Braille Monitor                                                                  March 1985


What is the Iowa Commission for the Blind

by Kenneth Jernigan

When I was Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, we had a booklet called What Is The Iowa Commission for the Blind. As the years have passed and the philosophy of the Commission has changed (even while some of the staff and their followers have vehemently and argrily insisted that it has not changed), the question has become ever more important and cogent. What, indeed, is the Iowa Commission for the Blind? Is it the name, the building, the staff, the philosophy, the legal entity, or something else?

If the Calvary Baptist Church in a given town has built a reputation for saving souls and fighting sin and if one day church services stop being held in the building and gambling and liquor selling commence, what are the loyal church members to do? Especially, what are they to do if the building stays the same and looks as it always looked and if the new tenants keep the name and even manage to hire some of the deacons and elders? What if it isn't a matter of gambling or liquor selling but simply that the beliefs and programs have been totally altered to achieve new objectives? Is such a situation even worse, perhaps, than open sin since it will be harder to expose and easier to cover up? What is the Calvary Baptist Church? Is it the name? Is it the building? Is it a portion of the elders and deacons? Is it the belief and faith which built the reputation and distinguished the church from others? Is it the practices and beliefs of the new tenants, regardless of whether they are consistent with the former beliefs? Or is it something else?

All of this was brought sharply home to me when I went to Des Moines last October to attend a meeting of the Commission's Orientation Alumni Association. The current Director of the Commission does not live in the building and apparently doesn't understand why she should, or that it makes much difference one way or the other. As I get it, she says that living in the building would not accord with her life style. From my observation I suspect she is right. She insists that all staff members be called by their first names and is said to be as touchy about it as we used to be about last names, pouring on the pressure and insisting that it be done. Again, she apparently has no concept of why we did it or what it accomplished.

I am told that Mrs. Norman (or Nancy, as they call her) usually comes late, leaves early, and makes a great virtue of knowing nothing whatsoever about blindness. As she puts it, "I leave that to my staff. After all, they are the experts."

When I was there in October, there were a hundred subtle changes. It was my first visit to the Commission in five years, and the agency I had known and worked to build was gone. Many of the staff, I was told, had been asked to turn in their front door keys. After all, the doors would not be locked except during evenings and on weekends, and the staff wouldn't generally be there then anyway. Many doors are now hooked into an electronic security system so that the maintenance person on duty comes running when the door is opened. Just ordinary security. There is an ever growing emphasis on paperwork and the rigidity of formality. Yes, formality--for even though we used last names, there was in the pre-1978 days a spirit of comradship, of common purpose and unity, of informality and lack of red tape, which is not only now lost but not even comprehended. But the most important change is something else, something intangible.

I am told that on January 26, 1985, the board of the Iowa Commission for the Blind conducted a personnel hearing to deal with the case of a woman who had worked in the accounting department and was fired. As I understand it, there was much confusion, much red tape, and a great deal of emphasis on rules and procedures. When all was said and done, the employee stated (and her statement was not contested) that the misuse of state property of which she was accused involved the question of whether she had driven twenty-two unauthorized miles. There was also the question of whether she had used a state identification tag in a parking lot or had simply forgotten to bring it back from her personal car (which was parked in the same lot) when she had gone to put the tag on a state owned vehicle. Everybody agreed that she had the right to have a state identification tag since she was in charge of distributing such tags. Did she (as she alleged) legitimately have the tag in the parking lot and simply forget to bring it back, or (as her detractors insist) did she wronfully have it there, intending to filch a little free parking? Who knows? Who cares? With such weighty issues to occupy their minds, it is no wonder that the members of the board of the Iowa Commission for the Blind have little time for matters like rehabilitation, changing public attitudes, or other such.

But there is more to this major case. Her lawyer (yes, the hearing was complete with lawyer) pointed out that the employee's boss, the head of the accounting department, was guilty of worse than twenty-two miles and a misused tag. He said that the accountant had made a personal telephone call of sixty-two minutes duration and had charged it to administration. When questioned about it the accountant had paid for it, saying that he had simply dialed the wrong access code and, therefore, had put the cost on the Commission bill instead of his own. Later, when the matter was brought to his attention, he was so busy he simply didn't remember or recognize it.

One has to wonder how much state money it took to deal with all of this mishmash--how many memos, conversations, and explanations. And this does not even take into account the time of everybody at the board meeting and the lost opportunity to deal with something worthwhile. Surely this entire earthshaking matter could have been handled by an efficient director in a few minutes, and speedily placed in proper perspective. Yes, the Iowa Commission for the Blind has changed. Some will say for the better, and some will say for the worse; but all should be able to agree that it has changed.

Recently Peggy Pinder, President of the NFB of Iowa, wrote to Director Nancy Norman about a problem which has been causing concern to the blind of the state. Although President Pinder addressed the Commission Director politely as Mrs. Norman and although President Pinder is an adult, holding a responsible position as an attorney, it will be observed that Mrs. Norman responded by addressing her as Peggy--something more likely to be interpreted as condescension than friendliness (particularly, in view of the cryptic, cavalier, and unresponsive nature of Mrs. Norman's letter; and particularly, in view of the closing, which indicates that she expects to be called by her last name with a Ms. in front of it). Quibbles? Think again. Organizations, businesses, and entire civilizations live or die because of the nature of the minutia of their daily routines.

So when a staff member, a blind person, or a member of the general public says: "I support the Iowa Commission for the Blind," what is it that he or she supports: the name, the building, the former philosophy, the present philosophy, the director, the former director, the staff, the legal entity, a hazy sort of impression, or something else? I come back to the original question. What is the Iowa Commission for the Blind?:

Des Moines, Iowa
October 17, 1985

Dear Mrs. Norman:

I am writing to inform you of the fact that there has been an alarming increase in the number of accidents involving ears and blind pedestrians in Des Moines, with three blind persons struck by cars the first eight months of this year.

Our members have noted that two of the blind persons involved received their cane travel training in the Commission's Orientation Center during your tenure, and recall that such accidents were extremely rare during the tenure of the Commission's previous two directors, who were blind.

You should know that our Des Moines Chapter has taken the initiative in working with the police concerning this, and has already formulated plans for an aggressive traffic safety campaign with ongoing education of Des Moines police officers and the public regarding the needs of blind pedestrians. During our conversation with the police, our members were told by an officer that he felt one reason for the increase in accidents was that the police had observed many blind persons abusing their canes by not using them properly. (Such blind persons have been observed carrying canes under their arm, waving them around, et cetera.) He felt motorists, seeing this, had come to the conclusion that those people could see.

We provided this information to our Des Moines Chapter members, but we find that our members both want and need to use the cane properly, and we encourage this in our members. During the past two years, we have noted more and more blind persons carrying their canes in the manner described by the police officer, and this had included some Commission staff and some Orientation students. Since students, in particular, are on the streets a lot during the daytime and evening hours, we feel that the impression they make as cane travelers will either help, or harm, Des Moines blind people. The cane is an important tool for independence and safety of blind people.

We realize that you and most of your administrative staff who teach cane travel are sighted people who do not use a cane on a daily basis as we do. Therefore, if you wish, we would be glad to come to the Commission and work with your staff and Orientation Center students on proper cane techniques and philosophy. We feel that our experience as blind people would be of benefit to you. After all, it is our lives and the lives of all blind people that we are trying to protect.

Please let us know when you would like us to begin.


Peggy Pinder, President
National Federation of the Blind of Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa
November 2, 1985

Dear Peggy:

We are in receipt of your October 17, 1984, letter. Rest assured that the Iowa Commission for the Blind is concerned about the safety of its students. Regrettably, even though great care is taken in preparing students to travel independently, accidents do happen. Thank you for your offer. Sincerely,

(Ms.) Nancy A. Norman
Iowa Commission for the Blind

News Release
Issued by the Des Moines Chapter
National Federation of the Blind

Traffic Injuries
Concern Blind of Des Moines

A dramatic increase in traffic accidents involving cars and blind persons is an issue for concern by blind people this week of White Cane Safety Day, according to Joe Van Lent of the Des Moines Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.

"Usually, traffic accidents involving blind persons have been few and far between," said Van Lent. "In the first eight months of this year, however, we 've had three blind persons struck by cars in Des Moines."

"We're trying to determine the reasons for this," said Van Lent, adding that Des Moines Chapter officials had talked with the Des Moines Police Department concerning this. "They're very interested in this, and are working with us on some solution," added Van Lent. "We're particularly concerned that none of the three motorists was ticketed." "We decided we needed to do more wor< in traffic safety education," said Card Smith, Chapter Vice President. "We have produced public service announcements with the police and plan to work witr them on an ongoing basis."

One issue raised by the police, according to Smith and Van Lent, was that some blind persons were abusing their canes by using them improperly. "They say they've seen blind persons carrying canes under their arms and feel that motorists come to believe that these people can actually see pretty well," Van Lent added. Van Lent said the chapter had alerted its members to the problem. "During the past two years our members have noticed that many blind persons including some Commission staff and Orientation Center students at the Iowa Commission for the Blind have not been using their canes properly. "So we're passing the word on to them. They must come to recognize that the cane is an important tool for the safety and independence of blind people."

"At next year's White Cane Safety Day celebration we hope to report no traffic accidents involving blind people," said Van Lent.