Progress for the blind: it's a slow revolution

``Until this century it was considered a shame to have a disabled person in the home,'' says Peggy Pinder. ``Until this century it was rare for disabled persons to get together; almost impossible. From a sheerly physical point of view, disabled people were riven. You didn't want to be around anyone that was like you, because it was bad enough to be like you.'' But things have changed - slowly. In the 1920s, the use of guide dogs brought mobility to the blind. But the dogs were barred from many public buildings, such as restaurants. In the '40s, federal legislation gave blind people and their dogs access to public places. But only in the '60s had all the states passed some version of it. In 1950, civil service jobs opened up to the blind. Teaching has been opening up, state by state, since the '50s. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating against the disabled; passed in 1973 and put in effect in 1977, it was a major victory for all disabled. The Education of Handicapped Children Act in 1975 mandated placing blind children in regular classrooms.

Much of this progress is due to the activism of the National Federation of the Blind, started in 1940 by Dr. Jacobus TenBroek, a legal scholar who was blind. ``He brought about a change from revulsion in our own condition to the belief that we can contribute to our own community and by that make the community and the whole world better,'' says Ms. Pinder.

Today the federation, with 50,000 members, is the largest organization representing any one disabled group.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, immediate past president of the federation, says the blind are in the third stage of their civil rights battle. ``It was the task of the first generation of our movement to deal with hunger; it has been the task of the second generation to deal with jobs; it will be the task of the third generation to deal with civil rights.''

This combative stage, he says, as in any of the earlier civil rights movements, is the one that makes other people the most uncomfortable. ``No group has ever gone from second class to first class without incurring some hostility,'' he says.

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