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I believe that we as blind people are capable of competing on terms of real equality with others in jobs. I believe that the reason we have not done so in the past is that society has custodialized us and held us down. But I believe also that this has not happened because society has wanted to be vicious or unkind or mean. It is because people have taken for granted that that’s the way blind people are, that blind persons can’t be expected to do this or that kind of thing. Kenneth Jernigan in The Master, The Mission, The Movement, p. 58. (Jernigan served as the Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind from 1958 to1978.)
Like other Iowans, blind Iowans have sought jobs and employment opportunities that would allow them to be self-sufficient and contributing members of their community. They pursued careers that reflected their interests and talents. Some found great success as lawyers, business owners, political leaders, doctors, teachers, farmers, and more. Some managed to provide for themselves and live a satisfying life despite limited opportunities available to them.
Blind Iowans faced limited opportunities because, for many years, individuals who were blind were considered to be unemployable in the general workforce. Assumptions and misconceptions about blindness led policymakers, educators, business owners, and family members to believe that blind adults could neither work at the same level as their sighted peers nor contribute to a company's business. The belief in the limitations of blind workers impacted employment-related legislation, educational practices, and even financial and insurance policies. For many blind Iowans, these barriers often resulted in restricted educational and training opportunities in pursuing a career, limited employment options, and financial hardship.
Early Efforts in Iowa
Efforts to develop employment opportunities for blind adults in Iowa began with the founding of the school for the blind in 1853. The school provided both an academic education on topics ranging from geography to music and vocational and trades training in weaving, broom making, chair caning, needle work, and beadwork. Throughout the late 1800s to mid-1900s, formalized vocational training for the blind centered on handicraft occupations, such as those taught at the school. These trades became such a prevalent occupation for blind adults that they are often referred to as the “blind trades”. The intention was that a blind person could learn these skills and set up a business selling their wares in their own community or work for a manufacturer or workshop. Some state government and private funds were used to establish homes where blind adults could work and receive shelter. Most notable among these efforts were the Industrial Home for the Blind in Knoxville (1892-1901) and the Iowa Home for Sightless Women in Des Moines (1915-1967).
The Iowa legislature began to address the vocational needs of blind adults statewide with the establishment in 1925 of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. (Read about Helen Keller's visit to Iowa to support the establishment of the commission.) The purpose of this state agency prior to the 1950s was to establish a registry of blind persons in the state, market the products of blind workers, make home visits for instruction in rug weaving, sewing or other trade, learn about and promote blindness prevention activities, provide trainings at centralized locations (workshops), and discourage begging.
Between the years of 1925 and 1958, the Commission for the Blind followed the vocational model set forth by previous generations, with most activities focused on providing opportunities in the “blind trades,” such as popcorn vending, furniture making, weaving, and handcrafts. The Commission’s Home Industries program provided raw materials for making handcraft items in one’s own home and then the Commission marketed and sold the resulting products. Some assistance with employment pursuits beyond these trades was available; however, it was so limited that blind Iowans who wanted a career more aligned with their interests and abilities had no resource for relevant training or assistance.
Learn more about the Iowa Commission for the Blind Vocational Activities: 1925-1958, the Home Industries Program, and Sheltered Workshops.
Expanding Opportunities: 1950s and Beyond
Economic realities resulting from World War II and social changes advanced by blind and disabled advocates in the 1960s and 1970s brought new and revised federal and state legislation that impacted employment practices at the Commission for the Blind. The Barden-LaFollette Act of 1943 provided the first federal funds for the vocational rehabilitation of blind adults as the country saw a need to increase the labor pool in factories and to provide training to soldiers who were blinded in the war. Revisions to the federal Randolph-Sheppard Act (1936) and Iowa’s little Randolph-Sheppard Act (1969) allowed blind Iowans to establish and run their own vending sites and cafeterias in federal and state properties.
Equally as important was the advocacy of blind organizations and blind persons to fight discrimination and improve the employment opportunities for all blind Americans. Iowa was a center of advocacy activities during this time. In 1958, under the leadership of Kenneth Jernigan, the agency's work moved from one that provided limited vocational training to one that focused on skills and confidence building while simultaneously assisting blind Iowans in finding jobs outside of the traditional blind occupations. The agency adopted the philosophy that the average blind person could work in the average job or career if he or she has the proper training and opportunity.
Blind Iowans Talk about Their Employment Experiences
In the excerpts below, blind Iowans talk about jobs they have held and their experiences in developing alternative techniques and in encountering discrimination.
To hear the full narrations, read transcripts, or find additional oral histories in which blind Iowans talk about employment, visit the Oral History page.
Image #1 unlabeled photo from box 3, folder 25 in Iowa Blind History Archive.
Image #2 labeled on back of photo: Don Morris, 1969, NWB Employee (Northwestern Bell Company)
The Iowa Blind History archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind has an extensive collection of annual reports, newspaper articles, and other items related to the employment of blind and visually impaired Iowans.