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The Dark Ages and the Dawn of Organization

The year 1990 holds extraordinary significance for blind Americans. It marks the golden anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind and so memorializes the first half-century of collective self-organization by the blind people of the United States. This book is the story of those fifty years of Federationism in America: the history of a unique social revolution, democratic and nonviolent but not always peaceful; the drama of an irresistible force some call it blind force colliding again and again with the seemingly immovable objects of supervision and superstition; and the narrative of a minority group once powerless, scattered, and impoverished coming together as a people and forging an independent movement, gaining self-expression and learning self-direction, proclaiming normality and demanding equality.

The story begins, officially, with the establishment of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. But the historic significance of that event can be fully understood only against the background of earlier attempts to improve the dependent status of the blind through self-organization and self-help. It is a little-known fact that organizations of the blind have existed in one form or another for many hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. The earliest record of their existence comes, perhaps surprisingly, from China where blind paupers (most of them apparently beggars like others of the disabled) banded together for mutual protection nearly a millennium ago, giving rise to numbers of guilds and associations (composed entirely of blind people) which were able in time to achieve full legal and social status. The extraordinary self-determining and self-sufficient character of these pre-modern Chinese associations has been described by a blind sociologist, C. Edwin Vaughan, writing in the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Monitor (April, 1988):

In Medieval China for at least 1,000 years guilds of craftsmen, workers, and merchants were common. Their purpose was to prevent exploitation from government officials and to provide internal regulation of trade and craft areas of employment. There was in Beijing, formerly Peking, a guild comprised of blind persons who made a career of singing, entertaining, and storytelling. Parents would seek to place a young blind son into this guild so that he might learn a trade for his future lifelong employment. As he succeeded in the required skills, he would rise in status in the guild to the level of master.

Blind guild members in China were self-governing. The guild was governed by a board of forty-eight members of whom forty-seven were blind. The secretary was the only sighted person. The guild governed itself with regard to membership, including the discipline of members, the charges for services, and the recruitment of new members into the guild. The guild met twice each year, and the meetings lasted until 5:00 a.m.

But it was in Europe, during the Middle Ages, that independent guilds and brotherhoods of the blind came to be most highly organized and successful in their purpose. One of the most impressive of these self-contained groups was known as the Congregation and House of the Three Hundred, which flourished in Paris in the thirteenth century. In this remarkable congregation lived several hundred blind men and women who successfully governed themselves through a popular assembly and were, within the severe monastic limits of the enterprise, entirely self-sufficient. In time, however, the suspicions and stereotypes of the wider society worked against this extraordinary experiment in self-government by the sightless. Both the administration and the statutes of the congregation, as a historian tells us, underwent in the course of time a number of changes, with a considerable loss to the blind of their original rights and a corresponding increase of the influence of the sighted. 1

Still other free brotherhoods of the blind, as they were called, flourished throughout Europe during medieval times. Most of them were in the form of guilds, and it is worth noting briefly the character and function which these voluntary associations embodied. First of all, of course, they were a means of mutual protection at a time when blindness was regarded either as a communicable disease or as punishment for sins, and when the sightless might be cruelly punished or put to death with impunity. But the blind brotherhoods also had a positive role to play; they were a vehicle of self-expression and representation for the blind in the affairs of the community. In that respect they were a force, not for segregation, but for integration of the blind into the carefully articulated society of the period. For these guilds of the blind were not unique in the age of feudalism; they coexisted with a wide variety of other specialized associations, each with its particular rights and status, which together made up the medieval community. Through such groups, largely voluntary, the blind and others of the disabled gained a collective identity and a degree of security which was otherwise denied them. Indeed, group membership was essential to all men and women as a source of recognition and identification. The unattached person during the Middle Ages, as the historian Lewis Mumford has written, was one either condemned to exile or doomed to death; if alive, he immediately sought to attach himself, at least to a band of robbers. To exist, one had to belong to an association: a household, a manor, a monastery, a guild; there was no security except in association, and no freedom that did not recognize the obligations of a corporate life.

What was true for the prosperous and able-bodied there was no security except in association was more profoundly true for the blind; and it is likely that they enjoyed a greater measure of physical and economic security within the corporative, guild-oriented society of the Middle Ages than in any previous period of history certainly more than in the so-called golden age of classical antiquity, when the common fate of blind males was to be sold into galley slavery and that of blind females to be sold into white slavery. Nor would the first centuries of the modern era compare favorably with the medieval situation. For the blind, as for others of the disabled, the breakup of the feudal order and the emergence of the modern world were in crucial respects not progress but retreat. The movement from group status to individual contract and more specifically the enactment of the infamous Elizabethan Poor Laws not merely deprived the blind of their fraternal guilds but left them scattered, alienated, and utterly dependent upon the charitable impulses of a new society indifferent at best and frequently cruel in its treatment of the handicapped. In this atmosphere it is not surprising that organizations of the blind, like trade unions and other independent associations of the poor, were actively discouraged and discredited. Within the various separate institutions that grew up to take care of them the almshouses and workhouses and subsequently the schools, homes, lighthouses, and sheltered workshops the blind were in effect segregated not only from normal society but also from each other.

It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that voluntary associations of blind people began again to take shape, initially in the form of local and specialized groups. One of the first on record was the Friedlander Union of Philadelphia, organized in 1871; six years later came the New York Blind Aid Association, also composed predominantly of sightless members. By the 1890s there were a number of such groups across the country, many of them composed of alumni of the state schools for the blind. These alumni associations, representing as they did the educated minority of the blind population, tended to take a limited view of their responsibilities and interests, rather than seeking to represent the blind generally. They were the forerunners, but not yet the pathfinders or trailblazers, of the twentieth-century movement of the organized blind. Like the medieval blind guilds, the early alumni associations were largely defensive in character, for the primary stimulus to their organization came from the tragic failure of the special schools for the blind to attain the great objective which had been the dream of the pioneer educators (such men as Valentin Hauy of France, Johann Klein of Austria, and America's Samuel Gridley Howe), namely, the goal of economic integration of the educated blind into the mainstream of society. Before resuming our narrative of self-organization, it is worth recalling this misadventure of the schools and the shock of recognition which it provided. From their beginnings toward the middle of the nineteenth century, American residential schools for the blind followed the model of the European schools in placing their main curricular emphasis upon vocational training which chiefly meant instruction in the skills of weaving, knitting, basketry, and chair caning, plus music and other arts. It was the conviction of the early schoolmasters that once their blind wards had shown the ability to master these trades they would be embraced forthwith by a tolerant and receptive society. It is confidently believed, said one school official in 1854, that the blind, with proper instruction, will be able to maintain themselves free of charge from their friends or the state. There will be as few exceptions among this class, according to their numbers, as among those who have sight. 2

In their idealism, these early schoolmen showed themselves to be true heirs of the Enlightenment. Like their counterparts in general education, as well as in social and penal reform, they believed that it was necessary only to strike the chains from their wards in order to make them at once free and self-sufficient. But it was not long before they discovered their error which was that while the blind were being prepared to enter society, nothing was being done to prepare society to receive them. The old prejudices and aversions of employers and the general public remained intact; the newly trained graduates of the schools were given little or no chance to prove their abilities, but instead found all doors closed against them. Our graduates began to return to us, according to a school official, representing the embarrassment of their condition abroad, and soliciting employment at our hands.3

The response of the schools to this rebuff was perhaps only natural, but it was also unfortunately defeatist. Instead of undertaking programs of public education, selective placement and the like in order to break down the occupational barriers against their blind students, the schoolmasters simply abandoned the goal of normal competitive employment altogether. As a blind leader of a later era, Jacobus tenBroek, was to write of this episode: At the first signs of public resistance, the optimistic philosophy of the school men crumbled; they conceded in effect that they had been wrong in believing the blind capable of competition and self-support; they were prepared to accept as irremovable the prohibitive stereotypes against which they had formerly ranged themselves, and to assist in reinforcing the ancient walls of segregation and dependency. 4 TenBroek's critical words were appropriate to the fact; instead of a place in the sun, the blind students were offered a shelter in the shade of the school yard, where they might safely practice what were already known as the blind trades without fear of competition or contamination from the seeing world. As one report of the period sadly concluded: The proper preventive is the establishment of a retreat where their bread can be earned, their morals protected, and a just estimate put upon their talents.5

That statement might stand as a prophetic description of the sheltered workshop movement which arose as a result of the bitter experience of the schools for the blind with vocational training and employment. The role of the workshops will be discussed in later pages; but it is pertinent here to note that the blind alumni associations came into being in the wake of this episode, providing something of a buffer against the total loss of confidence and self-respect among the educated blind. One such alumni group was that which was formed in 1895 by graduates of the Missouri School; within a year of its founding the Missouri group opened its ranks to graduates of other schools and took on the name of the American Blind People's Higher Education and General Improvement Association. It drew support promptly from blind individuals and groups in a dozen states across the country, and before the turn of the century had held conventions in Missouri and Kansas. In 1903 the character of the group as an organization of the blind was abruptly transformed when representatives of several school administrations appeared at its convention bearing a plan for a wholly different kind of association to include not only the blind but also school and program administrators. In 1905 the Association formally abandoned its old identity altogether and became the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) thus ending the first tentative attempt on the part of blind Americans to organize independently on a nationwide basis.

This denouement was not, however, quite as destructive a blow to the principle of self-organization and self-expression as it would seem. For one thing the impulse to organize on local and state levels, once set in motion by the alumni of the schools, grew steadily and soon embraced other groups of blind persons. At the same time the development of general-purpose national agencies combining all areas of work for the blind agencies such as the AAWB and (later) the American Foundation for the Blind represented a forward step toward the professionalization and modernization of this special (and traditionally backward) field of services to the blind.

Following its reorganization to include sighted professionals in 1905, the AAWB soon became what one observer has described as the N.A.M. (National Association of Manufacturers) of work for the blind. During the next decade and a half, the AAWB consolidated its position until it became the recognized voice of the numerous professional agencies about the country, not limited to one or two functions but speaking to the needs of the blind population generally. In 1921 the American Foundation for the Blind was established, primarily as a research and coordinating arm of the agencies for the blind; in effect, if the AAWB filled the role of an N.A.M. in work with the blind, the Foundation took on the stature of a combined Dupont-General Motors in the blindness system.

The American Foundation for the Blind provided the framework for the organizational pattern of the service agencies which was to prevail undisturbed until the advent of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. This pattern, carried out by a host of agencies at the state and community levels, often under the guidance of the AFB, embraced four distinct areas of endeavor: those of research, resources, services, and representation. All four of these functions including even that of representing, or speaking for, the blind were, for their time, entirely legitimate and constructive; indeed, the AFB made great progress over the years with regard to the first three functions. It initiated the first substantial and systematic research into blindness and its problems; it developed and made available for the first time a variety of significant resources, and it greatly expanded the range and quality of services to the blind educational and economic as well as recreational and social. As for its role in those years as

spokesman for the blind, the American Foundation for the Blind at its worst was better than no spokesman at all and at best was an effective champion for modernized policies and much-needed legislation. As Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and other leaders of the organized blind have repeatedly maintained, the agency structure of work for the blind during the decades prior to 1940 controlled at the top as it was by the AFB and the AAWB resembled nothing so much as a colonial regime of the nineteenth-century variety imposed, with benevolent purpose and some constructive effect, upon a dependent and inarticulate people. Like other colonial administrations, furthermore, the agency system was destined to give way to a democratic form of self-government when its blind wards should come to find their own voice and to declare their independence.

That critical turning point was to come in 1940 as the natural and almost inevitable climax of the spontaneous urge toward association on the part of blind people in state after state. Many of these groups were outcroppings of the school alumni combinations, such as the Alumni Association of California School for the Blind formed by the legendary Newel Perry and a handful of hardy colleagues before the turn of the century for the announced purpose of helping blind people (as Dr. Perry declared) to escape defeatism and to achieve normal membership in society. Although it cannot be said that these early associations among the blind were yet prepared to demand the full rights of equality and normality, Newel Perry's declaration set the precedent and pointed the direction in which they were to evolve. Over the next three decades local organizations of blind men and women within half a dozen states came together to form statewide associations. Among them were the Central Committee of the Blind of Illinois; the Badger Association of the Blind in Wisconsin; the Pennsylvania Federation of the Blind; the Mutual Federation of the Blind in Ohio; and the California Council for (later of ) the Blind.

The fundamental purposes of the multiplying local and state associations of the blind during these years were no different from those which had animated the free brotherhoods of the Middle Ages: mutual protection, group identity, and a measure of self-expression. To these must be added the more modern urge to demonstrate to the seeing world the capacity of blind men and women to lead their own lives and govern their own affairs. Moreover, within these organizations were incubating the more practical objectives which were to find expression in the national movement of the blind. Among them were the vision of full and open employment of blind persons in the mainstream of competitive pursuits, programs of public aid providing the incentives needed to enable the blind to achieve self-support, and vocational rehabilitation programs geared to individual talent and ability rather than to the stereotyped trades of the workhouse and the workshop.

These were, of course, barely imagined vistas of possibility in the period prior to the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 1930s. Social provisions for the blind were traditionally limited to state and county programs, in accordance with the ancient customs of the Poor Law. But with the vast increase of poverty and unemployment during the Depression and notably with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 public welfare and job opportunity became a national concern, and with it the particular needs and problems of blind Americans.

The growth of a national consciousness and a sense of solidarity on the part of blind Americans corresponded with this broader public awareness of the need for national (or federal) solutions to the problems of disadvantaged groups. But the assumption of federal responsibility for public welfare and Social Security was far from being an unmixed blessing. While the Social Security Act injected new energies and revenues into the old aid programs, it also introduced a battery of conditions and requirements which often bound the blind recipient more tightly than ever in dependency and red tape. In short, as Jacobus tenBroek pointed out, the expansion of public aid from the states to the national level did not eliminate the evils of the traditional system it only made them national.

The negative side of the federal assumption of responsibility for welfare came to be felt most sharply under the 1939 amendments to the Social Security Act. These changes required that under any state program for the blind to which federal funds were contributed all the income and resources of the blind recipient must be counted in fixing the amount of the aid grant, if any. What this meant, in fact, was that a basic goal for which the blind had been striving the exemption of reasonable amounts of income as an incentive to self-support was to be eliminated by federal edict.

In various ways during the Depression years the center of gravity in public welfare was shifting rapidly from the state capitals to Washington. It was now Congress, along with the White House, which took the decisive steps forward or backward in the fields of welfare aid, vocational rehabilitation, public health, disability insurance, sheltered workshops, and a host of related services directly affecting the lives and livelihoods of blind men and women.

Inevitably, the nationalizing of welfare led to the nationalizing of the organized blind movement. Various factors, internal and external to the movement, combined in this preliminary period to nourish a growing sense of brotherhood, of common needs and aspirations, both among blind students mingling in their residential state schools and among blind workers meeting and sharing grievances in their all-too-sheltered workshops. A powerful rallying cry emerged during the course of the Depression decade in the form of the struggle to save Social Security from the Social Security Board that is, to protect blind recipients of aid from the means test and other onerous conditions newly imposed by the federal agency. The campaign to salvage and reform the program of aid to the blind, and in so doing to transform relief into rehabilitation, was to dominate the agenda of the National Federation of the Blind at its founding convention and to remain a guiding theme through its first decade.

Newel Perry summed up the nature and trend of the evolving national movement in a 1940 editorial. During the last forty years, he wrote, a growing group consciousness has been noticeable among the blind of our country. Practically every state and large city now has an active organization with a membership composed exclusively of blind persons. These clubs seek to improve the economic conditions of the blind through the enactment of legislation and through other means. The dream of a national organization is now to be realized.


1. Richard S. French in From Homer to Helen Keller (New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1932).

2. Quoted in Harry Best, Blindness and the Blind in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1934), p. 474.

3. Ibid., p. 476.

4. Jacobus tenBroek and Floyd Matson, Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind (Berkeley: University of California, 1959), p. 251.

5. Quoted in Best, op. cit., p. 476.

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