The Braille Monitor                                                                              August/September 2005


The Altering Characteristics of Rehabilitation:
The Perspective of Half a Century

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Dr. Fredric Schroeder addresses the convention.
Dr. Fredric Schroeder addresses the convention.

From the Editor: On Thursday morning, July 7, former Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and now Research Professor at San Diego State University Dr. Fred Schroeder delivered the following address:

"I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." Thomas Jefferson's words, penned in a letter more than two centuries ago, give voice to a hard and bitter truth; they speak to the tyranny inherent in the relationship of the powerful to the weak, the superior to the inferior, master to ward, captor to prisoner, and parent to child and the inevitable tension, the inevitable conflict arising out of disparate power and the inevitable rebellion of the oppressed.

When England first colonized America, it was with the intent of expanding its sphere of control, opening new sources of wealth and opportunity for its people. There was no conscious, deliberate plan to tyrannize and exploit. The control exercised over its colonies was viewed as necessary and in the best interests of both the colonies and the Crown. The people of the colonies were regarded as backward and recalcitrant and incapable of exercising self-government. England believed that peace would come when the people of America came to terms with their subordinate status and accepted the fact that they needed British protection and control. Yet the people of America chafed under England's domination and, when good will, negotiation, and entreaty did not work, could see no other path to equality than rebellion.

Perhaps suffering the tyranny of the Crown sparked in Jefferson an uneasiness about America's own oppression of others. In 1787, when he wrote to James Madison expressing the need for "a little rebellion now and then," slavery was deeply imbedded in American life. Yet Jefferson and many other leaders of the day sensed the fundamental wrong embodied in a system in which one person exercised ownership of another. At the same time slavery was so much a part of the American economy that Jefferson could see no practical way of extricating the nation from the institution. Still he and others, including George Washington, who freed his slaves upon his death, hoped the system would end and believed it would as people came to terms with the evil slavery represented. Yet slavery did not end gradually as a result of growing enlightenment. By the mid 1800's, less than a century later, slave owners had not moved toward a systematic dismantling of the system, helping lift the oppressed out of oppression into equal status. Instead they had come to rationalize the practice as necessary and even good, denying its evil and convincing themselves that slavery was in the best interests of the nation and the slaves themselves. The abolition of slavery was as bitter and hard-won a struggle as America's own fight for independence from England. It took war to free America, and it took war to free the slaves.

As far back as recorded time extends, blind people have suffered social and economic deprivation. Still progress has been made and continues to be made. In 1920 the Smith-Fess Act created the vocational rehabilitation program in the United States; yet, in the program's early days from 1920 to 1943, federal policy categorized blind people as having "no rehabilitation potential"; therefore for nearly a quarter century state rehabilitation agencies were not obliged to assist blind people at all.

In the years leading up to World War II, Congress passed two pieces of legislation to assist blind people in securing at least some work. In 1936 the Randolph-Sheppard Act was adopted. It allowed blind people to operate vending stands on federal property. This gave blind people the opportunity to sell items such as cigarettes, packaged foods, and newspapers and periodicals in government buildings. In 1938 the Wagner-O'Day Act made it mandatory for the federal government to purchase blind-made products manufactured in sheltered workshops for the blind. Limited as they were, these two programs constituted most of what was available in the way of employment opportunities for blind people at that time.

The 1940's began four decades of rapid growth in the vocational rehabilitation program. In 1943 the rehabilitation program was opened to blind people, and the scope of available rehabilitation services was expanded. In 1954 the program's professional character was solidified with the funding of university programs to train rehabilitation counselors and with the authorization of research and demonstration projects. In 1965 the program was further expanded to assist individuals considered disabled by their lack of educational and social skills.

Yet the most dramatic change came about in 1973 with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act as we know it today. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act established a priority for serving people with severe disabilities and added civil rights protections for the first time, setting the stage for further growth and expansion, and progress was not long in coming.

In 1986 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act established the supported employment program, setting a progressive policy in support of integrated employment. In 1992, under pressure from the National Federation of the Blind, the act was amended to include the concept of informed choice, legitimizing the right of blind people and others to direct their own rehabilitation programs and establishing the concept of a partnership between clients and rehabilitation counselors. The 1992 amendments also changed the program's eligibility standards, making it much harder for state rehabilitation agencies to exclude blind people and others on the grounds that they were too severely disabled to benefit from rehabilitation services. Later the 1998 amendments brought about automatic or "presumptive eligibility" for Social Security disability recipients and strengthened the informed-choice provisions of the act. The move toward client empowerment and the emphasis on integration culminated in early 2001 in the promulgation of regulations ending the long-standing practice of placing blind people and others in segregated sheltered workshops, typically at subminimum wages.

These are the objective facts. They appear to reveal a steady evolution in the rehabilitation profession; the gradual expansion of services and opportunities; and an incremental move toward greater empowerment, greater self-determination, and respect for individual choice; but they do not speak to the stimulus, the who, the what, or the why behind the change. And, more to the point, they ignore entirely the essential role of conflict in growth--the fact that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." So what prompted the change, the progress, the evolution? It was blind people--blind people taking charge of their own lives, blind people organized through the National Federation of the Blind.

In 1953, after teaching English for four years at the Tennessee School for the Blind, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan moved to California to work with the newly established Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center. His move to California marked the introduction of Federation philosophy into the work of a rehabilitation program--Federation philosophy, a philosophy that challenged society's assumptions and the assumptions of the blindness profession about the limitations of the blind--an important breakthrough. Yet Dr. Jernigan knew that the orientation center touched the lives of only a relatively small number of blind people each year. To make a real difference, to prove that the California experience had not been merely an aberration, Federation philosophy needed to be injected into the work of an entire state rehabilitation agency. In 1958, at the age of thirty-one, Dr. Jernigan left California to assume the position of director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind.

This was a bold move. At that time the strife between the blind and the rehabilitation agencies was at its peak. Dr. Jernigan faced the anger and the animosity of the blindness system for daring to challenge its dominance over the lives of the blind. Yet he stood his ground and changed forever the face of vocational rehabilitation in America. He developed a program of rehabilitation rooted in Federation philosophy that endures today as the model for effective adjustment training.

Yet to characterize Dr. Jernigan's work as nothing more than a professional innovation, one more contribution to the steady growth, the gradual evolution of rehabilitation practice, misses the point. It is to misunderstand the human drive for freedom; it is to misunderstand the need, our need as blind people, to guide our own destinies, our need to take control of our own lives, freeing ourselves from the limitations imposed on us by others and our need to assert our own equality; and it is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of change--that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

Dr. Jernigan's move to Iowa heralded the beginning of a revolution--the rebellion of the blind against the established rehabilitation system, the seizing of power from the hands of others, and the beginning of self-determination; but the struggle did not end in 1958. Indeed it continues today. Dr. Jernigan's example reminds us of the need to remain true to our principles, to remain true to our cause, and to remain true to Dr. Jernigan's legacy and the legacy of others who came before us: those who stood strong in the face of adversity to help prepare the way for those who would follow--for us.

As much as we may wish the past were different, our history has not been one of a hand-in-hand move toward equal opportunity for the blind--professional and client working together to forge new opportunities. To the contrary, the past reveals a reluctance, increasingly harsh, on the part of those in authority to vest in their charges the power to govern their own lives. The greater our progress, the greater the strife. America's independence did not come about as a result of England helping lift the colonies out of subordinate status into equality; it came from conflict, gradually building in intensity until rebellion became inevitable. So it has been with the blind.

Yet we must resist the temptation to villainize and vilify others. Our history has not been the struggle of good against evil, right against wrong. The blindness profession did not seek to keep us down, isolate us, and constrict our opportunities any more than England set out to be an oppressor. Our history has been the history of a people seeking to free themselves from bondage--bondage well intended and kindly meant, yet bondage nevertheless. Our history has been a history of a people seeking first-class status, a history characterized by a gradual, deepening awareness that no one can give us equality; we must take it for ourselves. Our history, our common experience, has taught us that freedom is not the result of ponderous, benign evolution but must be forced; and forced it we have.

Our history has been one of rebellion and revolution. In 1940 we shook off the protective cloak of custodialism and claimed the right to organize. Later we took control of our own rehabilitation, eventually setting up our own training centers; and last year we took the boldest step ever in our history when we created the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute--revolutions all--and many others along the way, all needed and all contributing to our collective progress. It took war to free America from British domination, it took war to free the slaves, and it took war to begin the process of freeing the blind from dependency and custodialism. And it will take another war, perhaps soon or perhaps some time off, but a war nevertheless, to take us to the next step, the next frontier in our move toward true equality. We need not be afraid, but we must not be timid either. We must acknowledge revolution as the antecedent to progress and change. Or said another way, we must never forget that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."