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Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?

By Nancy Burns, past NFBCA President

The state of California boasts the proud beginnings of much of the rich leadership of this great Federation. The history of the NFB of California is rooted in the dynamic thinking and incalculable contributions of Dr. Newel Perry (1873-1961) and Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (1911-1968). These two brilliant leaders laid the groundwork for the establishment of the National Federation of the Blind, the organization that has become the strongest force in the field of blindness.

During the 1940s, and the following decades, associations of blind people were sprouting up in several states. Most of these were formed as a result of alumni associations from the residential schools for the blind. Perry was instrumental in this movement.

The California Council of the Blind (CCB) was established in 1934 by Perry—educator, mathematician and mentor of tenBroek. The NFB was established by tenBroek in 1940. The CCB changed its name to the NFB of California in October of 1971 because of the earlier encouragement of tenBroek, who had realized the advantage of a common name throughout the United States. The organizing meeting of the NFB was attended by blind people from seven states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and California. At the time, the forward-thinking tenBroek was teaching law at the University of Chicago. His crusade was to bring a united voice to the blind population.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s a group of dissidents splintered away from the NFB and became the California affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. A lengthy legal battle resulted in the name California Council of the Blind being given to the California affiliate of this dissident faction. The NFB was victorious in maintaining national continuity by the use of the name National Federation of the Blind of California.

In the early days of the Federation, important social issues were at stake. Blind people were generally classified as indigents and paupers. tenBroek saw the need for collective action and he chose to take a stand. He knew that, individually, the blind population would have no power, but he espoused that “collectively, we are the masters of our own future and the successful guardian of our own common interests.” Because of his decision, and the organization that resulted, we as blind people have spent the past six decades speaking with one united voice. The NFB has become the strongest force in the field of blindness.

In the year, 1952 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan (1926-1998) was elected to the national board of the Federation. He served as president from 1968 to  1986. In his final banquet speech, “The Day After Civil Rights,” delivered July 4, 1997, Jernigan divided the Federation history into four stages. tenBroek successfully led stage one to simply create programs to provide food and the bare necessities of life for blind people. It was then possible, related Jernigan, to focus on training and employment. Numerous challenges were met and progress gained during this, the second stage. “Civil rights” was the name given to the third stage. “There is still something else,” Jernigan said, “the search for self-esteem and equal treatment–the yearning to belong and participate—to be part of the family and the broader community. And for us, as for other minorities, there was only one way to get there—confrontation. The status quo always fights change.” To bring civil rights to the blind we had to picket, march, initiate court cases, and much more. Jernigan described this stage as imposing an “in-your-face attitude.” These three stages laid the groundwork for stage four, “the day after civil rights.” This stage was succinctly described by Jernigan as “equal rights—equal responsibility.”

The Jernigan administration launched the Federation into a new era of education. The goal to educate the sighted, as well as the blind, was enhanced by the creation of Kernel books in 1991. Jernigan explained that these books were to “carry a message without being so preachy that nobody will read them, and…entertaining without blurring the purpose.” The Jernigan administration did this and much, much more. A warehouse building in the south Federal Hill area of Baltimore was transformed into the National Center for the Blind. Leadership seminars, technology training, the aids and appliances program, public service announcements and the International Braille and Technology Center evolved within this center. In addition, the Voice of the Diabetic and Future Reflections began publication. Three NFB residential training centers were established.

Dr. Marc Maurer, elected as national president in 1986, gave his first banquet address in Phoenix at the 1987 convention. He spoke honestly of his past and revealed his visions for the future. Ensconced in the philosophical foundations laid by tenBroek and Jernigan, Maurer projected a renewed enthusiasm. Maurer, in his 1999 banquet speech, “The Mental Discipline of the Movement,” predicted that we would probably be misunderstood and misrepresented by those opposing our purposes and efforts.  He further stated that we would certainly meet with challenges but that we would not waver in reaching our goals. President Maurer spoke of the integration of Federationists into the media and scientific communities and as directors of programs for the blind. In his words, “Today we have more colleagues and more friends than ever before in history. And, of the greatest importance, we have each other. We have the Federation in all its depth and strength—and who could ask for more?”

During Maurer’s administration, national programs have grown and new ones have developed. In early 2004 the NFB Jernigan Institute was realized with a gigantic ribbon-cutting ceremony.

California has played an important role in all of this progress. NFBCA members have served on national committees, including the Research and Development and Scholarship committees. We chartered buses and led NAC demonstrations in several states. We have supported national legislation by sending representatives to Washington, D.C. each year. California has contributed mightily to the financial efforts of our national headquarters.

As a result of a convention resolution passed during the administration of Jim Willows, California has successfully passed Braille literacy legislation. As a follow-up to this legislation the NFBCA sponsored legislation establishing a task force which would create Braille reading and math standards. This project will be completed and presented to the California Department of Education on March 1, 2006.  These standards have been written to be closely aligned with the standards used for sighted students in California public schools.  President Nancy Burns served as co-chair of this task force.  Burns stated that “The NFBCA has long been concerned with the quality of education received by blind and visually impaired students.  Because of these concerns, this organization has sponsored Braille literacy legislation.”

California’s leading edge legislative efforts have improved the lives of people who are blind and vision impaired, particularly in the areas of Braille literacy and non-visual accessibility.  California governors have signed bills which created audible ticketing machines for public transportation, accessible voting machines and established laws which pave the way for the installation of accessible point-of-sale machines.

The NFBCA has modified the Braille is Beautiful program which was  created by the NFB, and has oriented it toward parents of blind children. These Beginning Braille for Parents workshops have been presented both in English and Spanish. This has been a continuation of our efforts to create a more positive attitude about Braille and to emphasize its importance to parents. These workshops have been well received.

Since her election in 2001 president Burns has recreated and edited the NFBCA Journal.  The following is a list of informational handouts created by the NFBCA:  “What is the NFB of California”, “Braille Literacy”, “You Need to Know What Blindness is Not”, “White Cane Laws”, and “Gift Giving.”  As a continuing effort to focus on Braille literacy, several Braille Symposiums have been presented around the state.

We continually advocate for the rights of students, parents, seniors and other blind people. We oppose the efforts of those who consider blind people to be dependent upon audible signals at every intersection and truncated domes at every curb ramp. Our thrust is independence for blind people as opposed to dependence imposed by others. The NFB of California proudly carries on the tradition brought about by Dr. Newel Perry and Jacobus tenBroek and expanded by presidents Jernigan and Maurer.


  • Walking Alone and Marching Together, Copyright 1990, National Federation of the Blind, p. 8, 14, 16.
  • “The Day After Civil Rights,” an address delivered by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, at the banquet of the Annual Convention of the NFB, New Orleans, Louisiana, July 4, 1997.
  • “The Mental Discipline of the Movement”, an address delivered by Dr. Marc Maurer, at the banquet of the Annual Convention of the NFB, Atlanta, Georgia, July 5, 1999.
  • “The Challenges of Tomorrow” an address delivered by Nancy Burns at the 2004 Braille Symposium held in Burbank, CA
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