by Dan Spoone
The year 2020 may very well go down in history as the most influential year of the first half of the 21st century. We are dealing with a worldwide pandemic, an awakening of the urgent need to solve the 400-year struggle of racial discrimination in America and a historic presidential election in the most politically polarized nation in my lifetime. We are all on edge. We are questioning our leaders, reconfirming our core values and worrying about our future. Is this a time of despair or hope? Each day seems to bring another opportunity to examine our core beliefs and think about the next steps in an uncertain future.
It is with this mindset that I took the opportunity to re-read the first chapter of our ACB history book, “People of Vision.” My thoughts were back in the decades from 1918 through 1945. This period 100 years ago was highlighted by two World Wars, a worldwide pandemic, the Great Depression and some very significant advancements in the civil rights of the blind and visually impaired community.
Yes, that’s right! These decades of huge unrest, uncertainty and physical harm were accompanied by the formation of civic organizations for the blind, federal and state legislation for blind services, the launch of blind consumer entities and the establishment of formal vocational services through federal and state programs.
As chronicled in “People of Vision,” here are some of the major accomplishments during these tumultuous times. The Hadley School for the Blind was founded in 1920. The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was formed in 1921. National Braille Press printed its first magazine in 1927. In 1920 the federal government passed the first Vocational Rehabilitation Act, acknowledging the need for social services for the disabled. The Seeing Eye, Inc. was founded in 1929 as the first guide dog school in the United States. In 1931, the first white cane safety ordinance was passed in the state of Illinois after the Peoria Lions Club petitioned the state legislature. Lions International later that same year adopted the white cane as their major service project. In 1931 Congress approved funds for the establishment of a program through the Library of Congress to provide books to the adult blind. AFB enhanced this program with the first talking book player in 1934. The California Council of the Blind was formed on Oct. 6, 1934 in Fresno, Calif. The Pennsylvania Federation of the Blind was formed in 1934. In 1935, the Social Security Act (Title 10) established aid to blind people as a separate assistance category. The Randolph-Sheppard Act created the blind vendor program in 1936 and the Wagner-O’Day Act established the National Industries for the Blind (NIB), which grew from a $1 million business in 1940 to a $32 million business from 1941 through 1945. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the funding for the state vocational rehabilitation program through a bill in 1943 that launched the current structure of state agencies serving the blind. The first national consumer organization was formed in 1940 with the charter of the National Federation of the Blind, and the Blinded Veterans Association was formed in 1945.
How did all of this progress happen for the blind and visually impaired community in the middle of such turbulent times? My belief is that only occasionally is society ready to accept significant change. We had this social climate 100 years ago and we have it again today. This is our opportunity to initiate change inside of ACB and offer outreach to members of our community to join our wonderful organization. We must seize this moment to embrace inclusion and make intentional decisions on the future of our organization. We should learn from our past and chart a path for the future that proposes bold legislative imperatives for audio description, inclusive health care services, accessible voting, inclusive universal design for all digital environments and universal access to transportation. ACB must become the chief influencer for the blind and visually impaired community and we must welcome all people to our ACB family. We need to be intentional in our efforts to nurture diversity and inclusion. Together we can embrace this unique opportunity for change. This is our decade to shine!