BEGINNINGS AND BLUEPRINTS
by Kenneth Jernigan
When does a beginning turn into a blueprint? I don't
know, but of one thing I am certain. Blueprints have played an
important part in my life. And not just in the work I have
done managing and remodeling buildings but also in the
disappointments and opportunities that have shaped my being
and made me what I am.
As readers of the Kernel Books know, I have been blind
since birth. I grew up on a farm in Tennessee in the late
twenties and early thirties, and as might be imagined, jobs
and money were much on the minds of my parents and their
neighbors. Such things were on my mind too, but not from the
perspective of my elders. I knew that there was a depression,
of course, and that things were bad. But that wasn't what
mainly concerned me.
From my earliest hazy memories, I recall wondering what
would happen to me when I grew up. My blindness didn't bother
me (I took it for granted--just as I did that I was a boy and
not a girl), but I didn't ignore it. It was there. It was part
of me. My mother and dad didn't believe I would have very many
options. They didn't say so, but I could tell how they felt.
They had seen a blind person preaching once, so they thought
I might do that. They also thought I might be able to play
some kind of musical instrument. In fact, they went so far as
to buy me a second-hand piano somewhere along the way; and
early on, my Aunt Ethel (she was my dad's sister) gave me a
violin that had belonged to her husband's brother Scott.
But all of this was to come to nothing. For although I was
required to memorize a great many chapters from the Bible when
I went to the Tennessee School for the Blind, and although
some of the speeches of my adult years have been likened
(sometimes happily and sometimes not) to sermons, preaching
was not for me. Nor was music.
Soon after I entered the Tennessee School for the Blind
in Nashville in January of 1933, I was enrolled in the violin
class. After all, I had a violin of my own. Simultaneously (or
soon thereafter) I joined the school band, vainly moving from
horn to horn in a futile attempt to find my niche. But for me,
trying to learn the notes was like memorizing a string of
telephone numbers. I couldn't play the simplest melody, and I
still can't today. I continued band and violin for five years,
being thoroughly bored with both.
I ultimately quit band to take what was called manual
arts, which in reality was a high-toned name for chair caning
and broom making; and I quit violin to take piano, an even
greater disaster since I spent the bulk of my practice time
disassembling the piano and engaging in similar mischief.
Occasionally I tried sleeping, but the bench was too short. In
brief, neither music nor preaching fit the blueprint.
In previous Kernel Books I have talked about my
activities in high school and college, my building and selling
of furniture, and my work as an insurance salesman; so I will
not deal with those things here. Suffice it to say that
(although furniture and insurance were rewarding, both
financially and otherwise) they did not suit the ultimate
blueprint of my life. Nor did real estate, which I considered
for a while--going so far as to get a broker's license once.
No, it was not to be music or preaching or furniture or
insurance or real estate even though I made beginnings in some
After college, I did a stint of high school teaching for
a few years, and then I had my first formal acquaintance with
blueprints. It happened like this.
There was an opening for the Superintendency of the
Kentucky School for the Blind, and I applied. Happy Chandler
(former baseball commissioner and erstwhile senator) was
governor of Kentucky at the time, and I had his support; so it
seemed likely that I would get the job.
But a snag developed. When I talked with the hiring
officer (I think he was called Superintendent of Education or
some such), all went well until we came to the question of
working with architects. Some 300,000 dollars' worth of
remodeling was to be done at the school, and the hiring
officer wanted to know how I as a blind person would read
I told him I had never thought about the matter but that
I was sure it wouldn't be a problem. That wasn't good enough,
and I didn't get the job--a fact that is laughable in light of
my later experience.
When I became director of state programs for the blind in
Iowa in the late 1950's, we bought an old YMCA building (it
was seven stories tall) and made it into a training center and
headquarters. As the years went by, we did many millions of
dollars of remodeling, and I directed it all.
As to the matter of blueprints, it was amazingly simple.
The architects and I sat down one morning for a couple of
hours and worked it out. The architects did their normal
measuring and drafting, and then produced their regular
blueprints. All that was necessary for me to read them was for
the architects to trace each line with a narrow piece of
Most people think of blueprints as mysterious and
complex, but they aren't. A series of parallel lines close
together indicates stairs, and a line drawn at an angle in a
doorway shows which way the door is to swing. Narrow lines
represent windows, and wider lines represent walls, with
squares or rounds appropriately placed marking columns. All of
this can be done with tape of proper width, and it can be done
in a very short time. The resulting blueprint is completely
accurate and easily useable by both the sighted and the blind.
Yet, in the attempted beginning in Kentucky a few years
earlier my lack of experience cost me the job. Maybe that is
the way it always is. If beginnings and blueprints don't go
hand in hand, there isn't much chance of success.
When I came to Baltimore in 1978 to establish the
headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, we got
a complex of old factory buildings and began the process of
remodeling. By now, working with blueprints was routine, as
easy for the blind as the sighted. I could in a few minutes
teach any architect how to prepare blueprints for me, and as
the Baltimore years have gone by, I have done it repeatedly.
The National Center for the Blind is visible proof of how it
works. The buildings are the envy of all who see them,
attractive and well proportioned.
So far, I have said almost nothing about the National
Federation of the Blind, but in a very real sense it is key to
everything--the beginnings, the blueprints, the career, the
full life, and all of the rest. I first became acquainted with
the Federation in the late 1940's, and it gave me a whole new
perspective about blindness and what I could hope to be and
It was not just an organization for the blind. It was the
blind, speaking, thinking, and doing for themselves--helping
and encouraging each other, exchanging ideas, and working to
bring new insights to the public.
With its more than 50,000 members throughout the country,
the National Federation of the Blind has, in my opinion, been
the biggest single factor in improving the quality of life for
blind people in the United States in the twentieth century.
Most of the work of the Federation is done by volunteers,
by those of us who are blind and by our sighted friends. On a
daily basis we do our work with new beginnings and expanding
blueprints, and the encouraging thing is that we who are blind
are no longer doing it alone. An increasing number of sighted
friends and associates are helping us change what it means to
be blind. In the circumstances how can we do other than to
look forward to the future with hope and confidence?