The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  June 2005

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What I Saw at the Revolution
by Brian Miller

Brian Miller
Brian Miller

From the Editor: Brian Miller is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the
University of Iowa and a longtime Federationist. He wrote the following review of James Omvig's most recent book for other purposes, but we are pleased to reprint it here.

The Blindness Revolution: Jernigan in His Own Words

by James H. Omvig

Information Age Press, 2005

For years the blind community has been inspired and driven by the legend of Kenneth Jernigan's transformation of a state agency serving the blind of Iowa from a moribund backwater to the backbone of a nationwide movement of blind people engaged in a civil rights struggle. James Omvig draws deep from the well of archival sources and puts flesh on the bones of Jernigan's first ten years as director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, from 1958 to 1968. Omvig pulls back the curtain from the basic narrative to show the daily challenges that Jernigan faced when he set out to infuse his agency with a revolutionary spirit, and Omvig makes it clear that what Jernigan accomplished was nothing short of a revolution in services for the blind. This book will certainly be of interest to those who work in the field of blindness, particularly those who work in agencies serving blind people, but it is more than a study in public administration. Omvig's research fills in significant gaps in the history of the blind movement and offers the reader a front-row seat to a pivotal moment in the history of blind people.

The story of the Iowa Commission is of interest to anyone who wishes to observe the flowering of a civil rights movement in the hands of a capable administrator. Scholars typically place the inception of the disability rights movement in Berkeley in the 1960's, where Ed Roberts led the struggle for access that would become the independent living movement. But almost a decade earlier, out in the heart of the heartland, Jernigan fought for the rights of blind people, not just in the streets, but in the halls of a state agency. The significance of what happened in Iowa cannot be overstated, since all those who work in the blindness field as well as scholars in disability studies continue to grapple with the Iowa legacy today. The long white cane, Braille, and the use of sleepshades during training continue to be hotly debated among professionals and blind activists.

Jernigan knew he was challenging the established notions of what sighted professionals believed constituted appropriate training techniques. More important, he knew that he was forging a model of blindness that asserted the normality of living life as a blind person. In the formulation of agency policies, public announcements, annual reports, and monthly commission meeting minutes, Jernigan relentlessly insisted that blindness could be reduced to a characteristic and that with proper training a blind person could and should pursue the goals he or she desired.

For the first time blind activists controlled an agency of their own that would serve as a model, a living experiment in service provision in the tradition of John Dewey and his Chicago model schools. Blind activists spent the 1950's pounding the walls of state vocational rehabilitation agencies, trying to be heard by the mostly sighted professionals inside. Now the blind were inside the walls and in charge. The challenge for Jernigan, who was only thirty-two when he was appointed director by the commission board, was to put into practice the philosophy that he and others in the National Federation of the Blind had espoused for years. He would have to carry out this experiment with a minuscule budget, little office space, and a handful of staff.

When Jernigan took over the Iowa Commission in 1958, he had a budget of less than $30,000, but within three years he was asking the Iowa legislature for nearly ten times this amount. This massive appropriation, which was over and above the new and increased operating budget, was to secure the purchase of a decommissioned YMCA Building in downtown Des Moines. In this seven-story building Jernigan would provide the adjustment-to-blindness services that counselors once took to the homes of blind people. Rather than a handful of rehabilitation teachers fanning out across Iowa to teach the blind at home, Jernigan wanted to gather the blind in Des Moines to immerse commission clients in the culture of blindness. He understood that training at home resulted in a blind person remaining isolated and under the sway of well-intentioned but ignorant family members. His vision was not merely to administer an agency but to foment a movement. He had to balance the demands of leading a movement and functioning as a director of a state agency. At the time some argued that one could not do both, but Omvig clearly does not agree with this premise and sets out to show how Jernigan successfully wore two hats on one head.

Omvig posits that Jernigan's leadership of the Commission for the Blind in the 1960's serves as a model for directors and administrators today. Lessons appear as episodes in the early, formative years of Jernigan's tenure as director--the effort to purchase the old YMCA Building, tangles with political figures--most notably the Iowa attorney general (who becomes governor)--and public relations events to sell his vision of blindness skills training. Omvig allows Jernigan to do most of the talking in the form of correspondence (both public and private), commission meeting minutes, public statements, and articles from newspapers and journals from the period, all of which are reprinted at length. Omvig prefaces many of the passages with commentary, but otherwise he steps aside to allow Jernigan's voice to dominate. The documents that Omvig reprints here, often for the first time anywhere, serve as valuable primary source material for future scholars.

It should be noted that Omvig was a student of the commission in Des Moines in the early 1960's and later worked at the center under Jernigan and as such was a witness to many of the events he recounts. He does not allow his personal involvement to cast a shadow on his subject but continually defers to Jernigan's writing for support of his arguments. One fervently hopes that Omvig will someday provide a more personal account of his time in Iowa. While Jernigan was the glue that held together a movement, he relied on the talents and commitment of dozens of other individuals, including Omvig--all of whom have yet to have their story told. Omvig ends his book on a triumphal note in 1968 when Jernigan had taken the commission to the height of its fame and glory. A long, difficult decade would follow, leading to Jernigan's eventual resignation in 1978. Administrators today might well learn from this second decade as well as from the first. Perhaps a second volume by Mr. Omvig could help scholars make sense of the fate of the revolution in the later years of Jernigan's time in Iowa.

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