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The National Federation of the Blind, in the year of its golden anniversary, was irrepressibly a people's movement. The evidence of that was manifest throughout the spacious structure of the organization and the broad reach of its network stretching from the impressive National Center for the Blind in Baltimore to the farthest outposts of Federationism in Alaska and Hawaii. The people's presence (their sheer vitality and power) was felt most palpably of all at the National Conventions those summer rites of consecration and initiation, where members of the far-flung clan of NFB assembled in their thousands at some appointed urban campsite (Hilton or Hyatt or Sheraton) like the kinfolk of a vast extended family come together in reunion. That might seem only an analogy; in fact from the first convention it was close to the truth. There was a kinship of sorts among these people of the Federation; as we have observed more than once in earlier chapters, they were drawn together in their movement not by the physical blindness they had in common (that might as often be an alienating or estranging factor) but by the social vision they shared. From the beginning the organized blind were a visionary community, as someone once said of them; they were not just associated like the frequenters of a club but related to one another in the way of brotherhood and sisterhood. This chapter is about the brothers and the sisters not all of them, of course, not even a sizable fraction but a representative sample.
In 1990 one of the National Federation's largest and strongest affiliates was located in a state of relatively small size and population. The NFB of South Carolina had thirty chapters, three active divisions, and more than a thousand members. Over the years it had persuaded the state legislature to pass some twenty-five major pieces of legislation and had failed with none it favored. The affiliate was known, for the first quarter century, as the Aurora Club a name to reckon with in the affairs of the state. Although it was to have many good leaders through the years, the secret of its success was primarily due to the presence of one man: Don Capps.
When young Capps first joined the Aurora Club back in the mid-fifties, he found the range of its endeavors carefully limited to improving what was called the social and spiritual life of the blind and hands off the economic realities of their lives. The first thing he did when he became president of the affiliate in 1956 was to change all that there by starting a long uphill struggle against a battery of agencies and authorities clinging to the Stone Age of service to the blind. Before then, as he said in his presidential address that year, The Club had experienced no real opposition from anyone, undoubtedly due to the fact that its principal activities had been of such a nature that no one in a position of responsibility to the blind felt threatened. However, the fact that we had now become a full-grown state organization with additional goals of an economic nature seemed to create unjustified apprehension and actual fear on the part of some who, in the past, hardly realized we even existed and cared less.
If Capps had been an ordinary man, he might have backed away from the trouble which his economic and vocational emphasis was stirring up. For one thing, he was an executive with a major insurance company (Colonial Life) and, therefore, especially vulnerable to the influence of pressure and innuendo. But he did not equivocate, and he refused to truckle. His determination to improve the lives of blind South Carolinians did not go unappreciated, then or later. (After his initial election to the state presidency in 1956, he was re-elected to the two-year post nine times and was holding it in 1990.) A veteran member of the Aurora Club expressed the feeling of many in the state when he wrote to Capps in 1958:
Your patient efforts, and the heavy responsibility that you have assumed in the interest of all the blind is so commendable I have no way of expressing and passing on to you the sincere and humble thanks we all owe to you. As I have tried to let you know without saying all I feel, we have needed new blood in the working aims of the blind of this state, and you have more than filled the gap that has been widening over the years. In many ways it will be a thankless task, but I know that your goal has been set, and I know you will keep pushing ahead. More power to you! I know you were hurt badly in recent flare-ups, but one must go forward. Your reward will come in realizing an accomplishment which cannot come about in a month, or even a year; but with determination and faith your effort will not be in vain.
And it was not in vain, as Federationists around the country soon came to know. In addition to his continuing state leadership, Capps quickly moved into prominence at the national level, serving successively as Second Vice President and First Vice President, and remaining on the Board of Directors for the next thirty years. (His career is sketched more fully in Appendix B to this volume: Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind.) Throughout his long career of service to his fellow blind, no matter how tempestuous the struggle, Don Capps remained a model of courtesy and civility, as well as an immovable rock of stability and integrity. This, as Kenneth Jernigan once said of him, is what decency looks like.
The Federation has many strengths, wrote the Monitor editor in January, 1990, but one of the greatest is its growing corps of local leaders. They build the chapters, make the telephone calls, and carry on the daily activities. They constitute the base of power, the foundation of strength upon which our movement is built. He then reprinted a profile of one of these local leaders, Ethel Inchausti, which had appeared in Gem State Milestones (the periodical of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho), adding: Of such as Ethel Inchausti is the Federation made, and the future is in good hands. Here is the article:
If Ethel had time, she could tell us many stories about Idaho sixty years ago or more. She has been independent and resourceful all her life. At eighty-one she still is. Elected president of the Magic Valley Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho last spring, Ethel Inchausti is part of the reason the membership of that chapter has multiplied several times during the last six months. Someone told her she looks younger than she did five years ago, and Ethel wasn't surprised.
Five years ago Ethel was struggling with blindness which seemed almost overwhelming. Cooking, dialing the telephone, and many other activities had become complicated or frightening. Ethel didn't know where to go for help.
One day John Cheadle and Ramona Walhof, part of an organizing team for the NFB in the Magic Valley, knocked on Ethel's door. She told them of her concern, and they told her about the National Federation of the Blind. They also told her of other services. Ethel says that was a turning point for her. Within a few months she had enrolled at the Orientation Center of the Idaho Commission for the Blind. She made friends with blind people who were members of the Federation, and she attended her first National Convention in Denver, Colorado, in 1989.
In 1926 Ethel moved from Norwich, Kansas, to Twin Falls, Idaho, bringing her three-year-old son with her. Since then she has worked as a cook for the Wells Sheep Ranch; she managed the Green Spot Cafe in Castleford, Idaho; and she sorted beans and did a variety of jobs that women did in rural Idaho.
Shortly after arriving in Idaho, Ethel married her husband of more than thirty years (now deceased), who was a farm worker. In addition to her son, Robert, Ethel and her husband had a daughter, Billie Rae. Now Ethel has seven grandchildren, fifteen great grandchildren, and two great great grandchildren.
Ethel remembers when Blue Lakes Boulevard had no businesses, only houses along it. When you stop to think of it, she says, it is hard to believe the change! I got lost every time I went to town. Twin Falls was little then. Now I know my way everywhere. And she does. Traveling with a white cane, directing a driver, or catching the bus Ethel Inchausti goes wherever she wants.
She thinks maybe she talks on the phone as much as anything. I spend a lot of time talking to blind people. I know what they can do for themselves. I threatened to quit calling one lady if she didn't come out to a meeting, which I knew would be good for her. Of course, I wouldn't have quit calling, but she came and was glad she did.
Ethel Inchausti local leader, woman of strength.
Many members of the movement over the years felt that the Federation was like a family sometimes the only family they knew. But now and then the process also worked the other way; there were real families within the Federation whose warmth and charm became a magnet for the affections of others. John and Connie McCraw were like that; he was the blind partner but they were a unit, inseparable in and out of the Federation; it was natural to both of them to reach out to people, and so people just naturally reached out to them too.
John was already president of the NFB of Maryland when he was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind in 1977. In June of the following year, an updated version of Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind said of him that there was no question in anyone's mind that he should have the job because he has long been a favorite of those in the movement who know him. John seemed indefatigable, a man for all seasons and situations: by day he worked as a recreationist, by night he was musical director and band leader for a Baltimore jazz club. In addition to his work with the Federation, he was chairman of the board of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. Perhaps he gave too much of himself to too many. Two months after the Monitor's profile was published, John McCraw was dead of a heart attack.
In his eulogy delivered at a special memorial service, Kenneth Jernigan (then President of the NFB) spoke these words:
John McCraw was a man of great gentleness. He was also a man of great strength and power. He was my brother in the movement to liberate the blind. He was my close, dear friend.
No person who has attended a recent convention of the National Federation of the Blind will ever think of John McCraw without recalling the rumble of that deep voice answering the roll call of the states. It usually brought applause. It always brought an audi- ble murmur of affection, a feeling that can only be described as a surge of love reaching from all parts of the room to touch him. In fact, if one had to describe in a single word the feeling of the blind of the nation for John McCraw, that word would be love. He gave it; he received it; he lived it. And the blind of the nation and the world have better lives as a result.
And it was not just at National Conventions or on special occasions. John was the same every day at home or in other states, with friends or with strangers, in crowds or in groups of two or three.
When I moved to Maryland a few months ago, John and Connie made it their business to let me know that they wanted to do any- thing they could to be of service to me. (As it was with John, so was it and so it is with Connie. She worked with John, sharing his activities, his problems, and his triumphs. She belongs to all of us who are blind, and she always will.)
John's trademark was service and not just occasionally or in major things but on a daily basis thoughtfully, courteously, and lovingly. During the last week of his life John performed two services for me. He arranged to have some kitchen knives sharpened, and he took a newspaper editor to task who had attacked me. In fact, his handling of the editor was typical of his way of doing business.
When he called to tell me about it, he played the whole thing down and merely said that he thought he had set the man straight on some facts and that we would see better articles in the future. A few days later I learned from a person who was in the room at the time the phone call was being made that John's language and tone were so blunt and earthy that the editor will probably never write another story without making an effort to learn the facts. True to John's prediction, the article of retraction came, and it showed all of the impact of the chastening which had been given.
John did not want credit. He wanted results. He took more pleasure in seeing the rest of us praised than having praise for himself.
In every situation he was an asset. If you were going to a conference, John was a good man to give you level-headed advice. If you were going to a party, John was a good man to help you celebrate. If you were going to a fight, John was a good man to have at your side. He never weaseled; he never chickened out; and he never deserted a friend or a cause. He stuck to the end. He did not try to find a way out by pretending that he was confused or did not understand the issues or had concerns that he could not resolve. He was staunch and steadfast. He was John McCraw.
John, old friend, dear brother, you have made the world a better place for all of us who are blind. You have shown us that gentleness need not be weakness and that love is a natural component of courage, not of cowardice or fear. You have lived your beliefs, and they are reflected in the lives of us all.
Your spirit will march with us in our continuing campaign for the freedom of the blind. Your dedication will strengthen us. Your love will sustain us. When we suffer defeats (and there will be some) or when we achieve victories (and there will be many), we will think of you and make your memory part of our mourning and our rejoicing. No history of the battle of the blind for liberation and first-class citizenship will ever be complete without your name. No story of our journey to independence will fail to include you. Rest in peace! We will keep the movement strong. We will build it and make it reach new heights of achievement and solidarity. We will always remember your deep voice, your abiding dedication, and your great capacity for love. We will keep the faith.
One year later, in its round-up of the 1979 convention in Miami, the Monitor included a brief report under the heading, Connie McCraw Speaks:
One of the most moving moments of the convention came during the banquet when Connie McCraw, widow of the late John McCraw, rose to speak. No member of our movement has ever been more loved or respected than John; and his deep voice, his buoyant enthusiasm, his common sense, and his compassion and sincerity were sorely missed at this year's convention. Connie is also loved and respected, so her remarks carried special emphasis and meaning. She said:
My Fellow Federationists, this is my first opportunity to meet and greet you collectively since John, your friend and mine, left us last September.
As you all will agree, John's passing left a void in our working lives, and in our hearts and minds that will be hard to fill. I don't mean to presume that no one can do the things he did, but I do say that he was unique in his approach to life in general and his job in particular.
You all, and I do mean all, were so kind and helpful when I needed you, so thoughtful and sincere in that dark hour, so charitable in sharing my grief and sorrow.
Please believe me when I say thank you, for your outpouring of love and friendship, your many, many gifts, and for letting me continue to be one of you.
For John, for myself, for our two beautiful sons, Vince, who is here by my side, and Frank, who left this morning for Fort Bliss, Texas, his first stay in the Army, thank you.
The final installment of this story of two families the Federation family and the McCraw family occurred ten years afterward, and was related by Kenneth Jernigan in the Braille Monitor (July, 1989):
CONNIE MCCRAW DIES
by Kenneth Jernigan
I was sitting in my office on Thursday morning, June 1, 1989, when I received a call telling me of the death of Connie McCraw. There were no details, just the announcement the news that she had died.
As her friends know, Connie had not been well for quite some time. Her last years were spent in a retirement home here in Baltimore. Toward the end she was in great pain.
At times like this it is easier to remember than to find the right words. When I came to Baltimore in 1978, John and Connie McCraw were a source of strength to me and a focal point for the warmth and hospitality that I received. John was the leader of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, and Connie was always at his side supporting, loving, and caring. Only a short time after my arrival, John had a sudden heart attack and died. I worked with Connie in planning the funeral and was one of those who delivered a eulogy. Connie grieved at John's death, but she put her sorrow aside to help ease the pain of others. Connie was like that.
As soon as we established the National Center for the Blind, Connie was on hand to help for many years as a volunteer and for a while as a staff member. Regardless of the job she was doing (and there were many), one factor was always constant. She cared. And everybody knew she cared. It radiated from her in every act.
She was the voice on cassette of the Braille Spectator, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. In fact, she read every issue except the most recent. Toward the end she was really not well enough to do the reading, but the joy of doing it outweighed the pain. Again, Connie was like that. She was always willing to read or give of her time or do anything else she could to help others.
Big John's booming voice is still remembered and missed at National Federation of the Blind conventions, and Connie's gentle goodness will also be missed. She was ours, and we loved her. We still love her, and our love will be undying.
Connie McCraw worker, friend, lady, generous helper. We will miss you.
When Sharon Gold, the vigorous president of the NFB of California, was presented in 1983 with the highest award the National Federation can give to one of its own the Jacobus tenBroek Award she revealed that one of the things that had brought her into the movement years before was the discriminatory treatment blind people were receiving from the airlines. It drew me, she said, because I had been flying since I was ten years old, alone and I knew that if the airline industry got its way, none of us would fly, and none of us would be free. Three years later Sharon was arrested on a United Airlines plane while enroute home to California from an NFB convention. Her crime was that of occupying her assigned seat (in an exit row, as it happened) and politely declining to leave when told by misinformed flight attendants that she was violating an FAA regulation. Finally, in an episode made ugly by the behavior of airline and airport personnel, Sharon was arrested. She was released shortly thereafter, and charges were quietly dropped but not before she had made her point and sat down for her rights.
That was Sharon Gold: not one to trifle with, but definitely one to be associated with in a crisis. Trained in law and tempered in the school room (she was twenty years a teacher), Sharon never raised her voice or lost her composure; but there was steel in that voice and determination in the bearing. Federationists in California had discovered this for themselves during the mini-civil war, which originated in California in the late seventies and ended in California in the early eighties. It was Sharon Gold who, as the new state president, dug in and hung on through all the flak and buckshot fired off by the furious losers in that fight. It was Sharon Gold who carried through the reorganization of the NFB of California and built up the affiliate to a stature and reputation it had not known since the days of Anthony (Tony) Mannino. She put the state organization on a secure financial basis, and she developed The Spokesman, which rapidly became one of the best affiliate newsletters in the country. Gold wasted no time gloating over any of these accomplishments nor over any of the lawsuits won, the legislation passed, the programs reformed, or the blind people helped by the new NFB of California. She simply did the jobs one by one and got on to the next.
A glimpse into the private home life of this dedicated leader of the organized blind was provided for readers of The Spokesman in 1980, during the peak of the late unpleasantness (as Californians came to call the mini-uprising in their midst). The profile of Sharon Gold was written by Patricia Munson, the capable editor of the newsletter. It is reprinted here in full:
A VISIT WITH OUR PRESIDENT
by Patricia Munson
As Federationists recall, it was in November of 1978 that our affiliate in California was reorganized. At that time Sharon Gold was elected president, and the members gave her the difficult task of providing the strong leadership necessary to build a meaningful, productive unit of the NFB. With the help of all of us, Sharon immediately set to work to begin the rebuilding of the California affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. Today, we know the degree of our success. The affiliate started with nothing (no money, no office, no supplies). But, we had elected a president with great imagination and foresight; two years later, all has changed.
No organization can be a success if it does not have dedicated members. In California, we have many, many hard working, loyal members. So, with the combination of excellent leadership and fine members how could we fail!
Approximately one year ago, I wrote in the Spokesman of my visit to President Gold's home. I told you of how the NFB had invaded not only her life, but also her residence. NFB canes greeted me as I entered the front door; NFB material almost squeezed me off every chair in which I tried to sit; and NFB material met me as I tried to hang up my sweater in the closet. Don't get me wrong, President Gold is a most tidy housekeeper, but what was she to do? As I said, the NFB had moved in. The telephone rang incessantly, for members and non-members always know where to call when assistance is wanted. Her secretary came and went, taking endless dictation. Always President Gold kept asking me for suggestions as to how we could improve the affiliate and how we might progress. I told her that it appeared to me that she was doing exceedingly well on her own.
Some improvements for the affiliate were obvious; it needed money, for with money comes many so-called luxuries such as an office, equipment, and more secretarial help.
Well, the rest is history; Federationists know of the many fund-raising projects that have been so successful. Who among us has not sold peanuts, candy, and Knott's Berry Farm products and which of us has not sold tickets for drawings?
Now let me report to you what I saw during my most recent visit two months ago with our president. Some of those canes still greeted me at her front door; that material still fought me for a free chair; and that closet still looks like a small warehouse for NFB literature but we now possess a very fine office.
Our new office houses some fine equipment, but now this equipment, too, must also compete with some of those NFB canes and mounds of NFB material. What I am trying to tell you is that our affiliate is growing faster than the speed of light. We have been so successful that we cannot keep up with our own progress. Even when I was there to help, there was never enough time to file and sort all the material that comes in to the affiliate. This is a wonderful predicament. At the height of the Roman Empire, it was said that all roads led to Rome. In California, the progressive blind of this state know that all roads lead to the office of the National Federation of the Blind.
California, indeed, has a very fine affiliate, of which we can all be proud. We certainly have President Gold's leadership abilities to thank for our growth, development, and success.
Many younger Federationists have probably never heard of Rudolph and Martha Bjornseth, wrote Kenneth Jernigan in 1986, and that is a pity, for at a crucial time in Federation history these two played an important (perhaps a crucial) part in saving the movement. It was during the depths of the Federation's civil war, immediately prior to and during the 1961 Kansas City convention.
He went on: Rudolph and Martha Bjornseth had been Federationists in North Dakota for a long time. I don't know exactly how long, but I came into the movement in 1949, and I have the impression that Rudolph and Martha preceded me. Be that as it may, I remember having contact with them early in my Federation activity. They were quiet people; but they were strong on dedication, belief, and integrity.
In the election preceding the 1961 convention there was a battle for control of North Dakota, Jernigan recalled. Out-of-state members of the dissident minority (the group which was later to become the American Council of the Blind), being short on votes and a number of other qualities, came to North Dakota and tried to take over. They insisted that they had the right to vote in the election for state president and (the thing that really motivated them) delegate to the National Convention. Rudolph resisted, and no amount of personal abuse or hoodlum tactics would shake him.
Jernigan continued: In the election for state president and delegate Rudolph received the majority of the votes of the North Dakota residents attending the state convention and he intended to stand up for his rights and the movement. He came to that stormy 1961 National Convention in Kansas City, and he never wavered. He was subjected to threats, insults, and a variety of other indignities. He was yelled at. It made no difference. He became a rallying point, a symbol of honesty and integrity almost an embodiment of what we were and must do and be. After the convention Rudolph returned to the quiet life he had led and loved in North Dakota. He and Martha have continued to live and work through the years, supporting the movement as they could and claiming no limelight.
Jernigan wrote that the thing that had brought all this to mind was an article which had appeared in the Bjornseth's local newspaper, the Fargo Forum earlier that year, sketching the lives and work of this accomplished couple, both of them blind and now approaching their ninth decade. I want to share this article with you, wrote the Monitor editor. It is a way of remembering and paying a tribute. The Bjornseths should not be forgotten. Of such as these was the Federation built.
On a later occasion, in 1989, Kenneth Jernigan wrote another brief introduction in the Monitor to an article which had stirred old memories of earlier times and near-forgotten pioneers in the movement of the organized blind. This is how he began:
Recently while I was reading the Fall/Winter, 1988, Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota (yes, I got to it late), I read of the death of Torger Lien. The article was written by Steve Jacobson, and it caused me to reflect and remember. I am sure that some of my observations and experiences parallel those of Steve.
You see, I knew Torger Lienand he was stubborn, determined to have his say, and not deterred in the slightest if he found himself in the minority. In fact, he spoke his peace even if he knew that he was a minority of one and he would be heard. In short, he had the characteristics which a true Federationist most prizes and should possess.
In the later years of his life Torger found himself at odds with the majority of Federationists in his state and was often a thorn in their sides. I myself have felt the sting of his caustic lash. On more than one occasion I was, to say the least, annoyed by Torger's behavior but all of that has absolutely nothing to do with his sterling qualities and the contributions he made. He was jaggedly honest in his beliefs (even when they were wrong), and he didn't care whether others thought they were wrong or not.
In short, I respected Torger Lien not for what he believed on occasion in his later years but for what he was and for what he did to stimulate a spirit of independence among the blind of Minnesota and (at least to some extent) the blind of the nation. We should not forget the pioneers of our movement, and we should not judge their contributions by the fact that their thinking and philosophy were formed in an earlier day when conditions were different, opportunities for the blind virtually nonexistent, and organized effort by blind people only a hope and a distant dream. If the blind of that day were to make progress, they had to disturb the status quo and at times that meant being abrasive, stubborn, and just plain mule headed. Nothing else would work. And Torger Lien fitted the image. As I have already said, he should not be forgotten, and those who did not know him or have never heard of him are poorer for it.
If Torger Lien had been born fifty years later, I believe he would today be one of our strongest and most progressive leaders. But whether he would or not, he would have had opinions, and he would have insisted that they be heard. Whatever the circumstances, he would not have been intimidated or cowed. In the life of Torger Lien there is a lesson for all of us who labor in the vineyards of the Federation today not only for the leaders but also for the rank and file as well. Who can say whether fifty years from now our views and philosophy will fit the mood and the needs of the time? I have no doubt that they will-but, then, perhaps I have a streak of Torger in me. I remember him fondly. Here is Steve Jacobson's article:
Crossing the Jordan: Memories of Torger Lien
by Steve Jacobson
Just keep your tongue straight in your mouth, he would say, as we approached an angled street crossing. Then he might issue what was, to a fourth-grade boy, an awesome threat: If you get off of the crosswalk, I might have to get one of the girls to find you. Of course, it was not a threat, and those of us in Torger Lien's travel class knew it. It was simply an example of his uniquely gentle way of telling us to concentrate. He would jokingly refer to crossing the Jordan, but as children, we could not conceive of it happening. When I heard that Torger Lien had passed away, these memories and more came back as clear as if 1960 were yesterday.
As a capable blind teacher, his impact went far beyond the boundaries of the classroom. He was the first person to make me think that I could travel independently. He taught me the importance of developing a good sense of direction, listening for landmarks, and deriving meaningful information from echoes. We would hear what to us were wondrous tales of how Torger Lien rode alone on Twin Cities buses. Of course, he was not the only blind person who did so, but he was someone that we knew personally. It was through him that we learned to dream that some day, as adults, we could do the same.
My first exposure to the theoretical aspects of radio and electricity was accomplished only through the dedication of Torger Lien, and this gift is one that I still carry with me. Besides teaching me some of the theory, he showed me that blind people could wire electrical circuits, make repairs to electrical equipment, and enjoy radio and electronics as a hobby just as sighted people do.
Torger Lien was born in 1898 near Oden in southwestern Minnesota. He would explain that his sense of direction was developed through the crossing of the open fields on his family's farm. He graduated in 1918 from what was then the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault. After earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota, and after marrying Jennie Anderson in 1932, he returned to the Braille school as an instructor in 1934. Torger stressed the importance of one's sense of direction and one's hearing in the development of alternative techniques for independent travel. As a result of his work in this area, he was interviewed by National Geographic magazine, certainly not an everyday occurrence.
After retiring from the Braille school in 1962, Torger and Jennie moved to Minneapolis, where he remained active in the alumni association of the Braille school and his church. In addition, he served as president of the Minnesota Organization of the Blind, which later became the NFB of Minnesota.
Torger died of a massive heart attack on October 13, 1988. The death of my father last March should have reminded me how suddenly death can come. I had always intended to explain to Torger that my strong belief in the ability of blind persons to live independent and full lives came from his example. I had intended to tell him that, even with some of our political differences, I had a great deal of respect for him. You could rightfully say, therefore, that I am not writing this entirely as a tribute to him. No, I have a somewhat selfish reason as well. It is my hope that one way or another he will be able to read this on his side of the Jordan.
Mary Main lost her sight gradually over the years. By the time she moved to Connecticut and learned of the National Federation of the Blind she was in her seventies, but her dynamic energy and spirit were such that she rapidly became one of the leaders of the state affiliate. She also became known and loved throughout the entire Federation. She was to deliver an address at the National Convention in 1985 at Louisville, but her writings had appeared in the Braille Monitor prior to that time. In the January, 1982, edition of the Monitor an autobiographical essay of hers was published with these introductory words from the editor:
As her writing shows, she is a staunch Federationist. As her writing also shows, she is warm and witty and human. Sometimes we are asked, 'What are Federationists like?' Some of them are like Mary Main. Here is her essay:
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE AND BLINDNESS
by Mary Main
I was born in Buenos Aires so long ago that I have no memory of the event. My parents were British. My grandfather, my father and, eventually, my husband came to Argentina to work on the British-owned railways. I was educated at the kind of English boarding school that lay more emphasis on deportment than on scholarship. When I asked if I might learn to type I was told that was not a necessary part of the education of a lady. No one suggested that I should go on to college, much less ever have to earn my own living.
When we were first married my husband and I lived in a railway coach on constriction paved road, no shops, no human habitation of any sort within leagues. I was the most inexperienced of housewives, and cooking on a tiny wood stove in a railway coach that was periodically shunted back and forth was not the easiest introduction to domesticity.
Just before Pearl Harbor we moved to Toronto, and from then on my husband traveled extensively, building roads, dams, and so forth. My son was in boarding school and I came to New York. New York was the most stimulating and liberating experience of my life. I took an apartment in the Village and began to write. I was triumphant when I sold my first story to a children's magazine for four dollars, but before long I was selling stories to the slick magazines. I had it made or so I thought.
It was about this time that an ophthalmologist told me I had Retinitis Pigmentosa. I had no idea what that was and it made very little impression on me. He did not mention the word blind, and he assured me I would always see well enough to read. I was far more troubled by the prospect of divorce.
In 1950 Doubledays suggested that I might write a biography of Eva PeronI had written a couple of novels which had deservedly died young. I accepted, having no idea of the difficulties that lay ahead.
When I returned to Buenos Aires I soon realized what I had got myself into. The Perons were at the height of their power and Evita did not permit any inquiry into her past she had published her own idealized version. The interviews I had with people who had known her in her early days had to be conducted in secret. Had it been known they were discussing her they might well have been arrested and perhaps tortured. I, too, ran some risk and I was very glad to get away. The Woman with the Whip EVA PERON was first published in 1952 soon after Evita's early death from cancer. It was written under the pseudonym of Maria Flores for the protection of my friends in Argentina.
I could no longer ignore the fact that my field of vision was diminishing. I went to a number of ophthalmologists who warned me it was not safe for me to be out on the street alone, but did not tell me where I might go for help. One day a taxi rounded a corner in front of me and I walked slap into it. This was the second small accident I had and my doctor called a friend of mine to warn her I might have others if I was not given help. She sent Ed Lever of the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn to see me. He was the first blind person I had ever talked to, and I was much encouraged, for he assured me I could continue to live independently all I needed was a guide dog or a white cane. My failing sight had been a secret I had carefully concealed from my acquaintances. To walk out on the street carrying a white cane was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. However, once I had taken the plunge, my white cane gave me a wonderful sense of freedom. I felt I could go anywhere, and everyone was so kind. Now, when I bumped into strangers, instead of yelling at me they apologized and offered to help. I wallowed in their sympathy.
My euphoria did not last. I was often sorry for myself but I was outraged to find that others might pity me. I think this was the most difficult period in the process of going blind, when I did not know whether to regard myself as sighted or blind. I could still read perfectly well. I was reading manuscripts for The Book of the Month Club. My friend, the one who had sent Ed Lever to me, urged me to go to a school for the blind. I refused, partly because I was afraid I might emerge as apathetic as some of the blind I had seen working at the Lighthouse or the Foundation, but largely, I think, because I didn't want to have anything to do with others who were blind. I felt it would cut me off forever from the sighted world.
In 1960 I bought a house in Province town where I lived for the next fourteen years. Fortunately I lived alone so that I had to do cooking, cleaning, writing, gardening, and all the things I had always done, and gradually I learned to do them without my sight. I had been told by a professional that it would be useless for me to learn Braille at my age, but I decided to learn anyway. Braille and touch typing have turned out to be my most useful tools.
My son and his family were living in Paris and I traveled every year to visit them. My sighted friends were astonished at my independence and told me I was wonderful and I believed them! I still did not know others who were blind.
As my seventieth birthday approached I felt the need to be near my family. My son had returned to this country and when they bought this house in Stamford, I moved into an apartment at the end of the house. I had hoped to take an active part in the community but the house is isolated among the trees and fields, and there is no way of getting anywhere without a car. It was at this point that I had a letter from Howard May (president of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut) suggesting that I might call him if I thought I might be interested in the NFB. I knew nothing of the NFB but at that point I was ready to try anything. Howard's voice was so warm and friendly, but when he told me the nearest chapter was in Danbury my heart sankhow could I get there? He suggested I should call the Truehearts who were members. You'll like them, he said.
In Danbury I met for the first time with a group of blind people many of whom were much more active and independent than I. I realized how little I knew about the blind: I had not suffered from discrimination, and I had never heard of sheltered workshops, and I understood nothing of the discussion. And, anyway, who was this fellow Jernigan? I felt taken down a peg or two and decided the NFB had nothing to offer me, and refused coffee and doughnuts grumpily.
I joined begrudgingly to be sure, but I joined. I joined because I loved the Truehearts. I joined because, for all my surliness, the people in Danbury had made me feel welcome; and, little by little, in this miscellaneous group of people who had nothing in common but their lack of sight, I began to find a comradeship I had found nowhere else. I felt deprived when I could not get to a meeting. I wish we had a chapter in Stamford, I told Howard.
Well, why don't you start one, he said. And that was how the Stamford Area Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut came into being.
Nothing gives a bigger boost to the ego in old age than a little unexpected success. When the musical Evita was first produced in London about three years ago, my book on Evita was republished there in paperback, and has sold remarkably well. The new hardback edition brought out by Dodd Mead here has not done so well, but it did bring a flurry of excitement into my life newspaper and radio interviews, talks, and an appearance on the Charles Kurault Sunday Morning show all of which I very much enjoyed. However, I think what has most enlivened my old age is my membership in the NFB. It has given me so many new friends and so many new interests, and it has taught me so much. For one thing it has taught me how really independent the blind can be.
Among the various channels of communication linking people and divisions of the organized blind movement over the years was an elaborate grapevine of correspondence between rank-and-file members and elected leaders a practice especially encouraged and assiduously cultivated by Kenneth Jernigan through several decades. In fact, Jernigan carried on a massive correspondence, not only with insiders but with outsiders as well: agency officials and program administrators, politicians and professors, public celebrities and ordinary citizens. But he devoted particular care and affectionate attention to the letters (thousands of them each year) from members of the Federation. These came in all varieties of expression and shades of opinion not to mention degrees of coherence and clarity. They also ranged in attitude from warm praise to furious denunciation. An example of the former, typical of countless others, came from a veteran member who wrote in part: Please let me say that I appreciate your leadership in the Monitor, the Federation, and for me personally; for the Federation continues to be one of the three principal influences in my life, along with my family and my church. You were my first teacher in blindness and Federationism, and you have made my life worth living. I feel especially blessed to know you personally and rejoice with all the others with whom you have shared yourself.
On the other hand, there were letters like the following:
To whom it may concern:
In response to Kenneth Jernigan's article about the treatment of blind people on Airlines:
Mr. Jernigan's statement is causing embarrassment to the blind community who are not members of the N.F.B. of the blind.
I have traveled worldwide on 16 different airlines and have always been treated well by all Airlines personnel. When I travel I take a folding cane with me that fits in the pocket on the seat in front of me. Long canes have to be checked with the stewardess.
I resent the threats that Kenneth Jernigan and the N.F.B. is making about disrupting airline service by running out on runways and causing problems in the terminals.
I was given a pillow and blanket on overnight flights for my own comfort not because I have a loose bladder. They have rest rooms on both ends of the plane.
Mr. Jernigan says that he and his members are ready to go to jail if necessary. I hope they do.
If they don't like traveling by plane than they should take a bus.
Jernigan replied as follows:
It seems to me that your letter is a bit intemperate. Do you really believe that anyone was questioning whether there are rest rooms on airplanes? Perhaps you are not familiar with the circumstances surrounding the experiences of many blind persons who travel on planes. If we wish equal treatment with others, surely it is not reasonable to suggest that our only remedy is to stop flying and ride on buses. If you really wish that a number of your fellow blind citizens will be sent to jail, consider the implications of such a harsh and emotional attitude. Perhaps you would like to know why we have taken the stand we have taken, or perhaps you simply do not wish to be bothered with facts or details. In any case we wish you well and hope only the best for you.
More typical of the generality of letters to which Federation leaders like Jernigan were especially intent on responding was the following:
January 2, 1990
Dear Mr. Jernigan:
I saw your community service announcement on one of my cable stations over the Christmas holiday, and thought that maybe you could help my son.
I am writing this letter on behalf of my son, Bob. Bob is a 32-year-old diabetic with many health problems, including blindness. He recently lost his eyesight, and he is having a difficult time. I have tried to make him as comfortable as possible. However, comfort is not the only important thing. Right now, Bob's life consists of eating and sitting in his chair in his room listening to t.v. I know there has to be more in life for Bob. However, we don't even know where to turn.
I would really appreciate any information you may have regarding schools or anything that will be of help to Bob.
January 8, 1990
I have your letter of January 2, 1990, and I will do what I can to be of help. In the first place your son needs some training to know how to function as a blind person. He also needs contact with others who are blind and, particularly, with others who are blind and diabetic. Let me give you some addresses and telephone numbers.
First, let me tell you that you should be in touch with the National Federation of the blind of [name of state]. Therefore, you should contact: [address]. I am sending a copy of your letter and mine to your state president so that he will know about your son's situation.
Also, you should be aware of the Diabetics Division of the National Federation of the Blind. The contact is: Mrs. Karen Mayry, President, Diabetics Division, National Federation of the Blind, 919 Main Street, Suite 15, Rapid City, South Dakota 57701, (605) 342-3885. As with your state president, I am sending a copy of our correspondence to Mrs. Mayry so that she may expect a communication from you or be able to initiate one.
Under separate cover I am sending you and your son material which I think you will find of help. Perhaps Bob has already made contact with the state library for the blind. If he has, he will doubtless have a cassette player which will read four-track slow-speed cassettes. If he has not made this contact, I would suggest that he do it. The address is:.
The literature I am sending is in print and also on cassette. This means that you can read it and that Bob can also read it for himself. Some of the cassettes will be four-track slow-speed, and some will be normal cassette speed on two tracks. The two-track cassettes will play on any cassette recorder. The important thing to keep in mind as Bob starts to deal with his blindness is this: Blindness need not keep an individual from leading a full and productive life. With reasonable training and opportunity a blind person can compete on equal terms with a sighted person. I know this may not sound reasonable or make sense to you at the present time, but keep it in mind as you read the material and make the contacts. As I have said, we will do what we can to be of help.
Exchanging letters with blind correspondents through the years led Jernigan, on a winter day in 1982, to speculate about the patterns into which these missives tended to fall and in particular a new pattern which he discerned in the letters of blind persons during recent years. Here is what he had to say about it:
OF LETTERS AND PATTERNS
by Kenneth Jernigan
It is important to recognize the significance of a particular event, but it is even more important to recognize the significance of the pattern which that event implies. Pattern recognition, in the language of computers and sophisticated systems, is one of the most valuable skills that a person may acquire.
If we apply pattern recognition to events concerning the blind, we find interesting trends. Forty years ago very few blind people were knowledgeable about the laws affecting them (even when such laws existed, and mostly they didn't). Moreover, the blind had been schooled by society to keep their opinions to themselves or not to have any.
Even twenty years ago (or ten), the average blind person throughout the country was not likely to be overly concerned with the implications and subtleties of day-to-day life situations as they affected his or her civil rights and responsibilities. The pattern today is quite different. Literally hundreds and thousands of blind Americans all over the nation are feeling their oats and expressing their opinions.
It is a heady business, this matter of freedom. It leads to all kinds of diversity of opinion: to views that are thoughtful and sound, and sometimes to expressions that are strident and unreasonable. It leads to error, insight, half truth, oversimplification, precision of analysis, hasty conclusions, and well thought out positions.
But the pattern itself (the overall fact of its shape and existence) is wonderfully positive and filled with promise for the future. For the first time in history the blind are truly coming into their own and experiencing self-recognition and fulfillment.
The evidence of this new pattern is everywhere present. It can be seen in the attitudes and behavior of individuals and in the thrust and direction of the local chapters and state affiliates of our movement. It can also be seen in the letters (the hundreds and thousands of them) that cross my desk on a continuing basis. I want to share two of those letters with you. They are typical of what is happening to the blind.
The first of the letters is from Gertrude Ward of Pennsylvania. She is a senior citizen, outspoken and vocal, with opinions on almost everything. And she never hesitates to express her opinions. She has a lifetime of experience, mixed with sincerity and a touch (but only a touch) of acid. She knows what she thinks, and she intends for others to know it, too.
It goes without saying that I think she misunderstands some of my views and some of those of the Federation, but I suspect she would return the compliment and do it with vigor. In fact, I have had numerous sharp exchanges with her, and I hope to have many more. On a number of things I think she is absolutely wrong, and on others I think she doesn't have her facts straight, but I think she is thoroughly sincere and ruggedly honest. Moreover, the fact of her expression and the freedom she feels to do it are the strongest possible indicators of how far we have come as a people and how valuable the NFB has been (and continues to be) as a movement. The criticisms made by Gertrude Ward (even when they are wrong or based on faulty information) are not the insidious manifestations of destructiveness and attempted subversion which we have sometimes witnessed but the growing pains of liberty and full citizenship. More power to her, and to her probings and scoldings and compliments and questions and concerns. They are the healthy ebullience of a vital organization, alive and expanding.
The second letter I want to call to your attention is in the same vein as the first. Unlike the letter from Gertrude Ward, it does not turn inward to criticize the organization, but it demands to be heard and insists upon respect. In effect, it says to anyone who cares to contest it: Yes, I am blind but I have as much right to first-class treatment as you do. You may be sighted or highly educated or rich and powerful, but you stand no taller in today's society than I do. Why? Because I intend to make it that way. I intend to speak for myself and have my rights. I don't demand special treatment, but I do demand equal treatment. The two are not the same. They are sometimes confused, but there is all the difference in the world.
The author of this second letter is William T. Roberts, president of the Ohio Falls Chapter of the NFB of Indiana. Like Gertrude Ward, he reads his Braille Monitor. He knows about rights and appeals and courts and such like. He also knows about responsibility and dignity and human values.
As much as anything else, these two letters tell the story of the value of the National Federation of the Blind the put downs, the organized effort, the self-awareness, the painful struggle to climb the stairs of freedom, the long road which lies ahead, the pride of self-worth, the confidence which comes from the realization of organizational strength, the hope and the pain and the belief, the spirit to venture, and the wonderful feeling of moving ahead to a better tomorrow. This is the National Federation of the Blind. Let our pattern recognition be certain. Let our rememberings and our dreams and our plans be that of a people whose time for a place in the sun has come.
Here are the two letters:
Dunmore, Pennsylvania September 25, 1981
Dear Mr. Jernigan:
It sounds like a who done it, except that it scares me as no fiction could. What does? Your report on the break-ins and the paper riffling, etc. I hope you have taken extra precautions against such things; for while I don't always agree with you, I know you are doing what you think is right according to your knowledge and experience. But I do wish NFB people would stop deliberately antagonizing certain people. Why couldn't Mike Hingson [see Chapter Seven] go along with the airline officials! Then, after he got to his destination, he could have brought charges against them. This way he would not have been harmed. A little discretion does pay. What Mike and other guide dog users cannot understand is that it isn't the blind that are being segregated on planes and in restaurants it is the dogs.
There has been so much opposition to bringing guide dogs into eating places lately that the sighted majority may have a law passed against their use in certain places if the blind don't use more discretion in their use. Besides, dogs are different sizes, and they have different temperaments.
There is no way of predicting how a dog will react to a plane crash if it is injured. I heard that when Gayle Burlingaine died (see article by Harold Bleakley in May, 1981, Braille Monitor), his guide dog wouldn't let anyone take away the corpse. This dog was almost the size of a wolf. I saw the dog once in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Could a dog that size lay under the seat on a plane? If a blind person chooses to use a guide dog, that is his business, but he has no right to force that dog on other people who do not want it. And any blind person who uses an animal for a guide will have to accept special arrangements for the animal. This is not segregation of the blind, but rather the animal for the protection of the public.
They did not refuse Mike Hingson a seat on the plane, but required that he and his dog sit in a certain place. You may win your case against the airline, but it may spur the public on to outlaw the dogs in certain places. The public has the right to protection, too. Some blind people think only of their own comfort.
Regarding blind teachers: It is a shame and a crying disgrace that children are not taught by their parents to respect their teachers, whether they like the teachers or not. On the other hand, children (by nature) respect only a person who has the upper hand. I think an assertive personality is required for a good teacher. You have to let the students know from the beginning who is the boss in the school room. I felt so angry after reading about the way that blind teacher was treated in Pittsburgh (see Braille Monitor, September, 1981) that I would have liked to have thrashed her students within an inch of their lives. That is the only language that brats like that can understand.
The schools will have to crack down on them, or there will be no teachers left, or schools either. It would be a good idea to inspect students at the door of the school for weapons, drugs, etc., and to allow criminally inclined students to be expelled. In other words we need a little more of the old fashioned discipline instead of all this mealy-mouthed permissiveness. Even animals discipline their young. If children know you will discipline them, you seldom have to carry out your threat. My children behaved in school and were never disciplined, because they minded their teachers. No, they were not angels, nor were they hoodlums either.
When I was a small child, my father taught me to print and to do other things before I went to school. My sister, who can see, showed me how to sign my name in long-hand on checks when the need arose, and I have been doing it ever since. But I know a person with sight could do better than I. Not that they do better than I in every case, but they should be able to make their lines meet better, etc.
Since it is not the parent who teaches the child in school, I do not think they should have the right to decide where their child should go to school. Some parents overestimate their child's ability. It must be terrible for a teacher in the public school to be confronted with a mentally retarded child, or one that has been shielded so much that it is unable to cope with dressing, etc., even if the child has a right mind.
When I went blind at the age of five, my parents encouraged me to go ahead and do most things just as I had before, and they showed me how to do new things. I think my father's experience of four years in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, along with his experience as a policeman, gave him confidence in the abilities of the blind. My mother was also encouraging.
There are mothers with sight who are not worthy of the name, so I suppose it follows that some blind mothers are in the same boat. Don't authorities need legal grounds for taking children from their parents? Blindness in itself should not constitute legal grounds. Have you ever noticed that some blind people want to have children but do not want to take care of them. The children are just a symbol of their so-called attempt at normalcy.
Yes, there are all kinds of blind people, and they are not all independent, etc. You make no allowances for them. It is true that with proper training more blind people could be independent, but there will always be some who (for one reason or another) can never reach complete independence. And that is where you and I part company because you do not take this into consideration.
How can a deaf-blind person travel if he cannot communicate? The public as a whole cannot understand sign language, and a blind man cannot read lips. This idea of the deaf-blind traveling alone sounds loony. The hard of hearing blind could travel alone with some help. Some deaf-blind people cannot even talk plain.
As you said, NFB has made mistakes but, need it keep on making the same mistakes? I'm glad you have started giving resolutions at the National Convention more time and thought. I would like you to make copies of this letter and send it to the different chapters. It will do them good. They need to hear another point of view.
P.S. Ask J. Gashel what a gold card signifies in SSI? What cities in this state have chapters?
New Albany, Indiana
September 20, 1981
U.S. Post Office
Dear Mr. Allen:
Since the summer of 1977 your branch of the post office has been disrupting library service to me.
They have refused to bring my books to me, one such time being when I called it to the attention of former post master Elseworth Hartley in the summer of 1977.
I had to insist that he issue a written order to the foreman of letter carriers that all matter addressed to me (under Public Law 89-522) be delivered to my address of 205 Wainwright Drive.
However, when material was subsequently delivered to me the carrier on route #16 swore at me. The same carrier does not now handle route #16.
Once again, in the fall and winter of 1979-80 the Worldwide Church of God (which distributes The World Tomorrow program to hundreds of radio stations, spends thousands of dollars in postage, and also runs a program under Public Law 89-522) reported to me that they were losing so many tapes that they were going to discontinue the program.
I returned what I had on hand to them and explained that some letter carriers and some clerks did not want to handle materials under said law.
Fanning out from the Pasadena, California, post office, with the use of inspectors, they were able to stop the disruption of delivery of their tapes.
Once again, in June of 1981, there was another disruption.
One of your clerks wrote across a magazine subscriber deceased.
A publication of the Davis Publishing Company, The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, was returned by your branch and that started a chain action that resulted in the discontinuing of all library services to this address.
I have assumed in the past that said disruptions were due to some misunderstanding or human error, but due to such repeated practices it is clear to me that this is spite action.
Therefore, I am sending copies of this letter to the Louisville Post Office, to the Cincinnati Post Office, to the Davis Publishing Company, to Congressman Lee Hamilton, to the Committee on Postal Affairs of the House and Senate, to the Librarian Kurt Cylke of the Library of Congress-Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and to the Baltimore, Md., office of the National Federation of the Blind.
I hope that matters can be resolved so as not to wind up in Federal Court, but if not then so be it.
Respectfully yours, William Roberts
Another entry by the redoubtable Gertrude Ward was passed along to Monitor readers later in the same year (November, 1982), with an introductory comment by President Jernigan:
COMMENTS WITH A TANG
by Kenneth Jernigan
I get letters of all kinds from all sorts. Sometimes they tell me how good I am, and sometimes they tell me how good it would be if I were gone long gone. They lecture; they advise; and they preach. They inform; they comfort; and they encourage. I read them all well, almost all (at least, as many as I can); and I try to learn from them.
And then, there is Gertrude Ward. Her letters are in a category all of their own. She scolds me, gives me a tongue-lashing, tells me what I ought to do, and now and again compliments me. But she is never dull, and she is never wishy-washy. She has definite opinions (on almost everything), and she expresses them. She serves as a check and balance a touchstone of reality. She helps me keep perspective and (although my detractors would be shocked at the thought) a touch of humility. If she doesn't like it, she tells you, and you don't have to wonder what she meant.
As you might imagine, we sometimes agree and we very often don't. It really doesn't matter. She is about as genuine and unphony as anybody I know, and that is sufficient even if she gets her facts mixed now and again, or tells me mine are mixed. Be that as it may, here is a letter I got from Gertrude in the middle of the summer:
Dear Mr. Jernigan:
It likely has occurred to you that if all the blind employees quit the sheltered shop in a body, the shop would close. If the shop hired other handicapped people in order to stay open, it would violate its charter as a shop for the blind, and would still eventually be closed by the law. For this reason would it not be cheaper to persuade the blind in a shop that abuses them to quit instead of letting themselves be treated like slaves? Such treatment is degrading, to say the least.
So long as the blind are willing to work under such employers, just that long will they be slaves. Even if a few blind people did not follow the majority out of the shop, the shop still could not remain open. In other words, take away their lackeys who earn their bread for them. I suggest you find one shop on which to try out this experiment. Parasites will never change until you deprive them of their prey.
NFB might do better to help blind people find jobs which are easier to obtain first. Then, the faster blind people have jobs, the more they can finance NFB in its fight to obtain better jobs for all of the blind. Let's stop arguing with pig-headed professionals and instead hit them where it hurts right in their breadbaskets.
Be sure to tell us in the Braille Monitor what the Appropriations Committee said about how the National Library Service has wasted the money that should have been spent on Braille books. Tell NLS we will be double damned if we are going to put up with such waste and deprivation any longer.
Please discuss all of this with the other NFB officers and leaders. I hope you and they will agree to try out my suggestion. NFB must try different methods for bringing certain people to heel.
A Birth of Freedom
It has often been remarked, wrote the Monitor editor in the summer of 1984, that the National Federation of the Blind is not so much an organization as a people's movement a cross section of the blind population of America, working together and helping each other. The old, the young; the rich, the poor; the employed, the jobless; the educated, and the unlettered participate. Our conventions know the joys and sorrows of the everyday events of human life.
On Saturday afternoon, July 7, we had a death in the convention hall. Sam and Gertrude Sitt of Florida have been Federationists and have attended the conventions for many years. Gertrude was seriously ill, but she urgently wanted to attend the Phoenix convention. She came to the sessions and participated as she could. Late Saturday afternoon (just as the convention was drawing to a close) Gertrude went as she would have wanted to do, quietly falling to sleep at the end of a wonderful experience. Sam bore his grief with quiet self-composure, and his fellow Federationists rallied to him for support.
The Monitor editor continued: There was also a birth at the convention. Joanne Fernandes, the energetic and intrepid president of the NFB of Louisiana, was determined to come to the convention. Her baby was past due, but the convention is the convention and Joanne is a Federationist. At about one o'clock on Wednesday morning, Joanne Fernandes gave birth to Jennica Shanti. (Shanti, incidentally, means peace in Hindustani.) At the Roll Call of States (less than nine hours later) Louisiana was called, and Joanne Fernandes stood up to answer. The audience gave her a roaring ovation. When President Jernigan asked her who would serve on the Nominating Committee from Louisiana that evening, Joanne replied in a matter-of-fact tone: `I will.' And she did. She worked through the remainder of the convention; and as of this writing, mother and baby are doing well.
A Federationist in Action
In the year 1980 the NFB received a donation that was significant less for its size than for the story it carried with it. Kenneth Jernigan made note of the contribution and its underlying message in a brief article for the Monitor, which bore the heading Gwen WilliamsA Dedicated Federationist and a Fighter for the Cause. Here is what he wrote:
Recently Steve Benson, the able president of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, sent me a letter, along with a check for $500 from a large corporation. The contribution was secured through the efforts of Gwendolyn Williams, one of our Illinois members. She has neither received nor sought public recognition through the years, but she has worked and lived her Federationism on a daily basis.
The corporate president who sent the check said: It is with pleasure that we are making this contribution of $500 to your organization which indeed does worthwhile work.
I became knowledgeable about the work of your organization through Miss Gwen Williams, who I think is a superb representative of your organization as well as a very unusual woman.
Through our gift, we are not only helping the National Federation of the Blind, we are honoring Miss Williams's outstanding efforts.
Steven Benson wrote to me: Gwendolyn Williams is ninety years old, but her spirit and her devotion to the philosophy and work of the NFB have no measure in time. She has been, since 1968, one of our strongest and most loyal members. When we picketed the NAC meeting in November, 1978, she was on the line with all the rest of us. She is, indeed, as close to being a front line soldier as anybody can be. The enclosed check is but one small indication of the work she does for us in Illinois and for the organization as a whole. She is a very special lady, a Federationist.
I add my tribute to those of Steve Benson and the corporate executive. As long as we have people like Gwen Williams (people who are willing to work day after day without special recognition, who will raise money for the organization, who will picket NAC, and who will give freely of their spirit and devotion), the Federation will survive and prosper. Gwen, I salute you. The entire movement salutes you. We are stronger and better because you are one of us, and we will keep faith together as we work together toward the achievement of our ideals of true equality and first-class citizenship for the blind.
Wrestling with a Problem
On Friday, April 14, 1989, a crucial event occurred in the lives of the blind of this country. So said Kenneth Jernigan following the action by the board of the Michigan Commission for the Blind terminating the purchase of services from any organization or agency accredited by the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). The force behind this significant move was the Commission's dynamic vice chairman Allen Harris, who was also the president of the NFB of Michigan. The organized blind of the state had long been wrestling with the problem posed by the contradiction between NAC's professed commitment to high standards and its eagerness to grant accreditation to sheltered workshops and other agencies engaged in exploiting blind clients and consumers. Under Allen Harris's leadership the blind of Michigan wrestled with NAC and won which surprised no one who knew Harris as a champion wrestler in his student days and a winning coach of the sport in his later teaching career.
That Harris's mental toughness matched his physical strength was made evident at a meeting of NAC sympathizers seeking to overturn the action of the Commission for the Blind. As Kenneth Jernigan (himself a winning wrestler in his youth and a fighter all of his life) wrote in summarizing the meeting: At one point in the discussion Mr. Harris pointed to the Florida School for the Blind and Deaf as an example of NAC's poor performance. Grant Mack (a leader of the American Council of the Blind) responded by saying that the National Federation of the Blind expects perfection and that this is not reasonable. Referring to the deaths which have been occurring at the Florida School, Mr. Mack said something to this effect: `Mistakes are made everywhere. Gordon, does anyone ever die at your hospital?' Mr. Harris's response seems particularly apt: We expect people to die in hospitals, but we don't expect our children to die at school except perhaps in extremely isolated cases. Certainly we don't expect it to happen on a continuing basis and because of mistakes.
Harris had pinned his man down and clearly won the match on points.
Movement Toward the Center
In the decade of the eighties, after years of discussion and internal debate, the National Federation of the Blind embarked upon an ambitious program of organizing and developing model training centers in a number of states in order to fill a vacuum and provide much needed training for the blind and also in order to establish once again model programs to serve as standard-setters in the field. These centers, which subsequently grew up in four states, took as their own model the enormously successful program of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, which had been administered by Kenneth Jernigan for twenty years, from 1958 to 1978. Taking the lead in translating Federation philosophy into rehabilitation practice were four national leaders of unusual resourcefulness and drive: Joanne Fernandes in Louisiana; Joyce Scanlan in Minnesota; Diane McGeorge in Colorado; and Fred Schroeder in New Mexico.
One of the highlights of the 1988 NFB convention in Chicago was a joint presentation of the accomplishments of the four state training centers. Following is a partial version of the Monitor's report on that event (January, 1989), beginning with remarks by Kenneth Jernigan as chairman of the panel:
STATE TRAINING CENTERS AND THE ORGANIZED BLIND MOVEMENT
This is an item which is of great concern to us. The National Federation of the Blind is not an agency, governmental or private. It is, as you know, an organization of the blind themselves. Although we have many activities, our prime purpose must never be blurred. That purpose is to serve as a vehicle for collective action. It is to serve, not as a governmental agency, but as a watchdog to see that those agencies do what they are supposed to do and also, it is a means by which we as blind persons can come together to discuss our problems, and then find a way to do something about those problems.
A number of years ago, as you know, we discussed whether or not, in view of the ineffective training being done by many of the governmental agencies, we should set up some pilot programs of our own to perform this training, so that blind persons might have an opportunity and so that we could also point to those model programs. We have a number of them now in operation in the country, and I want to talk to you a little about them and then introduce the panel members. We want to talk about State Centers and the Organized Blind Movement Possibilities, Problems, and Challenges.
This is a panel discussion, and we will deal with the different centers around the country which now have the kind of philosophy we are talking about. You can tell from the results how well this philosophy works. You have heard before from the Louisiana Center. This center has now operated long enough to have a track record of success. The capable director of that center is also the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana. She is Joanne Fernandes.
Joanne Fernandes: The Louisiana Center for the Blind gives to each of its students at their graduation party a plaque, and on the bottom of that plaque it says, Together We Are Changing What it Means to be Blind. All of our students know that together means every one of you. It means what has been done since 1940. It means the beliefs, the goals, and the dreams of each of you. They know that when they are in the Center, that it's not just the staff, and it's not just the other students or the former students or the Louisiana affiliate. They know that it is the entire National Federation of the Blind. They know that what they accomplish is in your hopes, your beliefs, and your dreams. When they leave the Louisiana Center for the Blind, they know that there is a whole structure in the form of the National Federation of the Blind. And most importantly, they know that they must give back to that structure. They must give back to the National Federation of the Blind and pass on the dreams and the beliefs and the opportunities that they have received at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
The Louisiana Center for the Blind was started on October 1, 1985. In just two and a half years we have served eighty-four students. We now own our own classroom building and our own apartment complex, which the students live in. We have students now coming to us not only from Louisiana but from seven other states. So what do we do at the Louisiana Center for the Blind?
We teach cane travel, typing, Braille, home economics the usual courses that are taught in rehabilitation centers. But beyond all that, we teach genuine beliefs and hopes and high expectations and confidence to our students. We teach them that they truly can change what it means to be blind.
One of the traditions that we have at the Louisiana Center for the Blind is our bell of freedom. We have a big old school bell (a hand-rung school bell) that sits up in our Braille room. Throughout our short history, whenever a student calls us with some success or some good news, when something very important happens that affects all of us as blind people, we ring the bell of freedom. In the past few months we have rung the bell for George, who called up and said, I got my first check today from the naval base. We rang the bell when Maria said, I'm twenty-two years old, but this is the first time I went out and bought a dress for myself.
We rang the bell when John, our young lawyer, came running in. He had graduated from the program: I haven't called my parents yet. I haven't told my girlfriend yet. I am telling you first. I just got a job as a lawyer.
We rang the bell after two trips down to the state legislature to work on the Braille law. We rang the bell when we found that the Braille law indeed got passed. We rang the bell for Lillian, who received her GED, and for the many other students who received their GEDs. We rang the bell when Nancy and John, two of our former students, got married. We rang the bell when Lina and Jimmy had their first baby. We rang the bell for our first play on opening night. We rang our bell when the first crop came in from our garden when we had our first produce as blind people from our very own garden. We rang the bell when all of our nervous and scared students got back from Mardi Gras, an event that they had been dreading for weeks. They got through the crowds. They got through the mobs and proved to themselves inside that they could be successful, capable students.
We rang the bell when Maria was able to cross Bonner Street, a street which she was scared to death to cross with a cane. We rang the bell when a college student (one of our graduates) called in and said, Hey, I passed a course, and I got a 3.0 average this semester.
We rang the bell when Patty passed her Bar Exam. She is now working as a public defender in Shreveport. We rang the bell when Barry began managing three restaurants in Shreveport, when A.J. got his vending stand, when Joie got his factory job working for Boeing Aircraft, when Connie got a job as a nurse, and when Yvonda successfully finished business school.
We rang our bell when our students successfully prepared and served a meal for forty. We are about ready to ring it again. One of our students is ready to go back to being an elementary school teacher, and another back to being a scientist at Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico. We have another student, who is about ready to graduate and go into child care.
Johnnie Burns, one of our former students, got herself a job teaching blind kids. We now have one of her students, Kim, in our program successfully learning and advancing, too. She is our first grandchild. We ring the bell when our students call up and say, Hey, I was elected president of our local chapter, or vice president, or I just joined my local chapter. We rang the bell when Zach and Sheena said, We got Pennsylvania and New Jersey to send us to you. We want good rehabilitation training. We rang the bell when Chris lit her first fire on a camping trip.
Together we are all ringing the bell of freedom and together we are changing what it means to be blind. Thank you.
Dr. Jernigan: Once, long ago in Iowa, Joanne was my student and, Joanne, you have gone on to do what, in my dreams, I would have hoped that you could and would do. We have said in this organization: First you have to say a thing so that you can believe it, and then you have to believe in it before it can come true. That's part of what a proper training program for the blind is about. And one thing more, the program you have heard about in Louisiana and the others you will hear about, have at least this difference from the governmental agencies. If Joanne were the director of one of those programs, she would be part of a governmental agency, insulated by civil service; and if she didn't do a good job and you didn't like it there wouldn't be anything you could do about it except write memos back and forth. As it is, she is president of a democratic organization of the blind. If she doesn't do what the blind of the state like, they will unelect her, and that's the way it ought to be.
Let me now introduce to you the director of the second of these centers. This is BLIND, Incorporated. Joyce Scanlan will tell you about it. Joyce Scanlan is the director of BLIND, Incorporated. She is, as you know, also the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. The NFB of Minnesota has long and well represented the interests of the blind of that state, and now the Federation in the state is doing training. But keep in mind that the prime purpose of the NFB of Louisiana or the NFB of Minnesota is not to run a training program. That's important, but the prime purpose is to serve as a vehicle by which the blind of these states themselves can speak with their own voice. Seen in that context, the centers in Louisiana, Minnesota, and the other places you will hear about, are tremendous boosts to the self-help of blind people. We are not going to rest in this Federation until each and every blind person in the United States has a chance to work to his or her full potential and to earn his or her own way rather than live at somebody else's whim, and on public assistance. Here is Joyce Scanlan.
Joyce Scanlan: Thank you, Dr. Jernigan. These are very exciting times for blind people across the country, and certainly in Minnesota. Blind people for a long time in Minnesota have wanted an orientation program which would show its belief in blind people, and that is why BLIND, Incorporated, came about. BLIND is an acronym for Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions. We have added a new dimension to our programs in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. We are now able to provide orientation to blindness through training of the kind that Joanne Fernandes has just described as going on in Louisiana.
Let me tell you a little bit of how we determined the name of our program. The name BLIND was selected before we decided what words the acronym would mean. The reason for that was that in our state, and I'm sure it's true all over the country, the primary orientation program for the blind (the Minneapolis Society for the Blind) with which everyone here is very familiar, seemed to pride itself on avoiding the word blind and anything to do with blindness. They do low vision aids, and they talk about vision handicaps and visual impairment and low vision, and all kinds of things like that, but they don't want to deal with blindness. They don't want to teach Braille. They don't want to teach cane travel. They really want to skirt the whole issue. We decided that we want to have blindness right up front, so we called our program BLIND. Then we decided that it would mean Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions because we who are blind may not see visually, but we certainly have all kinds of other ways of learning. We get information through other senses. We also felt that our program had a new dimension in that we would deal openly and straightforwardly with the matter of attitudes towards blindness and understanding what blindness means and, therefore, a new dimension. This decision for Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions was made by three people, Judy Sanders, Peggy Chong, and me, as we were riding on an airplane to New York at the very end of 1986 to attend a NAC demonstration. I think that's a very appropriate situation for the making of such a momentous decision.
BLIND, Incorporated, was incorporated in 1986 on the very last days of 1987 was a very busy year for us. We had to seek funding for our program from private as well as public sources, resulting in an establishment grant from State Services for the Blind, which covers about sixty-seven percent of our budget, with the remaining portion covered by private sources. We had to find locations for our program. We didn't have an apartment building for our students. We didn't have a center. We had to get those locations. We had to hire a staff.
On January 4, 1988 (the most exciting time for all of us), we opened our doors with staff training, on the very coldest day of the year. Just one week later, January 11, we opened our doors for two very hardy, tough, and tenacious students. It took us six weeks to have five students, and we still have five students (although they are not the same five), but all of our students are at this convention. All of our staff are at this convention as well.
Our early beginnings as a center were in a two-bedroom apartment. We moved from there to a one-bedroom apartment. There was a time when we had a home management class, a typing class, a Braille class, and a travel lesson all going on in one room. We were crowded, and sometimes we were a little on top of each other. But we had a dream, and we had a lot of hope.
Ours is an experiential program in which students learn through real live, normal, experiences. Beginning in January, we started by attending events surrounding the Martin Luther King holiday. We had shopping excursions to buy boots and gloves for the winter. We had dinners out. We had a trip, rather an effort, to go to St. Cloud one night for a spaghetti dinner, but I can tell you that the students didn't quite make it. The van ended up tipped over in the ditch, and the students ended up having dinner at Fudruckers. I said to one of the students, Was that one of the more exciting or harrowing events you have ever had?
And she said, Oh, no. We had a snowball fight. We've attended movies. We have gone strawberry picking. We've had a picnic. We've had many activities, I'm sure, of which I will never be told.
We teach the usual classes. The students go from the apartments down to the Center on the bus. Our students start right out with the bus on the very first day. We learn by doing, as we are at this convention. Learning to deal with crowds, learning to deal with blind people, a couple of thousand strong, learning to be in new surroundings without being upset, staying in a hotel, eating out, meeting new people, reading all kinds of agendas and other materials in Braille all those are very important learning experiences.
I want to finish by saying just one more thing. I'm sure that many of you have a question as to how we could reconcile the service provider and the advocacy role that we play, and that would be a long discussion. Since I don't have time to undertake that, I just want to say that (consider the alternatives for us) this is the way it has to be done. Therefore, I feel that we are doing the right thing and that we can do it very successfully as long as we keep our perspective and our priorities in the organized blind movement as they have been our caring for each other, and our love for one another. Thank you.
Dr. Jernigan: The way we reconcile that role, Joyce, is simple. If you do not please the blind of your state, by and large (not one individual person on one individual day but most of the blind most of the time), the blind of the state will have a new president. Now, of course, that wouldn't have anything to do with whether you would be the director of the center immediately, but it probably would over a very short time. So I think we can reconcile the roles without difficulty.
If our organization stands for anything, it stands for the concept that it is respectable to be blind and also that we don't want to be taken care of, but that we want to take care of ourselves. It stands for the fact that we want to be realistic about what we can do, but we don't want someone else with his or her prejudice telling us what realism is. You will find in the July Monitor that the lead article has to do with a court case in which a guy sued the Federal Department of Education for not accommodating him reasonably. He argued in the court proceedings that it was not reasonable to expect a blind person to do research unless each and every item was in Braille. He argued that it was not reasonable unless he could have bought for him close to $100,000 worth of equipment. Never mind that blind people all over this country are doing research all of the time and don't have their material in Braille. The government's answer was interesting. They said that they had certainly accommodated him reasonably. They had allowed him to get by (well, they didn't say get by). They had accommodated him by permitting him to do only half the number of letters (now, listen to this) that they expected of their normal employees twelve letters a week. They only expected six of him. I keep wondering what will happen to the next blind guy who goes in to apply for a job there. That's not reasonable accommodation, and it's not what we are hunting. What we are hunting is a chance to compete on equal terms, and we can cut it on equal terms with others. If we can't, we're not asking for the job, but we are also not asking for someone to determine for us that we can't have a shot at it.
Here is the next of our centers, the Colorado Center for the Blind. Diane McGeorge is the director of that center, and the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. Diane, tell us about the Colorado Center for the Blind.
Diane McGeorge: Thank you, Dr. Jernigan. In 1985 the NFB of Colorado took a bill to the legislature. That bill would have established the Colorado Center for the Blind had we got the funding. However, the bill didn't pass. We gave then to Joanne Fernandes all of the materials that we had accumulated to prepare the bill. She took it to the governor of Louisiana, and she got it passed and we were delighted. We were proud that the NFB had a center up and running in the country, but now it's our time in the sun and we're really proud. We didn't go away and sulk, and we didn't go away and cry and feel bad. What we did was to go away and put together some proposals and put together a little money from here and there and from private fund raising particularly, a man named Mayer Blinder from the Blinder Robinson Company. We got a little bit of money from this grant, and from that grant and we got the money to start. We opened on January 4 of this year, so we have been up and running for six months.
We have all of our students here today, and I'm going to give you a chance to meet each one of them. I've asked them to be brief. We have our staff here, and I want to introduce them to you. Duncan Larsen is our cane travel teacher; Tom Anderson is our communications teacher; Sheryl Law is our daily living skills and computer teacher; Angie Wood is our clerical help; and we've got the greatest staff you can have anywhere. I'll give you a little background on them. But I'm going to let them tell you about our program. Let me just quickly say to you that during the first week (on the first day we opened, on Monday, January 4) it was fifteen below zero, and it stayed that way for about five weeks. We had two feet of snow on the ground, but the students came on a bus. They did grocery shopping on the first day. They prepared their lists in Braille, made their own grocery lists. We all went to the store on the bus. The other things we did during the first week were to expand on independent travel, and at the end of the first week our students (by themselves) prepared, planned, and served a sit-down dinner for thirty-five people.
Somebody said What are you going to do for an encore? For an encore we painted one of the rooms in our center. We couldn't afford to have it done by a professional, so we did it ourselves. We thought it was a great opportunity for our students to learn that you can paint as a blind person. Does that mean that we want them to go out and become painters? I don't care I just want them to go out and get jobs and they will. But painting was an excellent lesson in learning what YOU really can do as a blind person. We use sleep shades in all of our training. All center activities (all of them) are done with sleep shades.
You hear about blind and visually impaired. There are very few totally blind people. We don't use the sleep shades so that the students can pretend and find out what it is like to be blind. It's to deal with blindness and how you really feel about yourself. For an encore, besides painting, we went to the Washington Seminar all of us. We have visited a lot of schools and churches and have spoken. We helped build a float and marched in a parade, but I guess you might say that the tops of all of that is when we started a technical rock climbing class. And I wouldn't be surprised if you hear about that from the students. All of the students and the staff participated in this, and we are talking about real live rock climbing, where you use the ropes and the harnesses. We had a full course of instruction, and when I climbed my first one hundred foot rock, I was proud and I think all of our students were too. It's an interesting feeling when you are learning to rappel off of the rock and you are about one hundred feet in the air, and your instructor says, Now, all you do is step backward and lean back.
We have a great program. We challenge our students. Some of our students have called it boot camp for the blind, and I think that is fairly appropriate. I think one of the most important incidents (and I'm going to tell you quickly because I want you to hear from the students) is this: The students had been in the program for about two and a half weeks, and they were going home from the Center on the bus. The bus driver said, All you blind people will have to sit down. The bus was crowded, and they were standing. All of you blind people will have to sit down because the bus won't move until you do. Our students did not sit down.
To walk with pride, to live with dignity, to participate in the community, and to know that through the collective action of the NFB you can give to others that is the only way to live your life, and I am thinking we are teaching all of that and living all of that at the Colorado Center. Thank you very much.
Dr. Jernigan: Now I want to move directly to the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Fred Schroeder is the director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, and he is also, of course, on our National Board. He has experienced discrimination because he was blind. Even though he had all the credentials required and could have been certified, a group presumed to say that he wasn't qualified to teach travel because he was blind. Fred Schroeder knows what it is to be blind; he knows what it is to face discrimination; but he also knows how to train and teach. Here is Fred Schroeder, the director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind.
Fred Schroeder: Thank you very much Dr. Jernigan. One of the principles that we have been taught in this organization is that, given proper training and opportunity, we as blind people can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. We have known this for many years. Back in the early 1970s Pauline Gomez, a leader of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico, knew that the blind of our state needed training. Blind people didn't have access to orientation and mobility training or Braille or any of the other skills that we need to be competitive, and she and others went to the legislature and had a bill passed that created our orientation center. But that center was placed under the rehabilitation agency, and although the structure then existed, the attitude wasn't right. The attitude that we needed (the attitude that promoted belief in ourselves, the attitude that encouraged us as blind people to go on and do more with our lives) wasn't there. The agency was established. The center was built. It opened its doors, but blind people weren't getting the kind of training that let them go out and become productive citizens. In 1986, the New Mexico Commission for the Blind was established. We are now a separate agency with a three-member board. The board is appointed by the governor. Therefore, if the board doesn't do its job, if it hires a director that isn't working in the best interest of the blind, the board can be replaced. It can be got at easily. We can go to the governor and say, The board isn't doing its job, and the agency isn't doing what it should to make us productive. I am proud to tell you that in the audience today is the chairman of our board. He is a blind person himself, Mr. Arthur Schreiber. He is the vice president and general manager of the largest radio station in New Mexico, and with his support (and the support of the legislature and governor and blind people throughout the state) we are building an agency that will do right by the blind and assist us in getting the training we need to be productive.
When we took over the agency two years ago, a number of things were said about us. Let me first tell you one. The students were told that I had been hired, and that I was a radical. They were told that I was going to come in and do bad things to them. The first thing that I was going to do was to put blindfolds on their faces, and they wouldn't be able to see. That would be frightening and dangerous, and they would get hurt. They were told that I was mostly a lunatic and that I was going to do this to them. So the students, not knowing better, got together and agreed that on July 1, when I came along and made them blindfold themselves, they would all walk out and how would I like that? So, July 1 came and went, and I didn't say anything about sleep shades. I came around and talked to people and got to know them. Finally, people said, Aren't you going to make us wear sleep shades?
I replied, No, but if you ask me if it is a good idea, I believe it is and I will tell you why. And so it went on like that. I talked to people about sleep shades, and in the fall they got with me again and kept pressing me on it. Aren't you going to make us use sleep shades?
And I said, No, probably not. If I do, it will do you more harm than good. If you want to know why I think you should do it, I'll tell you, but I'm not going to make you do it. If you do it with the wrong attitude, it will hurt you, not help you.
And so, in January at a state board meeting, the teachers kind of got me and pressed me even harder as to when I was going to do this. Finally they asked why I wasn't going to do this if it was such a good idea. So I said, Look, you guys are the teachers. Go back, and if you think it's a good idea, your students will listen to you. They have confidence in you.
Yes, they said, but we need a policy.
No, I said, I'm not ready to make a policy on it. Well, the administrator of that center retired, and we were looking for someone with the right attitudes, who could lead the center and lead it right, and I found Dick Davis of Iowa. Dick had been trained by Dr. Jernigan, and he'd grown up in the Federation tradition. He understood what rehabilitation services should be. I hired Dick, and during his first week on the job the staff came to him and absolutely demanded of him that he institute a policy requiring sleep shade training. Dick got all of the students together, and they talked about it. He finally had the students vote on it. We now have a policy that says you wear sleep shades in our orientation center. But we don't legislate good attitudes, and we don't beat people into having good attitudes. Rather, we lead them into good attitudes, and that is what we're trying to get done.
There used to be a policy that said you weren't allowed to carry canes inside the building. It strikes me that is against our state's white cane law, but that was the policy because it was thought that people would trip each other and it would be a problem. So there was a cane rack. I believe there is still a cane rack, but it probably has an inch of dust on it, because people now carry canes in the center.
Many other changes have taken place in the twenty-four months. A year ago we were looking for a new travel teacher and we found Sharon Duffy. Sharon was a blind person who had been teaching travel at the Guild for the Blind in Chicago, and it seemed to me that if you could teach cane travel in Chicago, you could probably teach it in Alamogordo, New Mexico. And so now, blind people are getting the kind of cane travel training they should be getting, and they are getting it under sleep shades. They are getting the right attitudes.
We've started many new programs to help build confidence and help people realize that they can be normal, fully participating citizens. We've instituted an industrial arts program. We have hired a new person by the name of Joseph Pattison, and he is undergoing sleep shade training right now. He is a sighted man. All new staff at the New Mexico Commission for the Blind undergo sleep shade training. Joseph Pattison is with us this week. By the way, he is wearing an NFB pin on his lapel. We will soon have a wood shop program. We decided that we want people to get out and participate in the community and do new things, and so we have a dormitory and our dormitory serves meals, and we thought that on Friday night people shouldn't sit around the house. And so, Friday night, we don't serve dinner. On Friday night you have a choice. You can go out and find something to eat around the area, or you can get hungry. We found that mostly people don't want to be hungry. They go out and have dinner. They are getting out and finding new restaurants. Now on Saturdays people don't sit around and watch television. They get out and walk. We have a mall (the Alamogordo Mall), which is three and one-half miles away from our center, and we have students walking down there not the least of whom is a gentleman who is seventy-nine years old.
Mr. Chairman, that is what I want to bring to you about our center. We are promoting the right attitudes about blindness, and with the type of training we are trying to make available, we believe that blind people can go off and participate in society on terms of equality. Thank you.
Dr. Jernigan: We can have these four centers on the platform with pride, and I think it answers the question which some of us had problems with for a while. Newly blinded people would contact me and say, Where can I go for training? I couldn't honestly send them anywhere that I knew in the country that gave decent training. I know that the federal government appropriates over a billion dollars each year for rehabilitation, but we couldn't find anywhere to send blind people wanting training. We can now. As you know, I ran a rehabilitation center, or directed it, for some time, and I can tell you something. It was symbolized by an annual ritual. We had a fireplace at the Iowa Center, and each year when it got to be close to winter the students would repeatedly say, We have a fireplace, and wood needs to be cut. Maybe we should go wood cutting. I would deliberately postpone the wood cutting until the snow was deep and it was cold and the deeper the snow the better. We could have got somebody to give us the wood, and we could also undoubtedly have got a chain saw to use in cutting it. We didn't. We got two-person crosscut saws and single-person buck saws, and on the coldest, snowiest day you could find, we went out and cut wood. Let me tell you something. Some of the people who came to us (especially, the newly blinded) felt sorry for themselves and down. Put a person on the end of a crosscut saw for a day, and by nighttime that person will not feel sorry for himself or herself. It doesn't happen. Moreover, the person will not come back to the center to worry about blindness. He or she will come back to sleep.
The National Federation of the Blind means many things. It means our scholarship program. It means the training centers that we have helped to develop. It means our Job Opportunities for the Blind program. It means the blind who are working in sheltered shops. It means the blind persons working in vending locations. It means those who are employed in professions (law, teaching, and the ministry). It means the members of this organization who are out trying to do for themselves, and it also means a number of people who are unemployed and who have not been able to find opportunities because of the attitudes of society. Above all, it means that we are truly changing what it means to be blind.
One of the most energetic and effective leaders of the Federation during the 1980s was Karen Mayry of South Dakota. When she became president of the state affiliate in the late seventies, Federationism in South Dakota was weak and struggling but that changed almost immediately. Mayry, who was not only diabetic but had also received a kidney transplant, was second to none in dedication, capability, and energy.
In 1985 she spearheaded the establishment of the Diabetics Division of the National Federation of the Blind, which rapidly became one of the rallying points of the movement. By 1990 the Division's newsletter (titled The Voice of the Diabetic) was being circulated in print and on cassette throughout the nation. Thirty-five thousand copies were being sent on a quarterly basis to members, hospitals, ophthalmologists, public officials, and interested segments of the general public.
In 1984 at the National Federation's convention banquet in Phoenix, Arizona, Mayry was honored for her contributions to the betterment of the lives of the blind. James Omvig, who presented the award, said in part:
It is difficult to find a Federationist who has demonstrated more public spirit, more zeal for the cause, or more unselfish dedication to this movement than tonight's recipient. Both in the movement and out this person is a leader with capacity, a citizen with conviction, and a fighter with determination.
Tonight's recipient first joined the Federation in 1975, and hard work and love paid off with immediate recognition and selection for leadership. By 1977 she was elected to a local chapter presidency and became the state affiliate's president in 1978. She continues in that position today. Since that time, this affiliate has grown tremendously both in numbers and effectiveness. For example, in the past two legislative sessions alone this affiliate has been able to secure the passage of state laws prohibiting discrimination against the blind in employment and in the sale of insurance. This hard-working president also serves on the boards of both the state library for the blind and the state school for the blind. She has received several special governor's citations, and has been one of our most successful membership recruiters.
My brothers and sisters of the National Federation of the Blind, it is a privilege of a very special order for me to present the 1984 Jacobus tenBroek Award to this front-line soldier in the movement, to our distinguished colleague and our friend, Karen Mayry.
In her response Mayry said in part:
Federationism is my life. I live it every minute of every day. I have to thank Eric Smith and Sharon Monthei Duffy, who found me in South Dakota and taught me that other people thought the same as I thought and that state agencies were not going to keep us down. We have been working hard together all of us; and I love every one of you.
From time to time in the seventies and eighties the National Federation of the Blind presented awards of recognition to those who were considered to have made outstanding contributions to the betterment of the lives of the blind. The Newel Perry Award was given to people outside of the movement, and the Jacobus tenBroek Award was presented to Federation members. These awards were not given on an annual basis but only when merit indicated. Indeed, It was unusual for either award to be given in consecutive years, but 1988 and 1989 were exceptions.
The recipient of the 1988 Jacobus tenBroek Award was Jacquilyn Billey, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut. The recipient in 1989 was Hazel Staley, president of the National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina. Both Billey and Staley were women of remarkable strength and character. Each had built a strong Federation affiliate in her state, and each had conducted extensive campaigns to recruit members to the movement.
Steve Benson, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois and chairman of the Jacobus tenBroek Award Committee, said in his 1988 presentation:
The recipient of this year's award must (as Dr. Jacobus tenBroek did) extend himself or herself beyond the routine and do those things that in the long haul make a significant difference in the lives of blind people. Beyond that, the recipient of this award must love his or her fellow blind people. The Jacobus tenBroek Award Committee for 1988 has selected a person who meets these standards. This year's recipient is a leader a person who has earned national respect. This person has worked hard to carry our message to the public and to blind people. The 1988 recipient has been involved in the growth and development of local chapters and state affiliates all across the nation. Her (it is a woman) sensitivity, patience, quick wit, and aptness of thought are extraordinary.
She is one of us who was recruited in the 1970s. She takes seriously what she does within and for the NFB. She knows that what happens to blind people in California affects blind people in Louisiana, Minnesota, Florida, and Maine. Tonight's recipient of the Jacobus tenBroek Award sees her work in the Federation with a national perspective. I am speaking about a woman whose background is in education, vocationally, and avocationally. College students acclaim her. State presidents revere her. Members cite her as an example of what a Federationist should aspire to become. The Jacobus tenBroek Award Committee for 1988 has selected as this year's award recipient a person who lives east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon Line whose spirit and work on behalf of all of us transcend political and geographical boundaries.
Tonight I am pleased and privileged to present the 1988 Jacobus tenBroek Award to Jacquilyn Billey, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut.
In his 1989 presentation Benson said:
It is unusual for this award to be presented in two successive years. However, the committee determined that one individual is so extraordinary that the award should be presented again this year. Our winner has extended herself far beyond the expected to change what it means to be blind. She has built and strengthened chapters, worked to improve educational opportunities for blind children, and begun to reshape the rehabilitation program in her state. A resident of one of the thirteen original states, she exhibits the resilience and determination of the hearty frontier stock from which she comes. Over the past twenty years she has carried the torch of freedom high, in the manner and spirit of Dr. tenBroek. She finds strength in our movement and in her God. Her favorite Biblical verse is, I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. It gives me great pleasure and genuine honor to present the 1989 Jacobus tenBroek Award to my colleague in the movement, Hazel Staley.
In her response Staley said: Ever since Don Capps recruited me twenty years ago, the Federation's philosophy and its programs and activities have been top priority with me, and they will continue to be top priority as long as God lets me live.
As the message of Federationism spread through the blind community and reached out to the general public, more and more members of the movement began to find positions of leadership in civic and political affairs. Peggy Pinder worked as an assistant county prosecutor, ran for state senate, and later served on the city council in her home community. Catherine Horn Randall, one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, was elected alderman in Jacksonville. And there were others.
One of the most dynamic of these was Homer Page, a professor in the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Page was never content to limit his activities to the classroom. He was interested in politics and people. He was first elected to the Boulder City Council and then to the office of deputy mayor. After that he successfully ran for commissioner; and as the decade of the eighties drew to a close, he was contemplating possible campaigns for state or national office. It was with a mood of enthusiasm and high good humor that Dr. Page spoke at the 1989 NFB convention when it met in Denver, the capital of his home state of Colorado. He talked about his experience in political life and his relationship with the Federation and its members:
THE BLIND IN ELECTIVE OFFICE: MY EXPERIENCE AS A BOULDER COUNTY COMMISSIONER
by Homer Page
I come before you this morning as a working politician, which leads me into a story about a working politician that I heard the other day. It seems that a loyal supporter of one of my colleagues came to him and said: Sir, I need to tell you about a problem you've got. There's a fellow up in the northern part of the county who is going around telling a lot of lies about you. So the politician said: Well, I appreciate that a lot. Your support means a lot to me. But I've got a priority I've got to take care of. There's a fellow down there in the southern part of the county who's telling the truth about me.
Dr. Jernigan said earlier at a meeting at this convention, Don't apologize and don't brag just tell it like it is. And I think maybe that's how it is. We'll see.
On January 10, 1989, my life really underwent a significant change. For on that day I was sworn in as a Boulder County Commissioner. In part, my remarks to Diane McGeorge and the students of the Colorado Center for the Blind and other Federationists at the time were these: This office is at least in part yours. And I want to make that same statement to you because over the years you have supported me with funds; with your work; and, more importantly, with your faith; and with your encouragement. For that I will always be grateful. I never really thought about running for the office of County Commissioner. I had a job that I enjoyed. I was Deputy Mayor in the city of Boulder. But one day in April of 1988, I started receiving phone calls first from a County Commissioner; then from the District Attorney; then from the chair of the Boulder County Democratic Party; and, finally, from another Commissioner. All of them asked me if I would consider running for the seat of County Commissioner. The task which I was asked to take on was a difficult one. It involved overturning a seated County Commissioner, who was popular, had not made any mistakes, and was going to have the support of most of the major newspapers in the County.
Marcie and I walked and talked and thought about it, and we decided that it was worth a try that in fact, if we were to be able to move into a full-time political commitment, this was the best time, and this was the right office. So I ran.
It was a hard race. I did not have the support of the newspapers. They went with the incumbent. However, I did have the support of the news coverage. And the reason that I had that support was that I was able to shape the coverage of the news. News comes from two places: first, it comes from interviews with the candidates written by the reporters, and second, it comes from the speeches and appearances that the candidates make. Throughout the campaign I was able to set the tone, define the issues, and shape the news coverage in a way that I thought would help me win; and it did. It is more important to shape the news than it is to get the editorial endorsements of the news media.
On January 10 I took office. There were a number of issues that concerned both the general public and staff of the county. One of the issues involved reading getting access to large amounts of material and covering it. I have used readers and a lot of Braille. We have in Boulder what we call the Computer Braille Center, which is run by a good Federationist, Priscilla Simmons. And we've kept Priscilla very busy. I also have an Artic Vision program which gives me access to all internal memos produced by the county. We have to keep up with four major daily newspapers and four weeklies that cover the news in Boulder County. So there's a lot to do. But that hasn't been a major problem.
Each Commissioner also has access to an automobile. We need it because we have to travel extensively throughout the County. The County involves 750 square miles ranging from the Continental Divide far out onto the plains in the eastern part of the state. I contracted with the local cab company instead of having a driver. We found it to be much more efficient. As a matter of fact, the question was raised in the local newspaper about these things. Would it cost more to employ a blind person in the position of Commissioner? My response to them was clear and, I think, correct. From an economic position, the citizens of Boulder County would be much better off if all the Commissioners were blind.
So what is a Commissioner, and what is the job that a Commissioner has to do? Well, we have over a thousand employees and a budget of 75 million dollars. I'm responsible for overseeing that budget and, through those whom I supervise, supervising those one thousand employees. We also meet two days a week in public hearings, considering everything from land use to building subdivisions, from paving roads to issuing fireworks permits on the 4th of July. The County Administration includes the Social Services Department and the Health Department. It administers the JPTA and Headstart programs. We are responsible for all the roads in the county. We administer the jail and the sheriff's office. The District Attorney's office is a part of county government as is the County Clerk's office, which deals with all deeds, marriages, auto licenses, driver's licenses, voting, and voter registration. It really is a major operation. We must perform what I think is probably a very difficult task to run a county government: not only to make policy, but to direct employees to administer the county government by consensus. There are three members of the Board of Commissioners, and it takes two votes to get anything done. But in fact, if you don't find a way to work together, it really does get very difficult.
Boulder County is made up of some 225,000 people. The assessed value of property in the county is three billion dollars. The major industry there is the University of Colorado and related scientific research facilities. There are a major IBM installation and many other high tech facilities, including biotechnology. We are concerned with the continuing economic health of the county and must be involved throughout the county to ensure that it actually takes place. Over the next three years (and perhaps longer) I need to be concerned, as a working politician, about the next step. What happens? For in politics you really need to move, or you go backward.
A few months ago there was some concern about who would run for Senate on the Democratic side next year. There was some talk that Congressman David Skaggs, who appeared here earlier, might run. Congressman Skaggs is the Representative in my district. One of the things that we needed to consider was whether or not to make a run for that seat if he in fact did relinquish it to run for the Senate. Politics is a game of chance and opportunity and being in the right place at the right time. I enjoy very much being a County Commissioner, and I may be a County Commissioner only one term or the rest of my life. But if the opportunity comes for higher office, I will take it.
There's something about being blind and being in the political arena that I think is important. Political people are leaders. They're recognized as leaders in their communities and in their states, and sometimes it's hard for members of the general public to acknowledge that a blind person is capable of being their leader. Such an idea runs counter to the stereotypes. This fact will always be there, and people will always raise questions. There was a letter to the editor in the local paper, The Boulder Camera, a few months ago, some three months after I had taken office. The letter said something like this: I am really embarrassed by the voters of Boulder County. They have elected an assessor who was just arrested for being in a fight, a sheriff who got drunk and got into a fight, and a District Attorney that lets people off when they should be sent to jail. Now they have elected a blind man who couldn't possibly keep up with the reading. I am really embarrassed by the voters of Boulder County.
Well, a good friend of mine wrote a strong and wonderful letter in response to that one I did not solicit but that I did appreciate. The point is this. That kind of letter and those kinds of feelings are going to be expressed. Now what I really believe is that my opposition generated that letter to discredit me because they thought that I would be vulnerable along those lines. My public remark was: To show you how incompetent that campaign really was, they waited until four months after the election to engage in dirty politics. But the truth is that it hurt. I've worked ten years in the public arena to demonstrate that as a blind person I really can do the work. I was elected to the City Council of Boulder, for which candidates run at large. The first time I was the second highest vote-getter. When I ran for re-election, I was the top vote-getter, and in 1988 when I ran for County Commissioner, I overturned a popular incumbent by over 3,500 votes. Yet there are people out there who will write that kind of letter. What one learns in the public arena is that no matter how successful you are or how much you demonstrate that you can do it, for some people you're still just a blind man. That is an important lesson to learn, to hold close, because really what it means is that no matter how much you try to escape from being identified as blind, you can't. But then who would want to?
It is the solidarity I feel with you that allows me to let those kinds of letters and comments roll off my back like water off a duck. On the other hand, I keep winning, so there must be some people out there who believe in me. And if they believe in me, they'll believe in you. And that's what it's all about.
During the decade of the eighties a mother and daughter team from the state of Nebraska touched the hearts and raised the consciousness of blind people throughout the country. They were Lauren and Lynden Eckery of Omaha. Lauren (Laurie to her friends) was blind, and her daughter Lynden was sighted. During a ten-year period in almost a dozen articles in the Braille Monitor, Federationists followed the activities and thinking of the Eckerys.
Laurie wrote of Lynden's experiences in school and with playmates. She examined the attitudes of teachers, neighbors, and other children, and the impact of these attitudes on Lynden's development and growing comprehension. A typical example appeared in the Fall, 1989, News From Blind Nebraskans, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska:
WHAT COLOR IS THE SUN?
by Lauren L. Eckery
The burning hot sun of midsummer is shining brightly today as I sit out here on the patio beginning to write. What color the sun is not particularly relevant to me at this moment. I know that for some blind people the color of the sun or, for that matter, what anything looks like visually, seems irrelevant. I do not take this view, however. I am highly interested in my world, including what things look like. There are those who might insist that this could not be so.
Back in 1972, when I was nearing graduation from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, a sighted male friend and I were discussing my future. This was a friend I very much liked and trusted. However, he knew nothing about the National Federation of the Blind and its positive philosophy of blindness.
I had been approached by the Federation in 1971, had been reading the Braille Monitor, but had only begun to assimilate our philosophy on blindness. Therefore, neither of us understood what he was really saying when he remarked: When you get an apartment of your own, if you have cockroaches, they won't bother you because you won't see them, so you won't even know they are there. Besides, if you don't know what they look like, then you won't know how awful they are. I thought this statement odd and rather gross, and I laughed. I was not aware at that moment that he had indeed epitomized the heartbreaking experience of many of us.
As Pearl S. Buck has written: There were many ways of breaking a heart. Stories were full of hearts being broken by love, but what really broke a heart was taking away its dream whatever that dream might be.
My dream, of course, was to be a normal, first-class citizen in our society. My dream, at that particular time, might have included him in that apartment of the future. He had obviously highly respected me as a student, equal to himself, but he really did not respect me as a blind person.
It was only recently, as I began formulating this article, that I remembered his words of seventeen years ago, realizing at once, with my Federation training, what he had really said. I noticed quite a number of attitudinal cockroaches in his remarks.
Attitudes like those exemplified in this person's remarks often bring about our being denied opportunities for normal experiences in the world. As far as visual cues are concerned, many such cues about our world are kept from us. As an example: what color something is or where something is located. On the other hand, often we are given far too many details about visual aspects of our world. An example being the clock method on the dinner plate.
Behind all of this thinking are ingrained beliefs similar to those espoused, by implication, by my university friend of 1972. Evidently he assumed that a blind person keeping an apartment by him or herself would necessarily have cockroaches, since blind people couldn't possibly keep the place clean. (I may not be the best housekeeper, but blindness is not the reason.) If we can see, we automatically notice everything in the world there is to see and we know more about our world because we see it. If we cannot see, we know nothing about the visual qualities of the things in our world indeed, we know very nearly nothing at all forget about the use of other senses, and, of course, forget about our ability to reason.
Countless times in our lives we have heard such expressions as: Out of sight, out of mind, Seeing is believing, What you don't know (or see) won't hurt you. These are all suggestions of lack, loss, and inferior capacity for reasoning.
How misinformed was this fine young man, even though he had known me for several years. How misinformed was I to the extent that I was unable to set him straight about blindness, resulting in discouraging him from remaining in a prominent place in my life.
On the other hand, as I began to grow in the Federation, I learned from those who were willing to teach me, and I have also learned from experience (sometimes the hard way) some of the realities of blindness mainly attitude problems and their impact on our lives and the means for resolving such problems. I have also learned (sometimes the hard way) that standing up strongly against such attitudinal barriers, as a unified collective body, will change these negative attitudes once and for all. Shared individual positive experiences can also help toward exterminating such cockroaches from our lives. Toward this end I relate the following experiences:
When I entered into my course of study at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, I lived at home. Later I moved to the dorm, thank goodness! Everyday on the way to school we passed a certain building. One day I asked my mother what that particular building looked like. I was startled by her honest answer: Lauri, we drive past that building every single day. I don't know what it looks like. I haven't really looked at it. Later, of course, she surveyed the building closely, describing it in such detail that if another blind person had asked me what this building looked like, I could have given as accurate a description of the building as my mother had given me.
This is, indeed, a lesson which many people (blind or sighted) fail to learn about sight. Sighted people do not necessarily know more about our world than blind people do. They do not have a constant edge on us simply because they can see and we cannot. Neither are blind people necessarily ignorant about their world simply because they are blind. The blind people I know who are less knowledgeable about their world tend to be those who are bitter about their blindness, refusing to concern themselves with visual factors. This lack of concern may also be noticed in blind people who have not had, or taken, the opportunity to learn alternative techniques of daily living. Or it may be simply that some folks just don't care about those things. Blindness itself does not shut us off from or out of our world.
Another example of this lesson came to me recently. Only several weeks ago my eight-year-old daughter, Lynden, asked: Mommy, what color is the sun? She blinks and often sneezes upon looking directly at the sun. Was it possible that she never looked long enough to notice the color of the sun? Was she testing me to see if I knew the color of the sun? What answer did she expect to get from me, the standard yellow?
I am totally blind since birth due to congenital glaucoma. I have no vision in the left eye. Before glaucoma took my right eye, I could see light, dark, and blobs of color. I cried the evening before the surgery, panicked a few times immediately thereafter, and that was it. I was not bitter about never seeing another sunset, because I knew that in my mind's eye I could conjure one up easily enough if I wanted to do so. Perhaps this is similar to the manner in which Beethoven was able to write some of his best music when he could no longer hear he had a good mind, and he used it.
I told Lynden that in the middle of the day the sun is said to be yellow, although it always looked white to me. I explained that toward sunset the color could change from a brighter yellow, becoming more and more orange, sometimes setting in a brilliant red-orange ball with other colors around it (clouds, I surmised). When this occurs, the bright fiery ball on the horizon looks as though it is resting on the ground, quite far away. Eventually it disappears. Sometimes the clouds hide this color. Often the sun does just the opposite at sunrise. Sunrises and sunsets can vary. Artists have painted them; writers have described them in words. Some people often do not notice them at all, but they are there.
I've never seen the sun change color like that. Why does it change color? Why does it look like the sun is on the ground? she asked, curiously. Her questions were getting beyond me. I didn't know enough about the physical properties of light, color, refraction, and distance, plus the rotation of the earth, etc., to explain it all to her. Anxiously I said: Ask your science teacher when school starts again.
With a sigh of relief, I presumed the subject closed, only to hear: Mommy, could you see rays coming out of the sun? I told her I couldn't.
Me neither, she replied. Then why do people make pictures of the sun with rays coming out all around it? she continued.
I thought: Ask your art teacher when school starts again. However, being somewhat more artistic than scientific, I explained that maybe it was an artistic way to show that light and heat were coming from all directions from the yellow circle which represented the sun in the pictures. That was the end of the discussion for the time being.
I believe that, due to stereotypical thinking, Lynden was surprised by the answer she got from a totally blind person. I was equally astonished that a sighted child would bother to ask a totally blind person to describe something visual, taking the answer seriously. I believe we both learned something extremely valuable from this experience.
The knowledge gained and the joy received from this experience were made evident this past weekend as we were riding the bus home from Kansas City to Omaha. Lynden had been sleeping, and I was listening to my Talkman. Suddenly she shouted, with obvious delight, Mommy, the sun is orange and it is on the ground just like you said. (It looked like it was on the ground.) It is red-orange, and it's pretty. I've never seen that before.
I was aware that if I had believed all of the stereotypes about blindness, that I would never have done such a normal thing as to get married and have a child one I was now sharing a sunset with because I might have believed that a blind person couldn't take care of a child independently. I was thankful for this Federation-influenced blessing. I was also aware at that moment that this sunset might have gone unnoticed by both of us had we not had our previous discussion. Certainly it would not have been a life-or-death disaster to have missed the sunset, but there was a particular joy in our sharing, What color is the sun?
Through fifty years and hundreds of pages we have traced in this volume the history of the organized blind movement in the United States. Why, it might be asked, should we include at the end of the final chapter (and, of all things a chapter concerning A People's Movement) two items about the agencies in the blindness system? The answer is that these two incidents symbolize and typify the mood in the blindness field at the end of the 1980s the new alignments, the shifting balances of power and influence.
On November 17, 1989, Kenneth Jernigan went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to speak to the Penn-Del (Pennsylvania-Delaware) chapter of the AER (the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired). The fact of his invitation, of what he said, and the respect with which it was received had significance far beyond the particular time and place. It was a tacit recognition by all concerned that the National Federation of the Blind was now a central element in shaping the blindness system. In short the organized blind movement had come to the center of the stage. Here is what Jernigan said:
CONSUMERISM: IMPROVING THE SERVICE DELIVERY SYSTEM
by Kenneth Jernigan
There are those who say that nothing ever changes. I am not one of them. There are those who say that especially nothing ever changes in the blindness field. Again, I am not one of them. I believe that the past half century has brought unprecedented changes, not only in the world at large but also and particularly in the blindness field. Moreover, I think the changes have overwhelmingly been for the good. However, as is almost always the case, with progress has come problems both in the world at large and in the blindness field.
Today we are talking about consumerism. The fact that we are, along with the popularity and recurrence of the theme, means that there is a felt need and that there are problems. In the summer of 1988 I participated in a panel discussion on this topic at the AER convention in Montreal. Some of the things which I said at that time bear repeating, for they deal with basic questions matters concerning relationships and performance in our field.
At the National Federation of the Blind convention in Chicago in 1988, 2,443 people registered as attendees. No other group has that kind of attendance. You know it, and I know it. In October of 1989 the National Federation of the Blind distributed (on cassette, on flexible disc, in Braille, and in print) over 29,000 copies of its magazine the Braille Monitor. Again, no other publication in our field has that kind of circulation, or anything even approaching it.
At my first NFB convention in 1952 barely 150 people were present, and we had no monthly publication. At that 1952 convention we spent more than fifty percent of our time talking about the rehabilitation system what it was doing, how to improve it, and what we wanted from it. At our 1988 convention we had twenty-five hours of program content, and we spent a total of forty-five minutes (or three percent of the time) dealing with the rehabilitation system of the United States. Of that forty-five minutes, fifteen minutes was spent hearing from the federal Rehabilitation Commissioner; fifteen minutes was spent hearing from our Director of Governmental Affairs, who talked about problems blind people were having with the system; and the final fifteen minutes was spent with questions and comments from the audience, indicating their concern with the failure of the system to deliver. In short, only one percent of the program time was used to hear from the rehabilitation system, and none of the time was spent talking about threats to the system or how to save it. Why?
Is it simply, as some have charged, that the members of the Federation (all of the thousands and tens of thousands of them or, at least, their leaders) are negative and destructive irresponsible radicals and agency haters? No. Such a thesis cannot be sustained. The facts do not support it. Let us turn again to the statistics of the 1988 NFB convention.
Kurt Cylke, head of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, was with us for the entire week, and so were several of his staff. Day after day they answered questions, talked with our members, and planned with us for the future. There was an atmosphere of partnership and mutual trust.
Likewise, top officials of the Social Security Administration were present to speak and participate. The Deputy Commissioner for Policy and External Affairs had a forty-minute segment on the program, and other Social Security personnel conducted a seminar and answered questions for most of an afternoon. As with the Library, there was no tension or confrontationonly partnership and a feeling of shared interest and mutual concern. Moreover, with Social Security it must be remembered that many blind people throughout the country experience problems with under payments, demands for return of over payments, denial of applications, and similar difficulties; and more often than not, the National Federation of the Blind represents those blind persons in hearings to reverse Social Security's actions. Millions of dollars and numerous professional judgments are repeatedly called into question. Yet, there is no hostility only friendliness and joint effort. On a continuing basis the National Federation of the Blind and the Social Security Administration share information, exchange ideas, and work together in a spirit of cooperative harmony.
In short, our problems come only with the rehabilitation system, with some of the private agencies which function as part of that system, and with a group of educators. And even here there must be a further narrowing and focusing, for the problem is with the system itself and some of its more vocal spokes persons, not with all of its component parts or personnel. An increasing number of those in the system are beginning to take a new look and work with us. The very fact of our discussion here this morning is an evidence of that trend and the shift in thinking.
This brings me to our topic, Consumerism. I think blind people must have not an exclusive but a major role in shaping the blindness system. Otherwise, the system will die. Moreover, when I say blind people, I do not mean just blind individuals. I mean democratic membership organizations of the blind. I mean effective participation by the blind, and the only way that can be achieved is through organizations of the blind. In a sense, of course, blind people have always shaped the system, as indeed they do today. In most cases blind persons started (or played a major part in starting) the agencies. There have always been blind agency directors, and individual blind persons prominent in the community have from the beginning served on advisory and policy boards and lent their names and prestige to funding and public support.
Even so, the system has traditionally been custodial in nature and high-handed in dealing with meaningful input from the blind. This is why the system is in trouble. It is in danger of being absorbed into generic programs for the disabled, starving for lack of funds, and losing its position of centrality and perceived importance in the lives of the blind. This would not be the case if the average, thinking, responsible blind adult in this country felt that the system really mattered excluding, of course, the blind people who work in the system.
Let me be clearly understood. I am not saying that rehabilitation, training in mobility, assistance for the newly blinded, or education are not important urgently important; for they are. Rather, I am saying that year by year more and more blind persons have come to feel that the system is not effectively providing those things and that it is both unresponsive and irrelevant. Remember that I am talking about the system as a whole, not individual agencies or particular people working in those agencies.
It is not, as a few have claimed, that the organized blind wish to take control of the agencies. It is, from the point of view of the system, far worse than that. It is that more and more blind people are coming to feel that, in the things that count in their daily lives, what the agencies have to offer won't help and doesn't matter.
If I felt that the system was hopeless and that nothing could or should be done to improve it, I would not be here today talking with you. It is late, but if honest evaluation and forthright action occur, I think the system can be saved and that it is worth saving.
However, certain things must be said without equivocation. As a beginning, the agencies must change their attitudes about criticism and about the role of the organized blind in decision making. The matter of Fred Schroeder is a case in point. As most members of this organization know, Mr. Schroeder is blind. He is currently Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Before taking that job, he taught mobility professionally, received all of the academic credentials for doing so, and then was denied certification by this organization (the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired). The denial was based on the belief that a blind person cannot safely and competently teach another blind person how to travel or, if you like, teach another blind person mobility. The National Federation of the Blind as an organization and I as an individual thought you were wrong in that decision, and we were entitled to that opinion. On the other hand, it was perfectly proper for your organization to believe that you were right to attack our position, but it was not proper for the members of your organization to attack us (as some of you did) on irrelevant grounds denigrating our character and morals because of our beliefs. Of course, the same would obtain for our treatment of you.
Moreover, workers in the blindness system must resist the growing tendency to hide behind the term professionalism and must stop treating professionalism as if it were a sacred mystery. There is a teachable body of knowledge which can be learned about giving service to the blind; but much of that knowledge is a matter of common sense, good judgment, and experience. Most thinking blind persons (certainly those who have been blind for any length of time and have had any degree of success) know at least as much about what they and other blind people want and need from the system as the professionals do, and it must also be kept in mind that not every act of a professional is necessarily a professional act or based on professionalism. Just as in other fields in America today, the professionals in the blindness system must be judged on their behavior and not merely their credentials.
Consider, for instance, the question of whether children with residual vision should be taught Braille. After careful consideration the members of the National Federation of the Blind believe that every such child should at least have the option of being taught to read and write Braille. Some of the educators (especially those who cannot fluently read and write Braille) resist this view. Is their opinion a professional judgment, or is it a decision based on vested interest? Whichever it is, the views of the organized blind are entitled to serious consideration and not simply a brush-off, with the statement that the blind don't know what they are talking about and that they probably have bad motives and morals into the bargain.
This brings me back to what I said about Kurt Cylke and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The libraries are not in trouble, and (regardless of economic conditions or changing theories) the libraries won't be in trouble. They won't because the blind of this country won't let it happen. And, yes, we have the power to give substance to our feelings. We don't control Kurt Cylke or the libraries. We don't want to and besides, he wouldn't permit it. Neither does he control us and for the same reasons. We support the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped because we need it, because it gives useful and good service, and because its leaders understand that they exist to give us service, and that they have accountability to us. What I have said about the Library is also true of the Social Security Administration and an increasing number of agencies and individuals in the fields of rehabilitation and education.
But the hard core of the blindness system still resists, to its detriment and ours. It tries to say that it speaks for the blind because the head of an agency is blind or because blind people serve on a staff or board. No great intellect is required to understand that in a representative democracy only those elected by a group can speak for that group; that the heads of agencies can have vested interests which transcend their blindness; and that when an agency can pick and choose individual blind spokes persons from the community, it can get people who will say whatever it wants them to say.
Unless things change, I believe the central core of the blindness system will sink into obscurity and wither away, but I believe this need not happen and should not happen. Blind people (and that means the organized blind) must have a major voice in shaping the blindness system and the programs which operate within it whether those programs be sheltered shops, residential schools, state agencies, or private nonprofit organizations. It must be a partnership and not a partnership of dominance and subservience but of consenting equals a partnership based on trust, respect, and mutuality. Let these things happen, and all else will follow. Let these things happen, and the system will thrive.
If those who work in the public and private agencies want broad support from the blind community, they must be responsive to the concerns which the blind perceive as important. Today there are relatively few major issues which divide the organized blind and the agencies. Twenty years ago it appeared (at least, on the surface) that there was at least one such issue the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). But the problem was more apparent than real. NAC (despite its few remaining vocal supporters) has never been a significant factor in the lives of the nation's blind and is now rapidly becoming a dead letter and a subject only for the historians. It has never been able to get more than twenty or twenty-five percent of the nation's eligible agencies to accept its accreditation, and increasingly as the larger and more prominent agencies have pulled away from it, it has been forced to try to keep its numbers up by accrediting smaller and less well-known organizations. Let the dead be dead, and let the rest of us move on to better things.
The real question we face is not how to resolve controversies between consumers and the agencies but whether consumers can continue to feel that the agencies on balance are relevant enough and important enough for the consumers to nurture and save them in short, whether there can be common cause, shared purpose, mutual respect, and true partnership. Certainly the problems which face us are formidable and challenging. We still have a long way to go in improving the climate of public opinion so that the blind can have opportunity and full access to the main channels of everyday life. We have made tremendous progress in this area, but much yet remains to be done. All other things being equal, the job can best be handled through joint effort by the blind and the agencies, but handled it must be whether the agencies participate or not.
Likewise, there is a broad spectrum of specific programs and activities, ranging from technology to education to employment, which need urgent and sustained attention and again (all other things being equal) the job can best be handled by joint effort on the part of the blind community and the agencies. But one way or another, the blind intend to achieve full equality and first-class status in society. The question is what part the agencies will play and what relationship they will have with the increasingly powerful consumer movement.
The story is told that one evening a nightclub patron approached the bandstand and said to the drummer, Does your dog bite?
No, the drummer said, he doesn't.
The man reached down to pet the dog, and it almost bit his arm off. He leaped back in a fury and said to the drummer, I thought you said your dog didn't bite.
He doesn't, the drummer said, but that isn't my dog.
You see, the man asked the wrong question, so he got an unsatisfactory answer. Let us be sure that in dealing with consumerism in the blindness field we not only try to get the right answers but also ask the right questions. Otherwise, we may lose an arm.
The foregoing address was delivered by Kenneth Jernigan in November of 1989 and significant as it was, something more dramatic was to occur the following month. It involved the American Foundation for the Blind and its director, William Gallagher. Certainly Gallagher (though blind) was no Federationist and, so far as the author knows, he never had been. Indeed, during the seventies and eighties the Federation often found itself in furious conflict with Gallagher.
Yet, a brief article in the December, 1989, Braille Monitor underscored, as nothing else could have, the changes that were occurring in the blindness field. In the early eighties, when Gallagher and Jernigan first began to hold meetings, the atmosphere was anything but cordial. A decade later everything was different. And perhaps it can all be explained by the power of A People's Movement therefore, the appropriateness (even the essential rightness) of this inclusion in our final chapter Gallagher responding affirmatively to a Federation initiative, and Jernigan apparently congratulating him for doing it, publicly and in the pages of the Monitor. Jernigan's article, entitled The Winds of Change, follows:
THE WINDS OF CHANGE
by Kenneth Jernigan
Most (although certainly not all) of the people who are knowledgeable about such things would agree that today the two strongest forces in the affairs of the blind of this country are the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind. Consequently, how these two organizations interact is of considerable importance. Sometimes the relationship has been stormy and sometimes quiet, but it has rarely been what one would call close and cordial.
Recently, however, there has been a pronounced change. I suppose it started in the mid-eighties when the Federation and the Foundation began working together in the World Blind Union. It has now spread far beyond that. To begin with, I should say that Bill Gallagher, the Foundation's Executive Director, and I have been meeting on a fairly regular basis for quite some time; and although it is not a controlling factor, I find Bill Gallagher friendly and easy to deal with. In short, I like him as a person. My experience has been that he faces issues and keeps his word. That does not mean that we always agree or that either of us approves of everything the other does. It simply means that it is easier to work with somebody who treats you courteously and shows some responsiveness than with somebody who doesn't.
An incident occurred not long ago which shows what is happening and how the balances are altering. It will be remembered that President Maurer said in his 1989 banquet speech: The American Foundation for the Blind has produced a special psychological test called the `Anxiety Scale for the Blind.' He went on to ridicule the test and tear it to pieces, pointing out how negative it was. Dr. Susan Spungin, one of the Foundation's top officials, was in the audience, having spoken to the Federation convention that afternoon.
Shortly after the conclusion of the NFB convention Bill Gallagher called me to say that he felt it was unfortunate that President Maurer had attacked the Anxiety Scale for the Blind, implying that it was current when in reality it was outdated, having been produced in the late sixties. I told him that it was my understanding that the Anxiety Scale was still being used by the Foundation and that if it was, it didn't matter when it was produced. He said he would look into it.
A few weeks later he called me to say that he had learned that the Foundation was, in fact, still distributing the Anxiety Scale. He said that he had reviewed it and wasn't sure he could pass it himself. He concluded by saying that the document was immediately being withdrawn from circulation and would no longer be used.
This is the sort of responsiveness which can lead to a new climate in the blindness field. I emphasize that the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind are not going to agree on every issue and that when we believe it is necessary, we will publicly state that we think the Foundation is wrong. But the incident I have just described could not have occurred ten years ago or, for that matter, even five years ago. Hopefully it may be a sign of things to come.
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