by Kenneth Jernigan

Not long ago when I went to a doctor's office for an examination, I had two or three things happen to me during the course of a few minutes that showed me how far we still have to come in changing public attitudes about blindness. In the examining room I was taking off my shirt and getting ready to hang it on a hook on the back of the door. I had my hand on the hook, so there was no question that I knew where it was.

The nurse said: "If I close the door, will you be able to find it?"

I don't know whether she was talking about the door or the hook, but it really doesn't matter. I had my hand on both of them, and the door was only going to move for a short distance. There is no way that I could have lost it.

I later learned that the nurse had gone out to the waiting room and asked my secretary, who had come with me so that we could work while I was waiting, whether she wanted to come back and help me take my clothes off. That is not all. When I was leaving, the receptionist said to my secretary: "Does he need another appointment?"

What should I have done? How should I have reacted? What I didn't do was become upset or hostile. The nurse and the receptionist were well-intentioned and kindly disposed. They were doing the best they could to be of help to me. Moreover, if I am so touchy and insecure that I can be upset by people who are trying as best they can to give me assistance, then I had better look within. Confrontation was certainly not called for.

On the other hand, I shouldn't just leave the matter alone. I was pleasant and unperturbed, but I also took the occasion to talk about things I was doing and accomplishments blind persons were making. And I let the nurse see me tie my tie and find the door, trying to teach by example and not by sermon.

One thing that may have helped me keep my cool was an experience I had almost thirty years ago with a young blind fellow named Curtis Willoughby. He had just graduated from high school and was planning to go to college. He wanted to be an electrical engineer, and he didn't know whether a blind person could do it—and, particularly, whether he could do it. Of course, I didn't know whether he could do it either�but I hoped, put on a brave face, and did everything I could to encourage him.

Even though there were technical problems to overcome, he did extremely well in college. I continued to encourage him and talked now and again to his professors, assuring them that there would be no difficulty in a blind person's functioning as an electrical engineer. In reality they probably knew more about it than I did.

Certainly they knew more about the technicalities of electrical engineering. But they seemed to need the reinforcement. When Curtis graduated from college, I helped him make contacts and write job resumes. I talked to potential employers, assuring them that Curtis was competent and could do the work of an electrical engineer. I also continued to encourage Curtis and talked positively to everybody I met. After about three months, Curtis was hired by Collins Radio of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He apparently did his work in a satisfactory manner since he received commendations.

A little while later, I was talking with a friend of mine who was a newspaper reporter, and he said to me: "Do you think Curtis is really pulling his weight at Collins, or do you think they are just keeping him for public relations purposes?" I said, "I believe he is doing the job. I certainly hope so, but how can I be sure?"

The next spring another blind person graduated as an electrical engineer from Iowa State University, the same school from which Curtis had received his degree, and this blind person didn't have to wait three months for a job. He was hired immediately, and by Collins Radio. I hunted up my newspaper friend and said to him:

"I can now give you a firm answer. I think Curtis is pulling his weight at Collins for if they need one blind person for public relations purposes, they don't need two."

A few years went by, and Collins fell on hard times. They cut their work force by more than half and were in serious financial trouble. Engineers were laid off according to seniority, and when Curtis's number came up, he didn't ask for special privileges�which is the way it should have been. He took his layoff like the rest. We of the National Federation of the Blind don't try to have our cake and eat it too. We want equal opportunity, but we are also willing to make equal sacrifices and accept equal responsibility.

Anyway, Curtis took his layoff, and then he applied for a job as an electrical engineer with the telephone company. As director of programs for the blind in the state of Iowa, I had the responsibility of trying to help Curtis get another job. I thought he was a good electrical engineer, but I didn't know whether he was as good a salesman as I was. So I scheduled a lunch with top engineering officials at Northwestern Bell in Des Moines and talked about Curtis. I said he was a whiz at electrical engineering, and I did it with enthusiasm. They apparently believed me, for before we left the lunch, it was agreed that Curtis would go to work for the phone company. He did, and after a time he was invited to spend a year at Bell Labs in New Jersey. This is a prestigious appointment, one that is only given to the best.

When Curtis finished at Bell Labs, he came back to Des Moines and resumed his work as a systems design engineer. One day without comment I received from Curtis a copy of a letter. It was written by top engineering officials with AT&T, and it said something to this effect:

"Mr. Willoughby has been dealing with Problem X, and his work is some of the best we have seen. Please put this letter in his personnel file."

I called Curtis and said, "Tell me in two or three sentences what you did. If you make your explanation longer, I probably won't understand it."

As I remember it, he said that in large installations, such as manufacturing of farm equipment and the like, there were tremendous loads of electrical current and that these interfered with the phone system. There would be pixie effects�sometimes causing static and other interruptions and sometimes creating no problem at all. The filtering equipment necessary to remedy the problem was bulky and expensive. It would cost many tens of thousands of dollars if used widely throughout industry. Curtis had discovered a way to redesign the telephone system at these large installations so that the bulky filtering equipment would not be needed and another piece of equipment which had routinely been used could also be eliminated. The new design permitted more clarity in telephone conversations than would have occurred with the expensive filters or with the standard equipment.

After finishing this conversation with Curtis, I went into my office and literally locked the door. I sat at my desk and said to myself:

"You helped Curtis through college. You encouraged him in his search for employment. You did one of the best selling jobs in your life, convincing phone company officials that he could perform as well as anybody else as an electrical engineer. But deep down in your heart, have you ever really believed that he was fully, completely equal to a sighted electrical engineer?"

I wish I could say that my answer was an unequivocal yes. The truth is that I don't know. I had said it, and I had thought I believed it. But did I? After receiving the letter, I am certain that I did. But before that? I can't be sure.

This brings me back to the hook on the doctor's door. I have spent most of my life trying to convince blind people that they can compete on terms of equality with others, and trying to bring sighted people to the same belief. If under these circumstances I was still not certain that I believed in my heart that Curtis was pulling his weight, how can I possibly feel hostility, or blame others who fail to comprehend? What we need is compassion and understanding, not blame or bitterness. Although there are times when we must speak out and not equivocate, let me always remember the telephone company when I am annoyed by the hook on the doctor's door. I will fight if I must, but usually it won't be necessary—especially, if I remember Curtis and the phone company.