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Kenneth Jernigan: 'power to the blind'


Reprinted from: The Des Moines Sunday Register, June 2, 1974

 [Two photographs accompany this article. The first, on the front page of the paper, shows him seated in the Director's Conference Room, reading Braille with scattered volumes opened and closed in the foreground. Shelves of volumes are behind him. The caption reads: Kenneth Jernigan, director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, sits in front of his Braille books. "...in Iowa it is possible for you as a blind man to go out and lead the same kind of life any other person leads." The second, inside, shows a pair of hands on an architectural diagram. The caption reads: Jernigan 'reads' blueprints Kenneth Jernigan, director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, is able to supervise an extensive remodeling of the commission's headquarters here by working from a special set of blueprints. The blueprints have Braille-like symbols he devised to enable a blind person to follow the plans.]

Kenneth Jernigan is blind, and so when he plays poker with friends the deck used is marked with Braille symbols. A house rule is that Jernigan never deals.

"I put that rule in myself," says Jernigan.

"When I play poker I intend to win, and I don't want anyone else to think the Braille deck is the reason."

Jernigan does win, not only at poker but in games much less precise and rule-bound–changing public attitudes and opinions about blindness, for example.

In that game, Jernigan is very much the dealer.

He came to Iowa 16 years ago to become director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Since then, the record of that agency is impressive:

State budget up from $60,000 to about $500,000 annually; headquarters moved from three rooms to a seven-story downtown building; a state law, lobbied by Jernigan, giving blind persons first crack at operating food concessions in government buildings; more than 1,000 blind Iowans placed in jobs ranging from electrical engineer to lathe operator.

In those 16 years, Iowa has gained a world-wide reputation for its training and rehabilitation of the blind. As Harold Russell, chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, put in a speech in Des Moines in 1968: "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world."

Jernigan says of the success of the Iowa program: "It has nothing to do with technique. It has to do with philosophy."

Summed up, the Jernigan philosophy is:

That I am blind does not necessarily mean I am less fortunate than you who are sighted. That blindness does not mean inferiority. That a blind person can compete at almost anything on terms of equality with a sighted person.

Such lines would ring in the air like great cliches except that Jernigan is on the cutting edge of a movement by the blind to move out of the humble, to-be-pitied, stay-in-your-place role.

Jernigan, who also is president of the National Federation of the Blind, takes an aggressive, sometimes militant stand in calling for the organized blind to come out in the open and demand their rights.

Blind civil rights

"Mr. Jernigan would use the techniques of Black Power or Indian Power and say that therefore the blind need to use Blind Power to fight what he calls discrimination," says Robert Barnett of New York City, executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, and a frequent critic of Jernigan.

Jernigan, explaining his philosophy, says, "If you are to truly understand what I have done here, it has to do with the civil-rights aspect of blindness.

"It has to do with our self-image and society's image of us. You see, people do not regard their treatment of the blind as discrimination because they think they are being thoroughly reasonable and that they only want to help the blind person.

"If I insist on my rights, no matter how courteously, no matter how gently, I'm going to be regarded as unreasonable, militant and pushy."

As an example, Jernigan cites the case a few years ago when a carnival ride operator at the State Fair refused to allow several blind persons on the ride, saying he felt it would be unsafe for them.

Members of Jernigan's staff immediately went to the fairgrounds and told the operator his refusal to allow the blind on the ride was a violation of the state civil rights law. The blind persons were allowed on the ride.

"I would suspect that that individual (the midway operator) had great sympathy for the blind until the day they insisted they were going on his ride," says Jernigan.

"I suspect he felt that blind persons were all right as long as they stayed in their place. But from that moment on they were an unreasonable aggressive lot.

"This is the problem all minority groups face, and since most people don't regard blind persons as a minority, they are more shocked when they find this as a problem than they would be if it were blacks or some other racial minority."

Jernigan, who is 47, has been battling for his rights virtually all his life. Born blind, the son of a Tennessee farm couple, he chafed at parental restrictions, applied lovingly in an effort to protect him.

Jernigan attended a school for the blind through high school but spurned any suggestion that he learn a trade such as broom making.

He won two college degrees in Tennessee and went into teaching there–teaching blind children, saying he wanted them to know of opportunities he had not known of.

When he pressed a case of brutality against a sighted teacher in a blind school he lost his job, but so did the sighted teacher. He eventually ended up working with the blind in Oakland, Calif., where he was recruited for the Iowa job.

Challenge in Iowa

Jernigan says he came to Iowa because he liked the challenge of working in a state ranked dead last in blind work.

He and others say Iowa now ranks first, but he says he won't leave (although he says he has been offered jobs in other states that pay up to $30,000 a year).

"What keeps me here is what brought me here," he says. "The challenge now is to make the Iowa program still better and the yardstick for every other one.

"Iowa has been very good to me and I want to stay here."

Jernigan has an expert lobbyist's knowledge of the Iowa Legislature and its members which helps explain his success in getting money and laws. His small dinner parties for legislators and others, at which he himself grills the steaks, are popular.

So are the wines he serves. A noted oenophilist, he was named to the Iowa Wine Advisory Board when that body was established about four years ago to assist the state Liquor Commission in choosing wine brands for state stores. He since has resigned the post.

Jernigan's specialty is Bordeaux, both still wines and sparkling. He does not maintain a wine cellar these days, saying he has no room for one.

Critics also blind

Jernigan is not without critics, and some of the most vocal come from the ranks of the blind. That isn't so surprising, says Jernigan.

He likens it to the pre-Civil War days when it was said that the ones who disliked the freed slaves the most were other slaves.

"We say here in Iowa it is possible for you as a blind man to go out and lead the same kind of life any other person leads," says Jernigan.

"Now suppose you have someone who has spent half his life in an inferior position and he has learned to live with it, figuring nothing could be done because he's blind.

"You tell him different. Most will be glad that others will not benefit, but some will react with fury."

Fury may be too strong a word, but Jernigan does draw fire.

"He enjoys being abrasive," says Barnett of the New York City-based American Foundation for the Blind. Barnett also is blind.

Adds Barnett: "From his point of view I think he is deadly sincere, but Ken and I have disagreed. He calls me 'Uncle Bob,' a take off on 'Uncle Tom,' apparently because I'm employed by the establishment. My reaction to that is that I didn't know that was a disgrace.

"I don't agree with any blind person demanding his or her rights beyond the rights which he already is granted as a citizen–education, living where he chooses and employment that he is capable of handling."

"Belligerent attitude"

Lyle Williams of Des Moines, who is blind and who is state president of the American Council of the Blind, says he fears that some blind persons who have undergone training at the Iowa Commission have developed "a belligerent attitude" toward sighted persons.

"We hear repeated instances in the city where people are rather brusquely refused when they offer their help to blind persons traveling about the city," says Williams.

On the other hand, Kenneth Hopkins, who is blind and is director of the Idaho Commission for the Blind at Boise, says of Jernigan: "I think he runs the finest program for the blind in the country."

Hopkins, who once lived in Muscatine and attended the University of Iowa, was a student at the Iowa Commission under Jernigan for about eight months.

"That training gave me opportunities I did not know existed," Hopkins says. "I am where I am today because of it."

Hopkins says Jernigan's approach takes the emphasis away from techniques and what he called "assembly line" training. The Jernigan method substitutes an emphasis on attitude and the realization that blindness presents certain problems–but that there are ways to meet those problems.

"It's the only way to run a railroad," says Hopkins, adding that he has modeled the Idaho program on Iowa's.

Blind mobility–the ability of a blind person to travel on his own on city streets–is one of Jernigan's favorite topics.

Students taking training at the Iowa Commission are a common sight on downtown Des Moines streets. Using the long white cane (called the Iowa Cane by many in the field of the blind), the students make their way among shoppers and across streets.

Not too long ago, says Jernigan, a blind man taking mobility training lost his sense of direction along Keosauqua Way in downtown Des Moines and wandered into the middle of that street.

A commission staff member, trailing about a quarter block behind, witnessed the action and stood ready to lend aid should real danger from traffic show itself.

Passerby 'interferes'

Instead, says Jernigan, a passerby, touched by the sight of a blind man apparently lost and confused, stepped to his side and guided the man back to the sidewalk.

"That meant it all had to be done over again," says Jernigan. "It would have been better to let the individual find his own way back to the sidewalk if it could be done, even if it took 45 minutes.

"In the stage between the time when he (the blind man) knows he's being watched and the stage when he gets to be confident and independent, there will inevitably come times when he is lost, frightened and confused.

"And there is no way to avoid going through that stage unless he is going to sit down the rest of his life and not be able to travel independently."

To critics who call such training "too tough," Jernigan replies: "It is the least tough alternative available."

He adds: "The real test is not its theory, but does it work? We have never had an individual here get hurt in travel."

Few minor injuries

Seriously hurt, is what Jernigan means. There have been a few bumped heads and some minor scrapes.

Once a Des Moines city official came to Jernigan and offered to have a crew move a utility pole that protruded into a sidewalk often used by blind walkers.

Jernigan refused, telling the city official: "You can't go and clear every pole out of every sidewalk in this country. These people have to learn to avoid that pole by techniques we can teach them."

When the city official protested that he himself had seen a blind man bump his head on the pole and that it appeared to be a painful experience, Jernigan replied:

"I'm sure it was, and I'm sorry about it, but would you rather he'd hurt his head on that pole and think about it and do better, or would you rather he be killed five years from now by stepping out in front of a car because he was careless?"

Adds Jernigan: "Look, I am blind and I want to be able to go where I want to go. If you were to offer me the option of having to sit down as a prisoner–and that's what it amounts to, unable to go unless someone is willing and able to take me–or you offer me some pain in learning a method which sets me free so that I can go where I please to go, I'll take the pain."

Different approaches

To those who question his attitudes toward the blind, Jernigan says: "there are times when you must be ultra gentle and you must let a man stand up and swear at you, but on the other hand there are times when you must say, 'Look, I'm as blind as you are and I don't feel one bit sorry for you, so get off it.'"

Jernigan has plenty of opportunities to talk to students at the Iowa Commission. He and his wife, Anna Katherine, who is sighted and works as a dietary administrator for the state health department, live in an apartment in the commission's building.

The quarters are part of Jernigan's compensation, which includes an annual salary of $21,400.

"The reason I live here is that I need to be available day or night if students want to talk to me," said Jernigan.

Jernigan and his wife host a group of the students most every Sunday at a tea in the apartment on the fifth floor.

Also, it is not uncommon for a student (all students at the commission live in the building) to call Jernigan late at night to discuss a problem.

Once, a student called Jernigan and told him that another student, discouraged and bitter, was preparing to leave the building. It was about 3 a.m.

Jernigan hurried to the main floor and stopped the man, saying he wanted to hear his problem. The man refused and attempted to brush past Jernigan who blocked his path.

"The only way you're going to get past me is knock me down," Jernigan told the student. The student did agree to talk to Jernigan in his office and made a decision to stay.

No set timetable

Those who come to the Iowa Commission do not follow any set timetable on how long they will stay. They live, rent free, in single rooms and take various vocational courses ranging from learning to cook and bake to operating a lathe or an electric welder. They also have classes, sometimes taught by Jernigan, in which the problems of the blind are discussed.

Jernigan makes no bones about the fact that the Commission center is not a vocational training center.

"This is an attitude factory, not a trade school," he says. He adds that those who leave the center bent on a career in a craft generally go on to a trade school.

The impatience that has marked his whole life also marks most of his days. He hates to waste time.

He usually arises at 5:30 a.m., sometimes takes a 6 a.m. gym class with other students. Then, while shaving, he listens to the reading of The Des Moines Register over Radio Station KDPS, an FM station operated by the Des Moines school board.

At night, Jernigan often reads science fiction or history or biography–either by Braille or by a "talking book" recording.

He keeps a set of weights in his office and sometimes lifts them when he dictates letters to his secretary. He once was an accomplished horseback rider and water skier, but does not take part in those activities now.


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