My mother, Bonnie Byington, was a charter member of the American Council of the Blind (ACB). She died on Feb. 11, 2006 at the age of 83.
Over the years, Bonnie did not remain consistently involved at national levels of ACB. She was, however, always deeply involved at the level of the Kansas affiliate.
In writing a tribute about Bonnie that will be relevant to ACB at a national level, I am therefore not going to inventory her many organizational accomplishments. Suffice it to say that there were a few for ACB at the national level, and many at the state level. What I want to do instead is write about Bonnie's place in history, a place shared by a number of other blind and low-vision pioneers, but not shared by very many of us. It comes down to a willingness to take risks, and to confront challenges head on, to create one's own opportunities despite overwhelming odds against success.
I will share two incidents in Bonnie's life as examples. Both of these occurred before I was born. They are told from my recollection of her sharing the stories many times. I must first of all put the challenges she faced in perspective by providing a little background.
Bonnie was born on a farm in a profoundly rural part of Kansas in 1923. She had very low vision from birth and was unable to use any type of printed materials. Her parents found out about the Kansas State School for the Blind, and sent her there in 1931. She graduated in 1943. Bonnie then attended Kansas State University, graduating with a B.A. in journalism in 1946. Figures are probably not very accurate concerning unemployment of working-age blind at that time, but I have seen some estimates that around 92 percent of all working-age blind citizens were unemployed. We think we are not doing very well now with the estimated 70 percent unemployment figure, but we have made some progress. There were no civil rights protections of any type back then, and employment opportunities for blind and low-vision people were quite limited.
It was, however, the end of World War II. Many seasoned human service professionals were turning their efforts toward working with disabled veterans, and there was thus a shortage in many states of social workers to handle what were considered difficult and undesirable caseloads. The state of North Carolina dealt with this by offering a guarantee of employment to any college graduate who would do some work toward a master's in social work at the University of North Carolina, and then be willing to accept employment working with a difficult, rural North Carolina caseload. People accepted into this program were not encouraged to complete the master's; they instead had to take a few prescribed courses, and then start working. Bonnie was accepted into the program, completed the academic requirements, and started working a mountain caseload. She did this for a couple of years, and had many interesting stories of being run off mountaintops at gunpoint by families who would rather see their blind or severely disabled child be uneducated, or perhaps die, than deal with some social worker from the state.
Being the investigative reporter type, however, Bonnie happened to stumble onto the fact that one of her bosses was embezzling state funding which was supposed to be going to the blind and other disability groups. She documented her information and took it to prosecuting authorities. An investigation ensued, and prosecutors eventually told her that the investigation was getting to some high levels, and that for her safety, she had better quit her job and leave the state. She left North Carolina on a bus in the middle of the night and returned to rural Kansas. She had been told that she would be subpoenaed and brought back to the state when her testimony was needed, and was surprised that the subpoena never came.
In 1965 Bonnie was at the ACB national convention in Louisville, and she happened to meet an old friend who had been at the University of North Carolina with her. He was quite surprised to see her. He did not have enough information to allow her ever to find the article, but he said he remembered hearing of an article about a fiery automobile crash, and someone having been burned beyond recognition; the article said that the victim was thought to be Bonnie.
When Bonnie returned to Kansas, she found some part-time work writing for a rural newspaper. It was not a very good job, but it gave her a forum and got her some literary notice. She was able to use this to get a trial working for "The Wichita Eagle," at that time the largest newspaper in Kansas. When the personnel folks at the Eagle learned that she was blind, however, the trial they offered was one which certainly would be illegal today. They said that they really did not know, despite her writing skill, whether there was anything a blind person could do on a major newspaper, so they would give her a three-month trial to see if she was worth having on staff. Thus from the mountains of North Carolina, and from a farm in rural Kansas, she moved to Wichita knowing only that she had employment for three months.
At the end of the trial period, she was called into the managing editor's office. She was told that they were surprised about how well she had done. Her work on the city desk was excellent; she wrote a great obituary. They said, however, that all of their full-time reporters had a regular beat, and that they just could not bring themselves to give a blind person a beat. She might miss too much. They therefore wished to offer her permanent part-time employment as a fill-in and office reporter. She asked if she could have until the next day to consider the offer, and was granted this time.
She then left the office and took a long walk. She had a lot to think about. Could she afford to live on a half-time salary? There was no Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, or substantial gainful activity rules at that time. A blind person had to make it professionally, depend on the charity of family, work in a sheltered shop if they could get on at one, or accept county welfare. As she walked and thought, she realized that she was lost. She had wandered into a neighborhood with which she was not familiar. She was not particularly worried about this; she knew she could retrace her steps and return to familiar areas, so she kept walking. Eventually, she smelled a newspaper! Newspapers of the late 1940s had quite an odor due to the printer's ink, and they could be smelled from two or three blocks away. Bonnie thus walked, and sniffed, and sniffed and walked and finally came to the building that she thought must be the newspaper. She could not, of course, see well enough to read the large sign saying what newspaper it was, so she did not know where she was or what publication she had accidentally found. She discovered, however, that there was an alcove by the front door, so she stood in it and mimed reading something until the door opened at the same time the receptionist answered the telephone. She heard the receptionist say, "Labor Union Press."
Armed only with the information that the publication had something to do with labor unions, she went in, asked for the managing editor, and inquired as to whether he had any part-time work. She explained her situation with the Eagle. It was such a unique story, the guy must have decided that anybody with the chutzpah to be standing before him under such unique circumstances was worth a shot. He hired her on the spot for the half of her day that the Eagle would not be using her services. He said that the only proviso was that whatever information she got on the Eagle's time was theirs, and whatever she got on his time belonged to the Labor Union Press. He also said that she did not need to worry about her lack of a regular beat for the Eagle. For the Labor Union Press she would have a whole slew of beats because they were a much smaller operation and everybody did everything.
Bonnie reported to the Eagle the next morning and told the management there that she would accept their offer of part-time employment. She also told them what she would be doing with the other half of her time. She said that the management folks in the office, I believe she said there were two or three of them, nearly fell off their chairs. They, however, accepted the same proviso. What she got on the Eagle's time belonged to the Eagle, and what she got on the Labor Union Press time belonged to that publication.
That is how Bonnie came to be employed at two competing, fairly major newspapers for a period of about three years. Eventually, she scooped the Eagle on enough stories that they offered her full-time employment. By that time, her boss at the Labor Union Press was contemplating retirement and shutting the paper down, so her resignation was accepted from that paper with regret and thanks, and she worked for the Eagle full-time for a few more years until she quit because she was pregnant with me.
Bonnie continued throughout my childhood and adulthood to work off and on in a number of different professions and endeavors. I have worked throughout most of my adult life on issues related to civil rights, appropriate benefits, and equal treatment for people who are blind and low vision. Given my parents' backgrounds (my father was also low vision, and was oriented to advocacy), these interests on my part are not surprising. I am glad that we have made progress over the years, but as I look at the occasional advantages we have realized through affirmative action, civil rights protections, the work incentives we have built into the benefits system, the rehabilitation and special education systems, etc., I realize that we have developed a level of dependency that did not used to be there. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were no job coaches, no reasonable accommodations, and no safety net. Anything attempted by a blind or low- vision person in the professional world was dependent only on the individual's willingness to take risks and to be creative in facing a myriad of problem-solving challenges. Yet a few blind and low-vision pioneers faced the odds and found sufficient success to allow them to blaze the trails for the rest of us. Bonnie Byington was one of those rare people.
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