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At was the task of the first generation of our movement to deal with hunger; it has been the task of the second generation to deal with jobs; it will be the task of the third generation to deal with civil rights.
Those were the words of Kenneth Jernigan in his final convention address as President of the National Federation of the Blind. His 1986 banquet speech dealt with the successive passing of the torch first from the generation of the founders (epitomized by Jacobus tenBroek) to the second generation of the builders (led by Kenneth Jernigan), and now from these in turn to the emerging third generation of the defenders (symbolized by the new President, Marc Maurer). Each generation has had its appointed task, its special mission in the world, said the outgoing President; and as he defined them one by one he had in mind the original and overarching mission of the organized blind movementthe ultimate goals long since proclaimed by the NFB motto and logo which had resounded through the generations and would surely echo down the corridors of future time. Those goals, as every Federationist of each generation had known well, were three: Security (dealing with hunger); Opportunity (dealing with jobs), and Equality (dealing with rights).
For President Jernigan to declare that it would be the task of the third generation to deal with civil rights was, even as he spoke, not just a prophecy but a statement of fact. In the concluding years of his own presidency, the agenda of the movement was already heavily committed to the establishment and defense of the civil rights of blind persons. The battle in the unfriendly skies, for one thing, was being fought out in terms of civil rights: the rights particularly of equal treatment, of mobility, and of accessand more generally of personal liberty and social equality. Civil rights were also at the center of Federation lawsuits targeting discrimination and prejudice against blind persons.
Like his predecessor in the presidency, Marc Maurer was thoroughly committed to the cause of civil rights well before his election to the leadership. As an attorney representing the NFB, he had for years been instrumentally involved in its civil rights litigation. An early harbinger of Maurer's commitment might be found in a speech delivered at the 1983 convention of the NFB in Kansas City, Missouri, under the title "To Establish Justice: The Law and the Organized Blind Movement". His address was a comprehensive overview of the legal history (and more precisely the civil rights history) of the organized blind movement. Among other things it related the civil service story, the dark history of the sheltered sweatshops, the agony of the airlines, the cruel episodes of blind parents threatened with losing custody of their children, the denial of licenses to blind doctors, and much more. In this illuminating speech Maurer gave an early demonstration to Federationists of the qualities of mind and will which he would later bring to the presidencyand in particular of his determined commitment to establishing justice and protecting civil rights for the blind. Here is what he had to say:
by Marc Maurer
One of the most widespread criticisms of the law is that it is deadly dull. H. L. Mencken said, One may think of the Supreme Court as a theater of dullness so heavy that the very cat's-paws drowse, and of imbecility so vast that even Congress is shamed and made to hang its head. Nevertheless, I have heard in that very chamber arguments that stimulated me like the bouquet of a fine Moselle, or a smile of a princess of the blood, or an unexpected kick in the pantaloons. The law has its dull moments, but it also has passion, danger, and hope. In any law matter of consequence there will be uncertainty and fear.
Certainly that is true of the legal matters with which we deal. No one knows how any particular case may come out. A negative precedent may be established which will cripple the prospects for blind people for decades to come. However, there is also the possibility of triumph. We proceed with the faith that a proper and thorough presentation of our case will show that logic and reason are the bedrock on which we make our complaint. We trust the promise that justice will not be denied. The truth will come out and be seen for what it is. The proof of ability will be more important than prejudice. The normality of blind people and the thirst of the blind for full and equal partnership in the grand experiment of life is far more important than man's ancient fear of the dark.
The statute books and the administrative codes do not speak of the crying, compelling need of the blind to be recognized as productive, able, intensely human creatures who must be woven into the mosaic which is our culturebut we do. The law contains the rules and judgments that gird us round. They can rein us in and hold us back, but they can also help to set us free. In large part it depends on what we do to shape this thing called law.
Almost a hundred years ago a band of enterprising entrepreneurs decided to put on a show, which would consist of a magnificent train wreck. Two engines faced each other from the crests of opposite hills. They were raced at full speed into the valley between. The showmen sold tickets to the great event. Printed on each ticket was the statement that the people running the show would not be responsible for any injuries to the spectators. Lemonade was sold, and everyone had a jolly good time they did, that is, until the great moment.
The two engines collided. The steam boilers blew up. Red hot slivers of steel arced into the air and rained on the spectators, and hundreds of people were maimed or killed.
In the argument which followed, the showmen said that no person was authorized to be in the area unless he or she had a ticket. Each ticket was a contract. Each ticket specifically provided that the spectator, not the showmen, was responsible for all injuries. The showmen said that they could not be held liable for injuries to spectators.
Today (a hundred years later) no matter what the ticket said, the showmen could not escape responsibility. The law has changed. It would not permit the avoidance of responsibility for such danger.
In 1980, only three years ago, Michael Hingson was ejected from a plane because he would not sit where airline officials had decided the blind should sit. He would not give up his right to full equality and first-class citizenship. He would not knuckle under to airline officials when they told him that he was second-rate. In 1980 the airline told Mike Hingson that there was a government regulation which required the airline to segregate him from the rest of the passengers. Mike Hingson (with his dog guide Holland) must sit in the first row of seats.
In 1983 the airline changed its story and said that it had insisted that Mike Hingson sit in the front seat because it would be safer. After all, they said, Mike would be closer to the door of the plane. It would be easier for airline personnel to help him get off if he were in the front seat. The National Federation of the Blind had filed a lawsuit in 1981 to protest this discriminatory treatment. Shortly thereafter, an airline official for the defendant, Pacific Southwest Airlines, said that the airline had made a mistake. This official testified under oath that the airline had violated its own policies in enforcing this segregation.
Nevertheless, a federal court would not permit us to present this evidence. The court ruled in favor of the airline. The judge said that if airline officials had safety matters in the back of their minds, they could present their concerns to the court. With such a ruling in hand airline officials, of course, remembered thinking of hundreds of ways in which the blind could be injured caught in a burning flame, maimed in the breakup of the aircraft, or otherwise dismembered or done in.
Between 1980 and 1983 the airline had three years to remember all of the circumstances which could cause personal injury. Although the airline had never mentioned all of this to Mike Hingson, the memories of airline officials were graphic when called upon to describe air crashes. The fear of blindness was evident in the testimony of these officials. Because they did not know what they would do if they were blind, because they were afraid they would be helpless as blind people, because they are sure that they would be second class if they became blind, they insisted that we are second class.
The court ruled against us, but we are appealing. We cannot let it stand. We are reaching out for our dignity and our self-worth. They are trying to snatch those birthrights from us. And make no mistake, it is not just Mike Hingson or Pacific Southwest Airlines that is on trialit is every one of us in this room: all of us -- those here, those in the rest of the country, and those who are still children.
But the laws change. The National Federation of the Blind has been in existence for only a short time. Already a mighty labor has been accomplished. It is just the beginning, but what a beginning it is!
Back in 1940, when Dr. tenBroek brought the blind of seven states together to form the National Federation of the Blind, there was little legal protection for the blind. The Randolph-Sheppard Act had been passed, but very few vending stands were in operation. There was no Rehabilitation Act to provide services to the blind. There was no protection against discrimination. The Social Security Act had been adopted, which provided a little welfare money; but there was no Supplemental Security Income program and no Disability Insurance as we now know it. There was no right to work in the federal civil service, and no right to work for federal contractors. The Wagner-O'Day Act had been passed, but it did more for the workshop bosses than for us. It stimulated and expanded the sheltered workshop system, in which the blind have so often received less than the minimum wage. The books for the blind program had begun, and free mailing privileges for this program had been established. That was all. A few books; a little welfare; (perhaps, if you were very lucky) a vending stand.
By the mid-1960s Dr. tenBroek could argue that it was the policy of the nation that the blind be integrated into society as full and equal partners. Such an argument was a declaration of belief -- belief in the capacity of the blind. Furthermore, it was a statement of faith that the courts would recognize that capacity, that society would understand it, and that understanding would bring acceptance. By the mid-1960s, we had gained the right to work in the civil service. There were many blind vendors, and aid to the blind programs had been liberalized so that there was at least some money available.
Many of the problems faced by the blind in the 1960s are foreign to us now. We never hear of them. They don't even stir our memories. The Kirschner case, for example. That landmark (tried in the 1960s) declared that the blind could not be denied aid to the blind (now replaced by Supplemental Security Income) on the grounds that there might be relatives financially able to care for their needs. The Parrish case held that night raids against blind welfare recipients were an invasion of privacy and unconstitutional.
Today, these problems are so removed from our daily lives that they seem as fantastic as the old sumptuary laws, which decreed that there could be no more than two courses at a meal. They are as outmoded as the English statute which created trial by combat as one method for settling disputes. Before the Parrish case some governmental officials thought that night raids against aid to the blind recipients were reasonable. Today, that thought is outrageous. With time and effort the laws change.
In the early 1960s the raids involved aid to the blind recipients. In the 1980s the raids are differentand more ominous. The problem began with the question of whether blind persons are competent to adopt children. Some adoption agencies thought that blind parents could not raise children. Their requests to adopt children were denied. We fought this prejudice, and the adoption agencies backed down. But this was only the beginning. In several cases in recent years blind parents have been told by social welfare agencies that they may not raise their own children. The homes of these blind people have been invaded. The children of blind parents have been taken. Often it has been done in secret. The blind parent leaves home in the morning (for the office or to go shopping) and returns home to discover that his or her own child is gone -- vanished -- taken by the whim of a social worker or a judge (no prior notice, no hearing, no due process -- simply gone). The courts and the social welfare agencies do it in the name of protecting the children. They claim that the blind parents are not fit: that the children will not be safe. In the ordinary case involving ordinary human beings this sort of thing does not happen. There must be extraordinary evidence to permit the invasion of a home. To justify breaking up a family the court must find that there is danger to the children. There must be evidence of child abuse, or a strong reason to believe that, without court intervention, there will be child abuse. The court must find that there is an emergency which requires immediate and drastic action. That standard is very difficult to meet. Nevertheless, the courts have decided to take the children from blind parents in several states.
In one case the court ruled that the blind mother could keep her children only if she put locks on all the drawers in the house and gates in front of stairways. The judge thought that the children might fall down the stairs. Maybe they would get into the drawers and find dangerous objects such as knives and scissors. This may be called the gates and locks test for safety. If the home of blind parents is so constructed that a child cannot fall, and if the objects in the home are locked away so that the child could not be hurt, then the court will grudgingly permit the child to live with its own parents. The court did not say whether the couch in the living room must be so constructed that the child could not fall off of it.
Of course, this is the very sort of thing which makes it necessary to have a National Federation of the Blind. In the case in point we went both to the court and the pressand I am pleased to tell you that we were successful. The children are once more at home with their mother, and they are doing quite nicely no terrible accidents, no pressing danger, no psychological trauma or ruin only the normal bumps and bruises of childhood and of course, the love and tenderness which only a mother can provide.
In another case the court removed the child from a blind mother because the child had fallen and bruised its face. The mother took her child to the doctor. Otherwise, the court would never have known that the accident had occurred. The doctor reported the injury to the authorities, and the authorities took the child. The doctor, as it was put, knew when he saw the child that it was in danger. This is the "know it when you see it test for safety". If any person (doctor, minister, social worker, neighbor down the street, or stranger passing through) reports that the child is in danger, and if the parent is blind, the court, by this doctrine, may invade the home and destroy the security of the family. Of course, we could not let these cases stand. We fought them, and we won.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the Federation began to take an ever more active role in the courts. In almost every case we were seeking to preserve, protect, and defend the civil rights of the blind. For almost two decades we have had ongoing cases dealing with the right of blind people to teach in the public schools. The names of the people involved call up memories of discrimination, organized action, battle in the courts, and a succession of triumphs: Evelyn Weckerly, Pauline Fucinari, Judy (Miller) Sanders, Linda Garshwiler, Joanne Walker, Judy Gurmankin, Ellen Schumann, and Virginia Reagan. The National Federation of the Blind relied on the law and went to court, and the teachers got the jobs. To many who hear these words, some of these names will be only that -- names, but each constitutes a personal account of rejection, hope, and achievement; and each constitutes a milestone on the long road to freedom which the blind as a people are traveling.
Then there is the civil service. The organized blind has been fighting with civil service officials for so long that it has almost come to be a way of life. The first case in this area ever taken by the Federation started back in 1950. It involved the right of a blind person to take a civil service examination and be put on the register for a job with a federal agency. We lost that fight because the agency abolished the register. The court said the case was moot. The court could not rule that the blind person should be put on the register because no register existed on which to do the putting. However, as a result of the court action, the Congressional pressure, the widespread publicity, and the all-around general uproar, the civil service officials were forced to open at least a few jobs to blind applicants. For the first time in history blind persons could compete for government jobs.
But this was just the beginning. When the city of Chicago refused to permit blind people to take certain civil service examinations, we brought a lawsuit. The blind can now take those tests. When the state of Minnesota refused to hire a blind computer programmer, we brought a lawsuit. The programmer got the job. In 1980 (30 years after the first civil service case) we of the Federation found ourselves in another action involving federal employment. An economist for the Labor Department, Al Saille, had no trouble getting a job. He had been working as an economist for the federal government for almost fifteen years. The problem was he could not get fair treatment in gaining a promotion. In other words, we could get in the door, but we were to be kept in the outer room. We had reached a new stage in the battle. The blind were no longer fighting simply to get into the federal civil service. The new fight was not whether we could enter the federal civil service but whether we could get equal treatment once we got in. It is not enough that blind people get jobs at the entry level. There must be pay increases, advancement in rank, and promotion to higher levels as well. In other words, the same kind of treatment that others get. Discrimination does not occur solely during the interview and hiring processes. It can also happen in the course of an ongoing job. It happened to Al Saille. But we fought and we won. Al Saille got the job.
The decade of the 1970s brought a change to the Federation. For the first time we had the money and the capacity to make widespread use of the courts as one of the principal instruments to help us gain equality and first-class status. In the beginning (a decade ago) we took two or three lawsuits a year. Today, we count them in dozens.
Through these lawsuits the Federation has demanded that the blind be treated with fairness and respect. We insist that private employers do not discriminate against the blind. Through such cases as Jesse Nash, the Tennessee vendors, and a score of others going back through the years, we have secured the right of blind vendors to work free of unlawful restrictions and to receive the money due them.
Throughout the country in recent years we have battled the medical licensing boards when they have tried to deny licenses to blind doctors on the ground, not that they were not competent, but that they were blind. We have fought with the schools when they would not let blind students attend law school or participate in chemistry labs. We took the Federal Aviation Administration to court when it told us that we could not keep our canes on airplanes. We sued the agencies (the Cleveland Society for the Blind, the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, and others) to bring reform and to insure that blind people receive proper services.
We gained the right to organize in the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, and the Houston Lighthouse for the Blind. We insisted that blind people have a right to equal treatment in renting apartments. The cases go on and on.
The first civil rights cases concentrated on the necessities. Are blind people getting the government benefits to which they are entitled? Do the blind have a right to equal treatment when seeking a place to live? Do blind people get jobs without facing discrimination so that the money is there to pay the bills? These were the questions addressed by the courts when we began to use the lawsuit as a tool to gain equality. Today, we have gone beyond those bare necessities. We have begun asserting our independence in other ways.
Donna Yates wanted to take a Caribbean Cruise. The cruise line told her that, because she was blind, she must stay at home. They were afraid that someone would be required to care for her. Besides, the accommodations on the cruise would be for double occupancy. The clear implication of the cruise line officials was that Donna's cabin mate might find her offensive because she is blind. We fought this unreasonable discrimination, and earlier this year Donna took the cruise.
In an automobile, power is measured in horsepower. In a rocket, it is measured in pounds of thrust. In the Federation, one way to measure power is by the reaction of our opponents. Laws change and not just for us. Each change shapes not just our rights, but the rights of those around us. When a sheltered shop is organized, the bosses who run it find themselves living in a new and different world. As our power grows, the responses from our opponents become more desperate. The increasing level of conflict to which we are subjected is one of the strongest indications of our growth.
In 1981 a member of the Federation, Dean Stanzel, was fired from his job at the Rehabilitation Services Administration because of his work with the Federation to protect the rights of the blind. The firing was brought about by a complaint from the Iowa Commission for the Blind. This action invited a lawsuit. We accepted the invitation, but before we got to the hearing, the government capitulated. Dean Stanzel got his job back.
In 1978 Bob Acosta decided to ignore democracy in the California affiliate of the Federation. When the California board of directors voted to accept his resignation as president, Bob decided only those votes which favored him should count. With this principle clearly in mind, he went to the chapters and shouted down any opposition. This incident brought on a lawsuit. In the ordinary course of things it would have been a brief and unremarkable footnote in the history of the Federation. However, our reactionary agency opponents were running scared. They needed to divert attention from their own unethical behavior, and they wanted to cause dissension in the Federation. There is every evidence they poured money into the lawsuit to keep it alive. Every legal technicality was used to delay and prolong the case. It took five years, but we do not enter lawsuits lightly. You know the story. We prevailed.
A few weeks ago in Morristown, Tennessee, a chapter of the National Federation of the Blind came into being. Many of its members work at the sheltered shop in Morristown. Shop management came and told these workers that they could not join the Federation. If they joined, or if they wrote to their Congressman about the workshop, they would be fired. This is a direct attack upon the Federation and the rights of blind people to work collectively. It is an attack upon the freedom of speech and the freedom of association. It cannot be permitted. The Federation has gone to Morristown, supported the workers, and brought legal action to stop this outrage.
These three cases (the Dean Stanzel case, the California lawsuit, and the Morristown sheltered shop case) illustrate a pattern. The agencies that oppose the Federation have become increasingly desperate, as they have seen their grip on the lives of blind people loosen. They have attacked the right of blind people to have an organization of their own choosing, governed by the democratic vote of the blind. They have tried to intimidate us when they could. They have tried to control or ruin the Federation when intimidation failed. We won the Dean Stanzel case; we won the California lawsuit; and we will win the Morristown sheltered shop case.
What is in the future for us in the National Federation of the Blind? As I have examined our civil rights cases, I have observed at least two patterns. First, there is the matter of safety. The airlines speak to us of safety, as they segregate us to the first row of seats and take our canes. The courts talk of safety, as they deprive blind parents of their children. Universities tell us safety is the reason that blind people cannot work in chemistry labs. We have come a long way on the road to full equality and first-class citizenship, but there is still much to do. We must meet and defeat that unreasoning fear of blindness which is so often manifested as a concern for safety. In other words, we must use the law to help us abolish the safety test.
The second pattern that emerges is the effort by the opponents of the Federation to use the courts as a vehicle for attack. The attacks may be direct, as in the California lawsuit; or they may be indirect, as in Morristown. In either case, we must meet and defeat them as we have in the past, and as we certainly shall in the battles to come.
In the future we must expand and strengthen the base of our rights and the starting point must be the law. We do not have the scope of legal protection that we need to live secure as equal partners with others in society. We must gain that protection, even if only a step at a time. We must gain it through campaigns of public education; we must gain it through mutual encouragement and heightened conscience; but we must also gain it in the statute books and the courtrooms. There is no final safety (no lasting security or real equality) until we have enshrined it in the law.
The history of our movement tells us one thing clearly. The law does change, and we are the agents of change. It is not the legislatures that do it. It is not the courts. We cause it to happen. The dream of full, joyous, unhampered participation takes shape and finds reality in the hearts and the minds of the blind. Wewe are the ones who do it. We seek out the legislators. We go before the judges. We talk to the governors, and the officials, and the public-at-largeand when we are through, the laws have changed. The world is a different place. The blind have taken one more step toward freedom. This is the power and importance of the law.
It is no accident that the Federation's third generation should have found its spokesman in Marc Maurer. He came to the movement while still in his teens, learned the creed of Federationism as a student and apprentice of Kenneth Jernigan, and thereafter remained at the center of the fray. It could be said of Maurer that in him the third generation found its reflection, its embodiment, and its voice.
The relationship began when the young Maurer, a native Iowan blind from infancy, went to Des Moines as a high school student to visit the Iowa Commission for the Blind. It was then that he met its director, Kenneth Jernigan, and it was there that he would return after graduation to enroll at the Commission's Orientation and Adjustment Center. In those days in Iowa it was possible for young people like Marc Maurer to stay for several months at the center learning to live the Federation wayi.e., independently, energetically, and proudlyand Maurer took full advantage of the opportunity. He came to realize among other things that he had been held back all his life not only by the low expectations of others but by his own poor self-esteemand that each of these negatives fed the other. Around him at the Iowa Center was all the positive evidence he needed, and all the support he sought.
While still in training Maurer was given the opportunity to attend NFB conventions in other states among them South Carolina, where he was taken in hand by a leader of unusual ability, Don Capps thereby witnessing both the diffusion of Federationism and the singularity of the Iowa experience under the inspired tutelage of Kenneth Jernigan.
It was Jernigan who recommended to Maurer that he drop his plans to attend a college comfortably near home and instead venture out to a distant institution of higher learningnamely, the University of Notre Dame. So he didnot only completing the undergraduate curriculum (with honors) but going on to obtain a law degree from Indiana University. All this he did while supporting himself with entrepreneurial endeavors and building his movement by such activities as organizing for the NFB's Student Division. In the end he served three terms as president of that division, and meanwhile was elected president of the NFB of Indiana at the age of 22. While matriculating at the law school, with all its notorious demands on the time of students, Maurer continued to devote hours of his time daily and days of his time monthly to the Federation. It might have been said of his curriculum then that he had a dual major: the law and the Federation. But that would be to assume that the two were separate and equal; of course they were not. One was the means to an end; the other was the end itself. The study of law meant for young Maurer a key for the admission of the blind to the corridors of power, a map across the legal wastelands and quicksands of judicial process and administrative procedure, a tool with which to change the structure of society which had for centuries assigned the blind to a limited and secondary rolein short, a means to the end of turning around those obstacles written into the statute books and enshrined in case law which confronted the blind as an insurmountable barrier for so many generations. Jacobus tenBroek, the movement's founding father, had been a scholar and philosopher of the law; Marc Maurer determined to be a practitioner and master of it.
Later, as an attorney for the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington, D.C., Maurer held down a secure position with challenges enough to suit most young and ambitious members of the bar. But he found himself chafing uncomfortably in his official assignments, looking forward to the free time when he could get back to work on his Federation projects. Still later on, in private practice, Maurer found himself more and more often representing blind persons in court; although the remuneration was certainly no better than for other clients, the rewards were somehow greater and more lasting. By this time in his career, Maurer knew with a certainty that he had found his calling. It was not in the law, though he might continue his practice. It was not in politics, though he might undertake a campaign for elective office. His calling was to be in the thick of the movement of the organized blind.
When he was elected to the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind in 1986, Maurer rose to say these words:
The presidency of the National Federation of the Blind is a sacred trust. It carries with it both great honor and tremendous responsibility. When I joined this organization in 1969, Dr. Jernigan was our President. My first convention was dynamic and exciting. Like Dr. tenBroek before him, Dr. Jernigan stayed on the cutting edge. He combined hard decision making with great compassion. Dr. Jernigan's presidency has been characterized by imagination, enthusiasm, love for others, and the drive for success. And there are other things: We never lose because we never quit. Sometimes there are minor and temporary setbacks but that is just what they are, minor and temporary. If one approach doesn't work, we think up another. If the first effort isn't successful, we alter the strategy and try again. Our problems are solved because we never leave them until they are solved. This is what Dr. Jernigan's presidency has meant. This is our heritage the responsibilities which you as members and I as President are pledged to meet.
In the National Federation of the Blind we give our Presidents great power. We expect them to use it wisely and well. But use it they mustmaking plans, taking risks, and making progress. I am glad that I have been a part of our movement while Dr. Jernigan was President. It goes without saying that I am also extremely glad that he will continue to be an integral part of and a moving force in the presidency which is about to begin. This organization is the single most important factor in the struggle by the blind for equality and independence. I intend that we shall go forward without interruption. In a word, under this presidency we must continue to be the National Federation of the Blind.
The Jernigan presidency had been powerful and dynamic. Although there had been problems aplenty, the decisiveness, ingenuity, and forcefulness of the response had been more than adequate to meet every contingency. There were those who wondered what would be the character of the Maurer term of office. At the 1987 convention in Phoenix, the wondering came to an end. President Maurer came before the convention to deliver his first report as President. The events summarized in the Presidential Report indicated that the Federation was as vital as ever. This is how President Maurer put it:
I was elected to the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind one year ago. During the past twelve months I have come to have a greater understanding of the spirit of our movement than ever before. It has been a year of real unity and tremendous growth. I have worked closely with Dr. Jernigan, who (shortly after last year's convention) agreed to serve as the unpaid Executive Director of the Federation; and, of course, I have worked with you the members concerning state and local problems throughout the nation. Although I have been a member of this organization for almost twenty years, and although I have served in a number of capacities, I have come during the past twelve months to appreciate in a different way the scope of our activities, the complexity of the work we do, and the depth and breadth of leadership we have. If anyone doubts the level of our commitment or the unity of our purpose, let that person come here today and see the blind in our thousands at this convention.
This year has been one of the busiest we have ever had. Our position as a leader in affairs of the blind has become ever more widely recognized. The Xerox Corporation held a training session last November for its district personnel managers. The meeting took place in the secluded Xerox Corporation Training Center at Leesburg, Virginia. Only one organization involved with the blind (and, for that matter, only one dealing with the handicapped) was invited to come and speak. The invitation was extended to the National Federation of the Blind. Our message was clear and strong blind people want work, and we are good employees. I am confident that our November meeting with Xerox and the contacts since then will result in more and better jobs for blind workers.
After delineating a variety of activities of the Federation in dealing with problems involving the airlines, questions regarding the eligibility of blind persons to receive Social Security benefits, and disputes surrounding the right of certain blind people to operate vending facilities on state and federal property, President Maurer summarized quickly a variety of civil rights concerns. He said:
Last September Kevan and Debbie Worley and their two children went to the Trailways Bus Station in downtown St. Louis. They were planning an outing for the day. Little did they know that their proposed trip would become an incident focusing national attention on the need to protect the rights of blind people to travel without unreasonable interference.
Kevan wanted to buy bus tickets for his family to travel to Festus, Missouri, about 40 miles south of St. Louis. The agent at the bus station refused to sell the tickets. She said that Kevan and Debbie would need to present a letter from a doctor. They explained that they only wanted to buy bus tickets to Festus and that they wanted to pay the regular fare. They did not want a handicapped ticket or a reduced fare, so no doctor's statement would be needed. But the agent persisted in refusing to sell them tickets.
You know the rest of the story. The police came and arrested Kevan. He was the victim of physical violence and verbal abuse. Even so, he (not the police officer) was charged with disturbance of the peace. Kevan did not violate the law, however. We demonstrated that in the courts. There was no disturbance of the peace caused by Kevan. Within hours of the incident the blind of the nation were rallying for a public protest. We made signs, and we picketed the bus station at the very spot where Kevan had been thrown to the pavement by the police. The press came in force. Even the police came, and grew increasingly friendly as well they should. The Kevan Worley case is behind us, but we must not forget its lessons. That, too, is why we have the National Federation of the Blind.
Connie Leblond, one of our leaders in Maine, filed a complaint against Head Start when she was told that her blind son could attend classes only when the regular teacher was present. When the regular teacher was sick or absent, Connie's son Seth must stay home. Our complaint against this kind of unreasonable treatment was filed, and the decision was made last fall. The Office for Civil Rights ruled that this behavior of the Head Start Program is discrimination and that it must be stopped.
This spring we got a decision in the Carol Coulter case. Carol is a Federationist from Missouri, who wanted to operate a day care center to keep small children. She was denied an unrestricted license solely on grounds of blindness. The Missouri Division of Family Services tried to require her to have a sighted person present with the children at all times, but Carol Coulter (with our help) fought back. The ruling on her civil rights complaint has been made, and the unrestricted license will be granted.
Then, there is Debra Duncan. She was denied a day care license in California because of blindness despite the fact that she cares for two children of her own. Her case will go to a hearing before the California State Department of Social Services later this month. Debra will not be alone. We will be with her, and we expect to get the license.
When Sheila Killian and a sighted friend tried to patronize a Raspberries Ice Cream Parlor in California, they were not served because of the presence of Sheila's dog guide. After a law suit, which we backed, the Raspberries Ice Cream Parlor had to pay Sheila $3,900. That was an expensive lesson. It is one that should be learned by anyone in the country who tries to deny the rights of the blind. Expensive or not, we will continue to teach and when we do, we will expect service with a smile.
Geerat Vermeij is a blind marine biologist at the University of Maryland. He was scheduled to participate in a research cruise to the Aleutian Islands; but a professor at the University of Alaska (the institution which operates the ship) raised objections to his going. The reasonneed I tell you? was concerned with safety. Dr. Vermeij is prominent in his field and has traveled throughout the world doing research. Nine years ago, in fact, he went on a research cruise on the very ship in question. In the resolution of this case you can see the Federation at work. Jim Omvig (from his headquarters in Alaska) and I (working from the National Center in Maryland) collaborated. The matter has been resolved. Geerat Vermeij will participate in all activities of the research project (from ship to shore and otherwise), and there will be no discrimination but there probably would have been if it had not been for the National Federation of the Blind.
In the banquet speech at last year's National Convention Dr. Jernigan described the details of the Terry McManus case. A bus driver told Terry that he would have to sit in a seat for the handicapped when there was only standing room on the bus. Terry said he preferred to stand, and he did. Rather than driving the bus, the operator asked all of the other passengers to leave. Terry stayed, and he stood. The rest of the story you know. The bus was driven on its route with Terry still standingand all alone. This spring the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ruled that the Port Authority of Pittsburgh had violated the law. Our determination no longer to be second-class citizens was vindicated once again.
Last year Mary Freeman of Maryland sought a job with the Internal Revenue Service of the United States. She applied in the usual manner. She took a competitive civil service test, and she passed it with an excellent grade. But the Baltimore District Office of the IRS still refused to hire her. Had she been sighted, Mary Freeman would have had a job at IRS without difficulty. But Mary Freeman is blind.
When Mary applied for the job, she was told that she would need to be trained by Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind. Sighted people are trained by IRS. They are paid during their training. But IRS told Mary Freeman that she would be responsible for obtaining her own training from Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind, and that she would not be paid while she was doing it. No job would be guaranteed even if she successfully passed all of the required tests.
This was discrimination. As part of our assistance to Mary we contacted the appropriate IRS official in Washington. Significantly, he had attended last year's convention in Kansas City. Sometimes I am asked what good it does to have government officials here to speak to us. The next time I get such a question I think I may simply say, Mary Freeman. The matter was settled quickly. On March 9th of this year, Mary started her training at the IRS District Office in Baltimore. She was not required to go to the Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind, and she was paid from the day her training began. She is now working every day as a taxpayer service representative and is being considered for promotion. This is another example of what we can achieve through collective action and organized effortin other words, the National Federation of the Blind.
Ben Rushton is a blind father living with his children in South Carolina. Several years ago, when he was blinded in an automobile accident, his former wife brought legal action to remove the children from his custody on the grounds that a blind father could not exercise proper parental supervision. Don Capps and other Federationists assisted with this case, and the decision has now been reached. This spring the court agreed with us and said that blindness is not grounds for withdrawing child custody. This is one more case in which the rights of blind parents have been protected by the know-how and determination of the organized blind.
Again this year there are more and better scholarships than ever before. You will meet the students who are receiving them at this convention. Past results demonstrate that the Scholarship Program has been an unqualified success. Our Scholarship Program has been widely publicizedbeing mentioned in Seventeen Magazine, newsletters from Congressional offices, and student aid publications. As a result of our effort, blind students have better opportunity than ever before, and we are also reaching people we have never reached.
The current round of remodeling and renovation at the National Center for the Blind is almost finished. The Records Management Center, recording studios, new offices, dining facilities, and other renovations at the National Center for the Blind are nearly ready for use. Beyond a doubt our National Center is the most productive and the finest facility of its kind in the nation. With this resource goes responsibility. We must ship specialized aids, appliances, and materials to state and local affiliates throughout the nation and to others who need them, and the figures show that we are doing it. During the past year we have duplicated and distributed 7,000 presidential releases, and we have sent out more than a million pieces of literature. The volume of material we are handling has increased more than twenty percent over what we were doing a year ago; and this does not include circulation of the Monitor, which is also up substantially and accelerating. As you know, we began making the Monitor available on cassette a few months ago, and this means still wider circulation to come. Two years ago, when we were producing 18,000 issues of the Monitor each month, I thought we were close to the saturation point; but the rate of increase during the intervening time has been faster than ever before in our history. Today we are producing almost 26,000 copies per month and still growing.
Our aids, appliances, and materials have been moved to new quarters, occupying more than 14,000 feet of shelf space, and this does not include the more than 28,000 boxes of material stored at the ground floor level in the Barney Street Wing. We have now computerized the operation, and this should increase efficiency and result in even better service.
We now distribute the American Bar Association Journal on tape, and we are publishing Future Reflections (the magazine for parents of blind children) and also The Voice of the Diabetic (the newsletter of our Diabetics Division). The circulation of these publications is increasing at a rapid rate, and there are others the Blind Educator, the newsletter of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, Slate and Style (the magazine of the Writers Division), The Brief (which as you would imagine is published by the National Association of Blind Lawyers), the newsletter of the Merchants Division, and the magazines and newsletters of other divisions and local affiliates.
The Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) Program is still one of the most successful efforts we have ever undertaken. This year alone we have distributed 14,000 JOB Bulletins to blind applicants, and we have provided information to 6,000 employers. More than 2,000 blind job seekers have been assisted by the program since our last report, and the number of blind people who have been employed (which is, after all, the figure that counts) has topped the 700 mark since the beginning of the program.
During the past year guests from a number of foreign countries and many agencies doing work with the blind have visited the National Center for the Blind. Last fall the chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Blind came from England to examine our programs and learn about our success. This spring an industrialist who manufactures products for the blind in India came to the Center and talked with us about the future of technology. Shortly after last year's convention a representative from one of the organizations for the blind in Israel toured the Center and sought advice about methods for promoting self-organization for the blind in that country, and there have been moremany more.
All of the things I have been discussing with you can be summarized in a very few words: hope, opportunity, information, and the belief that it is respectable to be blind. Recently a letter came to me which illustrates what we are, how we are perceived, where we are going, and what we must do. The letter came not from some other country or California or Tennessee or New Mexico but from Baltimore. This is what it said:
I am a young mother at the age of nineteen. My son is eleven months old and his name is David. David is blind.
I received a packet of information through the mail from your organization. I can't send money, but I would greatly appreciate your help.
I was scared from the start about being a mother, but now raising a blind child terrifies me. I want to be the best mother for David that I can, and I want him to lead a normal childhood.
I have heard relatives refer to David as poor blind David and I don't want that. I want them to think of David first, not his blindness.
I am so happy to have found your organization. If it would not be any trouble, could you send me information about your organization?
How can we respond to that letter? This blind boy and his mother urgently need our help, and of course they will get it. The circumstances surrounding their situation (our educational mail campaigns; the confusion of the parents of blind children and their need for help; our accumulated resources of literature and know-how; our members who have achieved success and who still recognize the importance of participating in the movement and continue to draw strength and knowledge from it while serving as role models; our capacity to care; and our strength to make the caring count) all of these bring together in a single composite what we are and what we must remain.
During the past twelve months we have grown mightily, but we have not diluted our commitment or our personal intimacy of relationship to each other or the people who seek our help. We are stronger today and better organized than we have ever been, but with all of our accomplishments much still remains to be done. As I look back through the year just ended, I am proud of what we have achieved togetheryou as members and I as Presidentand I am extremely grateful to each of you for the support and trust which you have given to me, your new President. I have tried to merit that support and trust, and I shall continue to try to merit it. Regardless of the accomplishments I make in the years ahead (and hopefully there will be some) or the mistakes (and certainly there will be many), I will need to count on your continued understanding and backing. In this, the first year of my presidency, I find that I do not know as much as I would like to know, but there is one thing of which I am absolutely certain. The letter from the young mother with the eleven-month-old son named David strikes home to me. I myself have a son named David. He is three years old, and so far as I know, he has normal sight. When my son David and that other David (the blind eleven-month-old child of the nineteen-year-old mother) come to manhood, they must find a better world for the blind than we have today. That is my job. That is your job. That is our job as members of the National Federation of the Blindand we must not fail to accomplish it. We do it for the leaders who laid the foundation of this movement and pioneered its development leaders like Muzzy Marcelino, who died last fall; we do it for ourselves and the blind of today; and we do it for the blind of tomorrow, the children who are now too young to do it for themselves the blind children and also the sighted children, who will live fuller lives if the blind are not degraded as subhumans and written off as second-class citizens. In the tradition of Dr. tenBroek, who brought our Federation into being in 1940, and of Dr. Jernigan, who is here today as the living symbol of our achievements and our battle for freedom, we must continue to build and look to the future. We in the National Federation of the Blind are dreamers and planners and builders. The past year (with all of its problems) has been good, because we have worked to make it good. The coming year (again, with all of its problems) can be even better; and I believe it will be, because we will work to make it better. This is my commitment; this is my pledge; and this is my report to you.
It was at that 1987 National Convention in Phoenix that Marc Maurer delivered his inaugural banquet address as President of the National Federation of the Blind. For him it was, in the full sense of the phrase, a moment of truth. Although he had been elected to the presidency a year before, that was only a preliminary. This was the real hour of consummation the Federation's own ceremonial investiture: the annual presidential address. It was important to be eloquent, to be effective; but as he awaited the occasion Maurer felt it was more essential to be strictly honest with his fellow Federationists, to speak simply and openly of his own path to the present and of his vision for the future. He could be philosophical as well (that was a part of himself); he would surely be political (in the Federationist way); he might even be humorous at times (that came naturally). But the thrust of his talk would be personal, stemming from his experience and flowing from his heart.
And the banquet audience nearly 1,500 of the Federation family was there for him, waiting and welcoming and even a little worrying. Most of them already knew Marc Maurer, some very well, through the nearly twenty years of his youth and maturity in the movement. To the members of the Third Generation in particular he was an esteemed peer and companion, one of their own. They all wished him well; but when he rose to speak, at this unaccustomed podium in this unfamiliar role, he was on his own. He had never felt so alone in his life.
It lasted only for a moment a sentence or two. Then he was into the speech, his own composition, carried along by its cadences and absorbed by its messages. He had given it an unusual title: Back to Notre Dame. The reference would become clear in the course of the address, as he came to speak of his own schooling and apprenticing as a Federationist. But he began on a different note, observing that the greatest changes in history and society are often the least dramatic making their impact felt slowly and quietly over time. The process of quiet but dramatic change is an integral part of being human, he said. It is also the very essence of the National Federation of the Blind. And he went on to recall the obscurity and indifference which attended the founding of the organized blind movement:
In 1940 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a handful of others formed the National Federation of the Blind. Only later was it fully recognized that these pioneers had done something so dramatic that the lives of the blind throughout the world would never again be the same. The spirit which came into being at our founding in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, took root quietly. There was no roll of drums, no clap of thunder, no blazing fire to celebrate the event only Dr. tenBroek and the small group who gathered with him to dream and plan for the future and take the first steps toward making it happen.They could not have imagined that from that humble beginning would spring the powerful fifty-thousand-member National Federation of the Blind which we have become and now are. Still, they believed that a future could be created, that the years would not slip away with only emptiness for the blind, that it was possible for the blind to build and grow and come together in one great family. That dream, that faith, has partly been realized but the road stretches far ahead, and the rest is for us to do. And we will do it. We will do it by education and unspectacular change if we can. We will do it by more dramatic means if we must but we will do it. As Dr. Jernigan has so often said, we are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens.
That was how the new President began this banquet address. It was only a beginning, as far as the speech was concerned; but it was also conclusive, as far as the audience was concerned. For with that ringing declaration, Marc Maurer ended all doubts as to his leadership capacity and presidential stature. The Federation audience knew that, when push came to shove, their President would not only expound their view but exclaim it from the housetops; he would exhort; he would expostulate; he would expose. In short, he would lead.
Following is the complete text of that 1987 banquet address: BACK TO NOTRE DAME
Like Kenneth Jernigan before him, President Maurer found himself called upon to meet with and speak before a wide variety of groups, inside and outside the movement, as a standard part of his leadership responsibility. Some of these encounters were largely ceremonial; a few were confrontational; and others were, in one way or another, broadly educational. Maurer especially welcomed opportunities to convey the philosophy of Federationismthe doctrine of equality to public audiences unfamiliar with the organized blind movement and potentially valuable as friends and allies. Such an opportunity arrived with an invitation to address the faculty and students of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government at a symposium in December, 1987. Many of the faculty members in that audience were either statesmen or the advisors of statesmen; many of the students would become future leaders. It was a rare opportunity to influence the influential; and the Federation's chief spokesman made the most of it. He entitled his short speech "The Cost of a Gift", and he spoke of the nature of charity and the price it exacted. His message, carefully reasoned and quietly articulated, was that the blind were no longer content with the gift of charity but demanded instead the harder bargain of equality. And the warmth of his reception by the Harvard audience demonstrated that the message was no less cogent and persuasive in the groves of academe than it was in the meeting halls of the National Federation of the Blind.
Here is the Harvard speech:
by Marc Maurer
The blind, the halt, and the lame have traditionally been objects of pity and charity. This has meant a certain degree of kindness, but the generosity has always been a mixed blessing. In physics it is said that for any action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In social affairs the same concept applies. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Those who receive charity are (contrary to the popular belief) always obliged to pay for it.
One of the greatest problems faced by the blind today is that we are the objects of charity. The society at large feels that it will be called upon to give something to the blind. There is no law which requires equal treatment for the sighted. Such a law is unnecessary. However, there is a law which demands that the handicapped shall not be subjected to discriminationat least part of the time. This law is mostly ineffective. The general public is expected to give equality to a class of persons which it regards as not being entitled to it.
How do we pay for charity? What can be offered in return for the gifts we receive? How are the scales balanced? What is taken from the blind (or, for that matter, from other groups) in order to reach equilibrium? To answer this question contrast the position in our culture maintained by the local banker or entrepreneur with that customarily associated with the blind. As I have already said, nondiscrimination laws apply to the blind. They don't apply to the banker. Reasonable accommodation is required for the blind. It is not for the banker. Charitable fund drives are conducted for the blind. It is inconceivable that they would be for the banker. Generosity and pity are felt for the blind. The banker gets something else. For the banker there is sometimes a little envy, occasionally a touch of fear, and almost always a substantial measure of respect. The reason for the difference is that the banker has something that most people in society want. The blind are not regarded in the same way.
What pays for the charity? For a large segment of the population the income tax deduction is insufficient to induce a gift. Instead, there has to be another reason. Charity salves the conscience. It is a tangible reminder for those who have done something which they regard as less than good that their lives are not without redeeming features. But there is something even more powerful than the need to compensate for past misdeeds. It is the wish to feel secure in the knowledge that the donor is helping those less fortunate. This, of course, may be restated. If I can regard you as an object of pity and charity, I am in a position superior to yours. Therefore, if I make you a gift from charitable motives, I am necessarily your superior. The blind and handicapped pay for the charity. The gift necessarily connotes inequality. This means that one of the most serious problems faced by the handicapped today is that we are the objects of charity. If we permit these circumstances to continue, we give tacit consent to the two-class system.
In a relatively free society when two parties transact business, one sets the price, and the other determines the quantity. It never happens that one party decides both price and quantity. If the buyer says that fifty items are required, the seller will establish the price. If the seller indicates that the price for a specific commodity will be one hundred dollars, the purchaser will determine the number to be bought. The number may be zero or some quantity higher than that. If, on the other hand, the purchaser says that the price of the commodity will be not a hundred dollars but fifty, the seller may decide to take the merchandise and go home. In other words the quantity may be zero.
The blind (just like others) have always needed certain basic commodities. Food, shelter, and clothing are essential. In the past governmental institutions, charitable organizations, or benevolent individuals have provided these necessities. But price and quantity are never controlled by the same party. The blind demanded a certain quantity; those who made the gifts controlled the price. Only when blind people began to have sufficient resources to meet basic needs, did these circumstances begin to change. If a group of individuals within society never has the opportunity to choose whether it will determine price or quantity, it lacks the essentials for freedom. Until fairly recently, the blind have been in this position. Blind people determined quantity, and someone else set the price. Because blind people were not regarded as having any trading stockgoods or services that could be soldpayment had to be made in other coin, and the price was always high.
Blacks in America constitute a minority. As this group began to move from second-class status to full equality, it faced almost the same economic circumstances that now confront the blind. But there was one significant difference. Blacks were regarded as having the capacity for manual labor. The blind are ordinarily not considered suitable to perform the ordinary job in the ordinary place of business. Therefore, in the effort to become a fully integrated part of our society, blind people are at a greater disadvantage than blacks have ever been. This is true despite the absence of blind slavery. The difference is that the blind are thought of as having nothing to offer. Not only are the skills and talents possessed by the blind not sought in the job market, but often those blind persons who volunteer to give their time without cost find their offer rejected. In the minds of many the final summation for blindness is: nothing to sell and nothing that will be accepted as a giftcomplete worthlessness.
Of course, this understanding of blindness is completely false. The blind represent a cross section of the general population. All of the talent and all of the virtue that can be found among ordinary human beings is possessed by the blind. All of the abilities that others possess (except the ability to see) are possessed by the blind. The blind people I know are as bright, as energetic, as willing to give without counting the cost, as anxious to do a good job, and as trustworthy as anyone else in society. They are also as dull, as boring, as willing to take without giving, and as lazy. In other words blind people have all of the characteristics of the general population, except onesight. The problem is that blindness has been regarded as the only meaningful attribute. After it has become clear that the individual in question is blind, nothing else matters. In the minds of many this one factor is the final summation.
Do I state the case too strongly? Recently a blind man in St. Louis, Missouri, approached the ticket counter in a Trailways bus depot. He wanted to buy a full-fare bus ticket. The ticket agent told him that he must produce a doctor's certificate because this was necessary for a handifare ticket. A handifare ticket costs less than the ordinary bus ticket. The blind man (a member of the National Federation of the Blind) responded that a handifare ticket was not needed. He wanted to pay full fare for an ordinary ticket. Nevertheless, the agent refused to sell him one. When the blind man insisted on his right to pay full fare, and when he refused to leave the counter until such a ticket was issued to him, personnel at the Trailways bus station called the police and had him arrested. The language used by the police and their behavior at the depot is reminiscent of the ugly confrontations in the black civil rights movement.
Last March a blind man in Washington State bought a ticket to ride on an Amtrak train. After boarding, he tried to ascend the stairs to the upper level of the observation car. The conductor told him that blind people were not permitted on the upper level. Amtrak (just like Trailways) sells tickets to the handicapped at a reduced rate.
What should we do to promote a more realistic approach? I do not recommend that all charity come to an end. Nor do I recommend that the blind stop accepting all gifts. Instead, I urge all of us to try to understand the nature of what we do. For all human beings everywhere there are times that demand charity. However, there also comes a time when responsibility must be accepted. Full participation in society will produce more and cost less than dependence upon charity. If we, as a culture, systematically refuse to permit a group of people to reach its potential, then we have set the stage for conflict. Such behavior creates an inferior class. When the group that is regarded as inferior discovers that the two-class system is a lie, it will insist upon its rights. When this happens, there will be confrontation.
The blind of this nation (organized in the National Federation of the Blind) are committed to achieving equality and first-class citizenship. We regret that there is apparently a certain amount of conflict built into the transition from second- to first-class status. But we know that blind individuals, blind people as a group, and our entire society will benefit if the worth we represent is recognized and given its proper place. We are appreciative of the kind words, the good wishes, and the donations of those who have joined us to ensure that our struggle for freedom comes to fruition. But we are also committed to ending forever the philosophy which says that the proper role of the blind person is the recipient of someone else's charity. The proper role for the blind is the same as it is for the sighted. There should be charity given and received on both sides. There should also be responsibility and opportunity.
The 1988 National Convention in Chicago broke precedent in more than one way. In sheer size it was the largest in Federation history; well over three thousand conventioneers filled three hotels (as Barbara Pierce was to report in the Monitor's convention roundup), and just under 2,500 of them registered formally as attendees. Some fourteen special divisions and committees held their own meetingsranging from the Merchants Division of the NFB, among the oldest, to the newly created National Association of Dog Guide Users.
One of the highlights of the convention was the appearance Thursday afternoon, July 7, of radio celebrity Paul Harvey. In the past some of Harvey's remarks (see 1976 banquet address, Blindness: Of Visions and Vultures) had drawn criticism from the blind, but Harvey demonstrated by what he said at the 1988 convention that he had read and understood the Federation's message. His reception by the delegates was tumultuously enthusiastic.
No less than twenty-six scholarships were presented at the banquet, topped off by the $10,000 Ezra B. Davis Memorial Scholarship of the American Brotherhood for the Blind. And the banquet itself was presided overfor the first time in two decadesby Master of Ceremonies Kenneth Jernigan, the Federation's former President and current Executive Director, who was plainly enjoying his old role as much as the overflow audience enjoyed him in it.
The banquet had always been the culminating event and dramatic climax of the National Conventiona celebration of community and a renewal of commitment, a time for recognition and praise, a chorus of voices raised in song, a great family feast. But none of these things was the true highlight of the evening; that had always been, and in the minds of Federationists could only be, the banquet address by the President. This annual speech in this distinctive setting was somehow set apart by the conventioneers from all other talks and utterances; it had a special place in their hearts and made a deeper impact on their sensibilities. Down the years and decades of these National Conventionsfrom the era of the eloquent prophet Jacobus tenBroek through the long distinguished tenure of the brilliant Kenneth Jernigan to the new unfolding age, alive with promise, of the Maurer Presidencythe banquet address had registered, year by year, the mind and will and vaulting aspiration of the movement and its people. It was the peak experience of the convention week and the lasting memorial of the Federation year.
So it was to be again in 1988, at the banquet of the Chicago convention. President Maurer outlined a perspective at once historical and philosophical within which the long upward struggle of the blind could best be understood. We who are blind, organized throughout the land, have the strength and purpose to change the course of history, at least our own history, he said. We believe it is our responsibility to make it happen, and we accept the challenge with the full knowledge that the moving force is and must necessarily be the National Federation of the Blind. Maurer's address, entitled "Preparation and the Critical Nudge", (is reprinted in full below.)
The last year of the decade was also the final year of the first half centurythe formative fifty yearsof the organized blind movement in the United States. And, as it happened, 1989 was itself a year of decision and a harbinger of hope. By the time of the Denver convention in July, the National Federation of the Blind was clearly turning a page of its history and on the point of turning what Kenneth Jernigan had calledthe corner of time.
This sense of simultaneous arrival and departure found expression in the ferment and excitement of convention activity at Denver, both in the formal events of the business agenda and in the spontaneous happenings characteristic of this massive gathering of the clans. During the week there was joy and there was sorrow; it was all in the family. The undercurrent of joy was sufficiently strong to be identified by Barbara Pierce, Associate Editor of the Monitor, as the defining mood of the convention. It was joy, she wrote in her follow-up report on the event, the quiet joy one sometimes stumbles upon in the midst of hard work and challenge, a momentary pause in the frantic rush of activity, during which one savors the contentment of a job well in hand and the love of colleagues who share a dream.
And the sorrow arose from the successive passing, only weeks before the convention, of two beloved Federationists, Jim Walker of Nebraska and Connie McCraw of Maryland. There was sorrow as well in the illnesses of several delegates during the course of the convention, at the involuntary absence of others for reasons of health, at the memory of comrades-in-arms who had fallen. And there was sorrow of another kind more chronic and hard-edged at the persisting folly of all those agencies and institutions of the blindness system still clinging to the superstitions of the Stone Age. But this was a sorrow that issued not in silence but in resounding condemnation punctuated by satireas in the new Federation song that sprang from the camaraderie of a post-banquet gathering around the grand piano at the Hyatt Regency Denver, commemorating the struggle against exclusionary practices by the U.S. State Department. In part the song went like this (to the tune of "Yankee Doodle"):
The State Department keeps us out; They say that we're not able; They won't let our readers in To read their secret cables.
(Refrain): State Department let us in; We want to serve our nation; We will fight until we win, 'Cause we're the Federation.
At this 1989 convention, and most notably at the banquet, there was a pervasive sense of transition that gave an additional charge to the always electric atmosphere of the annual meetings. And the banquet this year let no one downand left no one out. The banquet was again, wrote Barbara Pierce, what the banquet always is for the Federationthe apex of the convention, the high point of the Federation year, the very touchstone of our movement. Balloons (courtesy of the Cambridge Chapter of the Massachusetts affiliate) festooned the banquet hall, and TVs with giant speakers broadcast the festivities to an enthusiastic overflow crowd outside the hall. The master of ceremonies, to everyone's delight, was the Federation's President Emeritus and current Executive Director, Kenneth Jernigan, who announced at one point toward the end of the program: Let me now tell you what's next on this evening's agenda. We'll do these things. We will present the scholarships; we will recognize some other people from the head table; we will ask the hotel personnel to take a few minutes to clear the tables; and we will then begin the morning session.
What some in the banquet audience were already calling the spirit of '89 found its appropriate expression in an address of singular power and resonance delivered by President Marc Maurer. His speech, entitled "Language and the Future of the Blind", was subsequently published in Vital Speeches of the Day and came to be widely admired beyond the boundaries of the organized blind movement. Taking as his theme the interconnection of speech and behavior, Maurer called for a sweeping change in the bad habits of ordinary speech as a means to the changing of minds and the reform of attitudes. In order to change a pattern of behavior, he declared, we must change the habit of speech. Does blindness mean darkness and despair? Many people have thought so, he said: But the Federation proposes to refute that myth, alter that perception, and change that meaning. His speech was an eloquent first step in that direction.
Following is the text of the 1989 banquet address: LANGUAGE AND THE FUTURE OF THE BLIND
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