Almost without exception, the physical characteristics of existence are recognized because they fit a familiar pattern. It is not that those events which fail to conform to the framework of the generally accepted belief system are repudiated; they are not perceived at all. Reality, as we know it, is not made up of all discernible phenomena. Instead, it is the interpretation of those incidents that our understanding has permitted us to observe.
Those in the field of education tell us that students must be familiar with ninety percent of the subject matter of a class if learning is to occur. What is true in the classroom is also valid for less formal settings. Ordinarily, we comprehend only that which we already largely know.
In the history of science the matrix of belief is called the paradigm, and the pithy admonition to the scientist is to "save the phenomena." There is a powerful urge to include in scientific experiments only those facts which fit the theory being tested. When the facts do not demonstrate what they were expected to show, those conducting the examination are tempted to dismiss them as insignificant. Of course, the integrity of the scientific process does not permit such behavior. If science is to make progress, it must account not only for convenient results but for all observed results--the scientists must save the phenomena. However, if the experiment which might have been performed doesn't fit the paradigm--the structure of belief, the framework of recognition--it will never be conducted at all. Those facts which might have been observed will not be seen because nobody will look.
Sometimes at the conscious level, and sometimes without knowing it, society divides all knowledge into two major categories--those matters which can be studied and those which are beyond exploration. These two segments of knowledge are fundamentally distinct because in those which are regarded as proper for study, society believes that there is something to learn. In those which are regarded as sacrosanct, it is presumed that study is irrelevant because knowledge is (if not complete) sufficient for decision making on all practical questions. However, even when the study is intense and the receptivity is great, learning is limited by the ninety percent factor. The inevitable result is that some of the knowledge we regard as settled is necessarily incomplete and, therefore, incorrect.
Incorporated within the theories devised to explain all known information, there are assumptions. When new evidence becomes available, the underlying theory which explained the knowledge of the past is not ordinarily discarded. Instead, it is altered or expanded to include the new factor without, however, changing or eliminating the assumptions upon which the idea is based. Each time an additional factor is incorporated, the theory is doctored to make the new information fit. This process brings to mind the folksy aphorism, "It ain't what you don't know that hurts you so much, but what you do know that just ain't so."
What does all of this mean for us--for the largest organization of blind people in the nation? One of the accepted doctrines throughout history has been that it is essential to be able-bodied to be productive. The blind are not in this group. Hence, we are told that we have very limited capacity. Whether in the writings associated with the field of work with the blind, in the great body of general world literature, in the visual images presented for entertainment, or in the public mind, the incompetence of the blind has become an almost universally accepted part of the canon of knowledge. So completely fixed is this idea that further examination is presumed by many to be irrelevant.
Our own experience refutes that commonly held belief. Thousands of us have demonstrated that we are able to handle the ordinary job in the ordinary place of business, and (as with the sighted) some blind people demonstrate extraordinary ability and make remarkable contributions. Nevertheless, the notion of the incapacity of the blind remains firmly embedded in the thinking of millions.
In the face of so much evidence, how can this be? We human beings observe what we already know; we learn only when we believe that further study is warranted. Evidence which does not fit the established pattern is not rejected; it is never perceived at all. Even when it is known that there is something to learn, ninety percent of the subject matter under examination must be understood before learning--recognition of the unfamiliar--becomes possible. But, the ninety percent factor leaves the other ten percent available for discovery. This ten percent--the unknown ten percent, the vital ten percent, the mysterious ten percent--is an opportunity waiting to be made.
We the blind must accept the challenge of identifying the necessary ten percent, the essential elements for our integration into society; we must internalize the learning; and we must assist the public to comprehend what blindness really is by making the normality of blind people sufficiently familiar so it can be readily understood--so it can become a part of the mysterious ten percent. We must encourage the exploration, channel the thought processes, and focus the inquiry for a new understanding. What we are seeking is an alteration in the fundamental rules governing the acceptance and participation of the blind in every part of the culture. This will be good for the blind, but we will not be the only beneficiaries--so will everybody else. Our society will, for the first time, be using the collective talents of an entire class of people, and we will have a deepened understanding, sharing the needs and aspirations and being part of the force which makes our civilization what it is.
Who is responsible for achieving this objective? You know as well as I--those who have come together in the largest organization of the blind in the nation, the tough-minded individuals who have gathered here tonight to represent the blind from throughout the country, the members of the National Federation of the Blind.
Just over half a century ago, at a meeting in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the National Federation of the Blind was brought into being. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, a blind professor and one of the most scholarly and dynamic individuals of the twentieth century, along with a handful of others from seven states, founded this nationwide organization of the blind and thereby initiated the movement that would bring us independence. We the blind declared that the responsibility for our future belonged not to others, but to us. We intended to take a hand in shaping our own destiny.
In view of the circumstances which existed in 1940, such boldness required both courage and nerve. Almost no blind person had entered the competitive job market. Schools for the blind provided some education, but the officials who set the tone in those institutions had little expectation that blind students would emerge able to accept the challenges of higher education or employment. There were some libraries and a few books, but the volumes collected were meant primarily for recreation, and they were often hard to get. A number of sheltered workshops had been established, which offered employment in simple, repetitive tasks at extremely low wages to a small percentage of the blind; but a productive career with the responsibilities of citizenship was virtually unknown.
Despite the dismal prospects, a new and exciting possibility was inevitable from that first meeting of the National Federation of the Blind. The promise we made to ourselves that day has never changed, and the faith that we pledged has always been kept. No longer is our future determined entirely by others. Instead, we who are blind (acting individually and through our own organization, the National Federation of the Blind) play an increasingly important part in creating and determining the standards applicable to the conduct not only of our own daily affairs but of everything dealing with blindness. In creating the National Federation of the Blind (our own vehicle for self- expression and collective action), we have decided that the subservience which has so often been a part of existence for the blind must and will be eliminated. We insist on equality; we yearn for independence; we strive for full participation. We come together to achieve unity, to disseminate information, to provide inspiration, and to take concerted action through the organized blind movement--the National Federation of the Blind.
In 1940, books about the blind were few, and those that had been written (even those which, by the standard of their time, were regarded as progressive) depicted the blind as much more limited than was true or than we would hope to find today. One such volume (written, interestingly enough, by the famous blind historian William H. Prescott and printed in 1858) gives a picture of mixed images. Entitled Biographical and Critical Miscellanies, this volume includes an article which comments about the condition of the blind. Prescott recommends that improvements be made for the blind, but he believes the possibilities for full integration are unattainable. Although what Prescott says seems archaic and old-fashioned by the standards of 1992, his writing must be judged by the criteria of its day. In 1858 (in the context of the times, the technology then existent, and the attitudes and working conditions of pre- Civil War America) the article is more positive than negative. In 1940 (although many, especially those in work with the blind, would probably have denied it) Prescott's views were the generally accepted standard--but they were no longer viable. In 1992 (despite the fact that the Prescott thesis has glimmerings of positive philosophy) we should be able to put it behind us, viewing it as nothing more than a quaint element of the past. Unfortunately, such is not the case. While the present day language of the professionals in the blindness system is much more ours than Prescott's and while progress has been made, too many of the Prescott ideas still linger, some of them so deeply embedded in the public mind that they have not even emerged into the mysterious ten percent of thought which can be examined and reconsidered.
But before saying more, let me give you excerpts from the Prescott article. It is not only reminiscent of the America of a century and a half ago but useful as a touchstone for perspective today.
Immured within hospitals and almshouses [Prescott says], like so many lunatics and incurables, they [the blind] have been delivered over, if they escaped the physical, to all the moral contagion too frequently incident to such abodes, and have thus been involved in a mental darkness far more deplorable than their bodily one.
This injudicious treatment [Prescott continues] has resulted from the erroneous principle of viewing these unfortunate beings as an absolute burden on the public, utterly incapable of contributing to their own subsistence, or of ministering in any degree to their own intellectual wants. Instead, however, of being degraded by such unworthy views, they should have been regarded as, what in truth they are, possessed of corporeal and mental capacities perfectly competent, under proper management, to the production of the most useful results.
These are quotations from the 1858 publication. To protect the blind from the misfortune of the hospitals and institutions for the insane, Prescott recommends the establishment of asylums for the blind. The description of the asylum indicates that it fulfills the functions that we would associate with a school for the blind, a home for the blind, and a sheltered workshop. The workers in one of these asylums, says Prescott, produced a number of articles including:
cotton and linen cloths, diapers, worsted net for fruit-trees, basket-work of every description, hemp and straw door-mats, saddle girths, rope and twines of all kinds, netting for sheep-pens, fishing nets, beehives, mattresses, cushions, feather beds, bolsters, and pillows.
There has been no necessity [Prescott continues] of stimulating their exertions by the usual motives of reward or punishment. Delighted with their sensible progress in vanquishing the difficulties incident to their condition, they are content if they can but place themselves on a level with the more fortunate of their fellow-creatures. And it is observed that many, who in the solitude of their own homes have failed in their attempts to learn some of the arts taught in this institution, have acquired a knowledge of them with great alacrity when cheered by the sympathy of individuals involved in the same calamity with themselves, and with whom, of course, they could compete with equal probability of success.
Such is the writing about blindness of the historian Prescott, and in the record of our development, it is well worth having. The asylum for the blind is far superior to the almshouse, and Prescott is urging that the talents of the blind be used to a greater extent than they had been. If the characterization of the blind by Prescott were merely a page from the past, it would be interesting and instructive but not a matter for concern. However, the language employed in his description is still encountered today, and this brings it from the archives to the battlefield of current ideas. Even now in 1992, blindness (we are told in some quarters) is a calamity; blind people are so cheered by productive work, alongside those who are in a similarly unfortunate plight, that there is no necessity of stimulating them with the usual monetary rewards of productive labor; the blind cannot compete on terms of equality with others but need a special place, where they have the possibility of being competitive--not with those in the regular labor market, of course, but only against other blind people.
How often have we been told by the managers of sheltered workshops that the reason for operating such institutions is to give blind people something useful to do, which will provide a sense of purpose? The ongoing labor of blind workers, which produces the goods and generates the money, is not really "work," we are told, but "therapy." And what are many of the sheltered workshops if they are not special places where blind people "cheered by the sympathy of individuals involved in the same calamity as themselves" can compete with equal probability of success? This is not the way it should be; this is not the way it need be; but this is the way many of the managers of the shops want it to be and have made it be.
The description of the asylum for the blind brings to mind a much more modern incident. In 1991, less than one year ago, a blind man, a member of the National Federation of the Blind from the state of Michigan, became employed in the printing shop for a large public school system. He got the job with the help of our National Treasurer, Allen Harris, and through Job Opportunities for the Blind, the nationwide program operated by the National Federation of the Blind in partnership with the United States Department of Labor. This blind man is being paid six dollars an hour for his work. During the eight years prior to his employment in the print shop, he was given what certain rehabilitation officials called "meaningful employment" at a work activity center. The pay stubs he collected from the work activity center confirm a story which is almost unbelievable. For sixty long hours one week this blind man performed the work he was assigned. His take-home pay for those sixty hours was less than five dollars. The philosophy of rehabilitation in the 1990s is (at least in some situations) not as constructive as the philosophy of Prescott in the 1850s. At least the wages in the blind asylum were closer to those in the regular work force of that day than this man's pay in the work activity center was to what he now makes in the print shop. He is the same man. He has the same capacities in the print shop that he had in the work activity center. In short, he was taken advantage of, abused, and exploited--not because he deserved such treatment but because those who dished it out thought they could do what they did and get away with it. It is to fight this very kind of degrading injustice that we have formed the National Federation of the Blind--and fight it we will until we have crushed it out of existence.
At the time of the founding of the National Federation of the Blind (despite such advances as had been made), blindness was still regarded as a personal tragedy. The incapacity of the blind was presumed. Blindness might be used to evoke pity, pathos, or amusement, but blind people were not taken seriously.
In W. C. Fields's 1934 film, It's a Gift, blindness is used to get a laugh. A blind man of venerable age and irascible temper, Mr. Merkle, enters a grocery store operated by Fields. In finding his way to the counter, this blind character clumsily and furiously destroys a display of light bulbs--note the symbolism. Merkle orders chewing gum, and when it is finally brought to him, he (playing upon the exaggerated notion that the blind are demanding, touchy, and cantankerous) tells the grocery store operator that he is not prepared to carry it. He wants the gum delivered. After the rampage is over, someone asks who the blind man was. Fields replies, "He's the house detective over at the hotel."
Blind people do sometimes stumble and bump into things, but this is not the norm (not if there has been training, not if there has been reasonable opportunity). And some of us are irascible and demanding, but I doubt that the proportion is higher for us than it is for the sighted. The exaggeration of the 1934 movie is unreasonable and intolerable because the damaging picture of the blind is unrealistic, degrading, and disgraceful. In 1934 such a depiction could be made without a protest because the blind had not yet organized. The popular belief at that time was the blind were not (and could not be) successful. Consequently, the occasional demonstration to the contrary was dismissed (as it is even sometimes today) as an exception.
But that was 1934, and this is 1992. That was before the National Federation of the Blind. Today we have come together in our tens of thousands from every corner of the nation--and when blindness is discussed, we intend to have a word--in fact, in certain instances we intend to have the last word.
When ABC produced its program "Good & Evil" in the fall of 1991, the blind reacted with decision and strength. ABC made fun of us. George, the blind character who was said to be a psychologist, acted as though he had not merely lost his eyesight but also his brains, his sense of proportion, and his self- respect. He gently embraced a coat rack under the mistaken impression that it was a woman. He fondled a male but wasn't aware that the individual with whom he was taking such liberties was a man until his hands found their way below the belt. He smashed glass objects or windowpanes in almost every scene but seemed almost blissfully unaware that he had caused any harm. The pictures were accompanied by so-called humorous dialogue about the blind developing such keenness with their other senses that they could compensate for the loss of sight.
ABC officials seemed unable to understand why we objected to this travesty. When we received an advance copy of the first episode of the program, we urged ABC to rethink its position, but network officials dismissed our objections. They apparently harbored the opinion that we of the National Federation of the Blind were simply oversensitive and touchy, not to mention helpless and unable to do anything about what they were doing. We responded to this brush-off by telling them that such behavior would not be tolerated. Our message was articulated with logic and reason, but ABC continued to ignore us. Working through the National Federation of the Blind, thousands of blind people protested by letter and telephone. Our words became not only brief but blunt: "Stop 'Good & Evil.' Stop it, or face the consequences." They didn't--and we acted. We picketed, contacted sponsors, talked with the media, distributed leaflets, and alerted the public.
In less than two months the program was off the air. Some ABC officials complained privately that the National Federation of the Blind had stopped the show. When it comes to programs belittling the blind, the National Federation of the Blind is a real showstopper. We intend to evaluate the underlying assumptions of those who make pronouncements about us; we will set our own standards of fairness with respect to the images projected about us; and we will take our message to the public-- including the television networks. Let those who think they can ridicule us and disregard our opinions reflect on the fate of "Good & Evil."
The presentations about blindness in film and on television that we have been discussing are not revolutionary. They are a reiteration of what people have always thought about the blind. If the film producers and television screenwriters were told that they should study blindness, they would wonder why. Blindness doesn't change, they would think. It is a severe physical deprivation with known, predictable consequences. There isn't anything to study.
But this is the general public. What about the professionals in the blindness field? There are institutions which tell us that they have made a thorough examination of blindness and that they are the experts. Consider these quotes from a letter distributed to the public by the New York Lighthouse for the Blind. As you will see, the letter shows that the Lighthouse believes that to the extent a person has eyesight, life is worthwhile. To the extent that eyesight has been lost, there are crushing difficulties. The only way (they say) to circumvent the problems is to seek their counseling and advice. This material is not from 1858 or 1934. It is not from 1940 or twenty years ago. It is less than five years old. Here are the recommendations of the Lighthouse experts:
If [they say] you thought blindness was something that happened to "the other guy," you should realize blindness is something that could happen to you.
Imagine how you would feel if you were told by your doctor that eyeglasses won't help, that you are, indeed, losing your sight.
How long would you be able to work? How long would you be able to drive? How could you enjoy an active retirement?
Every day, you notice it getting worse. You become less and less able to take care of yourself. Your relationship with your family becomes strained. They want to help, but they don't know how. Unable to work. Unable to play. Unable to read, or even watch TV. You become more and more cut off from the people, places, and things that filled your life before.
Fortunately, there is a place to turn.
Since 1906, The Lighthouse--The New York Association for the Blind--has been helping people cope with the fear and the isolation accompanying their loss of sight--as well as teaching them new home and job skills.
There's a lot you can do [the letter continues]. Not just to help those less fortunate than yourself, but also to support an organization that someday might come to your aid, or to the aid of someone you love.
You'll help us promote more research on how to help blind people deal with their disability.
They need your help.
And you should give it to them.
Not just because it's the "right thing" to do.
But because someday it could be you.
Or someone you love.
Tucked away among the negative images in this agency's letter is this statement:
Blind people are not different from the rest of us. They are not "poor, unfortunate souls" with tin cups and pencils.
They are people like you and me. They have jobs, and families, and responsibilities. Like all of us, they want to lead productive, meaningful lives.
These are the only positive words in the entire document. Although they suggest that blindness may not be a complete tragedy, they are hardly believable when placed in the context of the statements that surround them. The blind are unable to work, unable to play, unable to have a fruitful retirement, unable to appreciate fully the society of family and friends, unable to read, unable to enjoy TV, and unable to care for themselves. Is such a picture realistic? Do blind people have jobs, play with the kids, read books, write articles and monographs, manage the responsibilities of family life, and participate in community activities?
When the Lighthouse declares that it wants to do "research on how to help blind people deal with their disability," what kind of research does it have in mind? Their letter, written in the late twentieth century, is, in many respects, worse than the literature about blindness produced over a hundred years ago. The outlook is one of despair; the prescription is for the managers of the asylum to take charge of the affairs of the blind; the method is scare tactics to frighten the public. The emphasis is not on the ability possessed by the blind but on the care others should devote to them. The decision-makers are not the blind but the custodians of the blind. If this is all that their research is capable of producing, I ask you, what good is it? If the point of their effort is to argue that blindness is an unmitigated disaster, let them leave us alone. We can do without their help. This representation of blindness is not true but false--not reality but fantasy--not an examination of fact but a reinforcement of ancient and time-worn fiction. The New York Lighthouse for the Blind is accredited by NAC, the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped, the most divisive institution in the field of work with the blind today. Is it any wonder that the Lighthouse view of blindness is negative?
We are not opposed to competent research about blindness conducted by competent researchers. Blindness has been misunderstood for thousands of years, and it should be studied. What we find objectionable is the ancient body of myths and misconceptions dressed up in the clothes of modern scientific experimentation. Not only do we welcome researchers who come with an open mind, but we are increasingly participating in that research. Indeed, the cutting edge of scientific advancement involving blindness must necessarily include the organized blind. There is no other way for the misconceptions of the past to be identified and eliminated.
Whether the researchers come from within the field of work with the blind or from some other establishment, the results of their experimentation about blindness are, to say the least, unusual when they do it without consulting the blind. Blindness is often regarded as equivalent to darkness, even though the two are not the same. Recently, at the Baylor College of Dentistry, in Texas, a study was conducted dealing with the lowly salivary gland. It seems that the amount of saliva produced by a human being is directly related to oral hygiene. If you don't produce enough saliva, you won't have a clean mouth. You may have thought that, interesting though saliva experiments may be, they aren't related to blindness. Consider, however, these statements from a document describing the study:
The purpose of this study [says the report] is to examine, for the first time, the relation between visual impairment and reduced salivary flow. Normal salivary flow is necessary for healthy teeth and intraoral tissues. Research has shown that salivary flow decreases dramatically in dark environments. Thus, it appears reasonable to hypothesize that blind people might suffer from decreased salivary flow and oral health problems.
This is what the report says, and it boggles the mind. Remember that they are talking about you and me. Do you think that those of us in this room who are blind have drier mouths or less spit than those of us who are sighted? The questions that come to mind while contemplating this study are legion. How did they find out that salivary flow decreases in the dark? If you keep your mouth shut (I presume it is dark in there), will the absence of light reduce your salivary flow? Do the people who talk a lot, especially in well-lighted places, produce more saliva than others? What other characteristics were the subject of this investigation? I was tempted to ask, "Does your hair grow faster at night?" or "What happens to it if you put on a hat?" There are some things worth studying in the dark, but I had never thought of salivary flow as one of them. I have not yet received the results of the Baylor College study, but if their hypothesis were correct, it would follow that blind people suffer from bad teeth. Perhaps we do, but I doubt it. In short, "spit on it."
Blindness is sometimes blamed for more than it deserves. Of course, magazine publishers are in business to sell magazines, and the melodramatic (some believe) will increase circulation, but melodrama should not masquerade as truth. An article in the September 10, 1991, issue of Woman's World describes the experiences of a young blind woman. It purports to be a direct quote, but I wonder if it is taken out of context or selectively edited to emphasize the sensational. Here is what it says:
Sometimes I want to scream until I shatter glass. I want to take the heavy wooden post from my canopy bed and smash in the television screen. I want to hurl the television set against the wall and then storm through my neighborhood smashing everything.
Other times I feel like laughing out loud at something only I find funny. I want to whoop until I can't remember what it was all about.
My wildly swinging range of emotions are related [the grammar is theirs not mine] directly or indirectly to my blindness.
I am blind. After four years, I still have to repeat that uncomfortable statement to myself.
It wasn't until last year that I could bring myself to admit it.
Do you think this report in Woman's World truly represents the experience or the feelings of most blind people--even those who have been blind for only three or four years? Becoming blind can be extremely trying emotionally. Yet, we who are blind do not spend our days wanting to scream at the top of our lungs, fighting an urge to smash everything, or laughing uncontrollably at nothing. I am, of course, not saying that we lack emotion. We possess feelings and dreams in abundance, but they do not spring from the fact of our blindness. They are a part of our basic humanity. They live within us, and come from the heart. Blind people are not weird or peculiar--we are just blind, and we are not prepared (even if the magazine editors would like us to say so) to tolerate the assertion that we are somehow abnormal, idiotic, or subhuman.
Many thousands of letters come to the National Federation of the Blind each year. Some are dramatic; some are matter-of-fact; some are unassuming. Often those who see our public service announcements respond with requests for assistance. Reading between the lines, it is possible upon occasion to learn much from a very few words. Here is a letter, which I received less than six months ago:
I was watching TV one afternoon and saw a commercial. It was your commercial. I was just wondering what your organization is all about.
I am legally blind and have been since late December, 1983. I attended the Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind in 1986. I spent over a half year there.
I was watching TV, and I saw a commercial. It was your commercial. So I decided to write, and just find out what your organization is all about. Like what all do you do? So I was wondering if you could send me some information.
I was sent down to United Rehabilitation Services to get trained for a job. I think some blind organization was sending the work for me to do. But then they didn't send anything, so I sat there.
Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated--direct language, eloquent. The woman who wrote became blind in 1983. Three years later, in 1986, she received training at the Pittsburgh Guild. After six months at the Guild she was sent to an agency to do a little work. The work didn't come. She sat there. In 1992, nine years after she became blind, she is still waiting--watching television and wondering what there is for her. How long does it take to crush the spirit or kill the dream? This woman's letter is not demanding, but the exact opposite. She wonders what our organization is about. The repetition of the tentative phrasing indicates that this woman does not wish to face one more disappointment. During the last nine years there must have been many, and she is almost afraid to hope. But she did not give up; she did write; and we did respond. Blindness should not mean (and it doesn't have to mean) interminable waiting, idle hours, and a place to sit while the rest of the world moves on. Training in the skills of blindness can be found; a job with all of the frustrations and joys that accompany it can be procured; and of greatest importance, there is hope for a better tomorrow.
This woman tells us, as we read between the lines, that the Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind has nothing to offer. This comes as no surprise since the current executive director is Richard Welsh, who also serves as one of the principal officers of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC), probably the most controversial and regressive agency for the blind of the twentieth century. Be that as it may, we have our own vehicle for collective action, and we know how to use it. The woman who wrote for information about our organization received encouragement and support. We will help.
I joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1969. The organization was different from anything I had ever encountered. It told me that blindness need not be a disaster, that it could simply be a characteristic, that it did not have to keep me from pursuing a career. I had reservations about it, but I hoped that the message was true--and I said that I believed. Even though I tried to accept the philosophy of the Federation wholeheartedly, my views about blindness today are not precisely the same as those I held in 1969 when I joined. Learning cannot happen all at once, and both individuals and organizations gain experience and understanding as long as they retain the flexibility of an open mind.
Shortly after I became a part of the National Federation of the Blind, several members of the organization, traveling by plane to a state convention of one of our affiliates, hotly debated whether a blind person could competently travel from one airport gate to another without a guide. I believed at the time (although I was a little nervous about expressing my opinion) that it was foolishness to maintain that a blind person could travel easily and gracefully through an airport without an escort. Some of my colleagues argued that modern travel skills could be as effective in an airport as anywhere else. They pointed out that blind people can get around with assurance in large cities. Why shouldn't the same principles apply to the airport?
We put the matter to the test. I sought assistance in traveling, and one of my colleagues struck out on his own. I don't suppose I need to tell you that he got to the next gate before I did. These days I travel routinely from one gate to another in busy airports without ever giving it a thought (sometimes with and sometimes without assistance). The point is that I can get where I want to go whenever I need to, and I am grateful to my Federation colleague for showing me that I could.
In 1940, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek had the inspiration and self- assurance to found the National Federation of the Blind. In 1952, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan first attended a National Convention of the organized blind movement. Fired with enthusiasm by Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan began to add his effort to the creation of the literature of independence and to the building of the structure of self-organization that would forever change the fundamental meaning of blindness. Dr. tenBroek, the philosopher who could dream of a future unlike any previously contemplated, and Dr. Jernigan, the builder who carried the philosophy of independence to the rehabilitation establishment and to the blind of every state, came together to create a leadership both powerful and dynamic. Dr. tenBroek conceived the notion of equality for the blind; Dr. Jernigan popularized the idea and established a training center which incorporated it in the curriculum. Together these pioneers forged a gathering of energetic blind people dedicated to making the dream of independence become reality.
Although the belief system of the past may hold that there is nothing essential to learn about what blindness is or how to deal with it, this time-worn understanding of the capacity of the blind is no longer uncontested. We human beings ordinarily observe only that which we already know, and we learn only when ninety percent of what is presented is familiar. But this is not all. Learning cannot occur unless there is a teacher with the wisdom and the capacity to dream of the other ten percent. Those in the school systems, in the governmental and private agencies for the blind, and in the public at large can work with us to accelerate the achievement of independence for the blind, and increasingly this is precisely what has been occurring. But they cannot provide the inspiration and the dream--that must come from us. We will learn what we must, imagine a time when we have eradicated the misconceptions about the blind, provide an alternative explanation which is more complete than the misguided theories of the long ago, and teach the public about our basic normality. This is our goal, our mission, and our right.
If we cannot muster the courage, sustain the dream, or maintain the nerve, the loss will be unimaginable. But, of course, we will not fail. We have one another, and nobody--no agency for the blind, no magazine editor, no film producer, no so-called scientific researcher, no television network official-- can prevent us from going the rest of the way toward freedom. We believe in one another; we have faith in the ability of our blind brothers and sisters; and we will share the burden that must be borne to bring true independence to the blind. Ninety percent must be known if learning is to occur. But there is the other ten percent, the mysterious ten percent, the vital ten percent--and we will supply it; we are the National Federation of the Blind. My brothers and my sisters, come! Join me and we will make it all come true!
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