William Shakespeare thought that knowing what to do was easy. It was the doing of it that was so hard. As he said, "If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces."
However, there are others who have a totally different point of view. They believe that knowing what to do is the hard part. Remarkable achievement is attained (according to these scholars) by thought--by exercising the ability to distinguish between the significant and the mundane. As the American bacteriologist Hans Zinsser said, "The scientist takes off from the manifold observations of predecessors and shows his intelligence, if any, by his ability to discriminate between the important and the negligible, by selecting here and there the significant steppingstones that will lead across the difficulties to new understanding."
Just as it is for an individual, so it is for a culture, a nation, or an organization. Each of these must attempt to identify the steppingstones of progress. To the extent that they achieve this difficult task and are committed to implementing what they learn, growth and advancement occur. To the extent that they fail, there are stagnation, deterioration, and aimlessness.
In the late summer of 1998 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the most forceful leader of the blind of our generation, taught a seminar on leadership. Although this seminar was conducted less than two months before Dr. Jernigan's death from cancer, which he knew would soon overtake him, the seminar was upbeat and enthusiastic; it took its tone from the teacher. He said during the class that principles of behavior are important--indeed they may be the only things that matter. If we have the proper principles, all else will follow. If we do not possess these vital characteristics for action and thought, the progress we gain is accidental and cannot endure.
So what are the principles for us--for the National Federation of the Blind? What do we believe, and how do we conduct our business?
I met Dr. Jernigan in 1969. I was a student, and he was the President of the National Federation of the Blind and the director of the training program in which I had enrolled. He was unusual, brilliant, fascinating, and challenging. One of his unusual characteristics was that he always had an answer for everything. How could anybody know so much, I wondered. I wanted to find out if he really had all that knowledge or if he was just good at faking it. I had never before met anybody who could outthink me at everything, but he seemed to be able to do it. I began to make bets with him. I thought there must be something I know that he doesn't, and I wanted to find out what it was.
It will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Dr. Jernigan that I lost the wagers. However, I learned an important lesson. Dr. Jernigan used his mind--always and rigorously. When two facts did not match, he noticed this phenomenon and wanted to know why. He worked until he discovered the reason. Not only did he use his mind, but he demanded that we do the same.
"Whether you like a conclusion or not," he told us, "observe the evidence, and go where your mind leads you. If your reaction to a conclusion makes you uneasy, hunt for facts you have overlooked. If you cannot identify any, accept the conclusion. If you cannot stand what you learn, do your best to change it, but don't reject it from emotionalism or a chuckle-headed imprecision of thought." Consequently, one of the fundamental principles of the Federation is to trust your own mind--have confidence in your capacity to think. Believe in what you know, and don't let others talk you out of it unless they can demonstrate that they know more about the subject than you do. Use your head; work hard; and go where your mind leads you.
Dr. Jernigan joined the Federation in 1949, and he became active at the national level in 1952. For almost half a century he gave to us freely of his intellect, his energy, and his spirit. His mind was a formidable weapon in the arsenal of the Federation. One of the factors that made this mind so extraordinary was that Dr. Jernigan used it to insist that we employ the same rigor in thinking that he demanded of himself. He showed us that we cannot rely on somebody else's thought. Not only is this undesirable, but it is completely unworkable.
Any group that wishes to achieve freedom--that intends to speak and act on its own behalf--must be prepared to imagine and articulate its own philosophy. If that group intends (as we most certainly do) to have a long-term impact on the broader society, it must write that philosophy into an understandable literature, which can be read and comprehended. The mental effort involved in imagining what might be written and committing the ideas to paper changes the people who do it. The process of thought and creation and the act of internalizing the ideas that result from this process force us to know what we think and to plan for the implementation of that thought. This kind of planning is not only helpful, it is a fundamental part of building civilization. The philosophy and literature tell others what they may expect from us, but they also tell us--the people who think and write them. This is an essential part of relying on our own intelligence.
Where has our intelligence led us? You know as well as I. There are those who believe that the blind have little competence and less sense, that our lives are necessarily filled with bitterness and despair, that we are immobile and sedentary, that we cannot aspire to the business world or the professions, that our educational opportunities are limited, that we cannot become leaders of government or society, that we will never be able to compose and present to the public a literary description of our talents and abilities which will be sufficiently lucid to capture the imagination (and that somebody else will have to interpret our lives for us), that any suggestion of having blind people teach other blind people how to travel with a cane is irresponsibly dangerous or positively immoral, and that the assertion of the right of the blind to equal status within society is not only a ridiculous dream but also a prescription for failure--failure calculated to cause immeasurable harm and psychological trauma. Do we in the National Federation of the Blind believe that this summation represents the truth? Are the blind immobile, incapable, and inarticulate? Will we let somebody else determine our own destiny, specify our future, or speak on our behalf?
The answer is obvious. We the blind of the nation from all walks of life, from every state, and from every sector of the society have gathered here tonight in our thousands. We would not be here if we did not intend to determine what our lives will be. We have the capacity to observe; we have the mental discipline to understand; and we will respond. We are the blind; we will speak and act for ourselves; and there is no force on earth that can prevent it!
Throughout almost all of recorded history the blind have been written off, and the literature about blindness has reflected this opinion. Even though there have been many dramatically successful blind people, the common culture has dismissed the successes as exceptions. All too many of the successful blind people (because it boosted their sense of self-importance) agreed with the popular mythology. They accepted the view that blind people are unproductive invalids, but that they (the successful ones) are different and special.
With the coming of the National Federation of the Blind, an altered and much more realistic perception of blindness has been developed. This perception is that blindness need not be a tragedy--though, if it is not properly understood, it can be. With training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance, and the blind can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. We the blind are people of capacity, who want to make contributions to our society. We are people that the members of the public will want to know. An increasing number of us are leaders in our own communities and a part of the social set. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding of blindness persists, and it is reprinted and reinforced both by the popular press and sometimes by uninformed blind people themselves.
In 1997 Stephen Kuusisto published his memoir, entitled Planet of the Blind. In his book he discloses that his vision (until he reached the age of thirty-nine) measured 10 percent of what is regarded as normal. Kuusisto could not see, but his parents urgently insisted that he try, and he accepted their attitude about his blindness.
Diners in the Marquis Ballroom listen to the banquet address.
On December 23, 1997, the New York Times published a review of the Planet of the Blind. The review reflects the tone of the book. It incorporates quotes and describes incidents contained in the text, but it also adds reflections of its own--reflections in keeping with the spirit of Planet of the Blind. This, in part, is what it said:
For almost four decades, the writer Stephen Kuusisto tried to hide the fact that he was legally blind.
Though he could read only by holding a book an inch from his face, though he could see little more on the street than blurry colors and shapes, he tried for years to pass as a member of the sighted world. He careened around his neighborhood on a bike, insisted on piloting his family's powerboat, traveled alone to Europe, and learned to ski.
[I interrupt the Times review to point out that the reviewer and the author of the book apparently agree that such activities are reckless and irresponsible for a blind person. However, properly managed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a blind person's learning to ski, traveling alone, or riding a bicycle. And a number of us have had our hands on the steering mechanisms of powerboats. But back to the review.]
In his luminous new memoir Planet of the Blind, Kuusisto--who lost his sight as an infant, when he was placed in an overly oxygenated incubator that permanently damaged his retinas--tells the remarkable tale of how he feigned sight for so many years. He also tells us the affecting story of how he eventually came to terms with his condition and began a new life, at the age of thirty-nine, with a seeing-eye dog named Corky.
So [continues the New York Times] how did Kuusisto manage to negotiate the world for so many years without help, without even a white cane to help reconnoiter its terrain? Part of it was sheer recklessness, a determination to plunge ahead, regardless of cars and walls and stairs. And part of it was reliance on wit and acting skills.
[I interrupt again to ask, what is there about dealing with cars and walls and stairs that is so reckless for a blind person? Of course, it is much easier to manage these things using a cane; but all of us have ridden in cars, walked on stairs, and traveled around walls without using one; and the language of the reviewer is a bit much. Let us suppose for a moment that Kuusisto wanted to avoid these objects--how could he do it? Should he live under the stars on a flat patch of prairie and never stray from the reservation? Is this what the New York Times recommends for the blind? But back to the review.]
He pressed his nose to the television set and used magnifying glasses and huge, thick, telescopic spectacles to examine books, slowly deciphering their elusive words one by one by one.
"The ordinary effort of reading is for me a whole-body experience," he [Kuusisto] writes. "My neck, shoulders, and finally, my lower back contract with pain. The legally blind know what it is to be old: even before the third grade I am hunched and shaking with effort, always on the verge of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a solid sentence. Then the words dissolve or run like ants. Nevertheless, I find a lighted room inside my head, a place for self-affiliation. I am not blind, and not the target of pranks."
[I interrupt to ask, who does he think he's kidding? Not the target of pranks? Not blind? Able to find a lighted room inside his head? We know better, and if he is honest about it, so does he. But there is a ring of truth about part of this description. How many of us have been forced to try to read what we could not see. How many of our teachers have told us that, if we were not lazy, we would be able to observe visually what they have displayed? How many of us have felt the pain of trying to be sighted when we were not? How many of us have been sold a bill of goods--have been told that Braille is slow and inefficient when it would have been much easier and faster than the print they were trying to force us to use? But back to the New York Times.]
Having been brought up by parents who were reluctant to acknowledge his disability, Kuusisto internalized their denial. He did not want to get a white cane. He did not want to ask for help. He did not want to be regarded as someone who was blind. And yet for all his efforts to appear independent, he says he was continually mocked as odd and clumsy and slow. Schoolmates called him "Mr. Magoo," and one professor cruelly told him he did not belong in graduate school.
[The Times review concludes with this paragraph] Although Kuusisto's love of poetry can result in patches of overly self-conscious prose--[such as] "my ego crawls around blindness like a snail exploring a piece of broken glass"--he is a powerful writer with a musical ear for language and a gift for emotional candor. He has written a book that makes the reader understand the terrifying experience of blindness and that stands on its own as the lyrical memoir of a poet.
This is what the New York Times printed two days before Christmas just a year and a half ago, and it makes one wonder whether the author of the review and the author of the book ever use their heads. Kuusisto is, by his own estimation and by the opinion of the New York Times, a lyrical poet and a powerful writer. Nevertheless, he looks down on his own life and belittles himself because he is blind. Kuusisto tells us that he has been misunderstood and that this has caused hardship. If these are the measures of a lyrical memoir, each one of us in this room should have one. Kuusisto admits that his own misperception added to the misunderstanding, and we can certainly agree with his assessment. The question we ask is whether Kuusisto's present writing will help to solve the problems he has identified or cause more damage. If the review of the New York Times is any indicator, it would be better if he had not written. The impression left by the Times is that living as a blind person requires extraordinary courage and that blindness itself is a terrifying experience.
We need a literature which tells of our hopes and dreams--our abilities and contributions--and we would like Kuusisto to use his lyrical pen to help in its creation. But he must tell it like it is--not perpetuate ancient fears and add to misinformation. Whether he writes it or not, it will be written because we will insist that it be written. Indeed much of it we have already written. We have the capacity to observe; we have the mental discipline to understand; and we have the ability to write. Our literature speaks of freedom, and we will settle for nothing less. We are the blind; we will speak and act for ourselves; the literature will tell our story; and we will be heard. There is no force on earth that can prevent it!
A notion abroad in the land, which has been repeated in many different forms during the past few years, is that blind people differ from the sighted not only because we lack the capacity to see, but also because our brains function in a different way from the sighted. The argument goes like this: Seeing is an important function that demands a lot of effort from the brain. A portion of the cortex is devoted to managing visual images; blind people do not use this cortex for seeing. The visual cortex of the blind is reassigned to assist the brain with the functions of smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing. Thus (according to this argument), the blind have a sharper sense of hearing, a keener sense of taste, a more acute sense of smell, and a clearer sense of touch than the sighted.
An article entitled, "Blind People Compensate with Hearing," which appeared on October 5, 1998, in the Register Citizen, a newspaper of Connecticut, says in part:
It might be true what they say about the blind having better hearing than people who can see. Blind people apparently compensate for their lost vision with greater ability to locate sounds than people with normal or partial vision, a Canadian study suggests. Neuropsychology researchers at the University of Montreal found that, unlike people with normal vision, blind people could correctly pinpoint the source of sounds even with one ear deliberately blocked by the testers. "One important question left unanswered is whether blind people learn to use their hearing more efficiently or undergo some kind of physiological change," said William R. Wiener, chairman of blind rehabilitation at Western Michigan University. Wiener said other recent research suggests, "There may be some physiological changes that occur in the brain in the processing that make a blind person more efficient." Dr. Steven Parker, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, said, "It is possible that part of the brain commonly used to process images gets recruited to process sound. But in the partially blind, those brain cells already are being used for sight, and they can't switch over."
That's what the article says, and I wonder if the researchers are willing to take the argument the whole way. Blind people are able to hear better, they say, because we have lost our sense of sight. What would happen to us if we had also lost our senses of taste, touch, and smell? Our hearing would be so acute that we would be able to hear the ordinary sound a mile away, and the whisper in the next room would be plainly audible. Imagine the advantages. The CIA would no longer need all of those listening devices; it could use us.
Or imagine the sense of touch. Some years ago the argument was made that blind people are better at kissing than the sighted because we are not distracted by extraneous visual images. However, William Wiener puts the matter on a different footing. We kiss better (it could be argued) because we have an enhanced sense of touch. Is the improvement noticeable only by the blind, or can the sighted enjoy it too? What about the deaf-blind? Is their sense of touch superior to that of those who are only blind? If they had lost the senses of smell and taste, the experience of kissing might be so keen as to put them into orbit.
Or consider another line of thought. Why is it that the researchers believe the reassignment of the cortex affects only the senses? Maybe the blind, who do not use their brains for seeing, employ this unused mental capacity for more intellectual pursuits. Maybe we use the brainpower to think; maybe we are smarter than the sighted.
Our experience shows us that such speculation is just that--speculation. We don't believe our loss of sight has altered our mental processes. I will admit that some of the blind people I have met possessed most unusual ideas, but their thinking was no more bizarre (and no less bizarre) than the mental gymnastics I have sometimes observed from the sighted--especially those with experiments to perform on the blind.
We say this to the experimenters. If you want to know what blind people are like, come to us--come to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind--come to us in our thousands. We will help you learn what blindness is--and of equal importance--what it is not. But keep in mind that we insist on equality in the Federation. If you insist on conducting experiments on us, we think it is only fair that we be able to conduct a few on you.
You may have thought that the negative stereotypes that were once so often associated with blindness are a thing of the past--that they existed at one time, but that nobody could possibly believe them today. Even if there remain a few unenlightened souls who think the blind are inferior and the techniques employed by the blind are second-rate, surely this attitude could not prevail in the highly-educated and well-informed circles of programs established to serve the blind.
On August 12, 1998, leaders of the Puerto Rico affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind appeared before a committee of the legislature to urge that a bill be adopted to secure the right of the blind to learn Braille. The head of the Puerto Rico Rehabilitation Administration, Dr. Jose Santana, the man responsible for directing programs in Puerto Rico established to ensure that the blind learn what they need to know, gave testimony against the bill. He said that teaching Braille to a blind person with any residual vision whatsoever, no matter what skills or talents that person may possess, is anti-pedagogical, anti-democratic, and cruel. He said that becoming blind is a form of dying. He compared the teaching of Braille (if you can believe it) to having a healthy person, on the theory that the person will one day die, climb into a coffin. Such testimony boggles the mind.
The five-hundred or so Federationists who enjoyed the banquet in the Imperial Ballroom had large-screen video on which to watch the proceedigs. Spotters with two-way radios made certain that nobody missed a door prize.
Our experience is that Braille is a liberating skill, one that encourages independence and expands opportunity. Dr. Santana argues that achieving literacy for the blind is similar to seeking death. And they tell us that we have psychological problems. What are the psychological implications of Dr. Santana's argument? Does he believe that he is a whole person but that we who are blind are not? Does he believe that we are inferior and that he is superior? Does he believe that administrators of programs for the blind are put in place to look down upon the clients they are supposedly working to serve?
Dr. Santana would deprive us of our method of reading; he would insist that the blind be illiterate. He thinks we are already partly dead, but we will not let his lack of understanding help us into the grave. We will not let his psychological need for superiority govern our future.
We reject Dr. Santana's formulation and all of the psychological myths--the hidden insecurity and the unspoken fear--that are part of this ignorant misperception. We want freedom, and Braille is one of the elements that will help us get it. We will not let narrow-mindedness or bigotry on the part of administrators of programs for the blind keep us from it. Dr. Santana believes he speaks for the blind, but he cannot--and he never will speak for us. We will express our own views, and we will be heard. There is no force on earth that can stop us!
Although an increasing number of the members of the public have come to recognize the struggle of the blind to achieve first-class status in society and have joined with us in this effort, there are a few who still believe blindness signifies a complete lack of the ability to contribute. These unenlightened people think that we the blind are unable to earn anything and that whatever we have must have been given to us. They hold the view that the only contribution possible for the blind is to serve as the objects of somebody else's pity, and they want to feel pity for others because they gain a sense of superiority from doing so. They think that we who are blind want something for nothing. Unfortunately, some blind people help to support this negative and uninformed understanding.
Mementos of the 1999 NFB Banquet: left to tight a replica of the bust of Dr. Jernigan, the picture on the front of the souvenir mug, the picture on its back, the votive candle, and the banquet ticket.
On March 8, 1999, an article appeared in Newsweek Magazine, entitled "Navigating My Eerie Landscape" by Jim Bobryk, a blind person living in California. Bobryk's description of his own experience is a strange mixture. It demonstrates that his training in the skills of blindness has been minimal, that he has not come fully to accept or understand blindness, that his determination to carry on the activities of living is reasonably firm, and that he is looking for ways to exploit his blindness. Here in part is what Bobryk says:
Now, as I stroll down the street, my right forefinger extends five feet in front of me, feeling the ground where my feet will walk.
[I interrupt to point out that this is a catchy way of saying that Bobryk uses a cane. He is not a freak with a five-foot-long finger; he is blind with a cane in his hand. But back to the article.]
Before, my right hand would have been on a steering wheel. I drove to work, found shortcuts in strange cities, picked up my two daughters after school. Those were the days when I ran my finger down a phone-book page and never dialed information. When I read novels and couldn't sleep until I had finished the last page. Those were the nights when I could point out a shooting star before it finished scraping across the dark sky. And when I could go to the movies, and it didn't matter if it was a foreign film or not.
But [Bobryk continues] all this changed about seven years ago. I had battled glaucoma for twenty years. Suddenly, without warning, my eyes had hemorrhaged. I now have no vision in my left eye and only slight vision in my right. A minefield of blind spots makes people and cars suddenly appear and vanish. My world has shapes but no features. Friends are mannequins in the fog until I recognize their voices. Printed words look like ants writhing on the page. Doorways are unlit mine shafts. This is not a place for the fainthearted.
[I interrupt again to point out that Bobryk uses the language to ask for sympathy. Life was good before blindness, but now it is filled with minefields and unlit mineshafts, with no foreign films and no driving, with no books at night before bed and no stars. Of course a doorway is not an unlit mineshaft, but the image of falling and danger is enhanced by such hyperbole. The message here is not complex. Bobryk says: give me pity; I am blind. But back to the article.]
My cane is my navigator in this eerie landscape. Adults will step aside without comment when they see me coming. While I'm wielding my stick, strangers are often afraid to communicate with me. I don't take this personally--anymore. Certainly they can't be afraid that I'll lash out at them with my rod. (Take THAT, you hapless sighted person! Whack!) Still, [Bobryk says] I refuse to take a dim view of this.
[Once again I interrupt to say that this part of the narrative is slightly more complicated. It indicates isolation, frustration, and anger. The white cane is a symbol of independence and a means of travel, but in Bobryk's hand it is (at least in his own mind) an instrument for separation from the public--not a means for participation in society. And it is also a potential weapon to be used against the undeserving. Nevertheless, he continues to use the cane because it gets him where he wants to go. However, he thinks of it as an element of an eerie world--one filled with loss, regret, and bitterness. The cane is not a valued part of an independent life; it is a necessary evil. But there is more in the article. Bobryk continues.]
It's not like it's inconvenient for friends to help me get around. Hey, have disabled parking--will travel. Christmas shopping? Take me to the mall and I'll get us front-row parking. Late for the game? No problema. We'll be parking by the stadium entrance. And if some inconsiderate interloper tries to park in the blue zone without a permit, he'll either be running after a fleeing tow truck or paying a big fine.
So you see [Bobryk continues] I'm a good buddy to know. I just carry a cane, that's all. None of this is to make light of going blind. Being blind is dark and depressing. When you see me walking with my cane, you may think I'm lost as I ricochet down the street. But you'll find more things in life if you don't travel in a straight line.
This is the description of blindness that appeared less than four months ago in Newsweek Magazine. Blind people can't walk in a straight line; we ricochet through the world. Ours is a dark and depressing existence. We take what we can get and have little or nothing to give in return, except a handicapped parking space close to the stadium entrance. Bobryk exploits his blindness, and he does it deliberately--extracting privileges from the public that are not necessary, on the false and destructive premise of pity. Then he complains about isolation and backlash.
Newsweek printed this story as one acceptable way of understanding blindness, but it is not acceptable to us. Blind people are not all angry, frustrated chiselers. We are not victims, and we refuse to act the part of beaten-down, sniveling whiners. A new literature about blindness is needed, and we the organized blind are setting the pattern of its formation. The Newsweek article represents the comprehension of a former day and is an illustration of the literature of a bygone era. Its appeal to emotionalism is thin and superficial. Unlike our literature its pattern is so thoroughly recognizable that the text demands almost no thought at all.
In our literature we speak not of anger, but of a willingness to work; not of pity, but of self-reliance; not of exploitation, but of a shared commitment to join with others to build a better future. We have the capacity to think and the mental discipline to tell our own story. Our struggle for independence is real, and increasingly the insight of reporters is recognizing the drama. The previous image was wrong, and we are helping them replace it. We are the blind, and we will speak and act on our own behalf. There is no force on earth that can prevent it.
Much of the work of the National Federation of the Blind is done through correspondence. We write thousands of letters each year and distribute them to millions of people. We include with our letters literature about blindness, especially Kernel Books. Part of our mailing program is intended to educate the public, and part of it is designed to locate individuals who need our help. Of course we receive thousands of responses. Some of them are articulate and literary, but others are written in the simplicity and eloquence of need. Here are excerpts from one of these:
I'm very much in need of assistance for my nine-year-old daughter Satoria; she was born blind. She had surgery on her eyes when she was one week old. And by the grace of God she can do a lot of things. When she were two years old, she would take books from the shelves and sit on the floor and try to read them. And I ran out of the room where she were, and I started crying my poor little heart out until I couldn't cry no more. And when she got ready for Head Start, she was going ahead of everybody in class. She has a visually impaired teacher comes in and out of her class, checking on her. But it is very hard for me. These people wants me to work while I have a child that can not see almost to cross the street. I be frightened that some one will call me and say, "Your daughter has got hit by a car," or anything. I'll tell you, this have me worrying, depressed, and nervous. They really don't understand. I am a single parent with no transportation in the city of New Orleans. But I'm glad this [letter] were sent through the mail--the first thing I've got. You know we gets a lot of junk mail. I want my kids to grow up right--feeling comfortable. Sometimes I really have it hard, and Satoria don't have a van to pick her up to go to the clinic or no trainers to help her just in case her sight leaves completely. I don't have enough of money to get her the help she needs. But I'm going to send what I can afford. But thanks to that man upstairs; He's still blessing me and my kids. I'm pleased to meet you and hope I hear from you in the future.
Such is the letter from the mother of a blind nine-year-old child--a mother who has almost no resources, few contacts, little knowledge of the system, and no realistic appraisal of what to expect of her child. She cares deeply, and she is willing to give of the little that she has. However, she is worried about the future for her child, and she does not know what to do. She has received our message of hope and belief, and she has begun to wonder if the opportunities we describe can become a part of life for her daughter. Although she is not accustomed to writing, she has put words on paper and spoken from the heart. She needs money, but this mother is afraid to work because she believes she is needed constantly to watch over her child. This adds to the economic hardship of the family. Despite this hardship she is prepared to give to us from what she has becausewe offer an opportunity which exists nowhere else. I understand this feeling (as we in the Federation do), for I have children of my own, and a sacrifice to assist them is one way of believing in the goodness of tomorrow. We in the Federation must create opportunities for the children of today that never existed for us, and of course we will. Because Satoria's mother has written, her daughter will have an expanded future, for we will do what we can to help with that future.
In 1940 (almost six decades ago), the National Federation of the Blind was founded by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a handful of other stalwart people at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Circumstances faced by the blind in those days were extremely poor, and prospects for the future were almost equally dismal. But Dr. tenBroek and those others knew that the only method for improving the future for the blind was to form a mechanism through which the blind themselves could take action to bring pressure on private and public programs for the blind, to challenge commonly held beliefs about blindness, to institute policy reforms respecting blind people, and to take other action to stimulate enhanced opportunity for the blind. That mechanism is our organization--the National Federation of the Blind.
Twelve years later the founder of the Federation, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, and the builder of the Federation, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, met at a National Convention of the organization in Nashville, Tennessee, and formed a lifelong friendship. Dr. tenBroek continued to lead the movement until his death in 1968. He was more than a President; he was the charismatic leader and the magnetic orator. Dr. tenBroek loved the Federation, and his love was evident in his leadership. He also loved Dr. Jernigan, who became President of the organization at the time of Dr. tenBroek's death in 1968 and who served as the leader of the movement for the next thirty years.
Under Dr. Jernigan's leadership the Federation expanded to every corner of the nation, and the number of its activities increased exponentially. The aids and appliances program of the Federation was established; leadership training seminars were commenced; presidential releases on cassette were distributed; Christmas programs were recorded; public service announcements for television and radio were prepared; the National Center for the Blind was discovered, remodeled, and furnished; a number of magazines were founded including the Voice of the Diabetic and Future Reflections, the magazine for parents and educators of blind children; training centers for the blind came into being in Louisiana, Colorado, and Minnesota; greater harmony than had ever existed in the past was fostered among agencies for the blind and organizations of the blind within the United States and beyond our borders; the staff of the Federation was hired, trained, and integrated into the fabric of the organization; the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind was established; the Kernel Book series was initiated and the books themselves distributed to millions; the NEWSLINE(R) for the Blind network was invented and put into operation; the America's Jobline system was developed; and funding to support all of these programs and dozens of others was secured.
In his hands the Federation became a solidly harmonious and unified organization with purpose, drive, and force. A corps of leaders throughout the movement was trained at the local, the state, and the national levels in the mechanisms of the Federation and the techniques of its governance. Dr. Jernigan also loved the Federation, and his love was equally evident in his leadership.
Dr. tenBroek died more than thirty years ago, and Dr. Jernigan drew his last breath in the fall. But the spirit of these two magnificent leaders is with us still. It is present in the scholarships we grant, in the programs we pursue, and in the literature we publish. They have given us a method of thought and a habit of living; they have given us the inspiration to move forward with confidence in ourselves and in each other. They never failed to plan ahead, and we have learned from their example to do the same.
So what of tomorrow--what does the future portend for us? Will we be misunderstood and belittled by the press? Will the so-called scientific researchers (aided and abetted by some of the less well-informed agency officials) tell us that our minds operate differently from those of the sighted? Will certain administrators of programs for the blind declare that being blind is a form of dying and challenge our right to learn Braille? Will weak-spirited blind individuals seek something for nothing on the basis of pity and encourage the press to print, for public display, their lack of confidence as if it were news? Yes, all of this will occur and more. We will face misunderstanding of our talents and capacities, mischaracterization of our actions and beliefs, and misrepresentation of our purposes and objectives. Furthermore, we will not always have the resources to meet the immediate needs that will come our way. But will this cause within us, or within our movement, a crisis of confidence? Not a bit of it! We have set our objectives, and we will not waver until we have reached our goal.
Yes there will be problems aplenty. But we have the means for solving them. We have our own resources, and increasingly we have the goodwill and the understanding of others. Some members of the press misunderstand us, but many others don't. Some agency officials think us inferior, but many others have joined with us in the effort to bring acceptance for the blind into the public mind. Some researchers regard us as abnormal, but many others recognize us for what we are. Furthermore, we ourselves are, in ever greater numbers, being welcomed as members of the press, administrators of programs for the blind, and researchers within the scientific community. At one time we were alone, but today we have more colleagues and more friends than ever before in history. And, of the greatest importance, we have each other. We have the Federation in all its depth and strength--and who could ask for more?
In 1986 you elected me President of the Federation, giving to me the highest honor that anybody can bestow. I have done my best to take my standard as President from Dr. Jernigan, who (in his turn) took his standard from Dr. tenBroek. I have tried to lead our movement with understanding, good judgment, and firmness.
We in the Federation have a shared bond of love and trust from me as President to you the members, and from you to me. As long as you want me to do so, I will do my best to continue to lead our movement. I will be willing to stand in the front lines and to take whatever comes without flinching or equivocating. I will give freely of my time, my energy, my imagination, my resources, and my commitment; and I will meet the problems we face head-on. I will not ask of you what I am not prepared to do myself. This is my obligation and my pledge.
You the members of the Federation also have an obligation to the movement and to me as President.I will expect you to give of your time, your energy, your imagination, and your resources. When the challenges come to us and the difficult times arise, I will ask you to support the movement and me--to give me your dedication and your commitment.
If we as a movement--if we, the great body of the Federation--are not prepared to give all that is good within us, our growth and progress will diminish or cease to be. But we will not hesitate or turn back. The stakes are too high and the cost too great to permit it. We have tasted freedom, and we can never again be satisfied with anything less than full independence for ourselves and those who come after us. Those who preceded us--Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and those thousands of others in the movement--have carried the banner, have sacrificed to gain opportunity for us, and have fought the battles so that we might comprehend what can and will be ours. They led and we followed; now it is our turn to lead. The spirit they kindled can never be extinguished because we will fan the flame--we will add fuel to the fire--and we, the members of the movement, will cause a great conflagration.
We are the blind of more than a single generation, of every segment of society, and of every part of the nation. We have the capacity to think and the mental discipline to reach conclusions that will alter the future for us all. We possess the confidence to bring those conclusions to reality. Nobody else can do it for us; we must do this for ourselves; and we will! Our future is bright with promise because it belongs to us, and there is no force on earth that can stop us. Come, and we will make it come true!
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