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Employment: Iowa Commission for the Blind 1925 -1958

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      picture of eight women sewing (various ages)"Miss Rand says to lay emphasis on the handwork of the blind rather than on reading. The sewing machine is a great thing for the blind. They can thread it, by means of a hook which passes through the eye of the needle. We must try and help the blind to do as many things as they can for themselves. It helps to make them independent." - Iowa Commission for the Blind Board Meeting Minutes (February 11, 1926)

      The Iowa Commission for the Blind was established by legislation passed on April 1, 1925. The legislation mandated that the Commission board should consist of the superintendent of the school for the blind and two members to be appointed by the Governor. The Commission was to establish a registry of blind persons in the state, market the products of blind workers, make home visits for instruction in trades, learn about and promote blindness prevention activities, provide trainings at centralized locations (workshops), and discourage begging. (Read the text of the legislation as recorded in the meeting minutes.)

      Laustrup, Carlos E., Council Blufss; Member Commission for the Blind. Born in Demark, December 26, 1880, came to Iowa in 1882 and has resided in Council Bluffs ever since. Educated in public school there, graduated from high school, went to Wyoming to take up ranching. Two years later met with an accident which caused the loss of sight. Went to the Iowa School for the Blind in 1900 where he studied piano tuning; started in the music business in 1909 and has had a music store ever since. Member of board of directors of Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce; retail merchants; member of Rotary Club 25 years. Term on the commission expires June 30, 1944The longest serving Commission board member was Carlos E. Laustrup. Mr. Laustrup was blinded as an adult and attended the school for the blind in Vinton where he was trained as a piano tuner. Upon graduation, he opened Laustrup Music Company in Council Bluffs. He served as a Commissioner from 1927 to 1950.

      The first Commission Board meeting was December 1, 1925. The Board members hired Miss Lotta Rand from the American Foundation for the Blind in New York on a temporary basis to guide and advise the newly formed Commission on its vocational-related activities. Mrs. Ethel T. Holmes was hired in January 1926 to serve as her assistant. Mrs. Holmes was later made the permanent Executive Secretary (Director) that same year; she remained in that position until 1957.

      As Miss Rand's advice shows, it was common for professionals working for blind Iowans to believe that certain types of occupations were suitable for the blind and others were not. As a result, many blind adults were trained in jobs that involved handwork or crafts.

      Prior to the 1950s, blind Iowans were often employed in home industries work or other "blind" trades, such as popcorn vending, piano tuning, or rug weaving.Picture of three men sitting at desks making mats - location unknown Some were employed in sheltered workshops. The Commission for the Blind's board meeting minutes show that it often purchased equipment and loaned or leased it to blind Iowans so that they could run a small business that would bring in supplemental income. Notably, this equipment was limited to businesses involving craft or handwork, such as popcorn vending, woodworking, and rug weaving. The first mention of purchasing equipment was during a January 11, 1927 board meeting: "The Executive Secretary was authorized to purchase a popcorn wagon at $65.15 for the use of Richard Wheeldon, intelligent blind man of Des Moines who has shown great initiative in carrying on, Mr. Wheeldon in turn to buy the wagon on installments from the Commission."

      Holmes, Ethel Towne, Des Moines; Secretary Commission for the Blind; Born in Pella, Iowa, moved at early age to Des Moines. Educated in the Des Moines public schools, received A.B. degree from Grinnell college. Attended Capitol City Commercial College in Des Moines. During the World war, had charge of the Hostess House at Camp Dodge. Secretarial position in Washington, D.C., for two years. Became executive secretary for the Commission for the Blind when it was created in 1926. In connection with the work of the commission, superintends a summer training school for the adult blind in Vinton each year.At that same meeting, the Executive Secretary (Mrs. Ethel Holmes) was authorized to spend $400 to purchase wood and a lathe for a Mr. Hurlbut of Muscatine. The items were to remain the property of the Commission. (A note written in pencil indicates that upon his death the lathe was loaned indefinitely to the School for the Blind.)

      In 1927, the Commission organized a six-week summer school program for blind adults between the ages of 21 and 60. The summer school was 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. This summer program focused on providing training in handcrafts, like chair caning, basketry, and rug weaving. No mention of Braille or travel instruction was made. These 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.

      In a limited capacity, the Commission supported those seeking employment outside of the traditional blind occupations by providing small loans to blind Iowans who were attending college. The April 1933 board meeting minutes note that Mrs. Holmes visited William Haley who was to graduate from law at the University of Iowa and made arrangements for the purchase of books and equipment up to $300; the money was to be paid back within two years at the rate of 3% interest. In the late 1930s, the Commission began to explore ways to obtain or transcribe college books into Braille through the American Printing House for the Blind or through a federal Works Project Administration (WPA) transcription project.

      In 1931, the Library of Congress established the program that would become the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH). By 1933, the program began producing books in Braille and the "new" talking book, audio books on long-playing records. In 1936, the Commission received 99 talking books. Because of their limited availability, discussion at the time centered on the distribution of the books to those who would most benefit from them. The Commission did not focus on the acquisition or distribution of talking books or books in Braille until after 1958.

      As was its mandate, the Commission's primary employment-related activities between the years of 1925 to the late 1950s focused on training blind Iowans in the production of a variety of handcraft items, the loaning and leasing of tools and equipment needed to produce the handcrafted items, and the marketing and selling of those items through its Home Industries program. Beginning in the late 1940s, blind advocates across the nation began criticizing the services provided by agencies for the blind. Mrs. Holmes noted in the June 25, 1947 board meeting minutes that the director of the Nebraska agency for the blind was dismissed after a survey by the American Foundation for the Blind found their services inadequate. The Commission changed its focus to assisting blind Iowans find competitive employment in a variety of jobs in the 1950s as a result of new federal Vocational Rehabilitation laws, increasing pressure from blind advocates, and a change in agency leadership.

      Image #1 unlabeled photo in box 3, folder 25 of Iowa Blind History Archive.

      Image #2: Carlos E. Laustrup from the Iowa Official Register - 1943-1944, Sherman W. Needham (Editor) published by the State of Iowa.

      Image #3 Unlabeled photo in box 3, folder 25 of Iowa Blind History Archive.

      Image #4: Ethel Holmes from the Iowa Official Register - 1943-1944, Sherman W. Needham (Editor) published by the State of Iowa.

      The Commission Board Meeting minutes are included in the Iowa Blind History archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.