Picture of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek.

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek


Author, Jurist, Professor,
Founder of the
National Federation of the Blind

Copyright © 1990, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          The moving force in the founding of the National Federation of the Blind (and its spiritual and intellectual father) was Jacobus tenBroek. Born in 1911, young tenBroek (the son of a prairie homesteader in Canada) lost the sight of one eye as the result of a bow-and-arrow accident at the age of seven. His remaining eyesight deteriorated until at the age of fourteen he was totally blind. Shortly afterward he and his family traveled to Berkeley so that he could attend the California School for the Blind. Within three years he was an active part of the local organization of the blind.

          By 1934 he had joined with Dr. Newel Perry and others to form the California Council of the Blind, which later became the National Federation of the Blind of California. This organization was a prototype for the nationwide federation that tenBroek would form six years later.

          Even a cursory glance at his professional career showed the absurdity of the idea that blindness means incapacity. The same year the Federation was founded (1940) Jacobus tenBroek received his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of California, completed a year as Brandeis Research Fellow at Harvard Law School and was appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School.

          Two years later he began his teaching career at the University of California at Berkeley, moving steadily up through the ranks to become full professor in 1953 and chairman of the department of speech in 1955. In 1963 he accepted an appointment as professor of political science.

          During this period Professor tenBroek published several books and more than fifty articles and monographs in the fields of welfare, government and law--establishing a reputation as one of the nation's foremost scholars on matters of constitutional law. One of his books, "Prejudice, War, and the Constitution," won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association in 1955 as the best book of the year on government and democracy. Other books are "California's Dual System of Family Law" (1964), "Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind" (1959) and "The Antislavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment" (1951)--revised and republished in 1965 as "Equal Under Law."

          In the course of his academic career Professor tenBroek was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto and was twice the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1947 he earned the degree of S.J.D. from Harvard Law School. In addition, he was awarded honorary degrees by two institutions of higher learning.

          Dr. tenBroek's lifelong companion was his devoted wife Hazel. Together they raised three children and worked inseparably on research, writing and academic and Federation concerns. Mrs. tenBroek still continues as an active member of the organized blind movement.

          In 1950 Dr. tenBroek was made a member of the California State Board of Social Welfare by Governor Earl Warren. Later reappointed to the board three times, he was elected its chairman in 1960 and served in that capacity until 1963.

          The brilliance of Jacobus tenBroek's career led some skeptics to suggest that his achievements were beyond the reach of what they called the "ordinary blind person." What tenBroek recognized in himself was not that he was exceptional, but that he was normal--that his blindness had nothing to do with whether he could be a successful husband and father, do scholarly research, write a book, make a speech, guide students engaged in social action movements and causes or otherwise lead a productive life.

          In any case, the skeptics' theory has been refuted by the success of the thousands of blind men and women who have put this philosophy of normality to work in their own lives during the past fifty years.

          Jacobus tenBroek died of cancer at the age of fifty-six in 1968. His successor, Kenneth Jernigan, in a memorial address, said truly of him:

"The relationship of this man to the organized blind movement, which he brought into being in the United States and around the world, was such that it would be equally accurate to say that the man was the embodiment of the movement or that the movement was the expression of the man."

"tens of thousands of blind Americans over more than a quarter of a century, he was leader, mentor, spokesman and philosopher. He gave to the organized blind movement the force of his intellect and the shape of his dreams. He made it the symbol of a cause barely imagined before his coming: the cause of self-expression, self-direction and self-sufficiency on the part of blind people. Step by step, year by year, action by action, he made that cause succeed."

Read the 2007 update to this article.

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