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Employment: Commission (Department) for the Blind's Employment Activities After 1958

Primary Tasks

    Secondary Tasks

      pictures of men & women in variety of jobs and activities; jernigan in center of photo collage"The real problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exists.  If a blind person has proper training, and if he has opportunity, blindness is only a physical nuisance." (1959 Iowa Commission for the Blind Annual Report, p. 6.)

      Starting in the 1950s, the Commission changed its focus from providing trades training and selling goods made by blind Iowans to assisting blind Iowans in finding competitive employment in a variety of jobs. This change came about because of new federal Vocational Rehabilitation laws and because of new agency leadership.

      Legislative Changes

      The federal government had been providing funds to states for the vocational rehabilitation of persons with disabilities since World War I. The first federally mandated vocational rehabilitation programs focused on services to physically disabled veterans only.  In 1920, the Smith-Fess Act expanded vocational programs to include civilians with physical disabilities.  However, blind individuals were excluded from these federal and state programs, as it was felt they would not benefit from the services. World War II forced the nation to find ways for the blind to contribute to the war effort and to rehabilitate soldiers blinded during the war. In response, Congress passed the Barden-LaFollette Act in 1943. The Barden-LaFollette Act for the first time made funds available to states to provide vocational rehabilitation services to the blind to the extent necessary to achieve vocational rehabilitation. The goal of this legislation was first, to enable the blind to contribute to wartime production and second, to help them become employable after the war. (Learn how WWII also changed cane travel training for blind Americans.)

      Advocacy Activities

      The 1940s also witnessed the rise of new advocacy activities by blind individuals. Dr. Newel Perry, a founder of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), promoted a “social model of disability”. In this view, individuals who are blind are seen as a minority in society who faced discrimination because of their blindness. The NFB and supporters of this model believed that rehabilitation programs as they existed would not bring social equality.  Instead, they believed that blind individuals and society-at-large needed to acknowledge that blind individuals simply utilized different means to accomplish daily tasks. It was their belief that blind individuals had the same right to educational and employment opportunities as the sighted, as well as the right to participate in all civic and social functions.

      Vocational Changes in Iowa

      The Commission had begun looking for a new leader to improve its program after the retirement of its long-time director (Ethel Holmes) and a 1957 study revealed that the Commission was last in in the nation in terms of employment placement and training for its clients.

      According to the Commission’s 1960 Annual Report, a survey conducted by the federal Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in 1957 indicated that over 800 blind people in Iowa were capable of employment. Yet, that same report showed that only twelve blind Iowans were placed in employment outside of the Home Industries program. Most of these were in sub-standard employment and required additional support either from public funds or families. Those participating in the blind vendors program were earning an average of $105 a month. The agency had a list of 4,000 blind Iowans, many of whom were in need of services. A staff of five professionals and three clerical personnel and a limited budget were to meet these needs.

      In the late 1940s and early 1950s, NFB president Jacobus tenBroek was looking for a way to spread the NFB philosophy, which promoted self-respect, dignity, confidence, and first-class citizenship, across the nation. Kenneth Jernigan was a member of the NFB's executive committee in 1952 and was a willing partner of Dr. tenBroek on this effort. An accidental meeting between Kenneth Jernigan and an Iowa Commission for the Blind board member on an airplane led to an offer for Jernigan to become the Commission’s director. Jernigan saw this offer as an opportunity to prove the NFB’s approach in regards to the vocational rehabilitation of blind people. (Mr. Jim Witte discusses Jernigan's move to Iowa.)

      When Kenneth Jernigan was hired as its director in 1958 he began creating a rehabilitation program based upon a “positive” philosophy of blindness. He came to Iowa specifically to test whether the NFB’s philosophical approach to training blind individuals was valid. The “Iowa Experiment” or “Iowa Model” was based on the belief that blindness is a simply characteristic and, if properly taught alternative techniques, the blind could do many of the same tasks as those with sight. This approach was “consumer based,” one where the blind individual’s choices and decisions were given priority. The model focused on teaching alternative skills (Braille, cane travel, etc.), not on trades training as had been the practice of the agency in the past. His new programs were designed to push blind Iowans to question their assumptions about their own capabilities, confront society’s stereotypical attitude toward blindness, and encourage self-confidence.  This new philosophical approach would be implemented in employment placement activities and in new training classes taught to adults in the Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center.

      Read Assessments of the State of the Commission in 1958 -59  in documents prepared by Malcolm Jasper for Kenneth Jernigan and reports prepared by Jernigan to Commission Board and Governor Herschel Loveless. (Malcolm Jasper served briefly as director of the Commission after Mrs. Holmes' retirement in 1957.) As the assessments demonstrate, the Commission for the Blind's services and funds were quite inadequate at the time.

      Read letters supporting efforts to establish the Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center by a variety of persons across the state. In particular, the Lions Clubs provided strong support for Jernigan's efforts.

      New Employment Opportunities

      photos of three blind individuals workingThe effectiveness of his approach became apparent by the end of 1959, one full fiscal year after Jernigan's arrival. Twenty-six blind individuals were placed in employment, with 20 of those in competitive employment. A blind vendor's average monthly earnings rose to $120. He received a $125,000 increase to the agency's budget and had hired a staff of thirteen professionals and six clerical personnel.

      In 1959, the first blind Iowan was hired as a teacher in a public school in Coralville, Iowa. That same year, the adult Orientation and Adjustment Center opened with three students and two teachers. (The Orientation Center expanded to a residential program in 1961 once the agency had the capacity and facility to implement it.)

      In the ensuing years, the agency's staff focused on providing confidence building and skills training in its Orientation Center, assisting blind and visually impaired Iowans in finding jobs and careers that matched their skills and interests, and providing access to information in Braille and audio formats through its greatly expanded library services. (In 1980, the agency began providing independent living services to elderly blind and multiply-disabled blind persons.)

      Blind persons began working in a wider variety of jobs. Through training in alternative skills of blindness and the use of a host of creative and technological accommodations, blind Iowans have been employed as welders, engineers, physicians, sales persons, teachers, mathematicians, dishwashers, business owners, etc. As noted in an annual report, the agency shifted the question from "what can I no longer do now that I'm blind" to "how can I do what I need to now that I'm blind."

      picture of female operatorWhen Dr. Jernigan left the Iowa Department for the Blind in 1978, it had a staff of over 120, offices established in Sioux City, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, and thousands of Iowans were being served by the agency. Twenty-seven vending facilities were established throughout the state, with an average annual income to blind vendors of $10,200.

      The Department for the Blind continues to base its employment and training activities on the model implemented by Kenneth Jernigan. The Vocational Rehabilitation, Orientation Center, Library, Vending, and Independent Living programs have expanded through the years, continuing to be shaped by both legislative changes and the needs and advocacy efforts of blind and visually impaired Iowans. The Department serves approximately 10,000 blind and visually impaired Iowans each year. You can learn more about the Department for the Blind by visiting its web site:

      Picture - male office worker reading Braille and writing with slate & stylus

      Visually Impaired Teacher blind office worker




      Bruno D'Alonzo; Gerard Giordano; Wayne Oyenque. “Vocational Rehabilitation: The First 50 Years,” American Rehabilitation 21 (3-4) (1995).

      Image #1 Cover of Iowa Commission for the Blind 1967 Annual Report from box 6 folder 12 in Iowa Blind History Archive. Images top row - left to right: blind teacher in public school (female), blind beekeeper (male), blind restaurant operator (male). Images second row - left to right: blind computer programmer (male), Kenneth Jerningan, text "Opportunity!" Images third row - left to right: two male students in Orientation Center carrying canoe, blind meat packing plant worker (male), blind man walking with white cane.

      Image #2 Cover of Iowa Commission for the Blind publication on the employment of blind persons in Iowa. Publication date circa 1972. Publication from box 2 in Iowa Blind History Archive.

      Image #3 Page from "Belief" the 1973 Annual Report of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Images and captions from top to bottom: blind woman combing a person's hair with caption "A blind person can be a successful beautician. This woman proves it. Is she really blind? Yes, totally. She is a homemaker, and she performs all aspects of cosmetology. She is happy - and so, apparently, are her customers. Performance, not just BELIEF; blind man walking outside of NASA building with caption "Blind - assisted by Commission - graduate degree, math major, Iowa State University - during fiscal year 1973 received permanent status appointment: Aerospace Technician, Data Analyst, Aerothermo-dynamics Section, Thermotechnology Division, Structures and Mechanics Branch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Houston, Texas; blind man loading dishes into industrial dishwasher with caption "Kitchen helper - dishwasher. Employed full time in hospital. Earns his own way. Training, determination, work, BELIEF." Publication from box 6 in Iowa Blind History Archive.

      Image #4 unlabeled photo from box 3, folder 25 in Iowa Blind History Archive.

      Image #5 unlabeled photo dated circa 1980 from box 6, folder 25 in Iowa Blind History Archive.

      Image #6 unlabeled digital photo dated circa 2009 - property Iowa Department for the Blind.

      Image #7 unlabeled digital photo circa 2009 - property Iowa Department for the Blind.


      Read more about the revolutionary model and changes implemented by Kenneth Jernigan.