Current location:

You are here


Primary Tasks

    Secondary Tasks

      Editing Status: 
      Breadcrumb Location: 
      Charting History: IDB collects stories for history of blindness project

      When I entered school, I was not particularly embarrassed to enter first grade almost old enough for junior high, for there were teen-agers in the class…so many entered school so late, because of the lack of information regarding the school and encouragement to enter. I recall one graduating class that ranged in ages from eighteen to thirty. The extension of the privilege to continue in school had to be granted more often than not, but I think in earlier days that fact was just understood. ~ Lois Tiberghien (class of 1910) remembers attending the Iowa College for the Blind, now known as the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School (IBSSS) in Vinton, IA.


      Circumstances have changed for the blind community since Lois Tiberghien attended school more than a century ago, not least of which is expansion of services for the blind. Since 1910, numerous historic moments related to legislation, education, family life, work, and leisure activities have affected the blind in Iowa. Just as Lois Tiberghien recorded part of her history , the Iowa Department for the Blind is embarking on an oral history project to document the history of blindness in Iowa through the personal stories of Iowans just like you.

      Through the winter IDB staff and volunteers are collecting live interviews and written submissions from blind, deaf-blind, or visually impaired Iowans and other individuals associated with the blind community in Iowa. The intention is to collect, document and preserve personal stories related to the history of blindness in Iowa going back 70 to 80 years. IDB Director Karen Keninger initiated this project as she has “always been interested in people’s personal stories, and blind people in Iowa have rich and fascinating stories to tell.” The project will be unveiled in late summer.


      We stayed within the self-contained classroom exclusively until 5th and 6th grade when we visited a social studies class, without doing any of the work. I had no meaningful contact with sighted students in the school. Since mobility training was in its infancy during that time, none of the children received any cane training. That left me to move around in familiar places, or go sighted guide with others. I didn’t mind that so much as an elementary student. However, as a teenager, that all changed. ~ Mary Wilmeth recalls growing up blind with limited services in the 1950s.


      Through these stories, we have already begun to unravel how much an everyday occurrence (such as a work or educational experience) can tell us how attitudes and opportunities have changed for the blind community.


      Initially I was able to use large print successfully and even actually before that regular print was O.K., but about that time was also the time that regular textbooks transitioned from a little larger print to smaller print and that was the time that my vision changed. So, I began to use large print books, books on tape and going into high school. I couldn’t read large print books quickly enough to get the information digested so I had live readers then who would read some of that material to me...and I got the feeling that I always did well in school and even though I spent hours and hours in the evenings doing my homework, people looked at my grades and not at my efficiency. And so I remember having just a little hint of Braille suggested, but that wasn’t actually until I was in college. So, in high school I didn’t have any Braille instruction. ~ Kristal Platt reflects on the various reading methods she used in school in the 1980s.


      A potential contributor may think his or her experience is too ordinary. Yet, think about how the documentaries or stories from other communities have generated amusement, enlightenment and deeper understanding of a topic. All contributed stories will become part of a project intended to evoke that same reaction from its audience.


      I was enrolled into the Rehabilitation Center in Des Moines where I spent 13 months learning cane travel, Braille, typing, and self help skills, like cooking, cleaning, and personal grooming.  I also learned self-confidence skills of woodworking and auto mechanics.  My time at the Center was very beneficial in that I was counseled and taught techniques that put me back on course to going to college as I was planning after high school. ~Anthony Balik recalls his experience at the Orientation Center from 1962-1963.


      While Balik’s memory came from his time spent in the Department’s Orientation Center, Keninger and other project coordinators are looking for stories related to blindness in Iowa, such as a first job experience, what it was like raising a family as a blind, deaf-blind, or visually impaired person, different uses for assistive technology or changes experienced in attitudes toward or within the blind community. No story will be turned away as long as it is on topic.

      It may be hard to think of your story as “history,” because after all, you’re still living it. However, history is alive and it’s always changing and expanding. Too much of history has been lost or forgotten because no one thought it was important enough to record. This is what makes this project and your personal stories so important. Keninger says, “Blind and visually impaired people live rich and interesting lives. Iowa has been a test bed for social change around blindness, and is, I think, truly historically significant in that regard. The results of these changes play out in people’s everyday lives.”

      Once all the stories are collected and compiled, the oral history will be made available to the public.

      Through money obtained by a Humanities Iowa grant, the project will have its own website, and coordinators will develop a traveling exhibit that will visit a number of libraries around Iowa. The Department will also host a lecture presented by Keninger on the project and its findings and an open house to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the Department’s pivotal role in the history of blindness in Iowa. Each of these will be designed in an engaging and varied format, in order to educate as many Iowans as possible.

      Submit a Story!

      Whether you are blind, have a blind family member, or have been involved with the blind community, we encourage you to share your unique story.

      Submit your stories by e-mail or regular mail in audio, print, or Braille to:


      History of Blindness in Iowa Attn: Shan Sasser
      Iowa Department for the Blind
      524 Fourth Street
      Des Moines, IA 50309

      You can also record a five-minute story to a voice mail box at: 877-742-4938.

      With any story you submit please give your name and contact information. If possible, submit your story by February.

      All stories submitted to this project will become a part of a History of Blindness collection owned by the Iowa Department for the Blind. By submitting your story, you will grant IDB all legal title and all literary property rights. IDB will have an unrestricted license to use your recording, and all the information which it contains, in any manner the IDB may wish to use it, for as long as the IDB wishes to use it.

      This project is supported in part by the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historical Resource Development Program and the Friends of the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.


      IDB building lands on national register of historic places

      The building that houses the Iowa Department for the Blind in downtown Des Moines has been placed on the National Register for Historic Places for significance within Iowa because of the important role it has played in the rehabilitation of blind individuals. Work is underway to upgrade that status to national significance.

      The building, located at 524 Fourth St., was built in 1912 as Des Moines’ original YMCA. The State purchased the building for the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1959 after the YMCA moved to its present location along the Des Moines River.

      The building was an integral part of the visionary philosophy of the Commission’s new director, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who transformed services for blind Iowans into what became known as the Iowa Model for rehabilitation services.

      Through his work in Iowa, Jernigan became a national figure in the fight for civil rights for the blind. The National Park Service, which oversees the National Register, selected the Department’s building for its role as the place where Jernigan first implemented his training model and directed the movement.

      “Our building has housed more than just history,” said IDB Director Karen Keninger. “It is the fulcrum for the notion that it’s OK to be blind— an idea that Jernigan set in motion and continues to echo through these walls each day.”