An Address Delivered By Kenneth Jernigan
President, National Federation of the Blind
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Minneapolis, July 8, 1982
Not long ago I read a science fiction story which began like this: The ambassador from the 22nd to the 21st century stood on the balcony and surveyed the city. His expression seemed to say: "All things are simple and likely to become more so."
The story ended like this: The ambassador from the 23rd to the 22nd century stood on the balcony and surveyed the city. His expression seemed to say: "All things are complex and likely to become more so."
Tonight the National Federation of the Blind is forty-two years old. That is a considerable time in the life of a person or a movement. it is more than a generationalmost half a century. In the world at large it has brought unbelievable change. In the lives of the blind it has been the turning point, the pivotal period of all history. The principal reason (the new elementthe crucial factor) has been the National Federation of the Blind.
When we organized in 1940, our problems were comparatively simple. Very few blind people had jobs or the means of getting jobs, and most thought it was fatenot mistaken public attitudes or lack of opportunity or social conditioning. After all, the thinking went, common sense is common sense. A blind person (any blind person) cannot expect to compete for a job (any job) on terms of equality (real equality) with a sighted person (any sighted person). It was that inclusive and that bad.
And as it was with employment so it was with everything else. We could not participate socially, could not have regular family life, could not raise children, could not manage our own homes, could not live alone, could not engage in normal recreation, could not travel unaccompanied, could not handle money (such of it as we had), could not eat with grace, could not take part in civic affairs, could not plan our own activities, and could not govern our own lives. Things were done to the blind and sometimes for the blind--but rarely ever by the blind. It was not expected or allowed. The blind, being part of the broader society, tended to see themselves as others saw them. We tended to accept the public view of our limitations, and thus did much to make those limitations a reality.
When the average member of the public thought about blindness at all, it was usually with sympathy and pity. Society's communication link with the blind was the network of governmental and private sheltered workshops, social service agencies, and charitable institutions established (as the ordinary person would have put it) "to take care of the blind." The federal-state rehabilitation programs did not regard us as employable; the public assistance features of the Social Security Act were still new and relatively insignificant; and the army of psychologists, social workers, and technocrats was yet to be created. There were a few libraries for the blind, a limited number of state-operated sheltered workshops, and a scattering of private charitable foundations; but almost without exception these institutions were custodial in nature, limited in scope, and lacking in concepts of freedom and human dignity.
In this atmosphere (in the world of 1940) the prospects were bleak and uncomplicated; and the problems faced by the founders of our movement (though monumental in nature) were equally bleak and uncomplicated: try to get enough for the blind to eat, get people to recognize us as human beings, and reform the agencies. So it was in 1940! But never again! No more! We are beyond that! That was another time and another era. We have learned who we are, and we will never go back.
Today (forty-two years later) the world is a different place. We have organized and are a force in the land, but our problems (far from being diminished) are multiplied and magnifieda sure sign of our growth and progress. All things are complex and likely to become more so. The agencies have grown to such numbers and bigness that they threaten to control not only every aspect of our lives but also of our thoughts as well. As the National Federation of the Blind has become more powerful, many of our own have infiltrated the agency establishment and now often find themselves tempted to dilute their commitment and avoid the call of conscience. How much for the freedom of the blind, and how much for personal advancement and the weekly paycheck? Even more difficult, how to be certain that the decision is totally honest and free from rationalization?
Once the agencies were simpleminimal in service and few in staff. They gave us little: a broom and a brush-off, a sandwich and a sermon. But that little was at least easy to understand. It was the handout of the master to the slave.
The bigness has brought complexity. Many of the agencies have now acquired vast wealth and have changed their focus from service (even if only charitable and condescending service) to the protection of their own vested interests, and growth for the sake of growth. Whereas, in 1940 they ignored us as unimportant, they now regard us as dangerous and act accordingly. They try to buy our most promising leaders, and try to ruin and discredit the ones they cannot buy.
But this is only half of the story, only part of the picture; for as the ambassador from the 23rd century observed, "All things are complex and likely to become more so." Not all of the agencies follow destructive patterns. As a result of our efforts, an increasing number are responding to the call and working with us. Many of our members who have joined the agencies have not sold out but have strengthened their commitment and brought vigor and newness to the task.
There is also another element of complexity. It has to do with the current economic climate and the past behavior of the agencies. In the 1950's the agency establishment had a good reputation and high credibility both with Congress and the Executive Branch of government, but during the past twenty-five years much of that trust has evaporated. There have been too many abuses, too many nonservice-related staff members added, too many unkept promises, too many games played with statistics, too many dollars spent without results, and too much bigness and arrogance and failure to respond. With this heritage the agencies have not fared well under scrutiny in the atmosphere of shrinking dollars and the economic difficulties of the 1980's.
Again, though, there is complexity. Some of the agencies have tightened their belts, looked for ways to increase their efficiency, and sought partnership with the blind in getting Congress and the state legislatures to provide needed funds. Others have tried to continue in the old ways. Instead of partnership they have tried scare tactics. They have attempted to frighten the blind into unquestioning and unconditional supportno reform, no distinction between good and bad programs, and no participation in policy or planning. As I need not remind you, the scare tactics have not worked. We are neither cattle to be herded nor slaves to be driven. It will either be partnership as equals and joint effort, or it will be nothing.
Once upon a time a horse and a man were both being attacked by a wolf. The man said to the horse, "I have hands and skill with weapons. You have speed and strength. Therefore, let us join forces to rid ourselves of this menace. Of course, I will have to put a bridle and saddle on you and ride on your back, but if we work together, we can be free."
The horse agreed, and they hunted and killed the wolf. Then the horse said, "Now we are free. Take off the saddle and bridle, and let us rejoice in our liberty."
To which (as he drove in the spurs) the man answered, "The hell you say! Giddyap, Dobbin." The wolf may stand at the agencies' door, but this does not mean that we will allow ourselves to be bridled and saddled.
We are not opposed to all agencies, nor do we fail to understand and appreciate the constructive work which many of them have done. We are only saying that all things are complex and likely to become more so. We want partnership and cooperation, not threats and oppression. We will do what we have to do and take what risks we have to take to achieve full citizenship and equal status in society. We have learned our lessons well, and others should also learn; for we know who we are, and we will never go back.
The complexity is not merely with the agencies but also with us. With the strengthening of our movement and growing opportunity we have followed the path of other minorities. Some of us have attempted to hide in the larger sighted community, pretending that we have "made it on our own," and that we have reaped no benefit from the movement and, thus, have no obligation to it. Like some of the blacks of forty years ago, those of us who have taken this road have (figuratively speaking) tried to straighten our hair and lighten our skinsattempting to cross the color line and deny our heritage. But it did not work then, and it will not work now. Either we the blind are equal as a people, or not a single one of us will cross the line to first-class status. This is the message and the truth of our movement--and it cannot and will not be denied. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
Our battle for freedom and recognition parallels to a striking degree that experienced by the blacks, for we are (in every modern sense of the term) a minority. We have our ghettos, our unemployment, our underemployment, and our Uncle Toms. We have our establishment (composed of society as a whole and, particularly, of many of the professionals in the governmental and private agencies). That establishment condescendingly loves us if we stay in our places, and bitterly resents us if we strive for equality. Above all (through our own organization, the National Federation of the Blind) we have discovered our collective conscience and found our true identity. We have learned that it is not our blindness which has put us down and kept us out, but what we and others have thought about our blindness. Yet, they tell us that there is no discrimination and that we are not a minority. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. We understand the complexity. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
The ambassador from the 23rd century was right: All things are complex and likely to become more so. But the ambassador from the 22nd century was also right, for all things are simple and likely to remain so. Our basic problem in 1940 was society's misconceptions and misunderstandings. That is still our problem today. The agencies, being part of society, take their attitudes from it (despite their claims of professionalism to the contrary), and when we have reformed society, we will also have reformed the agencies. Likewise, our own attitudes are affected by societybut here there is a difference. In 1940 we were not organized and had not yet developed our philosophy, planned our public education campaigns, worked to eliminate our own false beliefs and misconceptions, or started the slow process of bringing society to new ways of perceiving and understanding. For the blind of the country, the greatest single difference between 1940 and today (and it is a tremendous difference) is the fact of the National Federation of the Blindour concerted effort, our carefully thought out philosophy, our mutual encouragement and assistance, and our absolute determination to achieve first-class citizenship. Yes, we have learned it the hard waybut we have learned it. We know who we are, and we will never go back.
With respect to public attitudes we still have a long way to go. We can begin with things around the house--like bathing. Sometime ago I received a letter which said:
Your organization has been recommended as one which may be able to take advantage of a valuable new safety product designed to improve bathing safety for the blind and the handicapped.
The Safety Shower Guard and Safety Tub Guard are low-cost, easily installed products which will stop the flow of water in a bathing area if the temperature becomes too hot for comfort or safety. When the temperature returns to a safe level, flow is automatically allowed to resume.
These products have received the acceptance of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and conform to ASTM Standard F-444 Consumer Safety Specification for Scald- Preventing Devices.
I must confess that it never occurred to me that looking at the water might keep me from getting burned or that I might have need of a Scald-Preventing Device. I had always thought that when the burned child feared the fire, it was because of touch, not sight.
But let us leave the tub and go to the washing machine. A recent publication of the Maytag Corporation tells of the advances the Company is making to change their appliances so that, as they put it, their products "can be used by visually disabled persons." The trouble here is the emphasis. I have never in my life known a single blind person who could not learn to use an ordinary washing machine with a minimal amount of effort, and surely it is no great "advance" (worthy of a special announcement) to add a few markings to the dials or the buttons.
But Sears goes Maytag one better. In the summer of 1981 it distributed a colorful flyer with this grabber as a headline: "So the Blind May See." The text that follows is equally dramatic. It reads like this:
To many people, doing the laundry is a boring chore. And for millions of sight-impaired people operating a washing machine, adjusting an air conditioner, or cooking in a microwave oven can be a difficult chore. This fall, Sears will offer Braille overlays for the controls of several Kenmore appliances, opening new worlds to those with vision impairments.
Again, the problem is with the emphasis and the implication. Braille overlays (which we can easily make for ourselves if we want them) may offer some negligible convenience, but surely they do not open up "new worlds to those with visual impairments." If so, our scope is limited, indeed.
In April of this year the Oster Division of the Sunbeam Corporation wrote me to ask whether it would be (as they put it) "safe" to permit their materials to be transcribed into Braille for use by the blind. Here is what they said:
Oster, Division of Sunbeam Corporation, manufactures household appliances. We occasionally receive requests from libraries for permission to transcribe our instruction literature into Braille. We would be pleased to comply with these requests, but we are concerned that a direct transcription of the text may not meet the specific needs of a blind user.
Since we lack the expertise to make this judgment, we are asking you to review several of our instruction booklets. In determining if the instructions are adequately organized and sufficiently detailed to teach a blind person to safely operate the appliance, please assume that the Braille copy would be a literal transcription of the original.
I responded that blind people throughout the country use power blenders every day without hazard and that it would be perfectly safe to transcribe the instructions (unaltered) into Braille. So far as I know, that settled the weighty matter, and even now the Brailling may be in process.
The public misconceptions about blindness are so bizarre and so much at variance with common sense that they would be laughable if they were not so damaging. Several months ago the Italian Trade Commissioner to this country sent me a press release: "ITALIAN HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCE MADE FOR THE BLIND" it proclaimed. "A leading Italian appliance manufacturer has announced that it has initiated the production of a completely automatic dishwasher and stove specially made for the blind. These appliances are equipped with special devices and acoustic signals which allow the blind to control the machine at any particular moment."
In an accompanying letter the Trade Commissioner said: "We would appreciate receiving a copy of any coverage that will eventually be published in your magazine." Since blind people can use ordinary stoves and dishwashers without difficulty (their only problem usually being having the money to buy such items, a problem partially caused by the false image created by the very kind of press release I have just read), and since I intend to print these remarks in the Monitor. I wonder whether the Trade Commissioner would really like to have them. Or would he simply be amazed, angry, and bewildered by it all?
As the ambassador from the 23rd century said, "All things are complex and likely to become more so"; but as the ambassador from the 22nd century observed, "All things are simple." Either way you take it, we know how to operate dishwashers and stoves, and we know how to avoid being scalded or cut by the blender. We also know that eyesight and intelligence have nothing to do with each other, but (unbelievable though it sounds) there are those who apparently do not.
On December 12, 1981, the Portland (Oregon) Daily Journal of Commerce carried an article headlined "Optometric Business Broadens Its Vision." in view of the text of the article the headline is particularly ironic. The Northwest Congress of Optometry was meeting in Portland, and one of their featured speakers was a man named Allen Pyeatt. This Dr. Pyeatt is clearly no run-of-the-mill person. As the newspaper quotes him: "We're not just people interested in examining eyes and selling glasses."
Well, then, what is he interested in? We are not left in doubt. Under the sub-headline "Intellectual Correlation" he tells us:
In a more general sense, Pyeatt is also involved with the performance of children. But he focuses on recently- formulated premises in the fields of optometry and education that optimal vision capacity is directly related to optimal intellectual capacity.
Pyeatt explains the developments historically covering the evolution of psychological research on intelligence. As the psychological community began to abandon the Stanford-Binet measurement of a presumably constant, unalterable intelligence quotient, the idea that intelligence can be developed and changed emerged.
With that new premise, optometry began to assert its role. 'We know vision can be trained,' says Pyeatt. 'If a person has a vision problem and we improve his vision, it will help him function better intellectually.'
The scientific support of such an idea is in the fact that training of any kind increases brain weight. Thus, eye training will generally affect brain capacity, Pyeatt explains.
'It's sort of like weight lifting,' Pyeatt says. 'You start small and work up.'
Broadened vision, indeed! This pseudo professional double talk is not science but old-fashioned witchcraft straight out of the middle ages. All I know to say to it is this: Let Dr. Pyeatt pick a hundred people from his convention, and we will pick a hundred from ours. Then, let the two groups stand head to head in mental contest and intellectual agility, and I think the optometrists will get a new vision. Or, we might simply say to Dr. Pyeatt: "The same to you, brother."
With such misinformation being dispensed in the name of science, it is no wonder that the blind face discrimination in employment. Mary Ann Overbey is a blind teacher with a master's degree in child development. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. in 1979 she applied for a position in a preschool day care center operated by the Boulder YWCA. The State Department of Social Services indicated that they would not license the center if Miss Overbey was employed.
At this stage the Boulder Chapter of the Federation helped Miss Overbey find a lawyer and began to ask questions. As might have been expected, the Department of Social Services (when called to task) tried to shift the blame. They called on the fire department.
And what, one may ask, does the fire department have to do with it? Well, apparently a great deal. Under date of August 13, 1979, Clifford S. Harvey (Assistant Chief of the Boulder Fire Department) wrote to Miss Overbey's lawyer as follows:
This letter is to acknowledge that there are, to the best of my knowledge, no Fire Department policies, Life Safety Code, or Fire Prevention Code requirements prohibiting or restricting the employment of a blind teacher in a day care facility. The concern of the Fire Department is with the adequacy of the structure and associated and/or necessary equipment for a special purpose or occupancy. Any suggestion by this Department that we would take action against a day care center for whomever they employed would have been in error.
However, all involved should understand that, although there is no direct reference in our codes to a blind person being unable to perform a job as a teacher in a day care facility, the Life Safety Code does express concern with exit signs being 'readily visible,''distinctive color,' 'contrast with decorations;' the size of the exit sign 'not less than 6 inches high with the principal strokes of letters not less than 3/4 inch wide,' and the illumination of the sign 'by a reliable light source giving a value of not less than 5 foot candles on the illuminated surface.' Emergency lighting is required when the area used is subject to loss of natural and artificial light during hours of supervision. All these requirements are obviously aimed at people who are able to use their sight/vision to react to any emergency.
What a letter! As Alice said in her trip through Wonderland, it all gets curiouser and curiouser. According to the logic of Mr. Harvey blind persons would be prohibited from crossing streets, because the signs and lights are obviously meant for the sighted. Likewise, blind persons could not work in lighted factories, attend lighted schools, or (for that matter) even live in their own homesassuming that their homes are lighted, which is probably a building code requirement in most localities.
No review of the present condition of the blind would be complete without some discussion of the airlines. Twenty years ago there were relatively few blind passengers, but there were also virtually no problems. Blind people were treated like everybody else. They sat where they chose, kept their canes with them if they liked, and generally traveled without incident.
Then, as an increasing number of us began to find employment and self-confidence, more of us began to travel on airplanes, and otherwise participate in the mainstream of daily life. As always happens when a minority moves from dependence toward first-class citizenship, we experienced a certain amount of hostility and resentment. The problem was augmented by the fact that other handicapped groups and minorities were also striving and seeking advancement. Suddenly the airlines became very much aware of the disabled-not just the blind or some other group but all of the disabled. And they went about it in the worst possible way. They seemingly took all of the problems which they conceived each group of the disabled to have and attributed all of them to each of us. The resulting picture was a helpless, pitiable monstrosity.
Seven or eight years ago the Federal Aviation Administration decided to make special rules for uslimiting the number of blind persons who could travel on a single flight, providing that we must sit in certain segregated sections of the plane, and generally restricting our freedom of movement. By letters to Congress, confrontations at airports, and testimony at public hearings throughout the country we opposed these regulations, and they were never put into effect. However, by the late 1970's all sorts of restrictive measures were being undertaken by the airlines. It started with insistence that we give up our canes during flight, and it went from there to the bizarre and the ridiculous. Only now are we beginning to prevail in the struggle, but some of the madness still lingers.
In February of this year Frontier Airlines publicly humiliated and verbally abused our Colorado President, Diane McGeorge, because she did not want to move from her assigned seat to the bulkhead areawhere, they said, she and her dog Pony would be "more comfortable." They relented only after asking the other passengers in the row whether they objected to having Diane sit by them. In response to a letter from our attorney, Frontier took an injured tone and said that they had led the way in promoting the rights of the blind. They even claimed to have been the ones responsible for getting the Federal Aviation Administration to repeal its regulation prohibiting us from keeping our canes with us at our seats during flight. The way I remember it, we of the National Federation of the Blind filed the lawsuit.
As conclusive proof of their respect for our rights, Frontier pointed to a Braille flight information brochure which they have prepared for blind passengers. The brochure is, indeed, conclusive, but not in the way that Frontier imagines. It says in part:
You have been seated in an area that will help us make a safe and rapid evacuation. We ask that you remain seated until the initial flow of passengers has passed you. By permitting other passengers to evacuate first, we will be in a better position to help you, if necessary.
(Let me interrupt to say that I, for one, don't buy it. If I happen to be on an airplane in time of emergency, I have no intention of sitting there passively until everybody else has left the plane and Frontier's flight personnel have come back to get me. How do I know that they will not panic in the turmoil and give first priority to looking out for themselvesor (even if they don't) that it won't be too late by the time everybody else is off? If there is an emergency, I will take my chance with the rest of the passengers. That is why I keep both my cane and my wits with me when I fly.)
But back to the Frontier brochure. It goes on to say:
If you have chosen not to fly with your own escort, please understand that the flight attendants are not obligated to extend services beyond that required by all other passengers. In addition, you are responsible for your own lavatory needs; flight attendants are not able to assist.
Welcome aboard and have a pleasant flight.
What do you suppose they have in mind with respect to assisting with our lavatory needs? As the ambassador from the 23rd century said: All things are complex and likely to become more so.
Southwest Airlines recently issued a "Clarification of Passenger Tariff Rule 10 Refusal To Transport," which says in part:
Mental or physical conditions such as deaf, blind, mute, or retarded renders the individual incapable of caring for himself without assistance enroute and definitely would require further attention or assistance from employees of carriersuch as, blind could not read instructions, fasten seat belts, signs, change planes unassisted, or help himself in an emergency. Any one of or combination of the above certainly could involve risk to himself or to other persons or to property in the event of any non routine situation if he became frightened. All personnel must be alert to these situations and use good judgement and tact when having to decline acceptance of these people.
The Station Counter Manual for Pacific Southwest says:
When accepting unaccompanied blind persons for passage, every effort should be made to determine tactfully the extent of the passenger's helplessness. If the passenger is completely helpless, it should be recommended that he not travel alone. On the other hand, if the passenger seems well- adjusted and experienced in taking care of himself, traveling alone will not be too difficult.
Arrangements should be made to assist the blind passenger in boarding the airplane, and ensuring that he is seated next to a person of the same sex to take advantage of the latter person's probably voluntary efforts to assist the blind person.
What do you think they expect the person of the same sex to assist the blind person in doing? If they intend for it to stop at the lavatory door, it really won't matter which sex is helpingwill it? As the ambassador from the 22nd century said, All things are simple and likely to become more so.
To top it all, an Eastern Airlines Flight Attendant named Claudia recently decided not to bother trying to get the blind passenger to the lavatory at all. She insisted that he sit on a blanket because, as she put it, it is a federal regulation that blind persons have to sit on blankets because they cannot control their bladders. Of course, the blind person refused and pointed out that there is not (and never has been) any such federal regulation, but there was a scene involving public humiliation and embarrassment. There was also the likelihood of a lawsuit. All one can say to such insanity is: Welcome aboard, Claudia, and have a pleasant flight.
And then there is sex. The Andrew Clinic in New York has sent me a letter saying that it provides specialized sex therapy for a number of groups, including the blind, the amputee, and the obese. I often wonder how some of these classifications get made.
At any rate, the letter from the Andrew Clinic begins by saying: "Dear Director of the Federation; Please feel free to disseminate this announcement." Well, all right,let's disseminate it. It says in part:
Therapy is conducted either in our OFFICE or at HOME. Therapy modality: empirical. ...Fees: $250 for 12 sessions for 2 people, $150 for 12 sessions for singles without surrogate, $300 for 12 sessions for singles with an assigned surrogate. Please write or call for detailed information about qualifications, co-therapists, available consultants, or the rules about the assignment of a surrogate. Hoping to hear from you, I remain Cordially yours; Adalbert B. Vajay, MD. Ph.D.
It has been my observation that we do not need professional therapists to teach us about the basicsor, for that matter, to help us enjoy themSo welcome aboard, Adalbert, and have a pleasant flight.
Where does all of this leave us? For one thing (although we treat it with derision) it is not funny. It blights our lives, limits our opportunities, and kills our dreams. It depicts a social climate and a public attitude which bring misery and suffering. It bars us from regular employment and forces us to the degradation and poverty of subminimum wages and sheltered shops.
The state of Utah runs such a shop, and it is notorious. On July 27, 1981, a blind woman wrote to the Director of Utah's Services for the Blind:
Dear Dr. Langford: I am writing this letter in protest to tell my complaint about the workshop. At the time I was working there, I was transferred from one job to another from day to day without any explanation as to why, and therefore, I could not pick up good speed.
At the time of my dismissal, Mr. May told me I could work for thirty-eight cents a day. I was deeply hurt and very upset, and I went home and cried for several hours.
The following day my counselor, Dianne Alexander, told me that I could go to ReWall [ReWall is a training facility] on July 6, 1981, for re-evaluation. I did go there. I cooperated on everything they asked me to do, EXCEPT I would not answer one certain question dealing with my SEX LIFE.
While at ReWall, Dianne, Richard, and Bill told me I could work for sixty-eight cents a day. Dianne AlexanderRehab. Counselor, BillReWall Counselor, RichardReWall Instructor.
The next day I confronted Mr. May with this messageof working for sixty-eight cents a day. He just stood there and said nothing. I asked him then if I could return to work. He told me that they were not hiring anybody. Again, I became more upset than ever. I went home and cried and cried and cried. I did not know what to do or who to turn to.
Finally I decided to call my Counselor, Dianne Alexander. I told her what Mr. May had said. She told me to report to work on Monday and Tuesday, July 27 and 28, 1981, at 9:00 am. for a period of six weeks, at a $1.55 per hour. I was very grateful to hear this good news, as it will be of some help for our family.
Dr. Langford, I would like to tell you about one of the worst things going on at the Utah Workshop, the foulest language!! The lead man sits there and converses with others in very foul language, where everyone must sit and listen to it. He calls the workers' children 'Little Bastards.' When called down on it by the workers, he told us if we didn't like it, we could leave. While I was at ReWall, Bill told me that I would have to put up with itand not let it bother me. But it does bother me.
While working in the broom shop I sorted better than 200 pounds of corn per day.
Dr. Langford, I would like to know why I have been dismissed. There are several others that were hired after I was, and they are still working there. Dr. Langford, I was at work every day--on time and never late. ...
My husband and I have 2 small dependent children of school age. Without me working full time, I don't know how we can make it with the high cost of living these days.
Dr. Langford, knowing your position, you might be able to help me get my job back. I would appreciate hearing from you.
Pain and agony come from every line of that letter. It speaks of hurt and misery that cannot be described but only experienced. She is grateful for a $1.55 per hour and is so desperate for help that she begs to be allowed to return to a place where she must constantly hear her two small children referred to as "little bastards." If this were an isolated instance, it would be bad enough, but it is not. It is commonplacerepeated over and over throughout the country. It is no exaggeration to say that many of the blind today live in what can only be called slavery.
But we have learned to fight back, and we are making progress. As a result of our efforts an increasing number of the agencies are adopting new ways and responding to us positively, and so are the members of the public-at-large. It is true that the conditions in the sheltered shops are still unbelievably bad, but it is also true that we have succeeded in getting the National Labor Relations Board to take jurisdiction over the shops and affirm the right of blind workers to organize and bargain collectively. When the Cincinnati Association for the Blind (one of the worst sheltered shops in the country) appealed the NLRB ruling, the federal Court decided in our favor. The Court decision (which was handed down only a few months ago) is as much a testimonial to how far we have come in reforming public attitudes and how successful our educational campaigns have been as it is to the provisions of the law and the enlightenment of the judges. The Cincinnati Association has indicated that it will carry the matter to the Supreme Court of the United States, and it certainly has the money to do itmoney wrung from the sweat of exploited blind workers; money extracted from a charitable public, which is only beginning to understand; money gleaned from tax exemptions and federal subsidies. However, even if we should lose the next round of appeals, the fact still remains that even ten years ago the NLRB and federal Court rulings would have been impossible. In a single decade we have made more progress than in all previous history.
Between February and June of this year our Job Opportunities for the Blind program assisted more than fifty people in finding competitive employment at a rate above the minimum wage, and this was done at a time when unemployment among the general public was running at record levels. It is no exaggeration to say that today more blind people are employed at higher wages than ever before in human experience.
And it is not just in employment that we are making gains, but in other areas as well. The airlines are a good example. Bad as the situation is, there are definite signs of progress. Last fall I went to Atlanta at the invitation of Delta to make a training film for its employees, and United (which four or five years ago was one of the most insensitive) recently removed objectionable advertising from radio and television because we asked them to do it.
In every area we are gaining momentum, and tomorrow is bright with promise. As the sighted learn who we are, what we have endured, what we are achieving, and what we can do, they are standing with us in growing numbers. We are capable of living with the sighted, working with the sighted, playing with the sighted, and competing with the sighted on terms of full equality; and the sighted are capable of reciprocating and understanding.
Most important of all, we have found our collective identity and understood what it means to work together as a movement. We have made our Federation the strongest force which has ever existed to improve the lot of the blind. Today not only our own members but all of the blind (those who are not part of us, those who have never heard of us, and even those who dislike us) are living better lives and reaching for higher goals than ever beforeand they are doing it because of the National Federation of the Blind. No force in the world can now stop our advance to freedom. We understand our heritage, and it gives us strength for the battles ahead. We fight for those who went before us and for those who come afterfor the founders of our movement and for the children of the next generation. We also fight for ourselvesfor our right to full citizenship and human dignity, for our right to equality under the law, and for our right to work with others and do for ourselves.
My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours. It only remains for us to do the work and make the sacrifice and show the courage to win it. Come! Join me on the barricades, and we will make it all come true!
Back to top