Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1946, Joanne Ziehan Fernandes moved with her parents to Webster City, Iowa, when she was seven. When she was 3, doctors had discovered that she had Retinitis Pigmentosa. She remembers everyone's attitude toward her poor eyesight. No one regarded her as blind, but everyone knew her eye condition could lead to blindness, a fact which friends and family did not want to confront. The whispers taught Fernandes that this being "blind" was a dreadful thing. She learned to pretend she could see to avoid the pity that would follow if she could not. And she learned to avoid thinking about blindness. It was too awful. Never once can Fernandes remember discussing blindness with a teacher or friend at school. She never met a single blind person. All she knew was that she did not want to be blind or think about it. Being blind wasn't respectable.
After Fernandes graduated from high school, she enrolled in a junior college. At that time the Iowa Commission for the Blind conducted a career day for blind students, which she attended. For the first time she met blind people. They were confident and capable. She decided that at the end of her second year of junior college she would take time out to attend the Orientation and Adjustment Center. Those nine months she describes as
"the most exciting time of my life. I found freedom, and it wasn't always easy."
In 1969 Joanne Fernandes graduated with honor from Iowa State University, where she received a B.S. in Elementary Education. During one quarter she was selected as a Merrill Palmer Scholar to do advanced work in education in Detroit, Michigan.
For the next four years, Fernandes taught elementary school (second and fourth grades) in the Ames, Iowa, public school system. In 1971 she received a Master's degree in Guidance and Counseling. During this time Fernandes helped to organize the North Central Iowa Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, and she served for several years as its president. From 1977 to 1979 she was first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.
In 1973, Fernandes had stopped teaching to begin a family. She is now the mother of 5 children ages 5 to 15. In 1979 she and her husband moved to Louisiana, and here she continued her Federation work. In 1981, Fernandes led the formation of a new N.F.B. chapter in her hometown of Ruston, Louisiana, and forty people attended the first meeting. It was the eighth chapter in the state. Today in Louisiana there are twenty-one chapters.
Joanne Fernandes was elected President of the N.F.B. of Louisiana in 1983 and has been elected for successive two-year terms ever since. In 1985, Governor Edwin Edwards recommended to the State Legislature that money be appropriated directly to the N.F.B. of Louisiana for a training center for blind adults, and the prestige and reputation of the organization were such that the legislature responded affirmatively.
The Louisiana Center for the Blind opened in October of 1985 with Joanne Fernandes as its director, and the program which has been built is rapidly coming to be recognized throughout the nation as a model. More than a hundred students have now enrolled in the program, and they graduate ready for competition in the mainstream of society--and they graduate not only believing but knowing that it is respectable to be blind.
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