Education: Skills Training for Blind Adults
As the Iowa School for the Blind changed its primary focus to the education of blind children and youth under the age of 19, training for Iowans who became blind as adults became the responsibility of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Founded in 1925, a central focus of the Commission was to provide vocational and trades training, either at home or in a centralized location, to adults and to market and sell the products produced by blind Iowans. The Commission employed Home Teachers who traveled the state to teach blind adults how to produce handcrafts that could be marketed and sold through the Commission. (Read More about Employment for Blind Iowans.) In addition to the Home Teachers, the Commission also offered a summer training program for blind adults.
Summer School Program (1927 - 1947)
The Commission organized the first six-week summer school for the vocational training of blind adults in 1927. The six-week summer school program was a training opportunity for blind Iowans between the ages of 21 and 60. That first summer school was to be held at the School for the Blind in Vinton from June 5 to July 13, 1927. The Commission set aside $4,000 for the summer school its first year. Mr. Palmer, the school superintendent, was given the authority to organize the activities and engage teachers. These summer programs focused on providing training in the handcrafts, like chair caning, basketry, and rug weaving. No mention of Braille or travel instruction was made. Summer school programs were held until the late 1940s. In 1947, the Commissioners decided not to hold the summer school again as they did not have enough students to warrant it and felt that it would be more economical to send interested persons to training centers in other states
Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center (1960 to present)
In 1960, a new skills training approach for blind adults was introduced at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. After the Second World War, a number of orientation and rehabilitation centers for blind adults were being established. Kenneth Jernigan, who was hired as the Director for the Commission in 1958, immediately began planning for such a center in Iowa. Finding the Commission’s facilities inadequate, Jernigan sought state funds to purchase the old YMCA building at Fourth and Keo way. He saw the building a perfect site for an adult Orientation and Adjustment Center. In 1960, the center opened with three students and two teachers. (The Center expanded to a residential program in 1961, once the agency had completed renovation to the building.)
The center focused on independent travel using the long white cane, industrial arts (initially for men only), home economics (initially for women only) and physical exercise, for which the YMCA's pool and gymnasium were well suited. A class that focused on "personal adjustment and attitudes about blindness" was meant to help students overcome feelings of helplessness that over-protective family members and others unintentionally instilled.
Another important, unique trait of this program was Jernigan’s belief that the "complex distinctions which are often made between those who have partial sight and those who are totally blind, between those who have been blind from childhood and those who have become blind as adults are largely meaningless." (Jernigan, "A Definition of Blindness." p.7.) Based on that belief, all individuals who attended the Center received the same training program, using sleep shades and a long white cane, regardless of their diagnosed visual acuity or perception. This approach ensured, and continues to do so, that all students gain the same level of confidence in their skills and attitude.
To reinforce the positive attitude about being blind, Orientation Center students participated in a number of field trips, such as hiking at state parks, water skiing, camping, cross-country skiing, horseback riding. No opportunities are lost due to blindness.
The Orientation Center continues to be operated by the Iowa Department for the Blind.
More resources are available in the Iowa Blind History archive, such as “Orientation Center: The Power to Control Your Life”.
Blind Iowans Talk about their Experiences as Orientation Center Students
Orientation Teachers Talks about Philosophy
To hear the full narrations, read transcripts, or find additional oral histories in which blind Iowans talk about their experiences at the Orientation Center, visit the Oral History page.
Jernigan, Kenneth. "A Definition of Blindness." Future Reflections: The National Federation of the Blind Magazine for Parents and Teachers of Blind Children. Vol. 24 No. 3. 2005. (Reprint from Blind American. Nov. 1962.) <http://www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr19/fr05sitc.htm>
Image #1 - Photo Labeled Summer Session in box 3, folder 25 of Iowa Blind History Archive.
Image #2 - Unlabeled photo from Iowa Blind History archive.
Image #3 - Unlabeled photo from Iowa Blind History archive.
Image #4 - Unlabeled photo from Iowa Blind History archive.
Image #5 - Caption "This blind man (left) learned his travel and other techniques at the Iowa Center. He now works in a neighboring state teaching other blind persons. He is shown here teaching travel methods with the new long cane." Iowa Blind History Archive