DISABILITIES

 

By Daniel J. Vance

 

    Most Americans wouldn't get upset at a person saying the word "for" rather than "of" in a sentence. But at the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB), hearing "for" often grates the ear the way fingernails do scratching a slate blackboard.

 

   NFB, with 50,000 members, is the nation's largest membership organization of blind persons, advocating for all 1.1 million blind Americans.

 

  "When people mistakenly call us the National Federation for [rather than of] the blind, we don't care for it at all," said NFB Director of Community Relations Pat Maurer in a telephone conversation with me last week.

 

   "We are an organization made up of blind people and, just as importantly, we are managed by blind people," she said.

 

  If "for" were in NFB's name, Maurer said that would suggest all its managers were sighted people. But that's not the case: at NFB, the blind literally are leading the blind.

 

  The man who more than any other shaped the group from 1952 through his death in 1998 was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, whose life and accomplishments are held in high esteem among blind people the way Martin Luther King Jr.'s are among many black Americans.

 

  NFB's current president has even compared Jernigan to Moses: indeed, both faithfully served their "people" 40 years in order to lead them through a "desert" to a better way of life.

 

   Born blind in 1926, Jernigan was raised on a Tennessee farm, graduated from college with honors, and in 1949 was named the nation's most outstanding blind student. He also earned a Masters from Peabody College, where he wrote for the school newspaper.

 

  In 1958-78 he was Director of the Iowa State Commission for the Blind. President Lyndon Johnson honored Jernigan's work there by saying, "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world."

 

  In every way, the NFB of today is a reflection of Jernigan's pull-'em-up-by-the-bootstraps attitude.

 

  His main gifts to the blind were his inspiring speeches and writings that urged blind people to develop self-confidence.

 

  In a 1997 speech, Jernigan said, "If I had to sum up my personal philosophy in a single sentence, it would probably be this: Do all you can to help yourself before you call on somebody else; [and] try to make life better for those around you."

 

[Visit www.danieljvance.com. Copyright 2002 by Daniel J. Vance]