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Kenneth Jernigan, 71, Advocate For The Blind Dies

Kenneth Jernigan, who was a forceful advocate for the blind in gaining access to jobs and to public places during his long-time leadership of the National Federation of the Blind, died Oct. 12 at his home in Baltimore. He was 71. The cause was lung cancer, said Barbara Pierce, director of Public Education for the Federation and editor of its Braille Monitor magazine.

The current president of the federation, Marc Maurer, said Jernigan "has reshaped thinking about the blind in this country and his writings have been translated into 100 languages."

Jernigan, who was blind at birth, started volunteering for the federation, based in Baltimore, in 1951 and was president of the organization from 1968 to 1986. During his unpaid tenure, the federation, which was founded in 1940 by Jacobus tenBroek, became one of the nation's most influential advocacy organizations.

Jernigan was in the vanguard of a successful effort in the 1980s to persuade the State Department to revise its policy excluding unsighted people from the diplomatic service. He was also instrumental in litigation that sought to stop what the federation regarded as discriminatory practices among airlines in the accommodation of the blind, one of which was that the airlines did not want them sitting in rows near emergency exits.

Jernigan appeared before a Senate subcommittee in 1989 and showed a video demonstrating that sighted and blind people could make an orderly evacuation of aircraft with equal ease.

"The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight," he said in 1992. "The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exists. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance."

Over the years, he made it clear that he took exception to various statements he heard about blindness, which included the suggestion that true Christians never lost their sight and that blind people were not equal to sighted people because of their "inability to see atoms." He called such statements "gibbering insanity."

Above all, he loathed expressions of pity for the blind who, he maintained, did not want pity and were quite capable of taking care of themselves and competing with sighted people in the job market.

Among his accomplishments was the creation of the Newsline for the Blind Network, in which the daily reports of The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major American newspapers are scanned and recited by a computer voice over telephone lines available to blind people all over the country.

Jernigan also created the International Braille and Technology Centre in Baltimore, which researches and promotes technology to aid the blind and maintains a job information bank for the blind that can be accessed by telephone.

In recognition of his work in creating the Newsline for the Blind Network, Jernigan received the Winston Gordon Award for Technological Advancement in the Field of Blindness and Visual Impairment this year from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Among his many other awards was a citation from the American Library Association in 1967 that praised him for his efforts in making the contents of libraries available to the blind.

Kenneth Jernigan was born in Detroit on Nov. 13, 1926. When he was quite young, his parents, Jesse and Novella Inez Trail Jernigan, moved near Beech Grove, Tennessee, where they were farmers. Their son was educated at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville. After high school he ran a furniture store in Beech Grove for a time, but then went on to college, earning his bachelor's degree from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, where he majored in social sciences. He originally wanted to be a lawyer, but his college counsellor told him that without sight, he should seek a more realistic goal. In that era many blind people were shunted off into such jobs as piano tuning or teaching the blind. He decided to become a teacher and got his master's degree in English from Peabody College in Nashville in 1949.

There he became active in the Tennessee chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. He then went to California and taught at the California Training Centre for the Blind in Oakland from 1953 to 1958. In 1958, he became director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, which he reorganized and strengthened. He remained in that post until 1978, running the Federation as a volunteer at the same time. Then he moved on to Baltimore and became the paid executive director of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, a sister organization of the National Federation of the Blind. He held that post from 1978 to 1989.

His other activities included work for the National Advisory Committee on Services for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, special consultant to the executive director of the White House Conference on the Handicapped, and consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, advising on museum programs for blind visitors. In retirement he continued to write essays and booklets, many of them of an inspirational nature, that were widely distributed to sightless people all over the world.

Among Jernigan's survivors are his wife, the former Mary Ellen Osborn, who assisted him in his work for the Federation, a daughter from a previous marriage, Marie Antoinette Jernigan Cobb of Baltimore, and three grandchildren.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Times News Service. This article was published on October 14, 1998.