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Global Vision: The Federation on the World Scene

I propose to you tonight that a new and grand objective be added to our established goals and purposes: namely, the inauguration of a World Federation of the Blind.

Those words of Jacobus tenBroek, spoken during a banquet address at the NFB's 1964 convention in Phoenix, drew an immediate and widespread response of affirmation both in America and abroad. Directly following that convention banquet, leaders of the NFB met with some fifteen distinguished foreign visitors from eight countries to lay the cornerstone of what was to be the International Federation of the Blind the first independent global association of blind people in history. The decision to inaugurate the International Federation came as the climax of a series of events which blatantly exposed the voiceless and powerless status of the blind in the world at large. For many years the NFB had been represented by a delegate in the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, the only international organization in the field. Formed and controlled by agencies for the blind (predominantly in Western Europe and North America), the WCWB faithfully reflected its managerial character in the narrow scope and quality of its operations. All efforts to improve this situation, by the NFB and the few other national organizations represented in the World Council, were rebuffed by its agency leadership.

The exclusion of the organized blind from this international blindness cartel was completed in 1962 with the official ouster of the NFB's delegate (Jacobus tenBroek) from his established seat on the World Council's executive committee. That peremptory action followed a stormy summer meeting in Hanover, Germany, where Dr. tenBroek was denied an official hearing and barred from the seat to which the National Federation of the Blind had been democratically elected for a five-year term just three years before. In a subsequent report, Dr. tenBroek declared that the tight control over the world organization exercised by a handful of American and British agencies raised a critical question for blind people everywhere: Should a world organization of the blind themselves now be created to meet the needs not being met by the WCWB?

The organized blind of America had already shown their readiness to sail into uncharted international waters through a resolution passed in the 1962 convention of the NFB in Detroit, which was forthright and unequivocal in support of a world federation:

WHEREAS, the blind people of the world at present have no effective world agency or instrumentality through which they may represent themselves or take effective collective action for the improvement of their lot, the discussion of their experiences, and the formulation of solutions to their problems; and

WHEREAS, the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind is dominated by agencies for the blind rather than representatives of organizations of the blind and is in any event largely ineffective and inactive; and

WHEREAS, even that minimal and inequitable representation possessed by the blind of the United States in the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind and upon its Executive Committee seems about to be further curtailed by improper and unconstitutional actions of the officials of the WCWB: Now therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled at the Statler Hotel in Detroit, Michigan, this seventh day of July, 1962, that this organization herewith declare the urgent desirability and imperative necessity of a world organization of the blind themselves for purposes of self-expression and self-improvement. We declare it as our policy henceforth to encourage and stimulate the development of such an organization. We instruct our President, our delegate to the WCWB, and our Executive Committee to take all such actions in such manner and in such times as seems to them most meet and feasible and supported by such resources as are available to bring about the establishment of such an organization.

The National Federation of the Blind continued to direct a drumbeat of critical fire at the agency-dominated World Council during the following year, with the most formidable onslaught reserved for the occasion of the 1963 National Convention in Philadelphia. In that Cradle of Liberty, on Independence Day (July 4), Jacobus tenBroek delivered an address which many in his audience regarded as a veritable declaration of independence for the blind people of all nations from the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind. Addressing the question Whither the World Council? Dr. tenBroek sought first to set forth the expectations that blind people might reasonably have regarding the role and responsibility of the world organization which purported to be acting in their name and for their well-being.

Most of all, tenBroek said, we can expect and demand of that leadership a reach of rhetoric to match the depth of its dedication: a bold capacity for fresh and eloquent expression of the high goals of social evolution the emancipating goals of opportunity and equality, of independence and integration to which any world organization for the welfare of the blind must surely be devoted. He continued:

We cannot expect immediate solutions to the global terrors of fear and hunger which torment the blind; but we can expect an impassioned proclamation of their urgency and devastation. We cannot expect a cure-all for the cultural and social blights that stunt the growth of countless blind youths and condemn them to lives of futile desperation; but we can expect a resounding manifesto against the defeatism and indifference that permit these things to rage unchecked. We cannot expect a social revolution overnight; but we can expect a full and fearless revelation. We cannot expect, from the labors of the World Council, an instant conferral upon the world's blind of the epaulets of dignity and the credentials of acceptance; but we can expect, and we can demand, a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Blind Persons, a declaration paralleling and enlarging the two great pronouncements already promulgated by the United Nations: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

The Federation leader went on to assert that the World Council had failed both in its proclaimed purpose and its performance: It has avoided offending any vested interests in the superannuated agencies of the world. It has placed its stamp of approval upon sheltered workshops and other mouldering artifacts of custodial caretaking. It has gone through the motions of a live body, but has placed no substantial matter in motion. In general, and in effect, it has tended to let ill enough alone.

The deepest failure of the World Council, tenBroek said, could be simply stated: It has shown itself to be lacking in vision. It has been unable to prevent its own blindness. Confronted with the grave social and human issues facing blind people everywhere, it has chosen to look away. It has shed no light and generated no heat. All that the WCWB had generated, tenBroek maintained, was conflict with the very people, the blind populations of the world, whom it claimed to serve and to represent. The conflict between the National Federation and the reigning officialdom of the Council is less significant in itself than as a symbol of the severe malady from which this global agency is suffering. It is a disease of unsympathetic atrophy, whose symptoms are paralysis of the will, morbid sensitivity to illumination, and a fear of open places accompanied by fits of pique and delusions of grandeur.

TenBroek concluded his speech to the NFB convention with these words: The founding fathers of the World Council were of the agencies. Its representative members, by constitutional fiat, are of the agencies. Its ruling directorate of titular and non-titular heads are of the agencies. We may say of the World Council, in summary, that the voice it affects is the voice of the blind man but the hand is still the hand of the custodian.

At the same time as it was becoming apparent that organizations of the blind themselves could not hope to gain an effective voice in the WCWB, pioneering efforts were set in motion in a variety of new and old nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America toward the formation of independent blind associations. A notable instance was Pakistan, where the NFB's goodwill ambassador, Dr. Isabelle Grant of California, instilled the spirit of Federationism into an adventurous band of men and women. (More will be said about this globetrotting gentleperson in later pages.) The Pakistan Association of the Blind, under the leadership of Dr. Fatima Shah, took its place in the early sixties in the vanguard of independent national organizations of blind persons which were arising in parallel with the newly won independence of their countries.

It was in order to further and facilitate this revolution of rising expectations on the part of the world's blind people, as well as to counteract the paternalistic and custodial character of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, that organized blind leaders from several continents merged their efforts and aspirations in the year 1964 in the common cause of an International Federation of the Blind. The nature of that common cause the spirit of Federationism among the blind at home and abroad was powerfully articulated by Jacobus tenBroek, in a banquet address delivered at the NFB's Phoenix convention in 1964. His speech entitled "The Parliament of Man," the Federation of the World was at once a summation of the American success story of the National Federation of the Blind and a new definition of Federationism expressed in universal terms. This is what he said:


by Jacobus tenBroek

One score and four years ago, a little group of willful men from thirteen states met in Convention Hall in Pennsylvania in order to form a more perfect union. If you find an historic analogy in that, so be it.

The union we formed on that distant day in Wilkes-Barre was far from perfect. It is imperfect still. But it has met the test of time and turmoil, trouble and tribulation; it has not perished from the earth.

The National Federation of the Blind is still standing but it is not standing still. It is on the move once more, as it was in its first years of wrath and rebellion more united than ever and more confident of its power, stronger in its faith, and richer by its experience an older movement and wiser one, now revitalized and recharged by an astonishing vision, an idea even more fantastic than that which lured the handful of founders to the Pennsylvania cradle of Federationism.

The vision which moves us now is nothing less than the image of world federation. I propose to you tonight that a new and grand objective be added to our established goals and purposes: namely, the inauguration of a World Federation of the Blind.

And why not? Our own National Federation of the Blind has blazed the trail and shown the way. We have demonstrated what blind men and women can do in freedom and in concert, through independence and interdependence. We have proved, in the fires of battle, our right to organize, to speak for ourselves, and to be heard. We have established beyond gainsaying our capacity to take the leadership in our own cause. We have slowly and steadily won recognition in the halls of government, in the agencies of welfare, and in the public mind. Through our deeds and programs, by argument and example, in action and philosophy, we have earned respect for ourselves and our fellow blind, the respect of free men and of equals.

All this, and more, Federationism has done for blind Americans. All this it can do for others. It is time that we shared these fruits of struggle and victory with our brothers in other lands. Let the word go out from this convention that we of the National Federation stand ready to lend our efforts and energies to the building of world unity among the blind. Let the liberating principle of federation the spirit of democratic association and collective self-direction catch fire among the blind people of Asia, of Europe, of Africa, of Latin America as it caught fire and blazed forth in the hearts of blind Americans twenty years ago, and still sustains them by its warmth.

What is this peculiar potent spirit which we call Federationism? What are its explosive ingredients? What does it have to offer to the blind of all nations which they do not have and cannot obtain from their governments, their private agencies, and public corporations?

Federationism is many things to many men. First of all it is an indispensable means of collective self-expression, a megaphone through which the blind may speak their minds and voice their demands and be assured of a hearing.

Federationism is a source of comradeship, the symbol of a common bond, an invitation to commingling and communion in a word, to brotherhood among the blind.

Federationism is a tool of political and social action, an anvil on which to hammer out the programs and policies, projects and platforms, that will advance the mutual welfare and security of the blind as a group.

Federationism is the expression of competences and confidence, the sophisticated construction of able men and women not a retreat for the lost and foundered. It is a home of the brave and a landmark of the free.

Federationism is the synonym of independence the antonym of custodialism and dependency. It is the blind leading themselves, standing on their own feet, walking in their own paths at their own pace by their own command. It is the restoration of pride, the bestowal of dignity, and the achievement of identity.

Federationism is an agency of orientation a school for the sightless an incomparable method of personal rehabilitation and adjustment to the unpopular condition of being blind.

Federationism is a dedication a commitment of the mind and heart, an act of faith, and an adventure of the spirit which issues a call to greatness and a summons to service on the part of all who volunteer to enter its ranks.

Federationism is a spearhead of revolution, bespeaking a rising tide of expectation on the part of the once helpless blind a blunt repudiation of time-dishonored stereotypes and an organized demand for the conferral of rights too long withheld and hopes too long deferred.

These are some by no means all of the features and faces of Federationism which are a familiar part of the experience of organized blind Americans. There is nothing about them that is exclusive to Americans or prohibited to others. They are not contraband but common currency. They are as universal as the claims of democracy. Federationism, like blindness, is no respecter of persons or peoples. For purposes of democratic self-organization among us there is neither black nor white, Jew nor Greek, Christian nor Brahman they are all one within the universal community of the blind.

A few years before the outbreak of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared prophetically that his generation of Americans had a rendezvous with destiny. They did indeed. They kept that rendezvous, and all mankind is thankful that they arrived on time for the appointment. I am convinced that this generation of blind Americans now has a rendezvous with destiny: that we are the advance guard of a movement destined in time to transform the lives and fortunes of the blind people of the world. That transformation will not be accomplished in the first year or in the first decade or even in the first generation. But, in the well-remembered words of another President, let us begin. Let us reason together to compare our experiences, to pool our resources and to combine our strengths. Let us act together, to build our common foundations and to erect our platforms. Let us march together, against the ubiquitous foes of ignorance and folly, prejudice and pride, which stand across our paths the world over.

Above all, let us begin.

The convention banquet at which Dr. tenBroek delivered his address on the spirit of Federationism came as the capstone to a day-long international program featuring the NFB's distinguished guests from around the globe. Presided over by Kenneth Jernigan as master of ceremonies, the banquet also witnessed the conferral of the Newel Perry Award upon Dr. Isabelle Grant in honor of her years of tireless globetrotting in the interests of blind welfare and education. Immediately following the banquet, as the night grew late, the international visitors and leaders of the NFB met to lay the cornerstone of the world organization; and they left their labors in the early hours of the morning with the certain anticipation of a new day dawning for the international movement of the organized blind.

That day of judgment and decision came less than a month later, on July 30, 1964, in New York City, when the International Federation of the Blind was officially inaugurated at a charter meeting of delegates and prospective members. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek was unanimously elected president; Rienzi Alagiyawanna of Ceylon was chosen first vice president; and Dr. Fatima Shah of Pakistan was named second vice president. The goals and purposes of the IFB were set forth in the preamble to its constitution adopted by the delegates at the New York meeting:

The International Federation of the Blind is the blind people of the world speaking for themselves acting in concert for their mutual advancement and more effective participation in the affairs of their respective nations.

The International Federation of the Blind is an organization of the blind of all nations, operated by the blind of all nations, for the blind of all nations. It is an educational and fraternal association, nonprofit and nonpolitical in character, dedicated solely to serving the common needs and aspirations of blind men and women everywhere in the world.

We join in this common cause to:

Cooperate with the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind in achieving its objective, providing the means of consultation between organizations of and for the blind in different countries.

Encourage self-organization and self-determination by blind people in all countries through their own voluntary associations, joined together in turn by membership in the International Federation.

Serve as a world assembly for meetings, communication, and interchange among blind persons of all nationalities, toward the end of reinforcing their confidence in themselves, in each other, and in their common cause.

Provide a forum for collective self-expression and discussion by the blind of the world, and to act as the articulate voice for their joint decisions and common objectives.

Work for the progressive improvement and modernization, throughout the world, of public policies and practices governing the education, health, welfare, rehabilitation, and employment of the blind.

Disseminate accurate information, increase knowledge, and promote enlightened attitudes on the part of the peoples of the world toward blind persons.

Solicit the support of national governments everywhere for the programs and policies of the organized world blind, and advise and assist those governments in their implementation.

Furnish a beacon for the underprivileged and disadvantaged blind people of the earth and create a potent symbol through which blind people everywhere seek the rights and opportunities that are the birthright of all men.

Stand as living proof to the essential normality, equality, and capability of blind men and women as first-class citizens of the world as well as of their individual nations.

Slightly over a decade after this inaugural event, Kenneth Jernigan who had meanwhile succeeded tenBroek as President of the National Federation of the Blind recalled the bright beginning and high promise of the International Federation in an address prepared for delivery at the World Congress of the Jewish Blind held in Jerusalem in August, 1975. After reviewing the inauguration of the IFB in the mid-sixties, Jernigan spoke of its mission and its further progress:

Thus was the spirit of Federationism transformed into a worldwide liberation movement. Emboldened by visions of self-realization and achievement, the International Federation has since penetrated the farthest corners of the earth. Its ambassadors and missionaries have traveled tirelessly by airplane, steamship, and white cane to scores of countries carrying the gospel of hope, of unity, and above all of collective self-determination. It has not been a placid journey; the road to equality and interdependence for the blind people of the world is strewn with stumbling-blocks. Some are unrelated directly to blindness: poverty, ignorance, and powerlessness. But even these can be reduced and reformed by measures planned to aid and rehabilitate the blind. It is not by accident that most of the blind are poor, and that many of the poor are blind. It is not by accident that the blind nearly everywhere have been kept in ignorance untrained, unlettered, and undeveloped. Ignorance is no more than the state of being ignored. That state has ended for the blind in America; it is ending in Europe; it will be ended, step by step and country by country, through the determination and self-determination of blind people themselves.

There have been three identifiable stages in the social history of the blind in the Western world: those of persecution, protection, and participation. For many millennia blindness was regarded as a fate worse than death, and accordingly the blind were consigned to a fate akin to death. Later, through the conscience of the Judeo-Christian heritage and the consciousness of the Greco-Roman, the blind became objects of charity, philanthropy, and welfare. In our own time the third stage has become a reality for some and a possibility for all: the ultimate stage of integration and independence, of participation and power. In summary, it might be said that during the first stage of their existence the blind were people to whom things were done; in the second stage they were people for whom things were done; and in the third stage we are people who are doing for ourselves.

That is the essential message of Federationism and the word that I would bring to you from your fellow blind around the world.

Through the early decades of international activity, there was one person in particular one very particular personality who, in company with Jacobus tenBroek and Kenneth Jernigan, led the way for the National Federation of the Blind onto the world scene. Dr. Isabelle Grant (a retired Los Angeles educator, who was born in Scotland) seemed an unlikely candidate for the role of world traveler and trailblazer when she first entered the field: recently blinded, physically slight, culturally sheltered much of her life, she might have stepped out of the pages of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. But appearances were deceiving; this frail Scotswoman, accompanied only by her inseparable companion a white cane named Oscar girdled the globe again and again over a quarter of a century in the cause of welfare, health (and above all, education) for the blind masses of the world. Something of her unique accomplishment, and of its relation to the international activities of the National Federation of the Blind, was eloquently reviewed by Hazel tenBroek in a 1979 article published by the Braille Monitor . Following is a portion of her commentary.

Dr. Grant's interest in education for the blind grew as she met successful blind people in this country and elsewhere. It became obvious that training and education and self-help organizations were the roads to salvation for the blind. She attended a meeting in Oslo, Norway, in 1957 on the Education of Blind Youth and came home imbued with the crusader's zeal to spread the benefits of training and organizing. Dr. Grant decided that it was time to take her sabbatical leave since regulations required that she teach for at least two years after returning, and her normal retirement date was fast approaching. Urged by this and spurred by her curiosity and desire to help, she determined to travel. Pakistan, she concluded, would be her major goal and as many other of the surrounding nations as she could manage.

Typewriter, Brailler, paper, stylus and slate strapped about her, one hand free for her white cane, lugging the rest of her baggage as best she might, Dr. Grant took off on a plane Pakistan-bound, though she was so exhilarated that she might easily have carried herself away. She was in Pakistan for six months September, 1959, to February, 1960. During that time she turned the thoughts of the blind of that country away from their despair and custodialism and helped to move toward self-governance.

There she found Dr. Fatima Shah, a well-educated, highly placed physician who had lost her sight in 1957 and who as is common among the sighted regarded blindness as just one step better than being dead. The greatest shock to Dr. Shah, however, was the realization that others had given her up and regarded her blindness as termination of her active life. With Dr. Grant urging her on, Dr. Shah discovered that her life and her training need only be redirected. She helped to found the Pakistan Association of the Blind. That organization has grown in size and influence. Dr. Shah, its first president, is now the president of the International Federation of the Blind.

Dr. Grant did travel to other countries surrounding the subcontinent and made frequent stops on her road to and returning from those places. She made hundreds of contacts with blind people. When she returned to the United States and her teaching duties, it was with the determination to travel again as soon as she could to learn more about the blind and especially about blind children. She kept up a flow of correspondence with those she had met, exhorting them to take action. Appalled at the absence of the barest means of communicating and learning, Dr. Grant began her own recycling projects. She scrounged slates, styluses, paper, watches, Braille books, typewriters, Braille writers, and anything else she thought might be useful, and sent them off to anyone in those far and foreign parts who could write and ask. Though the NFB organized fundraising and the gathering and mailing of books and materials on a regular basis, Dr. Grant continued her personal projects along these lines.

Dr. Grant was looking forward to her retirement and more travel. That event occurred at the end of the school year in June, 1962. The occasion was marked by many events and the bestowing of many honors. The greatest of these was a Fulbright Fellowship. This was supplemented by a grant from the National Federation of the Blind, and Dr. Grant once again made travel plans. Main target Africa.

She started her travels by accompanying the tenBroeks to a meeting of the executive committee of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, in Hanover, Germany. The NFB wanted to talk with those worthies about how the NFB representation in the WCWB was being exploited and outright denied in something other than an above-board fashion. The NFB spokesmen were given a very chilly reception, were otherwise gratuitously insulted, and were not permitted to attend the committee's sessions though the NFB was, at the least, a dues-paying member.

Dr. Grant and Dr. tenBroek sat having tea and toast in a small neighborhood guesthouse after the sessions had adjourned and bemoaned the domination of a worldwide organization dealing with the blind by the American Foundation for the Blind and other agencies. Dr. tenBroek had been in contact with some of the leaders of organizations of the blind in Europe. As he and Dr. Grant talked, it became obvious that if the blind were to be properly represented and were to govern their own affairs, sooner or later they would have to organize on something larger than national scopes.

Dr. Grant made her way east. She developed a technique for finding blind people and for managing to see ministers high in the governing ranks of many countries not infrequently, the heads of state. To all of them she talked of organization, of teaching, of training. Sometimes Dr. Grant had to stamp her foot or shake a finger in anger when discussing the conditions of the blind with these plenipotentiaries, but those actions were rarely taken amiss. Occasionally these officials caught her fervor for the necessity of educating blind youth to get them out of the deep and unending poverty that was their lot. In some countries she was permitted to conduct seminars for teachers of the blind on proper methods of instruction. In other countries, she was able to persuade governments to institute educational programs or other measures for the rehabilitation and training of the large blind populations, especially the young. In all countries she encouraged the blind to organize for their own improvement after the model of the National Federation of the Blind.

Dr. Grant's expressed goal was an international student division organized to feed trained people into new national organizations of the blind. Every country had some sort of agency for the blind, but only in Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand were there organizations of the blind which were independent of the agencies. She saw the students as the future leaders of those oppressed millions of blind people in other countries, who would lead them out of their bondage of poverty to the independence which was every man's birthright.

The leaders of the Federation, however, felt the time was ripe to create an international unit more comprehensive than a student division. With Dr. Grant's enthusiastic participation, plans were set afoot for the formation of a worldwide organization. The 1964 NFB convention in Phoenix was the convention, as it turned out, of the International Federation of the Blind. One whole day was devoted to the presentations of foreign dignitaries. Representatives of seven countries were present, and a number of others sent papers about conditions and programs in their nations. As reported in the 1964 Convention Roundup:

The visitors came to Phoenix with varying points of view on programs for the blind, from countries with widely divergent needs of the blind, and in different stages of readiness for world organization of the blind. To a man, however, they recognized the need for organization of the blind themselves on a world basis, the necessary major features of such an organization, the common aspirations of the blind everywhere for independence and integration, the common goals to be achieved by organization, and the common functions to be performed.

Preliminary meetings were held at Phoenix and later in New York. All saw their dreams brought to fruition when, with a constitution drawn by Kenneth Jernigan, and under the leadership of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the International Federation of the Blind became a reality. Professor tenBroek's banquet address, "The Parliament of Man: The Federation of the World," set forth the problems and the solutions.

But the fitting climax to that convention, and to these early years of Isabelle Grant's involvement with the organized blind movement in the United States and around the world, was the conferral upon her of the Newel Perry Award by NFB President Russell Kletzing. In presenting the award, President Kletzing made the following remarks, which serve as a fitting summation of the career of a most courageous and far-seeing woman:

If we of the National Federation honor Isabelle tonight, it is because she has been doing us honor for many years. To blind people everywhere she has become the gracious and dynamic symbol of Federationism of voluntary self-organization and self-advancement. We have long since dubbed Isabelle our ambassador without portfolio; and indeed she needs no portfolio since she carries the message and spirit of our movement in her heart and expresses it in her work.

Isabelle Grant is of course more than that more than our ambassador and chief missionary overseas. In her own right she is a leader of the blind, a skillful educator, a tireless promoter, and an astonishing example of the triumph of mind and will over physical limitation. Everyone here knows of her fabled travels around the world, accompanied only by her faithful, understanding, and sustaining companion a white cane named Oscar. And we all know what these travels have been like: not the leisurely excursion of a tourist but the hard road of the crusader seeking not ease but hardship, and concentrating in particular upon those newly emerging, poverty-stricken lands whose teeming populations of blind people are both the largest and neediest in the world.

Nor do I need to dwell at length upon the social miracles achieved by Dr. Grant over the past six years for the blind of Pakistan. She has inspired them with faith, a faith once undreamed of, in their powers and their collective future. She has stimulated their voluntary organization and worked with them to build a strong foundation of Federationism. She has pushed, prodded, and pestered the government of Pakistan into sponsoring a full-fledged revolution in its attitudes surrounding the education of blind children and the training of teachers for them.

But no list of specifics can convey the full scope of this gentlewoman's teaching. By her deeds, by her words, and by her enlightened example, Dr. Grant has truly educated us all.

During the later seventies and into the next decade, to the dismay of the organized blind in America and elsewhere in the world, the International Federation of the Blind fell victim to what came to be seen as a tragic irony. Although it had been founded explicitly in order to secure the independence of the blind from the agency-controlled World Council, it began to appear that the divorce had never become final and that the party of the second part the IFB was again being seduced and compromised by the powers of the World Council. Specifically, it was sought to bring about a merger of the two organizations and thereby effectively to co-opt the IFB and absorb it once again within the global network of the blindness system.

During this period the National Federation of the Blind persistently worked to hold the IFB to its original principles and to carry the progressive philosophy of Federationism, American style, to the world at large. In this spirit Rami Rabby, the NFB's representative on the executive committee of the International Federation, attended the third general convention of the IFB held in Antwerp in 1979, where he found broad support among the generality of delegates (as distinguished from the official leadership) for the approach of the National Federation. The prevailing atmosphere at the IFB convention was conveyed in a subsequent report on the event, which appeared in the Braille Monitor (December, 1979):

The National Federation of the Blind of the United States was represented at the Third General Assembly of IFB by Rami Rabby and Harold Snider. Since Dr. Jernigan was not in a position to travel to Belgium, Rami Rabby (a member of the executive committee of IFB) carried out two official duties on his behalf. On Thursday morning, July 26, he chaired a convention session on the subject of legislation for the blind. Earlier in the week (on Tuesday morning, July 24) he presented a paper entitled Organization of the Blind, which explained in some detail the need for an organization which is truly of the blind, national in scope, and structured in the form of a federation united under a centralized administration. He described typical activities carried out by the NFB at the chapter, state, and national levels.

The presentation was well received, and the questions and comments which followed it reflected, to a much greater extent than was the case at the 1974 IFB General Assembly, a community of interest between the blind of the United States and the blind of other nations, both industrialized and developing, and the similarity between agency-consumer relationships in America and elsewhere in the world. Here are just two examples of question-and-answer exchanges that took place following Rabby's presentation:

Question from the delegate from Greece:

Do you in the United States have a situation like we do in Greece, where our organization is the true organization of the blind, but the agencies and the government have set up their own puppet organizations of the blind, and they always say that they speak for the blind, and that we don't? Do you have something like that?

Rabby's Answer:

You bet we do! We are very familiar with that kind of situation. Isn't it amazing how agencies behave in the same way from one country to the next? Yes, in the United States, the puppet organization of the blind is sometimes called the American Council of the Blind, and other times, it may be called the Independent Blind of Illinois, and the agencies are always trotting them out in front of the press and financing their publications and telling everybody that they are the real blind and that we are not; whereas, in reality, these puppet organizations speak only for the agencies.

Question from the delegate from Pakistan:

Do you have problems in the United States with blind people who have had a good education and who have succeeded in their jobs, and so they forget about all the other blind and do not want to join our organization?

Rabby's Answer:

Yes, unfortunately, we do know that problem very well. We know blind people who feel and act that way, and we try to make them realize that it is mainly because of the National Federation of the Blind that they were offered the opportunity of a good education and a good job in the first place and that it is now their responsibility to fight with us so that others may have the same opportunity.

The effort by the American leaders of the organized blind to keep the International Federation independently on track continued in the next year (1980) with an invitation to the newly elected president of the IFB, Dr. Franz Sonntag of Germany, to address the NFB's 1980 convention in Minneapolis. Dr. Sonntag began his speech with a pertinent recollection: It is hardly possible, he said, to speak about the IFB without commemorating Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, who took the initiative in establishing the International Federation of the Blind. I remember very well the day of the founding assembly in New York in 1964 when Dr. tenBroek succeeded in drawing up this fascinating picture of a strong world-wide organization of all the blind.

In the course of his speech Dr. Sonntag made a revealing observation concerning the respective weight and authority of the IFB and its agency counterpart, the World Council. As to the relation between the IFB and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, he pointed out, there are certain difficulties. First of all, some facts: The World Council for the Welfare of the Blind has an annual budget of approximately $160,000; whereas, the International Federation of the Blind has an annual budget of approximately $40,000. Nevertheless he told the convention that he could not imagine any future amalgamation of the IFB with the World Council because of the determination of the IFB to keep its independence and its commitment. He concluded by speaking in English for the first time: We know who we are, he said, and we can never go back.

Unfortunately, the events of the next few years were to prove the IFB president wrong on all counts. Whether or not the leaders of the International Federation knew who they were, they could and did go back to their old condition as minions of the World Council. By 1984 a date with ominous overtones in science fiction and in the international blind movement the National Federation judged the situation to have deteriorated to such a point as to preclude its continued participation in the IFB. After a full score of years, in which it had successively inspired and nurtured the fledgling international organization to its present maturity, the National Federation of the Blind of the United States felt compelled to withdraw from membership and to express its displeasure in no uncertain terms. National Federation of the Blind President Kenneth Jernigan, in a letter to President Sonntag of the IFB, noted the mandate given him by the 1984 convention and summarized the principal causes leading to the NFB's decision to withdraw:

Baltimore, Maryland September 25, 1984

Dr. Franz Sonntag, President International Federation of the Blind Federal Republic of Germany

Dear Dr. Sonntag:

At the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind held in Phoenix, Arizona, in July of 1984, the delegates passed a resolution directing that our organization withdraw from the International Federation of the Blind unless (at the discretion of the Board of Directors) it could be determined before the beginning of the proposed meeting in Saudi Arabia in October of this year that the International Federation of the Blind had begun to move again toward the achievement of the goals for which it was originally founded. No such movement has occurred. The IFB was established to provide a vehicle for concerted action by organizations of the blind throughout the world. By the most generous interpretation that can possibly be made it no longer meets that standard. In fact, the International Federation of the Blind is now largely controlled not by independent organizations of the blind but by government agencies, blind people who represent nobody except themselves, and (most especially) by the agencies and individuals who dominate the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind. The fact that some of the principal actors in this drama are blind has nothing to do with what I am saying. It is one thing to be blind and quite another to be elected by other blind people to represent them.

Moreover, the International Federation of the Blind no longer has any meaningful program but simply parrots the actions of the WCWB. Under the circumstances it is understandable why talk about merging the two organizations seems logical instead of ludicrous, as it would have seemed when the first meeting of the IFB occurred in New York City in 1964. I was there; I drafted the original IFB Constitution; so I ought to know what the mood and the intent were.

We are not withdrawing from the WCWB, for it does not claim to be an organization of the blind, representing the blind. It claims to be a mixture of agencies and organizations of the blind, and I think it more nearly meets its stated purposes than does IFB.

In the circumstances it is not surprising that IFB has chosen to hold its convention in a city which excludes one of the members of its own Executive Committee, that it no longer represents rank and file blind people of the world, and that it bends the knee to the WCWB.

This letter constitutes official notice that the National Federation of the Blind of the United States (the founding member of the IFB) is no longer a member of IFB effective at the beginning of the first official meeting of the membership or Executive Committee of IFB to be held in Saudi Arabia in October. This letter also constitutes official notice that Harold Snider and Avraham Rabby are no longer members of the Executive Committee of IFB effective at the beginning of the first meeting of either the Executive Committee of IFB or the delegates of IFB at the meeting to be held in Saudi Arabia in October.

There is, we think, an organization in the United States of America which more nearly accords with the current behavior and philosophy of IFB than we do. We refer to the American Council of the Blind. We recommend that you admit them to membership since, according to our observation, they move in the orbit of the more regressive agencies in this country, do not represent rank and file blind people, and do not aggressively fight for the interests of blind people. We feel certain that you and they will find such a marriage both convenient and congenial.

It is our current plan to initiate action to work directly with independent organizations of the blind in other countries to establish an international vehicle for the expression of the collective will of the blind of the world and to further the goals for which the IFB was originally established. The National Federation of the Blind of the United States of America formally and officially asks that this letter be read to the opening session of the delegate assembly of the International Federation of the Blind in Saudi Arabia and that it also be read at the first meeting of the IFB Executive Committee to be held in Saudi Arabia.

Very truly yours,

Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

As it happened, 1984 would turn out to be a watershed year for the cause of international organization and representation not only negatively, with the National Federation's withdrawal from the IFB, but positively as well. For in that year a new global framework was inaugurated, under the name of the World Blind Union, resulting from the merger of the IFB and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind. Since the National Federation had retained its membership in the WCWB, it was positioned to play an instrumental role in the new World Blind Union should there be reasonable grounds for optimism regarding its potential capacity to serve the needs of blind people. Putting reservations aside in an act of faith and good will, the National Federation accepted a seat on the WBU's executive committee and commenced to build its involvement and influence which culminated in 1987 with the election of Kenneth Jernigan to the presidency of the combined North America/Caribbean Region (to which he was re-elected in 1988 for a four-year term). In his Regional Report to the World Blind Union at its convention in Madrid, Spain, in 1988, Jernigan (who was in attendance as part of a large American delegation) summed up the organizational activity of the preceding four years and gave his assessment of the prospects and problems facing the WBU and its global constituency. The text of his report follows:

In 1984 the International Federation of the Blind and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind met in Saudi Arabia to merge and become the World Blind Union. This coming together was not achieved without difficulty. Many (including my own organization, the National Federation of the Blind of the United States) had serious misgivings about the merger, but we decided to go forward with a positive attitude to participate in the newly established world body.

That was 1984, and we now meet in Madrid in 1988 to take stock of the past four years and chart the course for the quadrennium ahead. The numbers attending this General Assembly and the hope and enthusiasm which pervade its deliberations make it clear that the sanguine expectations of 1984 were well founded. The World Blind Union is a functioning reality, already possessing the beginnings of a tradition and the framework of a protocol of operation.

An integral part of that protocol is the regional structure of the Union. Shortly after the Assembly in Riyadh in 1984, the delegates of the then North America Region met in Washington to elect officers and make plans. There were (and are) six delegates from the United States. Three of these (the delegate from the American Council of the Blind, the delegate from the Blinded Veterans Association, and the delegate from the National Federation of the Blind) represent organizations of the blind. Three (the delegate from the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the delegate from the American Foundation for the Blind, and the delegate from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped) represent organizations for the blind. Of the four delegates from Canada two represent the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and two represent the Canadian Council of the Blind. At that initial meeting in Washington in the fall of 1984 we were seeking a basis for joint action and a means of personal understanding and cooperation. Since that time we have held seven meetings, one each spring and one each fall, and we have had a continuous exchange of correspondence and individual visits.

When we look back over the past four years, the accomplishments of the North America/Caribbean Region have been, by any standard, impressive. Under the leadership of Dr. Euclid Herie, Managing Director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, our region has raised $30,000.00 to endow the Louis Braille Museum at Coupvray, France; and we are now in the process of making additional substantial contributions. In cooperation with Mr. Andre Nicole and others we intend to raise enough money throughout the world to insure the permanent financial security of the Louis Braille Museum and to make certain that this monument to one of the principal benefactors of the blind continues in perpetuity. Braille is a significant part of our heritage, and one of the principal yardsticks for measuring the vitality and validity of a civilization or culture is the degree to which it shows respect and reverence for the ancestors who brought it into being. Working with Mr. Nicole and his colleagues, we in the North America/Caribbean Region intend to place the Louis Braille Museum on a firm and enduring foundation.

In New York in the fall of 1986 our region hosted the meeting of the World Blind Union Executive Committee. It was the occasion for constructive interaction with the United Nations and increased public awareness of the needs and aspirations of the blind.

Our region has now been enlarged to encompass the Caribbean Council for the Blind, and two representatives from that organization currently serve as delegates so that our regional structure now consists of twelve delegates: six from the United States, four from Canada, and two from the Caribbean. Acting through the regional structure, Canada and the United States have provided material and technical assistance to the Caribbean area, and there is every prospect that such assistance will continue.

We have established a regional Committee on the Status of Blind Women, and that committee is functioning actively. The Committee met during the time of our regional meeting in Toronto in May of this year and presented a proposed plan of action to the full delegation. The plan was adopted and is now being put into effect.

At the World Blind Union Executive Committee meeting in New York in the fall of 1986 our region presented a resolution to require that all meetings of the WBU officers, Executive Committee, and other committees be open for any member of the organization to attend. We also sponsored a resolution to require that WBU meetings be held in countries which would not exclude for political, cultural, philosophical, or religious reasons individuals, delegations, or representatives of the blind from any place on earth. Both of these resolutions were adopted by the WBU Executive Committee, and we feel that the organization is strengthened (both politically and morally) as a result.

Meeting in Toronto in the spring of 1988, the North America/Caribbean Region adopted for recommendation to this Assembly a resolution to require that the World Blind Union not blur its distinctive role by participating in coalitions with other disability groups. As you consider our proposal during the meetings of this Assembly, we ask that you read it carefully, both for what it says and what it does not say. We would not prohibit (where appropriate) cooperation with other groups of the disabled, but we would preserve with unmistakable clarity the concept that the primary purpose of this organization is to deal with problems of the blind, not the disabled as a whole.

So far, I have talked to you about tangible achievements which we have made in our region during the past four years, but our most important accomplishment has not been tangible. It has been attitudinal and spiritual. The World Blind Union has been the means of bringing us together to work cooperatively as a team. There are, of course, still philosophical differences which divide certain ones of us on particular issues, but those differences have not been emphasized in our deliberations. In fact, they have receded in prominence and have gradually been replaced by an atmosphere of joint effort to reach common goals. And this sense of increasing closeness and community of purpose is spreading beyond the narrow confines of the formality of the regional structure to every aspect of our organizational functioning and our personal and professional relationships.

Let me specify. In June of this year I went to Kingston, Ontario, to speak at the convention of the Canadian Council of the Blind; and in July Dr. Herie, managing director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and Mrs. Braak, president of the Canadian Council of the Blind, came to Chicago to participate in the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Plans are already under way for future exchanges, and the resulting shared information and strengthened bonds of friendship give a new dimension to what we are doing.

Last July (and I think this is clearly the result of our WBU regional contacts) a program of truly historic significance occurred in Montreal at the meeting of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Geraldine Braak, Canadian Council of the Blind; Oral Miller, American Council of the Blind; Susan Spungin, American Foundation for the Blind; Euclid Herie, Canadian National Institute for the Blind; and I, National Federation of the Blind, participated in a two-hour panel discussion. The very fact that such a panel could take place at all (particularly, considering the participants) is noteworthy. It could not have happened four years ago. Moreover, the tone of the discussion was friendly and constructive, and positive developments resulted.

It was agreed that the five organizations involved would meet next year at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore for a detailed exploration of common concerns and possible programs of joint action. The meeting will be hosted by the National Federation of the Blind and may (if all the participants agree) be expanded to include the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and possibly others. This, indeed, is progress.

One other item should be mentioned in this report. The North America/Caribbean Region comes to Madrid unanimously urging the General Assembly to elect Dr. Euclid Herie as treasurer of the World Blind Union. As in so many other things during the past four years, we are unanimous in this action. We know Dr. Herie; we like him; and we respect him. Moreover, his competence and experience particularly suit him for the position. He administers a program with a large budget; yet, he finds time to deal compassionately and sensitively with the problems of individuals.

I would like to conclude this report by making these observations: In a very real sense every day of our lives is a new crossroad, requiring decisions which inevitably lead to advancement or failure, but not all days are equally important. Some stand out above others, representing times of crucial significance in the history of a person or a social movement. Madrid in 1988 constitutes one of these landmark times. What we do here during this brief period may well determine the course of the affairs of the blind of the world for generations to come.

There are certain issues with which we must deal, both wisely and decisively. We must decide how we will allocate the resources we have, and what we will do to increase those resources. We must deal with the problems of the blind of the developing countries, and must do it in such a way that we do not give the impression (either to ourselves or others) that there are two classes of blind people in the world, the inferior and the superior. We must recognize that we are brothers and sisters, and our actions must suit our words. Above all, we must understand and support the concept that we who are blind intend to have the major voice in determining our own destiny. Through the centuries others have made our decisions and settled our fate, but that time is at an end. We are determined that it will be at an end. We will have no more of it. The World Blind Union can and should be the vehicle for the emancipation of the blind. Otherwise, we default on our responsibility. If this organization simply becomes another forum for meaningless talk and learned professional papers, it will be one of the tragic lost opportunities of history. The World Blind Union (approached in good faith and properly utilized) can be the key to open the door of first-class status for the blind of the world. My brothers and my sisters, let us work together to make it come true.

The blind of the world have waited long, but the waiting must now end. With these words, Kenneth Jernigan, in his role as regional president, summed up the essential message of a major address which he delivered in September, 1988, before this Second General Assembly of the World Blind Union in Madrid. In the address, entitled "Fighting Discrimination and Promoting Equality of Opportunity," he called upon the WBU and its delegates from all parts of the world to make of their organization a society of equals members of a family, sharing and working throughout the world in a common effort for the salvation of each other, and the salvation of all of us. This trenchant address, presented to an international audience of his peers, might stand as a fitting testament to the arrival of the National Federation of the Blind and of its long-time leader to a position of major influence in the field of blindness, not only in America but in the field at large. Here are excerpts from his address:


by Kenneth Jernigan

When the World Blind Union came into being four years ago in Saudi Arabia, the question facing the delegates was not purpose or method but whether the organization should be established. Today the question is not whether, but why and how. Four years ago the General Assembly was concerned with organizational structure, political viability, and worldwide acceptance. Today it is concerned with the means of achieving its objectives and a clear definition of what those objectives should be.

Of course, our Constitution has a statement of purpose. It says in Section 1 of Article II: The purposes of the World Blind Union shall be to work for the prevention of blindness and towards the advancement of the well-being of blind and visually impaired people, with the goal of equalization of opportunities and full participation in society, if necessary by special, legal, or administrative measures; to strengthen the self-awareness of blind persons, to develop their personality, self-respect, and sense of responsibility; and to provide an international forum for the exchange of knowledge and experience in the field of blindness.

That is what the Constitution says, and the first statement of purpose (to work toward the prevention of blindness) and the last (to provide an international forum for the exchange of knowledge and experience in the field of blindness) are clear and unmistakable. But what about the rest of it in some ways the very heart and soul of it?

No one would minimize the importance of preventing blindness, but this is largely a medical problem; and the World Blind Union will not (and, indeed, should not) ever be the prime mover in this area. As to providing an international forum for the exchange of knowledge and experience in the field of blindness, that is certainly important, but in and of itself it is not enough. It is a means rather than an end. If we are to get at the real problem of blindness, we must (as our Constitution says) find a way to advance the well-being of blind and visually impaired people by equalizing their opportunities; helping them achieve full participation in society; and making it possible for them to have self-respect, self-awareness, and a sense of responsibility.

But how shall we do it? First of all, we must be (and, moreover, must regard ourselves as being) an organization of equals. This means that the primary purpose of the World Blind Union cannot be merely to serve as a vehicle for channeling money from those who have it to those who don't. It will be easy for me to be misunderstood on this point, for it is a sensitive area. I am not saying that the members of a family should not share what they have with each other; nor am I saying that the blind of the world should not regard themselves as a family, for they should. Rather, I am saying that the members of a family should first be members of the family and that as a consequence sharing should follow and not just sharing of material things but also of spiritual and intellectual things as well. It cannot be the other way around. We cannot (because of urgent need, feelings of guilt, superiority, or a sense of duty) create an organization for the primary purpose of the one-way flow of money from more fortunate to less fortunate people. We cannot because it will be detrimental to both the givers and the receivers, because it will create acrimony instead of harmony, and because it will not lead to a permanent solution of the problem. Moreover, if the giving of money is the primary purpose and everything else is incidental, there are better and more effective ways of doing it than through the World Blind Union.

If we are to succeed in our efforts, we must carry out the purpose clause of our Constitution. We must help the blind of the world achieve equality of opportunity, self-awareness, and self-respect. Of course, this necessarily means the provision of resources (more resources than have ever before been provided); but it means more than that. It means opportunity as a matter of right, not charity; and it means opportunity stimulated and provided from within each country as well as from external sources. It means that we who are blind must be members of a family (equals), sharing and working throughout the world in a common effort for the salvation of each other, and the salvation of all of us. It means action, not just words. It means recognition of the fact that we who are blind are brothers and sisters facing a common problem, which requires a common solution achieved through joint action.

There is something else. We must not try to impose our own political systems or cultural values upon each other. Societal norms are different in almost every part of the world, and if we wish to change them, this is not the forum for doing it. Instead, we must strive to see that the blind of every country have the same opportunity, economic base, social recognition, and civic responsibility as others in their culture. This means more than money, but it means that, too.

If we are to deal with each other as equals and work together to solve our problems, we must understand that those problems are essentially the same for all of us whether we live in the East or the West, the industrialized or the unindustrialized, the developed or the underdeveloped countries. There are, of course, individuals who are exceptions; but as a general rule, the blind of every nation on earth (the most developed as well as the least developed) are when compared with others in their culture economically and socially disadvantaged.

So what must we do as a World Blind Union? How shall we achieve our objectives of equal opportunity and first-class status? For answer let me call on the experience of the organization I represent. When Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and those who joined with him organized the National Federation of the Blind of the United States in 1940, they did what every minority does on its road to freedom. They shifted emphasis from the few to the many, from enhancement to basics. In our country in the pre-1940 era those who thought about blindness at all (the blind as well as the sighted) put their major effort into helping the gifted and promoting the exceptional. We of the National Federation of the Blind took a different course. We started with the premise that until there are food, decent clothing, and adequate shelter, there can be no meaningful rehabilitation, real opportunity, or human dignity. It was not that the few or the superior were to be neglected but rather a recognition that none can be free as long as any are enslaved. The Federation's top priority in the early 1940s was to get (not as charity but as a right) sufficient governmental assistance to provide a basic standard of living for the blind who had no way to provide for themselves.

There was something else: The Federation said that the blind had the right to speak for themselves through their own organization and that no other group or individual (regardless of how well-intentioned) could do it for us whether public agency, private charity, blind person prominent in the community, or blind person heading an agency. The right was exclusive, and only those elected by the blind could speak for the blind. The test was not blindness, and it was not connection with an agency. Instead, it was self-determination. That is what the National Federation of the Blind of the United States stood for in 1940; that is what it stands for today; and that is what I believe the World Blind Union must stand for, now and in the years to come. The blind of the world are a distinguishable minority with identifiable problems which can only be solved through collective action. Therefore, the blind must have the right of self-determination, the right to speak for themselves with their own voice.

It is true that the World Blind Union not only consists of organizations of the blind but also organizations and agencies for the blind, but it is also true that many of these organizations and agencies for the blind are controlled by the blind and that their leaders are chosen by the blind. We must deal with substance instead of form, reality instead of shadow, and fact instead of terminology. The World Blind Union must either be truly representative of the will of the blind themselves, or it cannot long survive. That is not to say that we should not have sighted members or agency members representing only themselves or their programs. Rather, it is to say that the organization must be controlled by the blind and representative of the blind. This can be determined not only by its structure but also by its programs and behavior.

If the World Blind Union is to be meaningful, it must deal with basics. It must address the needs of both body and soul. We who are blind are like all of the rest. When we are hungry, we want to eat; and until that need is satisfied, we have difficulty thinking about very much else. But food is not enough. As I have said, we are like all of the rest. After we have eaten, we want meaningful jobs and useful occupation just like the rest. And after food and jobs, we want equal participation and human dignity just like the rest.

The blind of the world have waited long, but the waiting must now end. Yesterday and tomorrow meet in this present time, and we who are assembled here in Madrid (we who are blind and those of you who are sighted and have committed yourselves to work with us) have an unavoidable responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity. What we do in this Second General Assembly will have consequences for decades to come. Our task will not be easy, but we must make this organization succeed. The stakes are too high and the alternatives too unacceptable to allow it to be otherwise. If we fail to meet the challenge, the present favorable circumstances may not come again for another generation.

If the blind of the world are to have meaningful opportunity and if discrimination is successfully to be resisted, we must have a world mechanism to focus the energy and muster the resources to make it happen, and the World Blind Union is the only mechanism we have. To build another would be difficult at best. If all of us who are here today come to the task with good faith, true commitment, and real determination, tomorrow will be bright with promise. Let us put the past behind us and work together to make it come true.

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