by Trevor Soderstrum
From the Editor: Trevor Soderstrum is a writer for several papers in Iowa. James Omvig was a friend of his father, and Trevor has written a wonderful tribute to a man many of us know and love. Here is what he said in the papers carrying his story:
“Would you gentlemen like to ‘pre-board,’ or do you want to wait and board with the normal people?” the woman behind the desk at the United Airlines departure gate asked.
“Board… with… the… normal…. people,” the words burned into Jim Omvig’s soul like he had been punched.
The year was 1979. The place was the Columbus, Ohio, airport. Jim was an extremely successful lawyer. He was also blind. Instead of seeing a man who less than a year later would be making arguments before the justices of the United States Supreme Court, all the woman behind the counter saw was Jim’s friend and his white cane.
Finding a smile, Jim calmly responded as best he could, “I think we’ll just go along with the normal people if that's all right with you.”
“Normal… people…” We have all had those moments where someone looks at and judges us as being less than human, of not measuring up, someone to be pitied. They see a person’s weight, gender, sexual orientation, scar, skin color, missing limb, or wheelchair. They see a person who is a victim, not someone with the potential to do amazing things.
Jim had suffered through a lifetime of these slings and arrows. Born in the small Norwegian farming community of Roland, Iowa, and raised in nearby Slater, he discovered at age ten or eleven that he was going blind when he was asked by a nurse at a school eye examination in the gymnasium to read an eye chart on the wall. Confused, he asked, “What eye chart?”
Over the next few weeks, Jim learned that he had a rare degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). His teachers and he did the best they could as reading became a nightmare for him. They placed him in the front row in order to help make reading the chalkboard easier. Some of his teachers even gave him their notes to assist in matters. These were kind and wonderful things to do, but it also made Jim stand out and be seen as “different.” And we all know how some other children treat those that are “different.”
In ninth grade, school became too difficult for him, and it was decided that he needed to be sent to the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa. (If you are wondering how being visually impaired was viewed in the 1950s, the school had formerly been named the Iowa Asylum for the Blind.)
Instead of being empowered and learning how to deal with his disease, the school viewed its pupils as victims, being inferior to sighted individuals. He was taught to weave rugs, cane chairs and baskets because those were “the only jobs the blind could do.”
There was no thought of teaching him how to read and write in Braille or how to make his way over long distances with a white cane. Although many of the people there meant the best, they were unknowingly teaching that the blind were not normal, that they were lesser people, and victims of circumstance.
Jim graduated and, instead of going out to conquer the world, he moved back into his parent’s home in Slater and took a part-time job moving butter for the local creamery for the next eight years. He had internalized much of the message regarding sight that had been silently communicated to him the last few years.
How does a person go from moving butter to being one of the most successful lawyers in the United States? Sometimes angels in human form appear in your life. For Jim Omvig, that angel was named Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. In 1958 Jernigan became head of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. He saw his job as not teaching the blind menial skills, reinforcing the feelings of victimhood, but rather establishing “an attitude factory.” With rigorous proper training and hard work, he believed the only limitations a blind person had were those he or she placed on themselves. Being visually impaired was a “social problem,” not a limitation. His students were normal just like everyone else. What Jernigan initiated became known as “the miracle of Iowa.”
In 1961 Jim went to the Iowa Orientation and Adjustment Center. There he found himself not only learning the basic skills and training he needed, but doing things he could not have previously imagined like cutting down trees for firewood and water skiing. Most important, Dr. Jernigan stressed the Biblical notion of giving back and helping others.
Challenged, Jim saw his way of giving back was the practice of law. After attending Drake University, he decided he wanted to attend Loyola University of Chicago School of Law. One little problem: the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) was not available for blind people to take. Instead of spending years in court trying to change this predicament, Jim appealed to the dean of the school, who recognized the unfairness of the situation. Finding other methods to measure Jim’s talent, the dean agreed to accept him.
Graduating, Jim found himself still battling the skepticism of the larger society. He had to suffer through roughly one hundred and fifty interviews before finally being offered a job.
Jim never forgot Dr. Jernigan’s words and spent the rest of his life battling for the rights of the blind. That is what brought his friend, him, and their spouses to the Columbus airport and this woman from United Airlines asking if he wanted to pre-board or wait in order to board with “the normal people.”
As hard as it is to believe now, at that time blind people had to endure the indignity of being forced to sit on rubber blankets in order to make sure they did not soil their seats. There were questions as to whether their highly trained service dogs should be permitted on planes out of fear that the canines might bite fellow passengers. Blind people’s white canes were taken away from them to assure that they would not become “flying missiles” if the airplane crashed. It was also even believed that the blind should not be allowed on long flights for their own safety.
The woman’s words stayed with Jim as he took his seat in the airplane. “Normal… people…” So when the flight attendant asked his friend and him to turn over their canes, something in Jim made him pause. It was not planned as he had freely handed over his cane hundreds of times previously.
“Normal… people…” Instead, he said, “No.” He informed her that there was no need to worry about their canes becoming “flying missiles.” His friend and he would buckle them into their seat belts.
Flummoxed, the stewardess informed the pilot, who became extremely angry regarding these two gentlemen holding up his flight. After a hostile face-to-face confrontation and Jim feeling the hot breath of the pilot on his skin, the police were summoned. The two extremely accomplished blind men were arrested and marched off to a nearby holding area. “Normal…people…”
We can pat ourselves on the back over how much things have improved for the blind and others our society has viewed as being not “normal.” Yet, as I sat next to Jim Omvig on Memorial Day, I realized how many battles still have to be fought. No one wants to be seen as “the other.” Too many people with so much potential have been asked to sit on the sidelines of life.
I am not quite sure what “normal” is. We all have burdens, pieces missing, and mountains to overcome in this life. People can do amazing things if we let them; even become angels that inspire and help uplift others like Jim has. I would like to think we all can become angels to those around us. Wouldn’t that be nice?