some of the members of the younger generation. Be that as it may, the Ziegler was one of those early Braille magazines that I had the opportunity to get my hands on when I was searching for anything that I could find to read. Along with the Search Light, the Weekly, the Children's Friend, Discovery, the Reader's Digest, and a host of other Braille magazines, it provided me with both pleasure and information at a time when I most urgently needed them and it was one of the first. I must confess that the Ziegler was not my favorite, but I read it and I am not putting it down.
It was one of the early Braille magazines, which was freely made available to anybody who requested it, and I am sure that through the years it has brought countless hours of pleasure to a great many people. Because of the progress of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the advent of the computer, the Braille and recorded magazines now available, the number of volunteer transcribers who are willing to produce material, and the accumulation of Braille and recorded books scattered throughout the country, the blind children and adults of today will hopefully never have to repeat the experiences I have described. Yet, the hunger for Braille, the isolation and loneliness, and the early magazines like the Ziegler are an important part of our heritage as blind people a heritage we should not forget and from which we should continue to profit and learn.
The explosive growth of new procedures and technology, notably in the area of communication skills, caused the Braille Monitor to devote an entire issue (May, 1982) to the subject of Braille and its alternatives. The lead article was a comprehensive summary and assessment by the NFB's President, which explained much of the controversy and raised many of the issues which were to gain attention during the decade:
by Kenneth Jernigan
On rare occasions we devote an entire issue of the Monitor to a single topic. That is what we are doing in the present instance. The topic is Braille. Braille is so central in the lives of the blind and so much is happening in the way of new attitudes and new technology that an overview is needed a bringing together of facts, an attempt at perspective.
Before the time of Louis Braille, blind persons had very little opportunity to read at all. Of course, because of the low literacy rate, many of the sighted were in the same boat. Nevertheless, the blind were at a distinct disadvantage. Through the years there had been attempts to develop this or that sort of tactile system, but it was Louis Braille who made the breakthrough in 1825.
However, his invention was only a beginning. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century Braille was the center of controversy and opposing views. Different systems and configurations of dots to form the alphabet coexisted side by side, and each had its advocates. The disputes continued into the twentieth century, and, for that matter, are still taking place. Even now, the Braille Authority of North America is debating new rules and contemplating changes.
When I entered the Tennessee School for the Blind as a boy of six in the early 1930s, I was exposed to New York Point, American Braille, Grade One, Grade One and One-Half, Grade Two, Moon Type, and some sort of unfathomable raised print, the name of which I either never heard or soon forgot. I hasten to add that nobody even attempted to teach me all of these various systems. I was merely exposed to them and told of their numerous virtues or shortcomings by whichever advocate happened to be speaking at the moment. In the first grade I was taught (or, at least, an attempt was made in that direction) both to read and write Grade One Braille. The writing was done on a board slate, and I have always been glad that I learned the use of the slate before being introduced to the Brailler (the equivalent of a typewriter). Incidentally, although I can now read Braille with perfect ease at several hundred words a minute and can write it with speed and accuracy on slate or Brailler, I flunked both Braille reading and Braille writing in the first grade, necessitating going through the first grade again the following year. Yes, it was a different world.
As I progressed through high school and college, I became acquainted with the British system of writing Braille, which had a number of differences from what I was accustomed to. For instance, the first time I realized that the British used the letters JC for Jesus Christ, I thought it a bit familiar and not at all in keeping with what my history books had taught me about the conservative and stodgy nature of the inhabitants of that part of the world.
Even so, by the early 1940s everybody who could read Braille very well at all could get along with almost anything that was floating around. New York Point was not being produced anymore, and American Braille was about in the same situation. Moon Type (which was a series of curved lines invented by an Englishman named Dr. Moon for the purpose of making it easier for older blind persons to read) was almost nonexistent, a few volumes being kept at most of the residential schools for the blind as conversation pieces and to impress visitors.
In the early 1940s most blind children went to residential schools, and Braille was pretty much the standard medium for teaching. Large print (or sightsaving material a term with curious connotations since it does nothing of the sort) was discussed now and again, but mostly it was still waiting in the wings. Students who were blind enough to go to the residential school but who had some remaining eyesight ( partials they were called and some of them were quite highpartials ) learned to read Braille with their eyes, and they stubbornly and persistently took every opportunity to do it despite the scoldings and objections of their teachers. In fact, there was quite an art to the rapid reading of Braille visually. As I understand it, the dots were not read directly. Instead, the page was so held that the dots cast shadows, and these were read. Be that as it may, a constant state of war always seemed to exist between the teachers and the partials,doubtless honing wits of both groups and building character into the bargain. The teachers developed a large cloth apron-type affair (known as a blindfold, which it wasn't) and insisted that the partials wear it while reading or writing Braille. A loop fitted over the neck and the cloth blindfold was draped over the Braille material. The student was expected to put his or her hands underneath the cloth and do the reading or writing. The partials countered by trying to hold the top of the blindfold away from the body and peeking under it. Of course, when the teacher's back was turned, the blindfold was pushed aside altogether.
In some of the schools the teachers stepped up the warfare by turning off all of the lights in the night study hall sessions leaving sighted teachers (most of them were sighted at that time), partials, and the totally blind all in the dark together. Of course, in such a situation the totally blind were at a considerable advantage, and the sighted teachers (having usually learned very few if any of the techniques of blindness) labored under a severe handicap. The partials were somewhere between, depending on how well they had learned to function as blind people.
I was called on to supervise such a night study hall in the late forties and early fifties when I was a teacher of English at the Tennessee School for the Blind, and the maintenance of discipline posed unique problems. It takes a bit of practice and skill to follow the trajectory of a thrown object back to its point of origin, but the science can be mastered not to mention which the teacher tends to have certain inherent advantages in such warfare. At least, such was the case in the climate of discipline and practice which prevailed at that particular time in our history. Let me simply say that the outcome was not always certain and that the situation was turbulent, but it provided a certain amount of stimulation and was both challenging and do-able.
In the meantime another element was beginning to come into play, one that would have a far-reaching impact on the future of Braille. In the 1930s the talking book machine began to be increasingly available and popular. At first its impact on the teaching of Braille (especially, in the residential schools and that is where most of the teaching was done) was minimal. Because of the politics of the federal legislation authorizing library services for the blind, talking books, which were a principal component of the library services, were not supposed to be available to children. The talking book machines and records were not used in most of the residential schools until after the mid-forties and even then at a very slowly accelerating pace.
In view of the fact that blind adults (people somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen or thereabouts) were entitled to borrow from the libraries around the country; in view of the fact that the definition of the word adult, as well as the way of figuring one's age can be variously interpreted, depending upon the exigencies of the situation; and in view of the further fact that many of the libraries were in states far removed from their borrowers and could do little to test the veracity of the information provided to them by those borrowers, talking book machines and records began to make their appearance in the schools with increasing frequency.
However, they were not generally used in the classrooms or the school study halls but in the bedrooms of the students and in their homes during vacations. The early talking book machines were heavy and cumbersome, and the records would only play about fifteen minutes to the side. War and Peace, for instance, came in eight large containers comprising 160 records, and Gone With The Wind was on 80 records. Nevertheless, the quality of the reading was excellent, and one could do other things with the hands while listening. Before the advent of the talking book, Braille was the only game in town. If you were blind and if you wanted to read, you learned Braille, but now there was an alternative.
When the wave of retrolental fibroplasia spread throughout the population in the forties and fifties, leaving thousands of children blind, the residential schools could not have handled (even if they had wanted to) the massive influx of students. Before retrolental fibroplasia, most state residential schools for the blind had somewhere between one hundred and two hundred students. Now, in the late forties and fifties, the number of blind children needing education was several times that much in many of the states. There were not enough trained teachers to meet the need, and the American Foundation for the Blind got into the act, helping promote teacher-training courses in a number of colleges and universities. Many felt that the American Foundation added a negative element to the problem by its constant discussion of which was the better setting for educating the blind child, the residential school or the local public school. Of course, the debate was largely meaningless since the residential schools could not possibly have met all of the need and since many of the local public schools were also unable to do an adequate and meaningful job. Be this as it may, the American Foundation filled a gap which no one else was prepared to fill and, thereby, performed a positive service. The philosophy was usually not the best, and there were often power plays; but the alternative to the American Foundation's stepping into the breach would undoubtedly have been that many blind children who got at least a fair degree of education would likely have had none at all.
In the pre-retrolental fibroplasia days, when the great majority of blind children and most of the newly blind adults who received instruction in Braille got it in the residential schools, classes were relatively small, and a good deal of individual attention could be given. Moreover, most (not all but most) of the Braille teachers were really expert at Braille. They knew Braille, and they could read and write it.
With the new wave of blind children coming into the schools, there were bound to be changes and not only changes but also a loss of quality in certain areas the kind of thing which always characterizes crash programs. Many of the new teachers were not expert in Braille, and they were not as sure of its centrality and necessity as their predecessors had been.
The talking book machines were now lighter and smaller than they had been, and the records were beginning to be lighter and longer playing. As compared with the heavy thirty-three and one-third rpm, fifteen minutes to the side, disc of the 1930s, for instance, today's talking book record is a paper thin, lightweight, floppy disc, which runs at eight and one-third rpm and plays an hour to the side. Other things have also come to compete with Braille. First came the open reel tape, and today it is the cassette. The cassette player and the books recorded on cassette are much more portable and easier to get from place to place than Braille. In the schools today talking books and cassettes are often used early on, and this necessarily means less reliance on Braille.
Then, there is the matter of large print (the sight saving material of old) and various electronic and manually operated magnification systems for blind children who have some remaining residual vision. This is not merely a matter of new facts and techniques but often of philosophy as well. I have sometimes told the story of going into a classroom and having a teacher say to me in the presence of two young children, one totally blind and one with some remaining vision, This little girl can read print. This little girl has to read Braille. Of course, the wordscan and has to were the key to the matter. Undoubtedly without consciously knowing that she was doing it or meaning to do it, the teacher was putting down Braille and making it less attractive and pleasant to read. She may have been helping to cause the totally blind child to be a poor Braille reader, or virtually a non-Braille reader. She was teaching both children that it is not respectable to be blind and that, if you are blind, you cannot expect to compete on terms of equality. After all, the girl with some residual vision had only about ten percent of her eyesight, and if you are capable in proportion to your ability to see, ten percent of a person is not much.
This is not to say that some of the magnification devices and other visual aids have not been of help to those with residual vision, for they have. Rather, it is to make the obvious point that such devices have led (at least, to some degree) to a de-emphasis of Braille. If visual aids are seen in context and used with reason, they can be positive (whether for children or adults), but if their use is pushed to the extreme (as has been the case in some of the schools and adult training programs), the results can be very nearly disasters. For example, I know a number of people who wanted to learn Braille when they were children in school and were not permitted to do it, being told that the normal thing to do was to read print and use their remaining vision. They were compelled to do this despite the fact that their prognosis was for continuing deterioration of sight and despite the fact that their vision was so poor that they could not read print (even large print) with comfort and fluency. Many of those people are now totally blind, and no small number of them deeply resent the way they were treated. They are either poor Braille readers or have had to expend a great deal of time and effort to learn the skills they could easily have been taught in school.
There are other developments which have impacted upon Braille the thermoform machine, for instance. When it was announced, the thermoform seemed such a positive thing. It allowed an individual to take a regular sheet of Braille, place it on a platform, and draw a piece of heated, thin plastic down over it to reproduce the Braille dots. It was a veritable copy machine for the blind. It made it possible to duplicate single copies of individual Braille paper, or for that matter, short-run multiple copies. If it had been used for program agendas, throw away information, or making copies of Braille letters in other words if it had been used as print copy machines are used, it would have been an unmixed blessing. It would have strengthened the use of Braille.
But such was not to be the case. Over the years a great many books have been hand-transcribed by sighted volunteers. More and more, with the advent of the thermoform machine, the original paper Braille copy of the book has been kept on file by the transcribing group or the library as amaster, and thermoform duplicates have been sent out to fill requests. In my opinion (and that opinion is shared by most Braille readers with whom I talk) this has done a great deal to discourage the use of Braille.
For my part I find prolonged reading of thermoform extremely unpleasant. The plastic sheets tend to stick to the hands, and the fingers tend to be irritated after a time. Moreover, I cannot read thermoform nearly as rapidly as I can read Braille produced on paper. Certainly I cannot read it as pleasantly.
I suspect that if print were so produced that it hurt the eyes of sighted people who read it, far less reading would be done by the sighted than is the case today. I further suggest that the alternative to print (television) would assuming that such is possible be even more popular than it is today. This is not to blame anyone, nor is it to shrug off the problems (economic and otherwise). It is simply to state facts as I see them and to hope that we can find solutions.
The last few years have brought still other developments in technology. There is the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which scans a print page and translates it into spoken words. This machine has achieved some positive results, but it still has a ways to go to fulfill the initial hopes which people had for it. It is too costly for the individual blind person to afford; it still has certain technical problems; it is not easily portable; and it is not clear whether enough capital will continue to be put into its development to make it an ongoing major factor in the total mix of reading for the blind.
Then, there is the Optacon a scanning system which translates what the camera sees on the printed page into a pattern of vibrating, closely packed reeds which can be felt with one finger. Again, there have been certain positive results with the Optacon, but there are also severe limitations and when exaggerated claims are made concerning its usefulness and performance, the minuses quickly outstrip the plusses. By and large, reading with the Optacon is quite slow, and a great deal of training is required for its skillful use. Moreover, expense is again a factor, but not as much as in the case of the Kurzweil machine.
By no means all (but a great deal) of the Braille produced in this country is purchased through the program of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS). The same is true of recorded and other reading material available to the blind. Thus, NLS has a major voice in determining what kind of reading material will be available to the blind, and in what form that reading material will be.
In the early days of the library program the service was limited to the blind, and Braille received a major emphasis (incidentally, the restriction against serving blind children has, to the satisfaction of everybody, long since been abolished). In the 1960s pressure began to be brought to open up the library service for the blind to other physically handicapped groups. The NLS was not opposed to this because it would broaden its mission and, presumably, strengthen its power base. Further, since the other groups of the handicapped have never been as strongly organized as the blind, it would presumably water down the political impact on policy matters by making us a smaller part of the total constituency. To say that these political considerations undoubtedly figured in the Library's policy decision is not to say that the Library may not also have felt that the other groups needed service and that NLS could fill that need.
When the legislation to add other groups to the library service was introduced, we opposed. We said that we favored providing library service to the other groups but that we felt it should be done through another division of the Library of Congress. We said that since these groups did not use Braille, their inclusion would mean a proportionately smaller amount of resources devoted to the production of Braille. We further expressed concerns that all phases of service to the blind would suffer by adding the larger constituency as opposed to establishing for it a separate program. Nevertheless, when the legislation was introduced into the next session of Congress, we agreed to its passage provided safeguards could be established and assurances could be given that our concerns could be satisfied.
Within recent years there has seemed to come a recognition that Braille must again receive an increased emphasis. Valuable as the other means of communication may be, there are certain areas in which there is simply no substitute for Braille for the blind person. Taking notes and writing can be done more efficiently in Braille than by recording assuming, of course, that the person using the Braille is skilled. Intensive study is more easily done by Braille than from a recording, and there is no adequate substitute for Braille in delivering a public speech, verbatim or from notes. There is also the pleasure of reading aloud to others or to oneself, but this admittedly gets into the realm of the subjective. However, it is highly doubtful whether the majority of the sighted population would consider for a moment giving up all print in favor of recorded material or, even for that matter, television.
As we move into this present decade, there are several hopeful signs. In the first place let it be said that the NLS and all other groups involved with the blind would like (if a feasible way can be found to do it) to have plentiful and readily available Braille at low cost for the blind. The question is how to do it. Some of the recent developments in the production of Braille by computer are extremely hopeful and could serve as the subject for an entire article themselves. There is increasing hope that the computer can provide breakthroughs which will make possible a greatly increased quantity of Braille at a much reduced cost.
However, unless those of us in the field recognize the importance of Braille and train people to read it and rely on it, it will become a dying skill regardless of its cheapness or availability. Furthermore, unless we make Braille available in a form and in a texture which allows for rapid and pleasant reading, its use will diminish. Braille is one of the most useful tools which the blind have, and we must extract from it its maximum potential.
This brings me to one of the most revolutionary concepts in the production, cost, portability, and usability of Braille which has ever been contemplated. I refer to what has been called cassette or paperless Braille. The idea is that a large quantity of Braille could be stored on a very small cassette and could be displayed through small pins that could be raised to form the Braille dots. There are several such machines in the offing, and the National Library Service is considering purchasing one of them or a hybrid of the best features of as many of them as it can put together. If the effort is successful, NLS would probably look toward eventually replacing regular Braille volumes in its collection with the cassette-Braille machines. I have personally examined two of these machines an earlier model of the Elinfa and TSI's Versabrailler. I have not examined the Rose Reader, but if it can do what its inventors claim, it may hold the key to the future. Of course, theif must be kept in mind. The problem with the Elinfa and the Versabrailler is that they display only one line at a time and not a very long line at that. I think this would mean that the fast Braille reader would be slowed down, but we will have to see. When I tried the Versabrailler (and I must emphasize that I only used it for a few minutes on one occasion), I could read Braille on it very nearly as fast as I could talk. However, I can read ordinary Braille on a regular paper page much more rapidly than that. Of course, I do not know what I could do if I spent time training on the Versabrailler, but since I use both hands and read on two lines at once in reading ordinary Braille, common sense tells me that if I have access to only one short line at the time I will necessarily be slowed down.
When I tried the Elinfa, I thought it was totally worthless. However, I cannot emphasize too strongly that I saw it only once, that it was an early model, and that it probably still had bugs to be worked out of it. Since it displays only a single short line at the time, some of my comments about the Versabrailler would also be applicable.
As I have said, I have not examined the Rose Reader, but its inventor claims that it will display an entire Braille page at once. I should think that this would be a tremendous advantage.
The National Library Service has recently been making tests involving cassette Braille. It has also found itself in a controversy with some of the manufacturers of the machines particularly with Mr. Leonard Rose, one of the inventors of the Rose Reader.
Five years after the publication of that article, the controversy surrounding the teaching of Braille had heated up around the country and particularly, in the National Federation's home state of Maryland. There, on many occasions, leaders of the organized blind, such as Kenneth Jernigan and Mary Ellen Reihing (at that time, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind) found themselves engaging in debate or contentious correspondence with Dr. Richard Welsh, Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind. Two such episodes, typical of many others, were discussed by Jernigan in what might be described as a delicious commentary, entitled "A Taste of Rarebit," published in the Braille Monitor in August, 1987. The essay follows:
by Kenneth Jernigan
Before I came to Maryland in 1978, I had never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Richard Welsh, the Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind. That deficiency in my social experience has now been remedied, for on more than one occasion during the past nine years Dr. Welsh and I have occupied the same platform, sat in the same room at meetings, and shared with one another such wisdom as each of us possessed.
Last fall at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland Dr. Welsh was a speaker. He did not come willingly or with good temper but only after a number of contacts had been made with members of his board to suggest that it was inappropriate for the superintendent of the state school for the blind to refuse to attend. After all, the NFB of Maryland is the largest organization of blind people in the state, and the School has (or should have) a certain degree of accountability.
Dr. Welsh's segment of the agenda was not characterized by placidity. In fact, one might call it tempestuous. He said, among other things, that it might be a bad thing for a growing child to try to learn both print and Braille since it might slow both processes. I got the impression that he was saying that a child had a certain amount of reading capacity and that if you split it between print and Braille, you would probably come out with around fifty percent efficiency in each. It was certainly a novel theory, but novelty was about all that it had to recommend it.
When some of us pointed out to him that children sometimes learn two languages simultaneously and seem to have increased proficiency in each because of the experience of having learned the other, he only answered with emotion instead of logic. He seemed to feel that Braille was vastly inferior to print and that a child should, if possible, read print at all costs, even if Braille would be faster and more efficient. I got the definite impression that Dr. Welsh felt that print wasnormal and that Braille was subnormal.
He said that if a family really felt that their child should learn Braille, that this should be taken into consideration, but it was made very clear that the School would discourage it. He also made a great point of the fact that all children are different and that they should not be treated alike or fitted into a rigid mold. It sounds good, but what does it mean? To Dr. Welsh it meant that blind children should not be (as he put it) pressured or forced to learn Braille. We asked him whether sighted children should be put into a rigid mold and forced to learn print. He thought this was different. It is normal to read print.
In the circumstances it is not surprising that Dr. Welsh did not believe that teachers of blind children (even those who teach reading) should be required to have proficiency in Braille. We asked him whether a teacher of French should be required to know French. He thought this was not relevant. We asked him whether a teacher of math should be required to know math. He didn't think that was relevant either. Certain legislators who were present thought it was extremely relevant. Dr. Welsh was not happy. Federationists are troublemakers. They are militant, too.
Not surprisingly, a bill was introduced into the Maryland legislature early this year to require that Braille be made available to every blind and severely visually impaired child in the state. Also not surprisingly, the special education teachers and Dr. Welsh (some of the very people who certainly should and often don't know Braille) came out in force to oppose the bill. Dr. Welsh's performance was not only in poor taste but also possibly even worse than that. He brought small children and their parents to the legislature to talk about how terrible it would be if they were forced into the rigid mold. It was enough to make one cry, and a number of people did some for one reason, and some for another. Temporarily Dr. Welsh got his way. For another year blind children in Maryland will not beforced to learn to read. They will avoid the evils of literacy. But the battle is only beginning.
Under date of April 15, 1987, a letter from Mary Ellen Reihing, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, appeared in the Baltimore Sun:
Literacy Crisis for the Blind
Editor: A whole generation of blind children in Maryland is in grave danger of becoming functionally illiterate. Special education teachers certified to teach blind children, both at the School for the Blind and in public school programs, are discouraging their students from learning Braille. Of the 120 children in academic programs at the Maryland School for the Blind, the school reports that only 33 are learning Braille.
Why? Poor teacher training programs account for part of the problem. It is possible to become certified to teach blind students in Maryland without being able to read Braille fluently. Volunteer Braille transcribers, who often do not have college degrees and are not accordedprofessional status, must demonstrate a knowledge of Braille to be certified which is greater than that required of a teacher of the visually impaired seeking a master's degree.
The root of the literacy crisis for blind children goes beyond the poor quality of teacher preparation. At its heart is the notion that the techniques used by blind people are inferior to those used by the sighted. It is normal to read print. It is abnormal to read Braille. Therefore, a blind child with residual vision, no matter how poor that vision may be, is taught to read print even when Braille would be more efficient.
Joe can see well out of the corner of his eye, but he can't focus on any detail work. He can't read the banner headlines in a newspaper. If he uses a closed circuit television system, he can read print that is so enlarged that four or five letters will fit on a twelve-inch television screen. Since he has not learned Braille, he has no way to read any of the notes he has written until he can return home to use his closed circuit television.
Jane was born with cataracts which were removed when she was a baby. She also had a condition that caused her eyes to jump uncontrollably. Focusing caused her pain, but she could read regular print very effectively for about ten minutes. If she tried to read longer, tears rolled down her face, and she was unable to focus on anything at all for several hours. Her teachers told her she was being lazy when she said that she couldn't read any more. As she got older, and reading demands increased, she fell farther and farther behind. Jane became convinced that she was stupid and dropped out of high school. Jane has come to understand that her reading problems are visual, not mental. Even so her attitudes about reading are fixed. Though she could read books that have been recorded on tape, she structured her life to avoid books in any form.
Lynn read large print when she was a child. She had friends who were totally blind, and she wanted to learn Braille so she could write letters to them, but her teachers refused to help her learn it. In fact, they punished her for trying to read Braille because she wasn't blind. Shortly after she graduated from high school, Lynn lost the rest of her vision. She had to quit her job as a secretary to learn Braille. Fortunately for Lynn, she was able to find another secretarial job after her training. If she had known Braille from the beginning, she would not have had to interrupt her career.
Expense has been given as a reason for denying literacy to blind children. No one is suggesting that regular classroom teachers become proficient in Braille. The only teachers who would be involved are the special education instructors who are already supposed to be fluent in Braille. The Library of Congress offers a free course to anyone who wants to learn Braille transcription. Those who talk about expense should think about the life-long cost of illiteracy and noncompetitive functioning for blind people.
Administrators say that many blind students at the Maryland School for the Blind see too well to need Braille. One is left to wonder what such students are doing in a specialized program for blind children if they really do not need any of the techniques of blindness. Perhaps the real problem is that those charged with the responsibility of teaching our blind children really do not believe that blindness is respectable.
Mary Ellen Reihing, Baltimore.
Under date of April 25, 1987, Dr. Welsh replied. He said that it was perfectly proper for blind children in Maryland not to know Braille since blind children in the rest of the country don't know it either. If only fifteen percent of the blind youngsters in the country can read Braille, Maryland's thirteen percent is only two percentage points worse. In other words illiteracy is all right if you can just prove that other people are almost as uneducated as you are. One has to wonder if Dr. Welsh really understands the implications of what he is saying.
He went on to say that some ninety-five percent of the students at his school had other handicaps besides blindness, from which one was presumably meant to reason that it is all right to push a multiply handicapped child toward reading print but not all right to push him or her toward reading Braille. Besides, the argument about multiple handicaps is always trotted out by anybody and everybody with a weak case the sheltered workshops, which don't want to pay decent wages; the airlines, which don't want to let blind persons sit in exit rows; the schools, which don't want to teach Braille.
Next Dr. Welsh said that current state and federal laws require that the program for a handicapped child's education must be based on an assessment of that particular child's individual needs and abilities. He jumped from this to the conclusion that blind children need not be taught Braille. He then threw in a few words about his rigid mold and topped it off with some comments about how bad it was that the schools of twenty years ago taught visually impaired students under blindfold. Twenty years ago is always bad. Blindfolds are bad. By implication, Braille is bad.
In the rest of his letter Dr. Welsh talks about the damage which was done to the blind children of a generation ago who were forced to learn Braille. I know a great many of those people, and my observation contradicts Dr. Welsh's theories. I believe the people to whom he refers were neither educationally nor psychologically damaged by being taught Braille. Dr. Welsh says: Respect for blind people begins with the recognition that each blind person is an individual, and each should be treated as such.
Bravo! one cries. But what does this have to do with learning to read? I favor the flag and the Bill of Rights. Does this mean that sighted children should not be taught to read print? I have always thought that freedom and literacy went hand in hand, that liberty and education were almost synonymous. Apparently Dr. Welsh thinks otherwise. But let him speak for himself. Here is his letter:
Braille Isn't For All Sight-Impaired Kids
Editor: On April 15 you published a letter from Mary Ellen Reihing, President of the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, which pointed out that most visually impaired students in Maryland do not use Braille. The writer concluded that the reasons for this are that teachers are poorly trained, that it is too expensive to teach Braille and that administrators do not believe that blindness isrespectable ; therefore, the techniques used by blind people are considered to be inferior, and are not taught.
The 1986 report of the American Printing House for the Blind indicates that only fifteen percent of all visually impaired children in the United States use Braille. This is very close to the thirteen percent of the students at the Maryland School for the Blind who use Braille. But the reasons for these facts are very different than those suggested by Ms. Reihing.
First, ninety-five percent of the children who attend the Maryland School for the Blind have additional handicaps to their visual impairment. Forty percent have severe and profound developmental disabilities which make them incapable of reading, regardless of the medium they are using. Many have orthopedic or neurological impairments which make it impossible to read Braille. Most have some degree of usable vision which they can use efficiently to read print.
We have many teachers who are proficient in reading and teaching Braille, and we capably provide this instruction when it is needed. We also teach other special techniques and adaptations which are used by blind people, not only for academic learning but also for independent mobility, vocational training, daily living skills and leisure activities.
Current state and federal laws require the educational program provided each handicapped child to be based on an assessment of that child's needs and abilities and to be approved by the child's parents. This is an improvement over past educational practices, which were influenced by general theories about what was best for all children in a particular category, regardless of the needs of the individual child. Fortunately, most schools do not operate that way anymore.
Thirty years ago, it was the general belief that all visually impaired children should learn Braille, whether they needed it or not. Children who had enough vision to learn to read print were blindfolded and forced to read Braille with their fingers.
The vast majority of these children never used Braille again in any functional way, and many had to teach themselves how to read print after they left school. It is the position of the Maryland School for the Blind and most educators that, in general, if a child has the cognitive ability required for reading and is able to recognize print symbols, then strong consideration is given to print as the reading medium for that child. Print is the more common communication system used in the community, and more information is available in print than in any other medium.
If a child is unable to use print as an efficient reading medium then Braille, along with auditory and/or multiple media, is considered as a possible reading and learning mode. In some cases, a child whose primary medium is either print or Braille may also be taught to read in one or more of the other media, when that child's visual prognosis or personal interest suggests that learning to read in multiple media may be of value. This is particularly true when the child is clearly going to lose all useful vision.
During each of the last two legislative sessions, the National Federation of the Blind has requested that legislation be introduced which would change state law to reflect their philosophy on the use of Braille. Both times, the responses of visually impaired students and their parents, blind adults and educators who are trained in this specialty have led to the defeat of this proposed legislation.
We cannot return to the practice of treating all people in a given category as if they are the same. We do not educate children without handicaps in this manner, and we should not allow it for handicapped children. Respect for blind people begins with the recognition that each blind person is an individual, and each should be treated as such.
Richard L. Welsh, Baltimore.
As one reads Dr. Welsh's letter, various emotions compete for ascendancy. Perhaps the only appropriate response is a piece of doggerel: A kiss is dry without a squeeze; So is a rarebit without some cheese.
One of the most instructive and authoritative articles yet to appear on the educational role of Braille was published in the Braille Monitor in August, 1988, under the title "Braille: Pedagogy, Prejudice, and the Banner of Equality". The author was Fred Schroeder, president of the National Association of Blind Educators, and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. Schroeder, who had been an elementary school teacher and later an orientation and mobility instructor, was also formerly the coordinator of Low Incidence Programs for the Albuquerque Public Schools. His article, which combines first-hand experience with professional expertise, was given as a paper in Toronto, Canada, on June 1, 1988, at a conference sponsored by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the theme of which was "Braille: Future Directions". Schroeder became Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind in July of 1986:
by Fred Schroeder
When speaking generally about Braille, it can be said without controversy that Braille represents the means to literacy for the blind. On its face it seems self-evident that for the blind to be literate we must have a tactile method of reading and writing. As with most truths that appear self-evident, our particular beliefs and attitudes color our perception and affect the way in which our beliefs are put into action. Although we flatter ourselves with the belief that we are rational beings, we cannot ignore the impact of prejudice on our behavior. For this reason a discussion of Braille must necessarily encompass a discussion of societal beliefs about blindness, as well as our own beliefs as blind people about blindness.
When I was seven years old, I lost the majority of my eyesight. While not totally blind, I was no longer able to function competitively using my sight. At that time in my life I did not regard myself as a blind person and if asked would have fiercely resisted viewing myself as blind. The intensity of my aversion to thinking of myself as blind was directly tied to my fear of blindness. While recognizing that I was no longer fully sighted, I would not think of myself as a blind person since for me blindness conjured up images of hopelessness and helplessness. I did not know what had shaped my beliefs up to that time, but looking back I can identify many of the events which helped strengthen my negative beliefs about blindness. I was one of four children, and as in most families various household chores were divided up among us. While never explicitly stated, the chores I was assigned were those in which my poor vision would cause me the least difficulty. Both my family and I assumed that the tasks around the house routinely involving sight necessarily required sight and, therefore, none of us sought alternative methods for me to do other jobs. Rather than promoting confidence by giving me a belief that I could contribute, this practice led me to the conclusion that I could function competitively only by means of my remaining vision. When I returned to school, the same pattern continued. If I could not see well enough to do a particular thing, I was either excused from the assignment or paired off with a partner who generally did the majority of the work. Whichever way it went, the belief persisted that to see was to be competent and not to see was to be incompetent.
During the time I grew up, it was believed that the more a person used his or her remaining eyesight the sooner it would deteriorate. For this reason I was not encouraged to use print for fear that it would cause a further decrease in my vision. Since I was not using print, there seemed little need to teach me to spell. As you can imagine, the effect on my academic training of not reading was widespread and damaging. My mother, realizing that I would not be using print and recognizing the need for me to become literate, arranged for me to receive instruction in Braille. It was at this point that my beliefs about blindness began to surface in a tangible way. I resisted learning Braille and applied great quantities of effort to insuring that I would never learn it. I would read dots with my remaining sight and not by touch. I would refuse to practice between lessons, hide my book before lessons, and in every way possible avoid contact with Braille. I would argue with my mother that I did not need to know Braille since more and more material was being recorded on tape. In short, my beliefs about blindness were governing my attitude toward Braille. By not wanting to think of myself as a blind person, I resisted learning the skills I needed to function competitively. My fear of being less capable prevented me from learning the very skill which would have enabled me to function on a par with my sighted peers.
Now that the sight-savingera is behind us, I often wonder what would have happened to me in today's educational system. Would I have been taught Braille, or would I have been encouraged to read print with a closed circuit television or other similar device? Unfortunately the answer is all too easy to predict. The modern-day educational system does not encourage teachers of blind children to concentrate on Braille as a primary reading system for other than the totally blind. Children with any remaining eyesight are pressed to read print long past the point of reason and common sense.
In my professional life I started as a teacher of blind children. I have observed children using print in situations and under conditions which defy reason. In particular I can vividly remember watching a child being instructed in print using a CCTV at full magnification. To complicate matters this child could not see well if there was any glare in the room, so before he started reading, the blinds were closed. To complicate matters further, this child could not read letters that were at all stylized. Therefore, the teacher would first retype all of the child's material, using a sans serif large print typewriter which made very plain typewritten letters. After the teacher had retyped the child's material, closed the venetian blinds, and turned the CCTV to full magnification, this child was able to read a few letters at a time with excruciating slowness. Nevertheless, I was told that she was not being taught Braille because her parents wished her to read print. When this child became my student, I set about teaching her Braille and found that her parents came to value her ability to read and take pride in her newfound literacy. I firmly believe that their reluctance to allow her to learn Braille was directly tied to their desire not to think of their child as blind rather than to a belief that print represented a more efficient means of reading for her. I also believe that their negative attitudes were shaped by the negative attitudes of the teacher.
When I first determined to become a teacher of blind children, I took it for granted that Braille reading and writing would be stressed. My teacher preparation program required a one-semester course in Braille with an optional semester course in Braille math and music notation. This limited amount of training in Braille is disturbing enough. However, my program was, at that time, regarded as placing more emphasis on Braille than most other programs throughout the nation. Quantity of Braille instruction alone was not the problem. Prospective teachers completing the Braille course had only marginal reading and writing ability, and if the course was taken early in their program, they might not use Braille for several years before becoming certified as teachers of blind children.
When I was student teaching, I needed to have large quantities of material transcribed into Braille. To assist me I hired a woman who had just taken the Braille course the previous semester. She had received an A in the course and, therefore, would (I assumed) be reasonably facile with Braille. The material she first transcribed for me averaged sixteen Braille errors per page. I was having this woman transcribe my material on eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch paper. Figuring two to two-and-a-half Braille pages for each print page, this is analogous to hiring a typist who had just completed a typing course with an A grade who averages thirty to forty errors per typewritten page. I believe it is fair to say that many teachers of blind children are not skilled in Braille and, therefore, seek alternatives to Braille in working with their students. I remember when the Optacon was first introduced. The manufacturer claimed that the Optacon would make Braille obsolete. The manufacturer, in cooperation with leading professionals in the field, developed a reading program adapted for the Optacon. This was not a program to teach a child who was already a skilled reader to transfer that skill to the Optacon. Rather, this was a program intended to teach children the skill of reading by means of the Optacon. If this belief were limited only to the wild exaggerations of the manufacturer, it could be more easily dismissed. Unfortunately, while going through my teacher training, I had friends who seriously proposed eliminating Braille as a requirement from the teacher preparation curriculum since it would soon be obsolete.
Lack of use of Braille by the teachers compounds the problem. I was once told by a leading professional that it is not uncommon for an itinerant teacher to have periods of seven to ten years without a single Braille student. I would argue that this would not be the case if all children who should be taught Braille were taught Braille. Nevertheless, if it is the practice, it is easy to see how a teacher's proficiency could easily deteriorate assuming, of course, that the teacher had such proficiency in the first place.
A fundamental question which must be asked is this: Which children should be taught to read Braille, and which children should be taught to read print? In my professional work I developed a set of criteria which I used to answer this question. I believe that if a child can read standard sized print (holding it at a normal reading distance) and if that child can read for a sustained period of time without eye strain, then it is reasonable for that child to read print. In other words, if a child can function as a normally sighted person, then it can be reasonably expected that the child will be able to function competitively as a print reader. If the child suffers eye strain and cannot read for sustained periods of time, then it is reasonable for that child to learn Braille. All children must have a reading method which allows them to be fully literate. I believe the criteria I have listed are really nothing more than a functional definition of literacy. While no one would argue against literacy, the fact of teachers not receiving adequate training in Braille (coupled with new technology, such as CCTVs) has steered educational practice away from Braille and away from literacy.
Four or five years ago a leading professional organization in the United States circulated a proposed position paper asking for comments from the field. This position paper was intended to establish working criteria to settle once and for all the question of which children should read print and which children should read Braille. I was astonished when I read that one of the criteria seriously being proposed was that a child who was able to read print at ten words per minute should continue to be a print reader and not be taught Braille. To the best of my knowledge this position paper was never formally adopted. However, I was dumbfounded that a leading professional would even propose such a criterion.
I believe that there exists a prejudice against Braille and that, as with most prejudice, it is not deliberately intended or, for that matter, even recognized by those who feel it most deeply. I believe the source of the prejudice is nothing deeper or more mysterious than the public misunderstanding and misconceptions about blindness. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind, tells of visiting a classroom of blind children and being told by the teacher: This little girl reads print. This little girl has to read Braille. It is human nature that prejudice (while irrational) is defended by seemingly rational explanations. This is certainly true with the prejudice against Braille. We are told that Braille is too bulky and too expensive to produce that it is limited in quantity and that, therefore, to teach a child Braille is to limit what the child will be able to read. We are told that it is better to teach a child print, thereby making available great quantities (virtually endless quantities) of reading material to the child. Never mind that the child may be only able to read at ten words per minute. Never mind that the child may suffer eye strain and only be able to read for a brief time. While Braille is too expensive, never mind the cost of Optacons, talking computers, or CCTVs. While Braille is too bulky, never mind the size and awkwardness of many low vision aids.
Several years ago I attended a professional conference and saw a presentation on the mainstreaming of blind children into a regular public school. One of the slides showed a child with a CCTV mounted on a cart, which he wheeled with him from class to class. Yet, Braille is too bulky, too expensive, and too limited. As an educator, I have seen low vision children with smudges on their noses from trying to read their own handwriting their own handwriting which was done with a soft lead pencil or felt tip pen. Yet, somehow many of the professionals who shape the thinking of society cling to the belief that to read print is inherently better than to read Braille inherently normal.
Young blind children must be instructed in the skill of Braille writing, not only by means of the Braille writer but with the slate and stylus as well. Earlier in this century Braille writers were in scarce supply, and generations of blind children grew up learning to write with the slate and stylus from the time they entered the first grade. Now we are told that young blind children lack the fine motor control to use the slate and stylus and, therefore, that this skill should not be taught until middle school. When a child is in middle school, he or she must already have a reliable means of taking notes. It is too late to be introducing a notetaking system. Even though the slate has represented an efficient notetaking system for generations of blind people, modern day pedagogy suggests that the slate is too slow and causes too much confusion to be a useful tool because it teaches children to write backward. Many teacher preparation programs introduce the slate as little more than a relic of bygone days. Instead of being taught an efficient writing method, far too many children are given soft lead pencils or felt tip pens and are taught to handwrite notes which they can only decipher with great difficulty if at all. How will these children compete in today's society? How will they obtain a college education when they are not able easily to read their own handwriting? How will they make a class presentation or deliver a speech without being able easily to read from a printed text? The answer (Braille) seems obvious, and it is certainly available but this simple truth seems to elude many of today'sprofessionals in the field.
What we need and must have is an understanding in ourselves and in society that, as blind people, we must be able to compete on terms of equality with the sighted. To compete we must be literate, and to be literate we must be able to read and write Braille. We must promote a belief and an attitude that it is respectable to be blind and that there is no inherent inferiority or second-class status in the methods associated with blindness. As a child, when I resisted learning Braille, I was resisting conceiving of myself as a blind person. I automatically assumed that to be blind was to be inferior and, therefore, that to use the tools of blindness was an acceptance of inferiority. By rejecting blindness (and with it Braille) I was rejecting the very skill which would have allowed me to compete on an equal footing with my peers.
We cannot allow our attitudes and the attitudes of society to rob us of our right to first-class status. We must press for greater emphasis on Braille among our school children. We must press for greater availability of Braille. Perhaps the greatest gift of our high tech age is computer production of Braille, reducing both cost and transcription time. But above all, we must press for an understanding that the tools we use as blind people are not the badge of second-class status, but rather the banner of equality.
Almost from its inception the National Federation of the Blind sought ways to fund and award scholarships for deserving blind students. In 1984 the NFB was able to expand its existing program of awards into a broad scholarship system directed to blind post-secondary students. Beginning in that year more than $50,000 was devoted annually to these scholarships, which by 1990 had grown in number to a total of twenty-six. Of these the smallest award was in the amount of $2,000, and the largest was $10,000. When President Jernigan first outlined the new program, he was concerned not only with recognizing the achievements of outstanding blind students and helping with their educational expenses but also with assembling every year a portfolio of blind individuals whose accomplishments would explode the myth that blind persons cannot excel at the entire panoply ofhigher learning. All of these worthy goals could, of course, have been accommodated simply by announcing the scholarship winners and mailing them their checks. But Jernigan had an additional goal in mind, one more important perhaps than all the rest. He proposed to bring blind students, the brightest and the best, to the National Convention for a week of communion with the Federation in its characteristic activity during which the students might learn more about themselves, about blindness, and about the organized blind in ways that no amount of formal learning could duplicate. The unique bond of the Federation, after all, was ultimately the bond of community, of deeply shared personal commitment one to another, and could only be taught and learned in live association. For that reason the scholarship program was designed to require attendance at the convention as a condition of eligibility.
From the first year of the expanded program, it was clear that making it possible for scholarship recipients to attend the National Convention was appropriate and constructive. The number of winners each year matched the number of scholarships available; thus before the scholarship committee made its final decisions on the awards, there was opportunity to meet and get to know the students to a degree that few other award-granting institutions could approximate. And there was something more to be bestowed than the monetary awards; there was the gift of the Federation itself. That was the thrust of remarks made at the 1989 convention by the committee chairman, Peggy Pinder (who was also the NFB's Second Vice President), in the course of her scholarship presentations:
Now that we have bestowed the 1989 scholarships, I want to say a final word to each of you who is a winner this year. We have given to you of our treasure, of our hard-earned income; but we have also given to you something else. We consider our scholarships to you only secondary to this. We have given you another and greater gift as through the week we have spent time with you, attended meetings with you, dined with you, played poker with you, talked with you, laughed with you, danced with you, debated and discussed with you. Through our common experiences we have shown to you that which is most important of all to you, the most precious thing we have, and the thing we now offer to you our organization, the National Federation of the Blind.
We blind people first felt the need ourselves to establish an organization because we did not have a common philosophy, a structure through which to implement that philosophy, or the policies that brought it into life. We have made that philosophy, that organization, and those policies, and we now offer them to you. But we ask you to recognize with us that a philosophy, a structure, and policies in common do not make the National Federation of the Blind. They are merely the building above the ground. Underneath it is our feeling for one another. We do love one another. We do hurt when one of us is hurt. We do comfort one another when hurt occurs. We do fight for one another when one of us is wronged. We do defend one another. We rejoice with one another when achievements occur because they are the achievements of each of us, not in some verbal sense, but really truly ours because we do love one another and feel that strength of attachment for one another on which our philosophy, our structure, and our policies are built. We offer all of these to you, but particularly the love. You have shown great achievement and shown that you can give as well. We give our movement to you, and ask you to love it as we have loved it, ask you to nurture it as we have nurtured it, ask you to make it grow as we have made it grow. We are proud of it just as we are proud of you.
Scholarship winners, congratulations! Let's work together to make all our futures come true!
In the first year of the scholarship program, one of the winners was a high school senior who had lost his sight a few years before. He was tentative during his convention appearance about his career plans and about his ability to navigate independently. Five years later, this same student was confidently exercising the skills first learned in the Federation as he attended Yale Law School and simultaneously led America's blind students as their elected chief. In another case, a scholarship winner had intended to pursue a career in college teaching; but as he came to learn about the Federation, he also learned that he had selected that career to minimize his contacts with the general public whose attitudes were so often painful to encounter. Working with Federationists, he discovered that he had a liking for social action and public mingling, after all, and he subsequently became a management trainee with IBM.
The week-long experience of the NFB convention itself was typically an inspiration for the scholarship winners. While committee members and others took on the responsibility of teaching the students how to use a long white cane effectively, more important than this instruction was the graphic example all around them of hundreds of other blind persons speeding about, both at work and play, on schedules and travel routes that were part of the routine day. Of course, it was then common enough for blind persons somewhere along the way in their lives to be taught a little about the white cane; but it was equally common for the instructor to be sighted and for the student to conclude that getting around must be a terrible burden for the blind simply because there were no role models of confident, self-possessed blind persons included in the cane curriculum. At the Federation conventions, on the other hand, hundreds of such positive role models were encountered in the daily round of activities; no one could be a part of that for many days without getting the point and learning the lesson of independent mobility.
The effects of the program were dramatic. Not only were blind students encouraged to seek higher education, but the brightest among them came to understand a new philosophy of blindness. State programs of rehabilitation (although they were established to assist blind students to obtain proper training) often failed to provide inspiration, talented instruction, or the resources for securing educational opportunity. All of these were available at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Perhaps the most significant was the encouragement and the spirit which were engendered: If they can do it, so can I.
As the Federation grew through the 1970s and into the 1980s, more and more of its members realized that the Federation message was simply not reaching people quickly enough. Some blind people lost their sight as adults, but many of them were children, some of whom did not hear of the Federation until they had reached adulthood. Why, Federation leaders thought, not make available to blind children and their parents the same message that was being disseminated to blind adults?
The Federation began by establishing a Committee on Parental Concerns. Then, in 1982 the first seminar for parents of blind children was held at the National Convention, and it immediately became an annual event. These seminars attracted parents of blind children from throughout the country. The parents themselves planned the program and met throughout the convention week, sometimes in formal sessions on topics specific to the education of their children and sometimes informally to share frustrations and successes. The blind children, too, came to the National Convention, along with their brothers and sisters who were not blind. Specific programs were organized for the blind children to meet and get to know young blind adults with whom they might form friendships. Since blindness occurs randomly in the population, most blind children do not have blind parents. Therefore, it was felt to be important to make sure that the children had as role models a variety of blind adults to help them envision themselves growing up into competent, responsible citizens.
The parents and children alike were given the chance to learn the same thing that the scholarship winners were learning the efficiency of the long white cane, the broad array of jobs being successfully handled by the blind, and a sensible perspective on blindness. The reaction of parents to the Federation message was often relief mixed with anger relief that they had finally found someone who talked sensibly about their blind children as normal people, combined with anger that no professional had told them about the Federation. And all of the family members parents, blind children, and sighted siblings left the convention feeling that they had met hundreds of blind people who would happily serve as continuing resources in the years to come.
By 1981 the Federation was publishing Future Reflections, the most widely circulated and respected magazine in the field dealing with the concerns and problems of parents of blind children. The Federation had also established a parents division, which was actively working throughout the country as a resource and support group. Barbara Cheadle, president of the Parents of Blind Children Division, was editor of Future Reflections, and she and her husband John were devoting substantial energy to contacting and organizing parents. Although both of the Cheadles were sighted, they were dedicated to the Federation and gave it a high priority in their lives. One reason for this devotion was undoubtedly the fact that the Cheadles had an adopted blind child of their own. Barbara Cheadle wrote an article which appeared in the March 1985, Braille Monitor, which talked about the establishment and progress of Future Reflections:
by Barbara Cheadle
In July 1981, at the annual meeting of the NFB Parental Concerns Committee a motion was made and carried to start a newsletter for parents of blind children. Under the leadership of Susan Ford and others the committee was alive with excitement. All kinds of creative ideas and projects were being discussed and proposed. The newsletter was one of them.
Later that summer I as the new volunteer editor of this venture pulled out paper and pens, sat down at the kitchen table, and started to put together our first issue. We mailed out 368 copies of a 15-page newsletter that November of 1981. John's parents came to see us the weekend that we were right in the middle of folding, stapling, labeling, and trying to puzzle out the postal regulations for bundling all those papers. We put John's parents to work, too. Before they left, they even paid for the privilege of helping. They left us a check as a donation to the National Federation of the Blind. It had taken us all weekend to get the job done.
This month November 1984, three years later we had 7,000 issues of a 32-page magazine (now called Future Reflections) printed for circulation. This time we didn't assemble and label them in my living room. We did that on the dining room table at Frank and Glenda Smith's home. (Frank Smith is the first vice president of the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division. Glenda handles the mailing list on her home computer. They also have six children, and a big table.) Our NFB Western Chapter president was there to help, too. Between telephone calls, sick kids, and babies with runny noses, we had the issue ready to mail in two days.
From November 1981, to November 1984, the circulation of Future Reflections has increased almost 2,000 percent. Originally a project of the NFB Parental Concerns Committee, it is now published (like the Braille Monitor) by our National Office. Currently, we are the largest publication for parents of blind children in the nation. We are also the only magazine for parents of blind children. There are two other national publications for parents of blind children. One is a four-page quarterly newsletter put out by the International Institute for the Visually Handicapped, 0-7, Inc. This group deals exclusively with pre-school children. We have reprinted articles from this newsletter from time to time in Future Reflections. The other newsletter is published by the National Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired (NAPVI). This is the American Foundation for the Blind parent group. Typically, the content reflects the AFB attitudes about blindness. I have had parents tell me that there is no comparison between Future Reflections and Awareness, the NAPVI newsletter. Future Reflections is read from cover to cover and kept for reference. The NAPVI newsletter gets a glance and is tossed aside.
Remarks about reading Future Reflections from cover to cover are common. Some young mothers report locking themselves in the bathroom to read it as soon as the issue arrives. (If you think that seems like a strange thing to do, then you've never been a young mother. The bathroom is the only place I've found where you can get a little privacy when you have small children in the house.)
The comment that best describes most parents' reactions came from a California mother. She said, "This is the first time I have read your newsletter, and I am delighted and excited to know it exists I found a wealth of information THAT I CAN USE!"
Fathers read Future Reflections, too. "I gain so much from your publication", was the brief but very much to the point note from one busy father. Another parent from Hawaii wrote saying, "I am writing to you to ask if you could send me your magazine, Future Reflections. I saw a copy of your magazine and was really impressed by it. I have a son who is blind. Your magazine really gave me some ideas on how to work with him, how to cope with future problems I may have, and how to deal with Chris as a person. Also, it could be used as a reference to more information I may need. I really feel comfortable with your information." Parents aren't the only ones who read and benefit from Future Reflections. Teachers frequently write requesting subscriptions or expressing their appreciation. One teacher wrote in the spring of 1984 saying, "As a teacher of visually impaired children, I was very impressed with your new publication. Keep up the good work." Another teacher from Georgia wrote, "As an educator, I do appreciate and learn from your publication, Future Reflections. Thanks for a job well done. Other teachers have commented on our professional quality.
It's very important that we continue to reach these teachers. Often, the teacher for the visually impaired is the only contact parents have with someone who has any knowledge about blindness at all. Parents and their blind child can become very attached to and dependent upon this teacher. There are obviously problems with that. Even some of the best teachers have little contact with blind adults in general, and even less with the organized blind movement. Needless to say, that seriously limits their understanding of blindness.
Colleges, universities, libraries, pre-school programs, schools for the blind, hospitals, eye clinics, churches, and agencies for the blind are just some of the institutions that subscribe to Future Reflections. Special education professors distribute copies to their students. An ophthalmologist in California keeps copies in his patients' waiting room. Our magazine is distributed and used in college programs for preparation of teachers of the visually impaired. Agencies for the blind, such as the Vision Foundation in Massachusetts, keep multiple copies on hand to distribute in information packets to parents. Future Reflections is quoted and used as a reference by educators, and top educational administrators recommend and praise it to teachers and parents alike. The executive director of the Royer-Greares School for the Blind in Pennsylvania sent us this year a letter of appreciation on behalf of the teachers of this school for multihandicapped blind boys and girls.Other representatives of institutions have expressed similar feelings.
Future Reflections is also becoming known outside the United States. We have a growing number of subscriptions from Canada. A teacher from the Hollywood School, Metro Day Program for the Blind in Canada, called it an excellent magazine. A teacher with the school for the blind in Gambia, West Africa, says that parents especially respond to the NFB'sapproaches to blindness.
We often like to say in the Federation that it is respectable to be blind. One of the most exciting things about the magazine is that it is helping to make that statement a reality for thousands of blind children. Most of the time we will never know what impact an article or issue will have on any individual parent, child, or teacher. But we do know this: Future Reflections is respected and valued by thousands of parents and teachers nationally. Since Future Reflections is published by the National Federation of the Blind by BLIND people it is only logical and inevitable that these parents and teachers now have more respect for blind people than they had three years ago. And you don't discriminate against, coddle, or treat as inferiors those you respect.
There is another aspect to the influence of Future Reflections that reminds me of the nursery rhyme, The House that Jack Built. The rhyme links all kinds of events and relationships together. A rat is killed, a cow tramples a dog, a maiden is kissed and wed, and a farmer sows his corn violence, murder, romance, and re-birth all because Jack built a house!
Future Reflections did not arise out of a vacuum. Long before the magazine became a reality we had Doris Willoughby demonstrating how Federation philosophy can work in the education of blind children. Susan Ford was an early leader in the formation of the parental concerns committee. She is the current president of the Parents of Blind Children Division and sets an example for other parents with her own down to earth wisdom and savvy about rearing children. Marc Maurer in the Student Division helped demonstrate how dynamic our national divisions and committees can be. The NFB has accumulated over the years a library of literature and information that provides the best, most accurate insights about blindness anywhere in the nation, or world for that matter. And it all goes back to 1940 when Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and blind representatives from seven states met and laid the philosophical and organizational foundation for our housethe NFB.
The philosophical foundations are, of course, the reason we succeed where the American Council of the Blind cannot. We were not the first to attempt to publish a newsletter for parents of blind children. The ACB tried to but their circulation never reached beyond about 300 and finally their newsletter folded. Unlike the NFB, the ACB does not have a unifying goal, philosophy, and purpose. That's why we succeed where they fail.
Just as the success of Future Reflections has been influenced by the work of Federationists in years past, so has the magazine been influencing the growth of the Federation in some rather surprising and unlikely ways. Here's an example.
Shortly after we started publication, I began collecting names and addresses of visually impaired teachers from the various states. (We now have such lists from over two-thirds of the fifty states plus D.C. We would like to get the other one-third also, so write and let us know if you would like to help in that effort.)
One state president was really on the ball and was among the first to get such a list from her department of education. A year later that state president called me and said, Guess what? Future Reflections just helped us set up a new NFB chapter.She and an organizing team had gone into a new community to organize a chapter but weren't having much success finding blind folks. She did have the name of a teacher of the visually impaired, so she called her The teacher was ecstatic when she heard that they were with the NFB. I just got my latest issue of your magazine for parents of blind children this morning,she said. I read it from cover to cover. It's a wonderful magazine. Of course, I'll help you. The town soon had a new chapter, and that teacher was one of its charter members.
There are so many possibilities. We can use Future Reflections to educate, to increase membership, to raise funds, to improve job opportunities for the blind, and more. But it can be effective only if WE promote it and use it. Marc Maurer recently used Future Reflections to get a donation for the NFB from a service club. It wasn't hard to do. People are happy to donate their money when they know it is going to be helping blind children right in their own communities. But how many of us have thought to do that? Time and priorities surely have something to do with it, and perhaps simply a lack of knowledge about the effectiveness of Future Reflections a problem I hope this article will help take care of.
There is an interesting phenomenon about the reactions of sighted members of the public and blind Federationists after they have read their first issue. Both are often surprised. About two years ago a high school journalism teacher (who was going to do some volunteer typing for us) took her first look at an issue and exclaimed, Hey, this ain't no rag. At first I thought it was because of me. Maybe no one expected a homemaker and mother working out of her own home to be the editor of a first-class publication. But as incident after incident occurred, I wondered if it wasn't something else.
Not long ago a Federationist, who had just read an issue, remarked to my husband with shock in his voice,It was really good! This came just after I had had a talk with a Federation leader who wanted me to speak at a state NFB seminar for parents of blind children. It didn't look as if I could go, and she was worried. She didn't think she knew enough about raising and educating blind children. Well, I said, "Why do you think I know more than you? I'm the parent of a blind child. Do you think that makes me more qualified than you?"
Well, no, she said.
All right, I said. I have completed one half of a college education program for the preparation of teachers of the visually impaired. Does that make me more knowledgeable than you?
She laughed (she knew what college I was talking about). No! she said.
You're a mother, I said. You were a blind child, and even more important, you're a knowledgeable member and leader of the NFB. Where do you think I learned about blindness? From you and from the thousands of other Federationists who have directly or indirectly taught me everything I know. You're the real 'experts' about blindness.
I wonder how many of us still secretly believe that the professionals know something that we don't.
Future Reflections is a first-class publication. It's first-class because the National Federation of the Blind is first-class; because blind people are first-class. Let's use it, distribute it, and promote it with pride.
An increasing number of us are living our Federationism on a daily basis, knowing it to be our passport to freedom. We must finish our march to acceptance and full membership in society. Our heritage requires it; our purpose proclaims it; our humanity demands it. This cause of ours is a sacred trust. It is worthy of all that we have or can ever hope to be and we shall not fail.
So spoke the President of the National Federation of the Blind at the banquet of the National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1984. The twelve months just ended had been one of the most successful times in the organization's history, and the convention was a celebration of that fact but it was more. It was a time to review the problems and triumphs of the past year and to chart the course for the year ahead. In his report to the members at the convention President Jernigan said:
One way to measure our progress during the past year is by the increasing amount of recognition we have received from public officials throughout the country. This year more governors declared National Federation of the Blind Month, Week, or Day in their states than ever before in history. Last year a number of us went to Vice President Bush's office to talk with him about issues affecting the blind. This year we met with President Reagan in the Oval Office at the White House.
During the past year, President Jernigan continued, we have made greater progress than ever before in getting our message to the public through the media. The October 1, 1983, issue of Vital Speeches carried the 1983 banquet speech Blindness: The Other Half of Inertia.Vital Speeches goes to every college and university in the country and to many of the nation's high schools. Our spots now saturate the airwaves. Not only are our messages used on local stations but they are also carried by most of the networks. On November 30 Peggy Pinder and Barbara Pierce appeared for an eight-minute segment on the television program "Hour Magazine". Used by 160 television stations, this is one of the most popular daytime TV shows in the country. On April 13 of this year we were featured on the "Today" show. We had eleven minutes to tell our story to one of the largest television audiences in the nation.
In the rest of his 1984 report President Jernigan detailed a variety of problems and triumphs. Then, he said in conclusion: When you look back over the past year, you cannot help but feel joy and satisfaction at what we have accomplished. Yes, there have been problems and battles, but what an absolutely wonderful year we have had! We have kept the faith with Dr. tenBroek and the other founders of our movement, and we have kept the faith with ourselves. We have lived the dream and fulfilled the promise.
As always, the banquet was the climax of the convention; and when President Jernigan rose to make his banquet address, he talked of the damage which sophistry had done to the blind:
The clever and plausible but false and misleading arguments (the propositions which put us down and keep us out) are temptingly easy to accept and believe, he said. With respect to the blind the message is clear and uncomplicated: The blind lack eyesight. Other people have it. Sight is important. Therefore, the blind are inferior. We are unable to compete. We must be taken care of. We cannot hold jobs not, that is, unless the work is very simple, very repetitive, and very subsidized. We cannot raise children, travel independently, or manage our own lives. This is the traditional norm, the time-honored belief; and if it is true, we should face it, not fight or deny it. But, of course, this is not the way it is, he said to a roaring response from his audience; and no sophistry on earth can make it that way.
The text of the 1984 banquet speech follows: BLINDNESS: THE CIRCLE OF SOPHISTRY
In 1985 at the annual convention banquet Kenneth Jernigan delivered what was to be his penultimate address as the Federation's President. Speaking on the topic, "Blindness: The Pattern of Freedom," Jernigan drew the attention of his audience to the parallels between the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, involving the rising demands of blacks for freedom, and the civil rights battle of the eighties, involving the rising demands of the blind for freedom. It was, he said, in both cases, the same pattern of freedom. With regard to the black movement,As long as the law made it impossible for them to buy or rent certain property, required them to attend segregated schools, made them ride at the back of the bus, and even said they must use separate water fountains and toilets, all of the self-belief and public education in the world would not be sufficient. They had to change the laws and the interpretation of the laws, and they did change them.
And Jernigan went on to declare: Our situation is parallel. We must fight in the courts and the Congress. Judges order children to be taken from blind parents on the ground that the blind cannot raise them; airline officials tell us we cannot occupy exit row seats and that we must sit on blankets for fear we cannot control our bladders; insurance companies deny us coverage; amusement parks refuse to let us ride; health clubs decline to let us in; and employers routinely discriminate. Unless we can move toward equal treatment under the law, self-belief and public education will not be sufficient and cannot be sustained.And he pointed out that the changes in the law could not be accomplished without confrontation.
President Jernigan's banquet address spelled out the full context legal, moral, and political within which certain basic rights were then being debated and would be decided: the right to fly, the right to a chance for a decent education, the right to bear and raise children, the right to receive training with the special tools and techniques needed by the blind, the right to equal opportunity to employment, and the right to be recognized and accepted as normal human beings. It was truly a civil rights speech in the great tradition of such orations and in that sense it evoked and embodied the essential keynote of the organized blind movement. It summarized the philosophy of freedom in practical terms delineating the steps essential to the integration of a minority into the broader society. It called for action, and demanded that the philosophy of equality be made real. The keynote was freedom and not merely in theory. Freedom means power to do specific things power to be left alone, power to travel, power to sit where one chooses, and power to become an element within the overall pattern of freedom.
Following is the text of the 1985 convention banquet address: BLINDNESS: THE PATTERN OF FREEDOM
Presidential terms are for two years in the National Federation of the Blind. In 1984 President Jernigan had told the delegates that while he intended to stand for election that year, he would definitely not be a candidate in 1990. He left open the question as to whether he would stand for election in 1988 or even 1986. In 1985 he told the convention that he would not be a candidate in 1986. He said he felt that many organizations destroyed themselves by not planning for an orderly succession to their top offices and, particularly, by not allowing for a long enough period of transition in the change of executives.
This was a subject which Jernigan had been discussing at the leadership seminars from the time of the mid-seventies. He felt that he should step aside as President some time during the mid-eighties and then assist in the training of a new leader. The membership repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed its wish that he continue as President, but in 1985 he announced that a new President must be elected in 1986.
He told the convention delegates that he intended to support Marc Maurer for the presidency in 1986 and that he was making his feelings known so that anyone who had other ideas would have time and opportunity to promote other candidates. In 1986 Maurer was unanimously elected, and the Jernigan presidency ended. Shortly thereafter, Jernigan accepted the unsalaried position of Executive Director of the Federation, working through the remainder of the decade to assist the new President in the duties of the office.
At the 1986 convention, one year after describing the "Pattern of Freedom", Kenneth Jernigan made his final banquet speech as President to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. This final summation, entitled, "Blindness: The Coming of the Third Generation," spoke of the urgent need for self expression of the blind in the context of the fourth dimension time. The striving of blind people to make themselves heard through the organized blind movement had been proceeding for forty-six years. How could the spirit of independence and the urgency and immediacy of the need be kept alive and poignant for the decades ahead? What could be expected to be built on the solid and substantial foundation of philosophy and practice developed in the Federation from its beginning? These questions were central to the final banquet address of the Jernigan presidency, delivered in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 3, 1986.
Many organizations (and some countries) have ceased to be significant because their leaders have failed to consider the effects of time. But in the Federation plans had been made for the third generation, the fourth generation, and the fourth dimension. The maturity of the organized blind movement can be seen by the degree of care that it gave in planning for the decades to come. As Jernigan said, "The progress of a people toward civilization can probably best be measured by the degree to which it is concerned with time."
The 1986 banquet speech follows: BLINDNESS: THE COMING OF THE THIRD GENERATION
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