An Address Delivered By Kenneth Jernigan
President, National Federation of the Blind
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
New Orleans, July 7,1977
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Thus it is written in the Scriptures, and thus also it is written in the experience of our daily lives. To every thing there is a season. There was a time for me to be President of this organization. That time is no more. A new President now comes to the stage; a new era now begins in the movement. It remains for me to help with the transition and then assume my new role in the organization.
What, then, (at this final banquet on this last night of my Presidency) shall I say to youwhat that we have not already jointly discussed and collectively experienced during the past quarter of a century? In articles and speeches, in public pronouncements, and in literally thousands of letters I have set forth my beliefs and declared my faith in the capacity of the blind and the need for collective action. I have said that what we must have is not pity but understanding, not custody but opportunity, not care but acceptance. I say it stilland this, too: I have tried as best I could to match deeds to wordsto be not merely an armchair strategist but a front-line soldier as well. There are scars to prove it; enemies to resent it; and friends to confirm it. Nothing I can say tonight will change the record. In the words of the poet:
The moving finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your piety nor wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a line, Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
As President of the Federation I have always tried to see our movement in broad contextattempting to ease the losses and temper the victories with a sense of perspective. So, on this night, let us talk of history, and took to the futureassessing where we are by where we have been and where we are going.
In 1940, when the blind came to organize, the situation was as bleak as it could possibly be. It was bright enough to create hope and dark enough to make that hope seem impossible. Barely a handful from seven states met on that day in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to establish the National Federation of the Blind. In the climate of Growing agency control and custodialism they felt that freedom would not waitthat they must either act then (regardless of their numbers) or risk losing the opportunity forever. The majority they sought (the powerful movement of the organized blind) might never come unless they had the courage to create it and the dream to believe it. They had that couragethey created that dreamand thirty-seven years later we meet here tonight in our thousands, the strongest force in the affairs of the blind in the nation.
It is only when we look back that we realize how far we have come. In 1940 there was virtually nothing. By today's standards: no rehabilitation, no libraries, no opportunity for higher education, no rights for sheltered shop employees, no training for the newly blinded, no money for the elderly, no help for the needy, no jobs in federal civil service, no chance in business, no hope in the professions, no state or federal civil rights protection, no encouragement to venture, and no recognition of dignity or worth. There were only the put-downs and exclusions, which made of the blind virtually a subhuman species. It was an atmosphere which broke the spirit and quenched the hope and killed the dream. But that was another time, another generation. Whatever else the National Federation of the Blind may have done, one thing is certain: It has helped us understand and made us believe--in ourselves, in each other, and in our collective strength. It has also taught us to fight. In short, it has brought us to see that we are (in every modern sense of the word) a minority.
Through painful experience we have learned that our problems come not from our blindness but from the misconceptions and misunderstandings of society, not from inferiority but public attitudesattitudes which we ourselves still too often unwittingly accept and thus do much to make reality. With equally painful experience we have learned that the "professionals" in the very public and private agencies established to aid us frequently (instead of helping solve our difficulties) contribute to them. If (and, of course, there has been much more) the Federation had done nothing else but give us these understandings, it would have more than justified its promise. We are now organized, informed, and on the move. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. They tell us that there is no discriminationthat the blind are not a minority. But we know who we are, and we will never go back.
With all our advances, we still face serious problems. Let anyone who doubts it look at the Gallup Poll taken in January of 1976. It shows that, next to cancer, blindness is the most feared of all human ailmentsmore than deafness, more than heart disease, more than mental illness, more than any other possible problem. This contrasts sharply with our personal experience. We know that, with training and opportunity. we can reduce blindness to the level of a mere inconvenience, but we also know that custodialism, discrimination, denial of opportunity, and put-downs can make of our blindness a veritable hellas terrible as it has ever been thought to be. This is why we have organized. It is why the National Federation of the Blind existsto eliminate the fears, disseminate the truth, and bring new hope: to the sighted and the blind alike.
With the expanding hoard of "professionals" in the fieldwho must write papers, think up additional services, and find something to do to occupy their time so as to keep their jobs, enhance their prestige, and raise their salariesit is not surprising that traditional fears and misconceptions are reinforced. The ancient myths and prejudices are absorbed by the "professionals" from the public and then fed back again in the name of science and expertisebolstered by computers, sanctified by technology, and financed by government grants. It is a formidable array, but it is the same old lie it has always been. We are not inferiors, and we prove it every day through our personal lives and individual experience.
The public attitudes about blindness manifest themselves in every facet of daily existence. Consider, for instance, an item as simple as a mail-order catalogue. Such a catalogue (called Mail-Order USA) recently came to me with this cover letter:
"I am sure that your members would appreciate learning more about this book which will help make shopping less of an ordeal. The families of a blind person can send for catalogues of articles the person needs, and in the leisure and quiet of his home decide what he wants to buyno more being stampeded by impatient sales clerks."
A lot of food for thought is packed into that brief statement, Are the blind so frail that they are more likely than others to find shopping an "ordeal" or be "stampeded" by salesclerks? And observe that it is not the blind person who is expected to order the catalogue but his family, who will decide for him what he wants to buy and, you will notice, in restful circumstances: "in the quiet of his home."
When it comes to cooking and matters related to the kitchen, both the public and the professionals have a field day. An article entitled "Arizona Volunteers and Blind Homemakers" in Food and Home Notes, a publication issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, says: "Ever wondered what it's like to be blind? How would you boil water safely?" Where, one might ask, did the Agriculture Department get such ideas? We are not left in doubt. The article goes on to say: "Arrangements worked out through the American Foundation for the Blind provided expert trainees. Every trainee practiced skills both as a blind learner and as a teacher."
The Arizona episode is not the only experience of the American Foundation for the Blind with kitchens. The January 24, 1973, Miami Herald reported that the Foundation would sponsor six workshops "for sighted rehabilitation personnel, public health nurses, and county home demonstration agents to teach homemaking techniques to blind persons." Presumably these Foundation--taught personnel would then go into the homes of the blind to teach skills and proper attitudes about blindness. Judge for yourself the level of expectation, the image of blindness, and the probable results from the following statement by Evelyn Berger, home economist, who (according to the article) "introduced local women rehabilitation workers to the challenge of darkness":
"A blind person's kitchen should be simplified as much as possible, she said. High storage areas should be avoided. Pans used most frequently should be at an accessible level. If the teacher must leave the room for a minute, leave the person with his hand on something, such as a chair back, for security. When you return, announce your arrival with a 'Hi, I'm back.'"
Yes, of course, pans should be at an "accessible level," and "high storage areas should be avoided"but no more for the blind than for anybody else. As for the talk about putting the hand of the blind person on the back of the chair for security and cheerfully announcing the teacher's return, that is pure drivel the sort of thing that makes sensational newspaper reading, perpetuates public misconceptions, and creates high-paying jobs for dull-witted custodians.
Under the circumstances is it any wonder that the following passage appears in the standard advertising literature for the Mirro-Matic pressure cooker:
"Braille books for use by sightless people are available through Mirro. These books include the cooking charts, instructions, and 32 recipes. Cooking procedure is not given and must be taught by a sighted person."
Yet, they tell us that there is no discriminationthat the blind are not a minority. But we know who we are, and we will never go back.
Kitchens, with their supposed dangers, seem to hold a special fascination for those concerned with our welfare. Graduate students at the Illinois Institute of Technology recently designed a special kitchen for the blind to (as they put it) help "the sightless achieve greater independence in a vital area of day-to-day living." The September 16, 1976, Los Angeles Times quoted the designers as follows:
"Using the ordinary kitchen can be a disaster for a blind person.... All unnecessary kitchen and outside noise [should] be eliminated or reduced through soundproofing since blind people use sound to judge their cooking. The ventilation system [should] be designed to provide sounds necessary for a blind person's awareness and control. The kitchen design [should] allow the user's hands to be as independent of each other as possible to allow better preparation for emergencies. A rest area [should] be provided to combat fatigue. The telephone, doorbell, and radio [should] be located in one area of the kitchen. Work areas [should] have different textures and raised edges to provide clues for identification of reference points. Floors [should] have varied textural surfaces to give blind people awareness of location. Varied shaped or textured handles [should] be used for ease of identification. Sinks [should] have a raised edge with small counter area in front. In addition, the sink might have different depths and/or shapes helpful in food preparation and washing. Burners [should] be placed at rear of [the] stove to provide a safe distance between the user and the heating surface. Storage units [should] be made vertically mobile, eliminating bending and stretching. Electrical outlets [should] be placed at waist level with large metal plates for ease of locating. The blind person should be encouraged to maintain close body contact with his work area to provide an additional clue to his location."
What a kitchen! It would be ludicrously funny if it were not so miserably pathetic and if it had not been seen by millions of readers to confirm and reinforce their notions of our helplessness. And where do you suppose it all came from! Where do you think these graduate students from the Illinois Institute of Technology got their ideas about blindness? How did they learn what we need, what we can do, and who we are? Did they come to the blind themselves (to the largest organization of blind people in the country) to the National Federation of the Blind with its more than 50,000 members? No. As the newspaper tells us, they went to the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind and the Illinois Institute for the Visually Handicapped. Yet, these institutions (the Chicago Lighthouse and its like) sometimes express surprise that the blind resent them and seek to reform them.
We stand at the gates and demand to be heard. The hour is late, and we will not be turned away. We will speak, and they will listenin peace if we can, in war if we must. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
Not only are the blind thought to need specially designed kitchens but special apartments as well. Earlier this year, the New York Times carried the headline "Apartment Building for the Blind Is Planned for Site in Manhattan." The article said:
"The first apartment building in New York City designed for the exclusive use of the blind will be built on a vacant site on West Twenty-third Street, officials of the Associated Blind, Inc., said yesterday.
"The nonprofit group is planning a 12-story structure with 205 apartments. It will include textured doorknobs so that each resident will know which room he is entering, an emergency call system in each apartment connected to a central security office, and specially designed kitchens and bathrooms....
"New York City is taking the lead in accommodations specially designed and equipped for the blind, said the chairman of the City Planning Commission....
"The apartments will be designed in accordance with new national HUD standards for the blind and handicapped. . ."
To add insult to injury all of this mumbo jumbo and segregation is done in the name of independence and self-expression. The article ends with a quote from the head of the agency involved: "We believe blind people should have the right to express themselves," he said.
Yes, we reply, but what does self-expression have to do with segregated housing? That is the very ghetto from which we are trying to escape.
As with other minorities segregation of the blind, once begun, does not end with housing. Tom Bozikis recently wrote me as follows:
"In the city of Hammond where I reside, we have what is reported to be the world's largest Sunday School. What disturbs me is that this church, the First Baptist Church of Hammond, segregates those with physical and mental limitations from the rest of the parishioners.
"There is a Sunday School class for the blind, the deaf, the crippled, and the mentally retarded. They also have a separate area in church for the blind, deaf, etc. For example, the blind have a special section where they sit which is clearly marked and no one else is allowed to sit there. Even in the area of religion we are second-class citizens. Does this mean that the blind will be placed in a special area before the judgement seat?"
Whatever the answer to Tom's question may be, at least one person believes the blind are especially blessed: "Dear Sir," a teacher wrote me a few months ago.
"I can find no criminal statistics in the Annual Uniform Crime Report in which blind people are a part. I have assumed for 25 years that blind people cannot become criminals due to this sight limitation.
"I teach a course in the correction and prevention of delinquency and crime....
"A 26-year investigation of criminal phenomena has confirmed the Bible's statement that, 'if ye were blind ye should have no sin (crime): .... (John 9:41)'. . . .
"If you have any statistics relative to either delinquent or criminal behavior among the blind, I shall greatly appreciate a review of it."
By way of answer I sent him a newspaper headlined "Blind Man Kills Landlady." I don't know what his reaction was.
Speaking of crime, I recently received the following letter:
"Reasonably healthy and handsome and sterile Caucasian widower and prison inmate with at least three more years to serve before parole and who is five feet, ten inches tall and who weighs 150 pounds and who was born on 7 November 1934 would like to make the acquaintance of a blind lady of virtually any age who has never been divorced and who is reasonably secure financially. Objects: matrimony and the mutual happiness of two losers.
"If I cannot please you, blind lady, no man can. The need for your being reasonably secure financially is in line with my intention of having a full-time job keeping you happy. We can teach each other much. My sanity and intelligence are matters of public record. What have we to lose?
With a different twist I received a letter from India not long ago:
"DEAR SIR: I inquired here through the United States Information Services that Your Federation deals with blind females in the U.S.A. Please send me the details and photos of the blind females which are unmarried and between age 15 and 25. If some unmarried blind females want to marry with the young Indians (not blind) then I can help them. Some few young Indians want to marry with the blind American ladies. They want to settle themselves in the United States after their marriage."
To be sure, not all of the attitudes about the blind are bad, but the incidents I have mentioned are not isolated exceptions. They occur with monotonous frequency. Consider the following examples:
Mala Rubinstein (of the famous cosmetics firm) after working with the American Foundation for the Blind to (as she put it) "teach unsighted women how to use a simple collection of cosmetics to heighten their self-sense of beauty and psychic security" said:
"Nature compensates the blind by giving them a highly developed sense of touch, knowledge of the contours and planes of their faces, and a supremely sensitive sense of smell that easily distinguishes between delicate nuances of fragrance."
A release from the Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress last fall said:
"Surely no one would dispute the idea that the one music library in the nation serving the entire blind and physically handicapped community should be as good as the best music libraries serving everyone else. There is even some justification for saying that this library should provide better music library services than that available to others. It is a well-recognized fact that music tends to have a greater importance to the blind than to the sighted."
When asked by the newspapers why he found it necessary to make demeaning rules for blind vending stand operators, "stipulating that they bathe twice daily, obtain dental care at least twice a year, eat a balanced diet, and shampoo frequently," Cleo Dolan (the much-publicized head of the Cleveland Society for the Blind) defended himself by saying: "A blind person has to be almost overly cautious, so we set these guidelines." Mr. Dolan's rules covered everything from when the blind should change their underwear to the requirement that they give eight percent of their monthly gross sales to his agency. The federal courts thought so little of the civil rights of the blind that they refused to take jurisdiction. The case (with National Federation of the Blind backing) is now on appeal.
Rowe International, Inc., (a company that sells vending machines) apparently saw no impropriety in the following language in one of its brochures:
"Rowe International, Inc., and our network of over 40 distributor service centers across the country can provide
(1) Guidance in developing a profitable vending program.
(2) Training of nonhandicapped supervisors in administering the program.
(3) Training of the blind operators to serve and maintain the equipment (by specialists in training the blind)."
Not long ago I received the following inquiry from a student:
"DEAR SIR: I am doing a research paper for a class. I would like to know, how many or what percentage of the blind marry and if any steps are taken to prepare them for this part of life. Also what might be the difficulties or advantages of these marriages?"
I received the following letter from a blind woman in Connecticut:
"I am tired of feeling like a second-class citizen! My most recent frustration occurred when I visited a U.S. Post Office to apply for a passport. I produced my birth certificate, passport pictures, and completed application. Then the crushing blow: 'Please put your drivers license number on this line.' I replied, 'I'm sorry, I don't have one; I am legally blind.'
"Though I had numerous credit cards, professional organizations, a Social Security card as well as a bank identification card with my picture on it, none would suffice. Finally, my friend, who had accompanied me, was asked to fill out an affidavit swearing to my identity which required her name. drivers license, and passport information."
An article1 published by the American Foundation for the Blind discusses what is called a severity rating scale for multiply impaired children, in which different conditions are given a numerical value according to their severity. Light perception, total blindness, or blindness before age three is given a severity rating of ten. Mental disorders and retardation are regarded as less severe. In the language of the chart:
"An IQ of 49 or below, observed functioning at a level of one half or less of chronological age, trainable, not educableadd eight. Psychotic. Extreme disorder resulting in a loss of contact with reality. Common symptoms are hallucinations and distorted behavioradd eight."
In other words it is 25 percent worse to be blind than to have an IQ of 49 or be psychoticnot to mention that we have a keener sense of touch and smell than others, that music is more important to us, that we must be told when to change our underwear, that we must have nonhandicapped people to supervise us, that our marriage habits are so peculiar as to warrant special study, and that we must have a driver's license or do without a passport. Yet, because of our protests, some people call us militant. In the face of such prejudice, ignorance, discrimination, gross insensitivity, and what can only be called downright insanity the wonder is that we have behaved with such restraint as we have. In the circumstances our conduct has been mild to a fault, and a model of proprietybut let them wait; we are learning.
Not all misconceptions and discriminations are as overt as the ones I have just mentioned. In fact, the majority cloak themselves in glib generalities about how independent and capable we are. Al Fisher, one of our members who runs a center for the blind in Spokane, recently sent me a perfect example:
"We were asked [he said] to speak to a high school class on child development here. Very early in our discussion we asked how they felt about blindness and what they thought blind people could do. Their reaction was that blind people were no different from anybody else and that a blind person could do about anything he wanted. Then we started getting into specifics and they were skeptical about a number of areas. I asked them if they would be willing to hire a blind person as a babysitter. Not one, including the teacher, said they would. I'm wondering if they aren't expressing what they think is a popular position, something with form but no substance."
I would say Mr. Fisher sizes it up pretty well. Deep down at the gut level (at the place where people feel and live) most of the "professionals" and the general public still believe we are helpless. It is that simple and that compelling. Some of them don't know it; most would deny it; and a few just plain don't care and don't want to be bothered. But the feeling is there, and it is our biggest problem. Change is occurring, but it is occurring slowly; and it does not happen by itself. It happens only if we make it happen, and that is exactly what we are doing, making it happenoften to the anger and consternation of the professionals, and sometimes to the confusion and bewilderment of the public. But we are doing it. Regardless of the consequences, we are doing itand we are going to keep on doing it. That is what the National Federation of the Blind is all about. There was a time when we did not know our identity, when we settled for second-class citizenship, but that time is finished. Never again! There are blind people in this room (and sighted allies, too) who will take to the streets and fight with their bare hands if they must to prevent it. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
On this last night of my Presidency, as I recall the past and look to the future, I think of a letter which symbolizes the spirit of what we are as a movement and speaks to the special relationship we have developed through the years. It was 1974, and we were going to Cincinnati to demonstrate against NAC. Some of the Kentuckians were troubled about the thought of picketing and wrote to ask exactly what they would be expected to do. I wrote to them as follows:
"You say that there 'seems to be somewhat of a reaction to the word, demonstration.' As you know, I grew up in the hills of Tennessee, where the waters ran clear and the loyalties deep. I doubt that any member of the Federation (either in Kentucky or anywhere else) had a more conservative upbringing than I. Picketing, demonstrating, and everything associated with those words were foreign to me. As I said in Chicago in 1972, 1 had never participated in a demonstration in my lifenever, that is, before NAC.
"For that matter, I still regard myself as a conservative citizen, but I cannot stand by and do nothing while NAC remains unreformed and while I have life and strength. NAC represents tyranny to the blind. That means tyranny to the blind of Kentucky, as well as to the blind of other places. It is that simple, and we cannot avoid our responsibility by telling ourselves it does not exist.
"In the days of the youth of our nation a man named Andrew Jackson went down the Mississippi to fight the British at New Orleans. The backbone of his army consisted of Kentucky riflemen straight from the edge of the frontier. They were not radicals or irresponsible hell-raisers, but they would die and be double damned before they would give up their freedom to the British. I am not Andrew Jackson. and today's Kentuckians are not the frontiersmen of the 1800's; but if we meekly bow to NAC, we deserve the second-class status we will surely get.
"You ask me what is expected of those attending the NAC demonstration, and I reply that we need every man, woman, and child we can get to go to the Barkley Americana May 30 to serve as a visible reminder to the NAC Board members that we are free people and not inferiors-that we are not indifferent, not unconcerned, and not afraid to stand up for our rights. This is what is needed, but I would not want a single person to go to that meeting who is unwilling in his heart to go. We need front-line soldiers; but the army we need must be an army of volunteers, not draftees. We want no person there in body only, he must bring his heart with him, or stay at home.
"You ask what is expected of Kentucky, and I answer that I want you to come as your fathers came--with the spirit that crossed the mountains, settled the wilderness, and fought the British. Do it, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against us."
The Kentuckians came to that demonstration, and so did hundreds of others from throughout the country. So it has been over the years, and so it will continue to be until we achieve our goals. When NAC arrives in Portland this summer and in Phoenix this fall, we will be there to meet them. We will also be wherever else there is injustice and discrimination against the blind or an opportunity to make new achievementsin the halls of Congress, in the state capitol buildings, in the television studios, in the newspaper offices, in the board rooms of the agencies, in the establishments of commerce, in the classrooms of the universities, in the luncheons of the civic groups, and on the streets and sidewalks. We are the blind speaking for ourselves, and no force on earth will stay our progress.
And now I come to the hardest part of all, to my final words as President. For 25 years I have held office in the Federation. Tomorrow night that comes to an end. I believe the new President we have elected will lead strongly and with purpose.
As I leave the Presidency, I go with the knowledge that our future is bright. It is true that there are problems to be solved and challenges to be metthat the public must be enlightened and the agencies reformed; but we are on the road, and we have already come far on the journey. We must see it in perspective. As I said last year, it is not that our situation is worse or our problems greater today than in former times. Far from it. It is only that we have become aware and that our level of expectation has risen. In other days we would hardly have noticed, and even if we had, we would not have been organized to communicate or prepared to resist. We have it better now than we have ever had it before, and tomorrow yearns with promise.
As we make our advance and set our daily skirmish lines, we come to the fight with gladnessnot with cringing or fear. We come with a song on our lips and joy in our hearts, for we have seen the vision of hope and felt the power of Federationism and self-belief. We are organized and moving forward. We will be freeand the sighted will accept us as partners and equals.
On this note I leave the Presidency. You have supported and comforted and loved me in a way that few people have ever experienced, and, in turn, I have loved youand have sought with all the wisdom and capacity I possess to lead wisely and well. Together we have built dreams and marched to the battlefield. Together we have constructed a mighty movement and brought better lives to the blind. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours. Come! Let us join our new President on the barricades, and we will make it all come true!
1. Milton D. Graham, "Multiply Impaired Children: An Experimental Rating Scale," The New Outlook March 1968, pp. 73-81
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