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

of them.

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

blueprints.

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

plastic tape.

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

do.

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?