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A Tribute From New Zealand

Most of us probably find ourselves thinking once in a while about our legacy. It would be nice to conclude our life's work knowing that in someway the world is a better place for us having lived in it. But few of us will ever have the kind of legacy that is Dr. Kenneth Jernigan's. I want to try to explain why I wept openly when I heard that Dr. Jernigan had died, why I in New Zealand, many thousands of miles away from the United States with its history of paternalistic American agencies for the blind feel such a profound sense of loss. I do it partly as a therapy exercise for myself. When I'm at an emotional extreme, I like to write. But I also do it to say "thank you" to the National Federation of the Blind and Dr. Jernigan's family for sharing Dr. Jernigan with the world.

When I was in my late teens and at university, I was confident of my own abilities but scared of the future. I had decided that as a blind person I was limited, not so much by my abilities, but by other people's perceptions of my so-called "disability." For various reasons I was in the media spotlight every so often, and used to describe blindness as a characteristic. But I was despondent about the seemingly unbeatable odds I was battling. I thought society wouldn't let me have a future, and that I may as well do the world a favour and surrender the battle. I was at the lowest ebb to which any human being can descend.

I have always been an adopter of technology, and at about this time found myself on the Disabilities Forum of CompuServe. A man named David Andrews posted a message announcing the latest issue of a magazine called the Braille Monitor. I downloaded it, read it, and found hope. I have read almost every Braille Monitor since then. So what is this hope I found? Obviously as someone who has been interested in blindness advocacy in some form or another since I crossed swords with the school for the blind at the age of six, the work of the federation interested me. But American politics interests me too as a political science and history graduate. What made my reading of Federation material different, and what gave me hope, was that the federation not only mirrored my own views about blindness being a characteristic, and about the real problem of blindness being attitudinal, but they had proved it through their actions and programs.

With the advent of the Internet, I gained access to much more. I read Walking Alone and Marching Together, and it was at this point that I really came to admire Dr. Jernigan. Dr. Jernigan was many things to the blind of the world. Firstly, he was a philosopher. One of his most famous pieces, Blindness--Handicap or Characteristic is in my view the most important and empowering philosophical work on blindness of this century, and there were many other such writings. He had a remarkable ability to process and enunciate thoughts clearly and logically. That takes someone who is a good listener as well as a clear thinker and talker.

Secondly, he was a man who chose the right tactics for the right time. He knew when the time was right to ask people to join him on the barricades, but he also knew when the time was right to embark on the highly successful public education program that is the Kernel Books. "We will do what we have to do," he said on many occasions, and that's exactly the strategy he adopted. He was about outcomes, not about making a noise for its own sake.

Thirdly, he was the most outstanding orator I have ever heard. Reading a Jernigan speech is inspiring. Listening to one delivered live was thrilling and captivating. I have attended two NFB Conventions and was privileged to be present for the banquet address delivered by Dr. Jernigan last year, as well as other addresses he gave to the two conventions I have attended. I have also heard many recordings of his speeches. He never had to shout or rave to electrify an audience. His delivery was calm, and quite moderately paced. What made listening to him special was the conviction with which his speeches were delivered, the flawless structure of his speeches, and the message of hope they all conveyed. But most important of all, his speeches touched us all deeply.

I remember sitting with my sighted wife listening to a recording of a speech in which Dr. Jernigan read a letter from a sighted woman going out with a man named Jimmy. The letter he read expressed the frustration this woman felt about the way her blind boyfriend was treated. It was a sincere letter, and I have no doubt it was familiar to many couples where one person is blind and the other is sighted. My wife and I found ourselves hugging each other and crying. We knew the speech could have been talking about our own experiences.

Fourthly, he was an educator. He helped so many people to realize that blindness wasn't the insuperable barrier they thought it was. He did this through his work in the teaching and rehabilitation professions, through the Federation, and just through being Dr. Jernigan the role model and mentor. He educated the blind about blindness, and the sighted too. I know through reading the forewords to the Kernel Books that he was particularly proud of the difference this work was able to make in terms of changing attitudes on the part of the sighted.

I could go on for many pages yet, but let me draw this to a close. Dr. Jernigan, the world is so much a better place because you lived in it. Your writings taught me that I not only had a future, but as someone with skills in advocacy and writing I had a duty to hang in there and do my bit to ensure that the future got brighter for all of us. You taught us that there were times to be angry, and times when you shouldn't throw the nickel, times to march and times to negotiate. You taught us to believe in ourselves and that through organization and unity of purpose came first class citizenship. Thank you for your philosophy, your sense of strategy and your sense of proportion, your oratory, and your education and wisdom.

I would of course have sent a message of condolence on behalf of the blind of New Zealand, but in this case it was important for me personally to say so much more. We will mourn, but Dr. Jernigan's family, I'm sure, know that he was one of the great Americans of the 20th century. I extend my sympathy to Mrs. Jernigan and family, and to President Maurer as he leads the federation through what will be a time of deep sorrow, yet a time to celebrate the achievements of a truly remarkable human being.