by Rebecca Kragnes
It took a month, but I finally finished the book, "People of Vision: A History of the American Council of the Blind" by James J. and Marjorie L. Megivern. I read all of it on my portable notetaker using speech when my hands had other tasks to do, and braille when they didn't. But no matter how you read it, I can't stress enough how good you'll feel about being an ACB member after reading the chronology of milestones before any organizations for the blind, the early NFB, the "civil war of the blind," and the formation and development of ACB. After the chronology, I thought the book was over, but the best part was yet to come. The authors analyzed three questions with one each relating to the past, the present and the future of organizations of the blind. The authors' analysis and answers were even more welcome than learning about the series of events.
At a couple points in the book, the authors described a young Chris Gray and other young blind people trying to make sense of why there were two organizations of the blind. This was exactly my scenario as Becky Rupp, a high school senior. I didn't even know there were two organizations until the scholarship applications came in the mail. Then I was a finalist for both, and I discovered their conventions were the same week! What was I going to do if by some miracle I won both?
It got even more confusing when I was sent to Iowa's Orientation Center at the Department for the Blind in Des Moines where -- despite his resignation 12 years ago -- Kenneth Jernigan was still God. Even the staff who were ICUB members seemed to have a pretty high regard for the man. Despite the indoctrination classes, I never agreed that he was anything more than an articulate man. His arrogance and controlling nature came through to me in his radio spots and speeches. In the spots, his reference to stereotyping of all blind people as musicians really ticked me off, because I happened to be both blind and musical. It seemed that I was not supposed to go into any kind of musical career because of the stereotyping I would reload on the blind's shoulders.
Soon after graduation and before spending the first month in Des Moines, I learned I had won the Floyd Qualls Scholarship. So it was off to Denver I went. In addition to the formal sessions, I had a couple of informal conversations with other students -- one of whom introduced me to M.J. Schmitt. Because of my confusion, I started asking questions about the history and the differences between the two organizations. She wanted so much to answer my questions, but she told me it would take hours to do so. I definitely heard the comparison and contrast about how students were treated at ACB conventions versus NFB conventions. I heard about students having so-called mentors at NFB who dragged them to all kinds of meetings. ACB was respectful enough to let me determine my own convention schedule and only requested that I show up to thank ACB for my scholarship. This seemed more than reasonable to me. I found the same respect upon winning another scholarship and attending the 1994 convention in Chicago, but I still had such nagging questions!
So when the book came out, I was ready to devour it, but then I hit a snag. I didn't want to be tied to my computer to read this thing, and at that time, portable notetakers didn't have the ability to help me view files on cards as they do today. The file wouldn't fit in the notetaker. Sure, I could get it on tape and listen to someone else read it or get the boxes of braille volumes, but neither of these options seemed attractive.
So what finally got me to read the book? It was after an encounter of the Federation kind this past October as I chaired a Minnesota State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind meeting. NFB members used particular wording in an article I wrote for the Minnesota Memo -- the ACB-M publication -- to accuse me of abusing my role as chair of this body. Others in ACB tried to console me, and one even said that if I was making the NFB mad, I must be doing something right. The NFB's twisting of the facts made me so angry that I could think of nothing else -- even during leisure reading. I interrupted a Dean Koontz book and began reading "People of Vision."
I read the whole thing to get the chronology, but my interest intensified as foreshadowings of the split began to appear. I couldn't help but think that I had been at two ACB conventions with Durward McDaniel, and to my knowledge, I didn't have any interaction with him. He and the others were so brave to step out on principle and start ACB despite the haranguing they received from loyal Federationists.
Winning the Floyd Qualls scholarship has come to mean more to me after reading about the serious and humorous ways Qualls spoke out and helped form ACB. As I proceeded into the '70s and '80s, I couldn't help but think of my childhood and adolescent naivete concerning knowledge of the struggles blind people had endured within our own community. It was interesting reading about things I remember from the two conventions I attended and the many articles from "The Braille Forum" and "The Braille Monitor." My parents insisted that I read both publications even if I had already decided that ACB was my organization of choice. A good example of the coverage difference appeared in articles in both publications regarding the NAC dinner and the Federation eavesdroppers. I recall how gleeful the Monitor article sounded regarding Grant Mack's being taken to a police station in a paddy wagon. In contrast, the Forum article stuck to the facts with no exaggeration. It was only upon reading "People of Vision" that I realized Grant Mack's importance to ACB, and it makes me look down on NFB's yellow journalism in the coverage of this event even more.
I smiled with nostalgia as I read about the 2000 and 2001 conventions, because I had listened to parts of them live on ACB Radio. It was this which brought to mind that I was a part of ACB's history.
There are still questions I have after reading the book, and perhaps some might be answered by taking the time to read the NFB's history. But I don't care to hear about the revisionist history after reading the real deal. Still, I'll make my comments and ask the questions here.
In what and from where did Jernigan and Maurer get their honorary doctorates, thus suddenly being referred to as "Doctor" from loyal Federationists? It was so refreshing to read a book in which only those who had actually earned a doctoral degree of some type have Dr. in front of their names.
There was no reference to the anti-dog guide October 1995 issue of "The Braille Monitor." I believe this issue brought a few more friends to ACB. I hope that appears in the next edition.
Finally, did anyone else catch the slight error regarding Erik Weihenmayer climbing to the summit of Mt. McKinley, referred to as the world's highest mountain? I believe that McKinley is the highest in the United States. Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and Weihenmayer reached its summit later. The authors were just predicting the future. They probably would admit to making this error rather than covering it up or revising history.