Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Douglas C. Baynton
In the 1960s, a group of blind activists, led by a charismatic young blind leader, attempted to take control of a residential school for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. The group of activists belonged to the Iowa Association of the Blind, the state affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB); the leader was Kenneth Jernigan, the first blind director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind; and the school was the Iowa Braille and Sight-Saving School (IBSSS), a venerable institution founded in the mid nineteenth century, and a cornerstone and iconic institution in the small northeast Iowa farming community of Vinton. Through the decade of the 1960s, Iowa was the central front of a civil rights movement, led by blind people determined to implement a new philosophy of blindness against what they perceived to be the entrenched power of sighted rehabilitation and education professionals. For ten years the Iowa Commission for the Blind and the Braille School were at odds with each other as both institutions fought for the hearts and minds of blind adults and children. Constant friction marked relations between the director of the Commission and the superintendent of the school, the former a blind activist administrator, the latter a sighted professional educator of the blind. The former, along with the organized blind whom he led, were not willing to let professionals speak for them, but insisted on speaking for themselves. The blind came to see the Braille School as the biggest obstacle to achieving their goals of advancing the civil rights of the blind in Iowa and beyond. The solution was to seek to take control of the school from the University Board of Regents and put it under the authority of the Commission for the Blind. The effort nearly succeeded, but the cost grew too high, and the battle for the Braille School would mark the beginning of the end of Jernigan's time in Iowa and set back the blind movement in ways not recognized until much later.
Blind citizens in the 1940s and 50s faced widespread and entrenched discrimination. The ability to work, to own one's home, to travel independently on public transportation, to serve on trial juries, to vote, to adopt children, to raise families, were rights that no law guaranteed. The Architectual Barriers Act, Rehabilitation Act, Education of All Handicapped Children Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act were all still decades in the future. It was the hope of Kenneth Jernigan and the blind whom he led to use the vocational rehabilitation program for the blind in Iowa to secure some of the rights the blind lacked, and to advance a new vision of what it meant to be blind.
Copyright 2013 Brian Richard Miller
Miller, Brian Richard. "Speaking for themselves: the blind civil rights movement and the battle for the Iowa Braille School." PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2013.