Braille Monitor                                                 July 2011

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Remembering Dr. TenBroek

Jacobus tenBroekFrom the Editor: In the July 2003 Braille Monitor we reprinted one of President tenBroek's landmark speeches and a New Yorker profile of him that was published in the January 11, 1958, issue of that magazine. Here are both the New Yorker profile and “Cross of Blindness”:

Jacobus tenBroek, a hearty, vigorous man of forty-six with aquiline features, a ruddy complexion, and a carefully groomed reddish goatee, is an authority on government and constitutional law, a field in which he has published a number of highly regarded books and monographs; the chairman of the Speech Department of the University of California at Berkeley; a member of California's Social Welfare Board; and the country's leading lobbyist and campaigner against an adage that he deems mistaken, mischievous, and far too commonly accepted--the one that goes "When the blind lead the blind, they all fall into the ditch." As president and one of the founders of the National Federation of the Blind, Professor tenBroek, who lost his sight when he was a boy, has a formidable spare-time schedule of speeches, conferences, and caucuses, through which he seeks to spread his organization's belief that the blind are much more capable than is generally realized of holding down normal jobs and running their own affairs. "I've had to make ten flying trips throughout the country on the last twelve weekends," he told us when he called on us at our office during a stopover of a few hours in New York, en route from Washington, D.C., where he had been talking with congressmen about legislation that his organization is advocating, to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was scheduled to make a speech before one of the Federation's local chapters. "As a rule I board the plane Friday evening, right after my last class," he said. "I prepare my speeches during the trip and usually manage to pick up a return flight that gets me to Berkeley just in time for my Monday-morning eight-o'clock class." He laughed. "My children, I have three, are getting fed up with this routine. They say they're beginning to forget what I look like."

One of Professor tenBroek's chief ambitions as he flies about the country is to persuade people he meets that he is not exceptional in either talent or character but pretty much an ordinary man who has simply refused to accept the widespread assumption that a blind person must live a dependent and sheltered life. "I've got a neighbor in Berkeley--a blind man I've known since we were classmates at school--who built his house entirely with his own hands," he said. "It's quite a good-sized house, too--about twenty-seven-hundred square feet. He built the forms, poured the cement, put in the plumbing, did the wiring--everything. The place is on a fairly steep hillside, and, before he could start, he had to make himself a large power-operated boom for hauling his materials up to the site. Now there's a man that someone like me--someone who has no aptitude for that sort of thing would call an exceptional person--but he doesn't seem to think he is. He says he just happens to be handy with tools." The professor shook his head in admiration.

"As things are now," he went on, "most of the country's three hundred and twenty-five thousand blind people who work are employed in the special sheltered shops that society with the best and most charitable intentions has set up for us, where we can make baskets and such and come to no harm. Only about two or three percent of us are holding normal jobs out in the world. My organization is convinced at least twenty times that many could be doing so if they had the chance. What we seek for the blind is the right to compete on equal terms. In this the Federation--the only national organization in this field whose membership and officers are all blind--is very much at odds with most of the traditional organizations and agencies set up to help us, which are sure they know better than we do what is good for us. But we've been making considerable progress. In the last few years we've succeeded in persuading the civil service to let blind people try out for many categories of jobs from which they used to be excluded."

We asked Professor tenBroek what jobs he himself thinks are impossible for the blind to hold. He laughed, stroked his goatee professorially, and said, "Well, airplane pilot, I suppose, though for that matter planes fly most of the time nowadays on automatic controls, don't they, and someday may be completely automatic. Actually I can't say what the limits are. Every time I think I have hit on some job that a blind man couldn't conceivably hold, I find a blind man holding it. One of my friends in the Federation is an experimental nuclear physicist, and you wouldn't think of that as a promising field for a blind man to be in. Dr. Bradley Burson is his name, and he's at the Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago. When he was working on problems involving the decay of radioactive matter, he invented some devices for himself that measured the decay in terms of audible and tactile signals, rather than the commonly employed visual signals. Some of the devices turned out to be more accurate than the standard ones and are now widely used at the lab. I'd always assumed that being an electrician would be impossible for a blind man, but not long ago I found a blind electrician--a fellow named Jack Polston. I went and talked to his boss, and he told me that Polston does everything any other electrician can do--wiring, soldering, and all the rest. While I was there, Polston was doing the complete wiring for a service station, which I'm told is a particularly complicated job. To be sure, he had been an electrician before he became blind, but don't ask me how he solders without setting the place on fire. I couldn't, even if I had my sight. Anyway, now that I've found him I'm pestering the civil service not to disqualify blind people automatically from trying out for electricians' jobs."

Professor tenBroek paused for a moment and then said, "Don't let me give you the idea that it isn't a nuisance to be blind. To bump your head on an overhanging sign as you walk down the street or to fall into a hole that anybody else can see--it's a nuisance, I can assure you, but it isn't a catastrophe." He stood up, buttoning his coat, and picked up his cane and his briefcase. "Well," he said briskly, "it's after two o'clock, and I'll have to step lively if I'm going to make it out to LaGuardia in time to catch the three-fifteen for Springfield. If you'll be so kind as to see me to the elevator, I'll carry on from there."
There you have the New Yorker profile published six months after President tenBroek delivered one of his most powerful and admired banquet addresses. The organized blind had just lost their struggle for the right to organize. Senator John Kennedy had led the legislative fight despite the opposition of most of the agencies in the blindness field, the professionals who distrusted and feared the rise of a consumer movement, and the monied interests who supported those organizations and individuals. The blind lost the battle, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for the agencies, because they gradually found that the consumer voice was increasingly being heard and heeded by the public. The eloquent words and powerful intellect of Jacobus tenBroek and the increasing contribution of his protégé, the young Kenneth Jernigan, provided the inspiration for the next generation of blind men and women, who insisted that they be heard and reckoned with.

Here then is "Cross of Blindness," the speech that Dr. tenBroek delivered on his birthday, July 6, 1957, to the seventeenth convention of the National Federation of the Blind in New Orleans, Louisiana. We begin with the introduction to the speech that appears in Chapter 2 of our organizational history, Walking Alone and Marching Together:

The symbolic cross he [Dr. tenBroek] saw the blind bearing was the burden of social stigmas, stereotypes, and superstitions--the dead weight of public prejudice and misunderstanding. In a masterly speech which has since become one of his most famous, tenBroek spelled out in equally vivid terms both the case for and the case against self-organization by the blind. His address, delivered before a banquet audience of 700, stands as a memorial to the high ground--the peak of unity and confidence which was attained by the National Federation of the Blind in that watershed year. That high ground was soon to be lost in the turmoil of civil war and not to be reached again for years to come. But in 1957 the national movement of the organized blind, not yet a score of years old, appeared as firm in its solidarity as it was irresistible in its force. And no one who heard the leader of the movement speak that day could doubt that these newly independent and self-assertive people would forever refuse to bear the stigmatizing cross of blindness. Here is the full text of that speech.

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