Parnell Diggs, Board Member
Attorney, Musician, Family Man
Parnell Diggs was among the initial generation of Braille-reading students to enter first grade in the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 1975, and the president of the United States had just signed into law what is known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), guaranteeing disabled students the right to a public education. Diggs had been born blind because of detached retinas. School officials were reluctant to admit him into a classroom with sighted students; but they had no choice if the school system was to qualify for federal funding, and Bill and Nancy Diggs refused to accept the limitations for their son that society ordinarily placed on blind children.
Young Diggs unequivocally demonstrated that he could acquire an education alongside his sighted peers. But he always looked forward to the end of the school day. In the yards, woods, and streets of his childhood, he climbed trees, rode bikes, and played quarterback on the neighborhood Pop Warner football team after his family relocated to Columbia, South Carolina.
He taught his younger brother Holland how to play baseball and how to wrestle. Holland was sighted, and he taught “Parnelli,” (a family nickname), the things most children learn by watching others, such as how to dance, shrug his shoulders, and give the thumbs-up sign. They remained close until Holland's untimely death in 2005.
In high school Diggs participated on the varsity wrestling team and made the South Carolina Honors All-State Chorus, and, while his friends were earning spending cash bagging groceries, he was earning good money singing and playing the guitar in Columbia area restaurants.
In 1989 Diggs met Kenneth Jernigan and Donald Capps, two leaders who had dedicated their lives to helping their blind brothers and sisters. They shared a message of promise and achievement for the blind and talked about how the blind could accomplish more through collective action. Diggs quickly embraced their reasoning and passion.
Before long Diggs recognized that the full integration of blind people into society would be his life's work; and though he was busy double majoring in political science and religious studies, working, and maintaining a social calendar, he believed that the best way to help himself as a blind person was to become a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
In 1991 Diggs participated in an NFB leadership seminar, where he received intensive instruction from NFB President Marc Maurer, whose leadership style has strongly influenced Diggs to this day. That year, he attended his first NFB national convention. Before arriving in New Orleans that summer, he had read Dr. Floyd Matson's eleven-hundred-page history of the first fifty years of the National Federation of the Blind, Walking Alone and Marching Together, in its entirety, as well as other NFB literature.
By the summer of 1992 Diggs had completed his first year of law school and was working as a law clerk at the South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, the state agency responsible for handling criminal appeals for indigent defendants. There he acquired the skills of legal research and oral argument and learned to interact with clients in the facilities of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
Diggs accepted a position as a law clerk in a private firm in 1993 and continued to hold this position after he was hired as a page in the South Carolina Senate. At one point in 1994, Diggs, a newlywed, was juggling his final semester of law school with two part-time jobs. He had married Kimberly Dawn Gossett (his high school sweetheart) on May 22, 1993. The couple relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1995 when he accepted a full-time position with the South Carolina Commission for the Blind administering rehabilitation programs in a four-county area. In 1997 he opened a private law practice in Myrtle Beach, where he remains in practice today.
Diggs was first elected to the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina board of directors in 1992, and he has been reelected every two years since. He was appointed by Governor Jim Hodges to the governing board of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind in 1999 and again in 2002 and was twice confirmed by the state Senate. This appointment made him the only person ever to have been a client, an employee, and a member of the governing board of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind.
In 2000 Donald Capps announced that he would not seek reelection as president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina and recommended that Diggs be elected in his stead. Diggs was elected unanimously and has held the presidency ever since. In 2007 the nation's blind elected him unanimously to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.
As a private practitioner Diggs has argued before the United States Court of Appeals in the 4th and 8th Circuits and has represented some three hundred clients in federal administrative proceedings. Music continues to be an important part of his life. Diggs sang first tenor and soloed with the Carolina Master Chorale in Europe in June of 2012 and performs regularly as a singer and guitarist as a member of Surfside United Methodist Church.
The Diggses have one son, Jordan, born on January 12, 2000. As he pondered his son's future, Diggs made the following observation, “Jordan will be told that he is less fortunate than other children are because his dad is blind, but thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, he won't believe it. Blindness is not a tragedy. I am determined that this is the message about blindness that my son will hear most.”