Braille Monitor                                                                  June 1985


Something New Under the Sun in Iowa

by Peggy Pinder

(Reprinted from the March, 1985, Barricades, the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.)

Ecclesiastes, the book of the Bible in which the sayings of the wise King Solomon are reportedly collected, states that "...There is nothing new under the sun." (Eccl. 1:9) Until recently, the same would have been true of matters affecting the blind of Iowa. But there is now something new under the sun.

The blindness field has traditionally been understood as one divided in half. One view of blindness is that held by most agencies for the blind. They view blindness as a life-long deprivation. Those who hold this view may vary as to their assessment of the severity of the deprivation, but they all agree that the deprived cannot go through life without the constant assistance of knowledgeable, compassionate, understanding helpers always ready for the blind all the things the blind cannot do for themselves. In other words, the agencies assume dependence, design programs and services in the belief that the blind cannot be independent, and foster dependency by their every conscious and subconscious action.

The other view, the Federation view, is that the blind are as capable of independence as other human beings. The Federation believes that, given properly designed training, the blind can achieve this independence; that there are some ongoing services the blind, like everyone else, want; that these services, like library services, are most effectively provided to all people (and, thus, to blind people) by government; and that most services now provided by government to the blind foster dependence by the blind upon the service provider.

This great division in attitudes towards blindness has traditionally existed in Iowa, as it exists everywhere--although much good work to eradicate dependence has been done here. But there is now something new under the sun in Iowa.

Several years ago the then-executive director of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC), Dr. Richard Bleecker, was widely criticized for a visit he made to the United States Department of Labor. He openly tried to get Labor Department officials to terminate the Department's funding of the very successful and much praised JOB (Job Opportunities for the Blind) program operated jointly by the NFB (National Federation of the Blind) and the Department of Labor. This job bank, job referral, and job matching service appears to duplicate an important part of the state/federal vocational rehabilitation program, since both assist blind people in obtaining jobs. Yet, the JOB program is so outstandingly successful in providing real benefits to blind people that even the budget-cutting Reagan administration has continued fully to fund it every year.

Dr. Bleecker's effort to stop JOB funding was clearly motivated by open hatred and fear of the Federation and its nationally recognized program, which proved daily that the blind could be independent, both at work and in administering the program that found the job.

He was motivated purely by politics and not in any sense by a genuine desire to help the blind. If he had wanted to help the blind, he wouldn't have tried to stop a program which so obviously helps them. He could have criticized the Federation all he liked; he shouldn't have tried to harm individual blind men and women. Even members of NAC's board of directors--agency people themselves--were appalled by what Dr. Bleecker did, and they publicly apologized. Dr. Bleecker no longer works at NAC.

But what is it that is new under the sun in Iowa? One thing that is not new is the ongoing effort to get white canes into the hands of blind children in Iowa. For years, under the leadership of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Commission staff gave white canes to blind children whenever the child and parents came to understand that the cane was important. Every blind person has struggled with misconceptions about blindness before accepting a white cane. Many of us have been reluctant to use the white cane to gather necessary information because we did not want to be publicly labeled as blind. Children and parents are no different. When Dr. Jernigan was in Iowa, the effort to give canes to children was linked to the broader effort to change public attitudes about blindness and to increase the visibility of blind people in Iowa to the level that the blind would be accepted as a normal part of society and the cane accepted as a useful tool in the same way that eyeglasses are useful.

Since Dr. Jernigan's departure the main emphasis at the Commission has shifted from changing attitudes about the blind to merely advertising the Commission and glorifying its director. While individual staff people may provide adequate or even distinguished service to individual clients, the thrust and momentum and unity of the Commission's work has evaporated.

Federationists have known this and viewed it with sadness. We have noticed the pieces falling out of place and learned in bitter disappointment just how well and truly for the good of the blind Dr. Jernigan built while he was here. As the unity goes, and blind people come to us for help with problems, individual pieces of the program become conspicuous.

Distribution of canes for blind children is one such piece. In early 1984 we began to receive reports from around the state that blind children were being required to pay for canes. We also received requests for information about where child sized canes might be available. From these inquiries the idea arose to found a "cane bank," a stock of canes of different lengths from which a child could borrow, exchanging shorter for longer canes as the child grew. While appearing to duplicate the Iowa Commission for the Blind as a source of canes for children, this cane bank would actually offer much more. It would stock short canes with smaller diameter handles, manufactured especially for children. These are only available (so far as we know) from the National Office of the Federation and are not stocked or given out by the Commission. The cane bank would also have longer canes for teenagers. It would be a service from blind people to blind people, and thus would have the added advantage of providing role models (blind adults who use canes naturally and well) to blind children. The cane bank would not sell canes, but only loan them--a service advertised as completely free to every blind child.

The idea appealed to several Lions Clubs, which have contributed money over the months to purchase canes.

In the summer of 1984, after the bank had been established and had distributed enough canes to require restocking in several sizes, we began to learn of something new under the sun in Iowa.

Several of our members received hostile inquiries about the cane bank from Lions we had not contacted. These Lions were unaware that some clubs had chosen to donate funds as part of their local good works, and angrily demanded that the cane bank stop since (they said) it was duplicating a service already being provided by the Commission for the Blind. This struck Federationists as necessarily a case of the ill intentioned leading (or misleading) the uninformed, since the Lions who contacted us would not normally be thoroughly familiar with Commission services, and since they were not interested in learning anything about the cane bank or the need which called it into being. Someone must have worked on them.

We looked further into the matter and found there is something new under the sun in Iowa. We found that John Taylor, former Commission director and now president of an organization composed of persons formerly in the Federation, had contacted friends of his who are Lions and complained to them about the cane bank. What did Mr. Taylor say? No one knows precisely, but the response from Lions contacted by Mr. Taylor was extremely hostile towards the Federation.

For example, an article published in the November-December, 1984, edition of the Iowa Lion magazine is insistent that "Iowa's District Governors and the Trustees of the Iowa Lions Sight and Hearing Foundation would like it known that they have not given endorsement or financial support to the Iowa Federation For The Blind or groups affiliated with them for any white cane project."

There is no such thing as the "Iowa Federation For The Blind." No one has claimed that the ILSHF trustees or the District Governors have officially supported the cane bank. However, many local Lions clubs have supported it. And what did Mr. Taylor have to do with all this? An article in the Winter, 1985, edition of the Bulletin of the United Blind of Iowa (of which John Taylor is president) helps to fill in the picture. It reprints the article from the Iowa Lion magazine and gloats over the supposed damage done to the cane bank.

Why did Mr. Taylor do all of this? This is the troubling question, the question which should cause all Iowans to pause and meditate. There is something new under the sun in Iowa. It is a willingness to set out deliberately to destroy a program assisting blind people in achieving independence. It is a readiness to harm individual blind people by attempting to ruin a worthwhile service. It is the voice raised triumphantly to proclaim: Because I disagree with the Federation, I will spread half truths, misinform the uninformed, and stir up suspicion against any program of the Federation, good or bad, helpful or unhelpful, it matters not to me. If I can "get" the Federation, even if it means harming individual blind children, then I will do it.

This is new under the sun in Iowa. It was a sad day when this new thing came amongst us.

Fortunately for blind people, malice and fear cannot erode in Iowa what is already here, the strength of blind people committed to working together to free all the blind. The cane bank is alive and well, and Lions clubs continue to support it with their generous contributions. The truth which has brought blind people so far in Iowa and throughout America will continue to sustain us and strengthen us. Moreover, to achieve freedom for all blind people we must have that respect and approval for the good work and character of one another which is known by the simple term love.