Picture of Kenneth Jernigan

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Kenneth Jernigan]

The Continuing Saga of the Kernel Books
by Kenneth Jernigan

During the 1990's the Kernel Books have been at the very heart of our program of public education, and 1998 is no exception. This year, as in the past, we are publishing two new volumes. The first will be available at this convention, and the second will be released this fall.

Today, as on previous occasions, I want to give you the introductions to the two books, as well as the first article in each. As you know, I edit these books, and I also usually write the first article. So here is my Editor's Introduction to the book that will be available to you at this convention:

Editor's Introduction

This is the fourteenth volume in the Kernel Book series. Its title, Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses, is taken from the first two stories and symbolizes the theme of the book.

How do blind children learn the details of the hundreds of small daily acts that sighted children pick up without ever even knowing they have done it? A blind boy sits in a farm house on a summer night and wonders which way to shake his head to mean yes and no. He guesses and loses, and his mother's feelings are hurt. I know, for I was that boy.

A blind father cooks for his two sighted children, and the pancakes are gray, causing the children to reject them. Small incidents, things of no great moment. Yet the stuff of daily living, the patterns and realities of life.

This Kernel Book is much like those that have gone before it. It contains first-person real-life stories, told by those who have lived them. It talks about going to school, communicating with others, and living from day to day. I know the people who appear in its pages. They are friends of mine. Some have been my students.

The one thing all of us who appear in this book have in common is our shared participation in the work of the National Federation of the Blind, the organization which has been the strongest single factor in making life better for the blind of this country during the twentieth century. With more than 50,000 members the National Federation of the Blind is primarily composed of blind people, who are trying to make life better for themselves and other blind people, while at the same time making the world a better place in which to live for everybody.

We who are blind have a major job on our hands in trying to get members of the general public to see us for what we are—not especially blessed or especially cursed but just ordinary people, exactly like you. The only difference is that we don't have eyesight, which is not as big a factor in our daily lives as most people think it is.

So how do we get the job done? How do we get people to see us for what we are and not just what they have always thought we are? One of the most important ways is through the Kernel Books. This is why we write and publish them. They must be entertaining enough that people will read them, but they must do more than that. They must carry the message of what blindness truly is, and what it isn't.

We hope you will enjoy this book and that it will give you new insights about blindness. Since more than 50,000 people become blind in this country each year, the information you get from these pages may be useful to you in a personal way at some future time—and if not for you, then for a family member or friend.

As you read, remember that we who are blind have more hope today than ever before in history. We believe that, when we can, we should do for ourselves before calling on others for assistance, but we also recognize the value of the help which a growing number of sighted friends and associates give us. We want to live the full lives of free, participating citizens, and we know that we can.

All of this you will see reflected in the pages of this book. We hope you will find it of interest and that it will cause you to rethink some of your notions about blindness.

Kenneth Jernigan
Baltimore, Maryland

There you have the introduction to Kernel Book fourteen. Now, here is my opening article. It is entitled "The Barrier of the Visible Difference."

The Barrier of the Visible Difference

Catchy titles and clever phrases are the stuff of big business. As every advertising agency knows, fortunes are made or lost by the way the public reacts to a jingle or a slogan.

Once I heard a liquor distributor say that his company had a thoroughly mediocre wine that was going nowhere, and then somebody got the bright idea of giving it a sparkly name (I think it was Wild Irish Rose). After that he said they couldn't make enough to meet the demand, operating three shifts a day.

Whether that story is true or false, the underlying message is right on target. It is not just what a thing is but how it sounds and feels that sets the tone and gives the value.

When most of us come across the term "visible difference," we think of the trademark of the beauty expert and cosmetics manufacturer Elizabeth Arden. "Visible Difference" is the brand name of moisturizers, lotions, and other products. But for the blind the term means something else. It represents a barrier and a hurdle to be surmounted. Let me illustrate.

When I was a boy of about four, my mother and I were sitting in the front bedroom of our home. Even though more than sixty-five years have passed, I still remember every detail. It was a summer evening just after dark. My father and brother were sitting on the porch, and the night sounds (the frogs and crickets) were coming into full chorus. It was oppressively hot with a lot of dust in the air.

In those days we didn't have electricity, so my mother had just lit the oil lamp. The smell of the burning kerosene began to blend with the regular odors of food and plant life that permeated the four-room house. Of course, all of the doors and windows were open.

When my mother finished lighting the lamp and adjusting the wick, she sat down and put her arm around me. Then she kissed me on the left side of my face. Since she was sitting on my left, this was a natural (almost an automatic) gesture. Then she said:

"Do you like for mother to kiss you?" Now this put me into a real dilemma—for I very much liked for mother to kiss me, but I felt shy and embarrassed to say it.

Hunting a way out, I thought perhaps I could say yes by shaking my head. From conversations I had heard, I knew that other people shook their heads to mean yes or no, but I didn't know which way the head should move to indicate which meaning. It had never before occurred to me to wonder about the matter since I had never needed to know. My mother or anybody else around the house would undoubtedly have been perfectly willing to tell me if I had asked, but that didn't help in the situation I was then facing.

Using the best logic I could muster, I thought that since my mother was sitting on my left, maybe if I moved my head that way, it would indicate yes. Unfortunately it didn't, and my mother (not understanding my embarrassment and lack of knowledge) thought I was saying no. She was hurt and cried, and I didn't know how to explain.

So what is the moral of that little story, that minor tragedy of childhood? It is not that blind people are less competent than others of their age and circumstance. It is not that blind persons are slow learners or inept. It is that sometimes something that can be seen at a glance must be learned a different way by a blind person. The learning can be just as quick and just as effective, but it won't happen unless somebody thinks to explain, to help the blind child cross the barrier of the visible difference. There is no great problem in knowing how to shake one's head or in doing a hundred other things that sighted children learn without ever knowing that they have done it. It is only that the blind child must either be unusually persistent and inquisitive or have somebody constantly at hand who thinks to give information. Otherwise insignificant details will multiply to major deficits.

And this is not just a matter of childhood. After seventy years I keep learning new things about the barrier of the visible difference. Recently, when I told a blind friend of mine who is a lawyer about my head-shaking episode, he asked if I knew how you are supposed to hold your hand in a court when you are told to raise your right hand. I said that I had never thought about it but had always assumed that you simply raise your hand above your head, which is what would seem logical in the circumstances.

"No," he told me, "that isn't the way it is done. You raise your hand to shoulder level with the palm out." He went on to tell me that when he was being sworn in to be admitted to the Bar, he had raised his hand above his head and that later one of his classmates had told him how the customary ritual is performed.

It is important to understand the significance of this incident. There is nothing better about raising the hand to the shoulder than over the head. It doesn't make one a better lawyer or a better witness in court. My friend is an excellent attorney, and I have testified in court on more than one occasion. We are simply dealing with a custom of society, a visible difference.

More than anything else (at least, unless one is aware of it and thinks about it) meaningless visible differences can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, and sometimes even to misplaced feelings of superiority or inadequacy. A thing that looks beautiful to the eye, for instance, can feel ugly and dirty to the touch. Again let me illustrate. Once, when I was four or five, my mother and father took me to the county fair. This was a big event.

We lived about fourteen miles from the county seat, and we didn't have a car. Very few people did in those days, so friends and neighbors pooled their transportation and helped each other with rides.

On this particular occasion my mother and I were standing at one of the booths at the fair. In retrospect it must have been one of those places that give prizes for throwing darts, tossing rings, or something of the sort. Regardless of that, the woman in charge gave me a small statue of a horse. As I think back on it, she may have done it because I was blind, or simply because she thought I was a cute kid. For purposes of my story it doesn't matter.

The horse must have been quite pretty, for both the woman and my mother kept exclaiming about it. It was apparently covered with some sort of sparkly gold paint. To the eye I assume that it was extremely attractive, but to me it just felt dirty and grungy.

Now, I had never before had a small gold horse or, for that matter, any other kind of horse, or very many nice toys of any kind—so I was pleased and ecstatic with my treasure. But I thought I ought to clean it up and try to make it look nice.

Therefore, while my mother and the woman were talking, I busily scratched all of the rough-feeling gold paint off of it. It was quite a job. By the time I had finished, my horse felt clean and attractive. I was proud of it. Imagine, then, my disappointment and chagrin when my mother and the woman noticed what I had done and were absolutely dismayed. I couldn't understand why they were unhappy, and they couldn't understand why I felt that the horse was better for my effort. Again I had bumped head-on into the barrier of the visible difference.

Unlike the head-shaking incident, this was not exactly a matter of learning correct information. If a thing looks better to the eye and feels worse to the touch, that doesn't make it better or worse. It simply means a different point of view, a visible difference.

I thoroughly understand that we live in a world that is structured for the sighted, so if a blind person intends to get along and compete in society, he or she must learn how the sighted feel and what they think is beautiful and attractive. But this has nothing to do with innate loveliness or quality. It is simply a visible difference.

As a matter of fact, although I wouldn't scratch the paint off of it if I met it today, that horse of my childhood would feel just as dirty to me now as it did then. A few years ago, when I went to Athens, I was invited (no, urged) to handle a variety of sculptures. They may have looked beautiful, and I have no doubt that they did; but they didn't feel beautiful—at least, not to me. They felt dirty, and I wanted a good hand-washing after feeling them. Hopefully this does not mean that I am either a barbarian or a boor, only that my way of appreciating beauty may have something to do with the fact that I touch instead of look.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that it is only the blind who get stuck on the barrier of the visible difference. The sighted do it, too—repeatedly, every day. Recently when I was in the hospital, I was being taken to the x-ray department for tests. On the way I had to stop to go to the bathroom. As I came out, a hospital official (I think she was a nurse) saw me and exclaimed, in what I can only describe as panic:

"Catch him! He's going to fall. His eyes are closed."

My wife explained to her that I am blind and that my eyes are usually closed. It made no difference.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "Hold him. His eyes are closed. He will fall." This woman is not abnormal or unusually jumpy, nor (at least, as far as I can tell) is she stupid. She is simply so accustomed to the fact that sighted people look about them to keep their bearings that she cannot imagine that sight and balance have nothing to do with each other. If I had thought it wouldn't have upset her, I would have asked her if she believed she would be unable to stand up in a totally dark room.

During that same hospital stay, when I stepped into another bathroom, the nurse turned the light on for me even though I told her in a light and pleasant tone that I didn't need it. She said she would turn it on anyway. It was clear that she felt uncomfortable to have me in the bathroom in the dark. Obviously this is not a major matter. It simply shows that we feel uneasy when something violates (even benignly) our routine patterns.

And these are not isolated instances. Every day letters and articles come to my attention to prove it. A journalist from Ohio writes to say that the blind need special fishing facilities—and he will lobby the government to help make it happen. He doesn't say why we can't fish in the regular way like everybody else, which many of us do all of the time.

A locksmith from Wisconsin believes the blind would benefit from specially shaped door knobs (oval and textured, he thinks), and he is willing to design them. A pilot from Pennsylvania thinks we should solve any problems we have with the airlines by setting up an airline of our own, and he will help fly the planes.

A man from Minnesota believes that blind alcoholics cannot benefit from regular programs used by the sighted and suggests separate services. Some years ago the Manchester Union Leader, one of New Hampshire's most prominent newspapers, said that the governor of the state was so bad that only the deaf, the dumb, and the blind could believe he was competent.

These few illustrations are not a complete list, of course, but only a sampling. Moreover, I am not talking about all of the sighted. An increasing number are coming to understand and work with us. They give us some of our strongest support.

Nor am I saying that the sighted are hostile toward us. Quite the contrary. Overwhelmingly the members of the sighted public wish us well and have good will toward us. It is simply that they are used to doing things with visual techniques, and when they look at a blind person, they see something to which they are not accustomed—what I call the barrier of the visible difference.

Most sighted people take it for granted that doing something with eyesight is better than doing it some other way. Visual techniques are sometimes superior to non-visual techniques, and sometimes not. Sometimes the non-visual way of doing a thing is better. Usually, however, it isn't a matter of better or worse but just difference.

This brings me to my experience with the National Federation of the Blind. I first became acquainted with the Federation almost fifty years ago, and it has done more than anything else in my life to help me gain balance and perspective—to understand that the barrier of the visible difference need not be a major obstacle, either for me or for my sighted associates.

With more than fifty thousand active members throughout the nation, the National Federation of the Blind is leading the way in making it possible for blind people to have normal, everyday lives. We of the Federation seek out parents and help them understand that their blind children can grow up to be productive citizens. We work with blind college students, giving scholarships and providing successful role models. Blind seniors make up an important part of the organization, helping and encouraging each other and exchanging ideas and information. We develop new technology for the blind and assist blind persons in finding jobs.

All of this is what we of the National Federation of the Blind do to help ourselves and each other, but the chief value of the organization is the way it helps us look at our blindness and the way it helps sighted people understand and accept. We who are blind know that with reasonable opportunity and training we can earn our own way in the world, compete on terms of equality with others, and lead ordinary, worthwhile lives. We do not feel that we are victims, or that society owes us a living or is responsible for our problems. We believe that we ought to do for ourselves and that we also should help others. These attitudes are the heart and soul of the National Federation of the Blind. They constitute its core beliefs and reason for being.

We go to meet the future with joy and hope, but we recognize that we need help from our sighted friends. If we do our part, we are confident that the needed help will be forthcoming. We also know that both we and the sighted can surmount the barrier of the visible difference and reduce it to the level of a mere inconvenience.

There you have the Editor's Introduction and the first article in volume fourteen of the Kernel Book series. Here is the Editor's Introduction to book fifteen, which will be released this fall:

Editor's Introduction

This is the fifteenth volume in the Kernel Book series. Its title, To Touch the Untouchable Dream, comes from the article by Ed and Toni Eames, who recently went to South Africa. They tell of their visit to a game preserve and the techniques they used to experience the wonder of it.

The first of the Kernel Books was issued almost eight years ago, and since that time more than three million have been put into circulation. If generalizations were effective, we could have saved a lot of paper, space, and time by writing a single paragraph or two to convey our message. It would probably go something like this:

Being blind is not what almost everybody thinks it is. Contrary to popular belief, the real problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight but the misconceptions and misunderstandings which exist— misconceptions and misunderstandings by the public at large and also, unfortunately, sometimes by many of the blind themselves. However, we are learning new ways of thought about blindness, and every day our situation is improving. This is true because we have established our own nationwide self-help organization, the National Federation of the Blind, and because more and more sighted friends are doing what they can to help us.

We know that with proper training and opportunity the average blind person can do the average job in the average place of business and do it as well as a sighted person similarly situated. We know that blind children can successfully live and compete with sighted children, that blind seniors can function as well as sighted seniors, and that there is almost no job that some blind person is not competently doing. In short, through the work of the National Federation of the Blind and of our sighted friends and associates we are changing what it means to be blind.

If generalizations were effective, we could, as I have said, have saved a great deal of effort by simply writing and distributing these two paragraphs. But generalizations are not effective. They don't convey a sense of reality, so we give details and write the Kernel Books. The present volume is part of the process.

What happens when a blind man who has been an outdoorsman goes camping and climbs a tall tree while a passing tourist stops to watch? You will learn in this book, and I think you will find the interchange interesting. At least I did since I was on hand to observe it.

And what happens when a blind father, waiting for his wife, is holding his baby in his arms and is approached by a sighted bystander, who believes that the blind are not competent to do such things? Then there is the blind person who teaches another blind person to operate a chain saw, and the blind woman who talks about baking bread. These and other true-life, first-person stories appear in this volume.

This is not the stuff of high drama. Rather, it is an account of the ordinary routine of daily life, the detailing of how average human beings live and work and play—perhaps as compelling in the long run as the most graphic international news story. I know the people who appear in these pages. They are friends and colleagues of mine.

Besides blindness we have at least one other thing in common. We give our time and effort to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. We do this because the organization is the focal point for improving the quality of life for the blind of this country. Life has been good to us, and we feel the need to give something back—to help the newly blind, blind children, blind job seekers, blind seniors, and each other. We feel strongly that we must contribute as well as take, but we also realize that, if we are to go the rest of the way to real equality, we will need help from sighted friends. These are our core beliefs, and we feel great hope and confidence in the future.

I hope you will find this book, the fifteenth in the series, both interesting and entertaining. If you do, we will have achieved our purpose and come one step closer to touching the untouchable dream.

Kenneth Jernigan

Baltimore, Maryland


My opening article in book fifteen is called "Even I." Here it is:

Even I

Words play a more important part in our daily lives than we sometimes think. They allow us to communicate with each other with wonderful precision, and they are one of the principal features that distinguish humans from animals. It is not that words make us human but that they enhance our humanity.

For the blind certain words have a special meaning. As an example, when I was a boy growing up on the farm in Tennessee, I learned early on of the significance of the words "Even I" used by my family and sighted neighbors.

As a case in point consider the game of checkers. In those days (when none of us in that part of the country had either telephones or radios and when books and magazines were not part of the daily routine), the men and boys often entertained themselves by playing checkers. I wanted to play, too, but one or another of my family would invariably explain to me that I had to understand my limitations as a blind person. Eventually they would get around to saying something like this, "Even I find it difficult to play checkers."

The implication was that, because they could see and I couldn't, I was obviously at a disadvantage, not only in checkers but in everything else. This, of course, was just plain foolishness. All I needed was some way to feel the squares on the checkerboard, a problem I solved by stretching a string across the squares and tacking it down at both ends. The job took only a few minutes, and my checker playing was not impaired by my blindness. However, in the face of all of the negatives, it took me a while to put the system into place. The "Even I" was a definite drawback.

And this attitude of believing that sight is always the deciding factor is not just a matter of fifty years ago or some isolated corner of rural America. In the 1950's, when I was a teacher at the California Training Center for the Blind, we had a student who had always been an outdoorsman. He was now in his forties, had just become blind, and had come to us for training.

One day a number of us went to a wooded area for an overnight camping trip, and while we were there, the new student (feeling energetic in the fresh air) decided to climb a tree. He went up the tree with ease. A passing tourist stopped and marveled.

"That is amazing," he said. "Even I would have trouble climbing that tree, and I can see."

As best I could determine, the tourist was probably in his late sixties, and he was extremely overweight. I doubt that he could have climbed the tree if his life had depended on it, but he thought only in terms of sight and blindness. Of course, in the circumstances blindness had nothing to do with the matter. The "Even I" was totally irrelevant.

Later, when I was director of programs for the blind in the state of Iowa, I was traveling to one of our district offices and stopped at a service station to get a Coca-Cola. While I was drinking it, a man who had just come in said:

"I can understand some of your problems, for I am handicapped, too. My handicap is not as bad as yours, but even I have trouble getting along."

After I left the service station and was continuing my trip, I thought about what he had said. So far as I could tell, he had at least three handicaps that would limit him in the competition of daily life. He had a speech impediment, which I think was what he was talking about when he said he had a handicap; he had a very limited education; and his intelligence did not appear to be very high.

I think his speech impediment was the least of his handicaps, but I am sure that he didn't see it that way. I suspect that I was much more employable than he and much better able to participate in the rough and tumble of the competitive world. But to him, because he could see and I could not, the edge was all in his favor. As he said, "Even I have trouble getting along."

In the early 1980's I appeared one night on the "Larry King Program." In those days it was entirely radio, and the studio was about nineteen floors up from street level in a downtown Washington, D.C., building. It was a lively program, and when we finished at midnight, my driver and I went out into the hall to take the elevator to ground level.

The problem was that the elevator wouldn't come. This seemed mightily upsetting to both Larry King and his assistant. I pointed out to them that there was a fire stair immediately next to the elevator and that there would be no problem in simply walking down to the street. It is no exaggeration to say that Larry King's assistant was shocked. Apparently it had never occurred to him that a blind person might take the stairs.

"Even I would not like to walk down those nineteen flights," he said, "and I am sighted."

What sight had to do with it was more than I could understand, but after a few minutes of trying to soothe him down and of waiting for an elevator that persistently refused to come, we took the stairs over his protest and walked without incident to the street.

This sort of thing happens every day, but it is not limited to the sighted. Let me go back to my teaching experience at the training center in California. In those days (1953 to 1958) I had not learned to sign my name. My students told me that I was creating a bad image of blindness because of this shortcoming and that I should get with it and learn to make a readable signature.

I argued that I rarely needed to sign my name, that I didn't need to learn how in order to improve my self-esteem, and that I could and would take an hour or two and learn to sign my name if the time came when I thought it would be useful to do so.

In fact, when I became director of Iowa's programs for the blind in 1958, I did just that. One evening as we were driving across the country from California to Iowa, my sighted wife worked with me for an hour, and I learned to sign my name. It is not the most elegant signature in the world, but it is legible and serves my purposes. Incidentally, as director of the Iowa programs for the blind, I did not sign my name as often as I thought I would, delegating routine paperwork and signatures to a deputy. However, the fact remains that I learned to sign my name in an evening and that I now do it without thought whenever I need to.

Yet that does not end the matter. As I have thought about it through the years, my students were right, and I was wrong. I, who was teaching them that blindness need not mean inferiority, was not proving up. As later events would show, it would have been a simple matter to learn to sign my name.

So why didn't I do it? Reluctantly I conclude that it probably had to do with "Even I." From childhood I had been told in hundreds of ways everyday that sight meant superiority. In the circumstances it would have been surprising if I had not absorbed and been affected by some of the mistaken notions. Therefore, when I am tempted to be impatient or annoyed with sighted people who say "Even I," let me remember my own experience in learning to sign my name. What we need is not bad temper or blame but understanding and education.

This brings me to the National Federation of the Blind, the organization which has done more than any other single thing to make life better for blind people during the past century. The National Federation of the Blind has local chapters in every state and almost every community of any size. These state and local chapters come together to make up the national body.

Although we have sighted members, most of us in the Federation are blind. We give our time and devotion because we have seen what the National Federation of the Blind does in helping blind people lead normal, regular lives. Through its work with parents of blind children, with seniors, with blind college students, and with blind persons seeking employment, the National Federation of the Blind touches every aspect of the daily lives of the blind of the nation.

We in the Federation believe that we should stand on our own feet and do for ourselves before asking others for assistance, but we also know that our road to independence cannot be successfully traveled without help from our sighted friends and associates. And we have faith that this help will be forthcoming if it is reasonably requested and wisely used.

In fact, the future looks bright for those of us who are blind. We go into the new century with hope and confidence, and an ever-growing number of the sighted are moving with us as part of our cause. "Even I" is still one of our greatest problems—but that, too, is diminishing and fading into the past.

There you have the introductions and opening articles of this year's Kernel Books. When the National Federation of the Blind came into being in 1940, the problems we faced were overwhelming, but the most urgent and pressing of them was to find a way to relieve the immediate distress of poverty faced by most of the blind. After that (and it took years) we turned our attention to rehabilitation and jobs. Then it was a question of dignity and civil rights—and although all three of those problems are still to some extent with us, we have now moved to a fourth stage of emphasis, that of public education.

For ultimately confrontation and legislation will not solve our problems. To some extent both confrontation and legislation will always be necessary, and we must certainly not forget how to do either. But in the final analysis we cannot force people to accept us as equals, and I think we don't need to if we give them the facts. As somebody once said, it is not necessary to be loved, but it is extremely desirable not to be hated—and an overdose of confrontation and legislation can create backlash and hatred.

On the other hand, education properly done brings only good will and support. This is why we continue to invest the time and resources to produce and distribute the Kernel Books, and the results have richly justified our faith. We know that we are capable of living on terms of equality with the sighted and that the sighted are capable of accepting us as such—and for the most part they want to. All we need to do is present the facts in understandable terms.

Of course the Kernel Books are no magic bullet. They will not solve all of our problems, and nobody thinks that they will. Certainly I don't. As I have already said, we must retain the option of confrontation and legislation, but these should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. The better and more productive road is education.

As we move toward the next century, we as a movement are stronger and more confident than we have ever been. We choose peace and harmony if we can have it, but we will do what we have to do to go the rest of the way to equality. I have said it to you on previous occasions, and I will say it again now. The future is ours. We know who we are, and we will never go back.