Why Do We Fear the Blind?
By ROSEMARY MAHONEYJAN
BRISTOL, R.I. — A FEW years ago, when I mentioned to a woman I met at a party that I was teaching in a school for the blind, she seemed confused. “Can I just ask you one question?” she said. “How do you talk to your students?”
I explained that the students were blind, not deaf. Raising the palms of her hands at me, as if to stem further misunderstanding, she said: “Yes, I know they’re not deaf. But what I really mean is, how do you actually talk to them?”
I knew, because I had been asked this question before by reasonably intelligent people, that the woman didn’t know exactly what she meant. All she knew was that in her mind there existed a substantial intellectual barrier between the blind and the sighted. The blind could hear, yes. But could they properly understand?
Throughout history and across cultures the blind have been traduced by a host of mythologies such as this. They have variously been perceived as pitiable idiots incapable of learning, as artful masters of deception or as mystics possessed of supernatural powers.
One of the most persistent misconceptions about blindness is that it is a curse from God for misdeeds perpetrated in a past life, which cloaks the blind person in spiritual darkness and makes him not just dangerous but evil.
A majority of my blind students at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Trivandrum, India, a branch of Braille Without Borders, came from the developing world: Madagascar, Colombia, Tibet, Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Nepal and India.
One of my students, the 27-year-old Sahr, lost most of his eyesight to measles when he was a child. (Like many children in rural West Africa, Sahr had not been vaccinated.) The residents of Sahr’s village were certain that his blindness — surely the result of witchcraft or immoral actions on his family’s part — would adversely affect the entire village. They surrounded his house and shouted threats and abuse. They confiscated a considerable portion of his parents’ land. Eventually, the elders decreed that Sahr’s father must take the child out to the bush, “where the demons live,” and abandon him there. The parents refused and fled the village with their son.
Many of my students had similar experiences. Marco’s parents, devout Colombian Catholics, begged a priest to say a Mass so that their blind infant son would die before his existence brought shame and hardship on their household. The villagers in Kyile’s remote Tibetan village insisted that she, her two blind brothers and their blind father should all just commit suicide because they were nothing but a burden to the sighted members of the family. When, as a child in Sierra Leone, James began to see objects upside down because of an ocular disease, the villagers were certain that he was possessed by demons.
In these places, schools for blind children were deemed a preposterous waste of resources and effort. Teachers in regular schools refused to educate them. Sighted children ridiculed them, tricked them, spat at them and threw stones at them. And when they reached working age, no one would hire them.
During a visit to the Braille Without Borders training center in Tibet, I met blind children who had been beaten, told they were idiots, locked in rooms for years on end and abandoned by their parents. These stories, which would have been commonplace in the Dark Ages, took place in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. They are taking place now.
Nine out of 10 blind children in the developing world still have no access to education, many for no other reason than that they are blind.
The United States has one of the lowest rates of visual impairment in the world, and yet blindness is still among the most feared physical afflictions. Even in this country, the blind are perceived as a people apart.
Aversion toward the blind exists for the same reason that most prejudices exist: lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a powerful generator of fear. And fear slides easily into aggression and contempt.
Anyone who has not spent more than five minutes with a blind person might be forgiven for believing — like the woman I met at the party — that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and them.
For most of us, sight is the primary way we interpret the world. How can we even begin to conceive of a meaningful connection with a person who cannot see?
Before I began living and working among blind people, I, too, wondered this. Whenever I saw a blind person on the street I would stare, transfixed, hoping, out of a vague and visceral discomfort, that I wouldn’t have to engage with him.
In his 1930 book “The World of the Blind,” Pierre Villey, a blind French professor of literature, summarized the lurid carnival of prejudices and superstitions about the blind that were passed down the centuries. “The sighted person judges the blind not for what they are but by the fear blindness inspires. … The revolt of his sensibility in the face of ‘the most atrocious of maladies’ fills a sighted person with prejudice and gives rise to a thousand legends.”
The blind author Georgina Kleege, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, more tersely wrote, “The blind are either supernatural or subhuman, alien or animal.”
WE take our eyesight so much for granted, cling to it so slavishly and are so overwhelmed by its superficial data, that even the most brilliant sighted person can take a stupidly long time to recognize the obvious: There is usually a perfectly healthy, active and normal human mind behind that pair of unseeing eyes.
Christopher Hitchens called blindness “one of the oldest and most tragic disorders known to man.” How horribly excluded and bereft we would feel to lose the world and the way of life that sight brings us.
Blindness can happen to any one of us. Myself, I used to be certain I’d rather die than be blind; I could not imagine how I would have the strength to go on in the face of such a loss.
And yet people do.
In 1749, the French philosopher Denis Diderot published an essay, “Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See,” in which he described a visit he and a friend made to the house of a blind man, the son of a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. The blind man was married, had a son, had many acquaintances, was versed in chemistry and botany, could read and write with an alphabet of raised type and made his living distilling liqueurs. Diderot wrote with wonder of the man’s “good solid sense,” of his tidiness, of his “surprising memory for sounds” and voices, of his ability to tell the weight of any object and the capacity of any vessel just by holding them in his hands, of his ability to dismantle and reassemble small machines, of his musical acuity and of his extreme sensitivity to atmospheric change.
The blind man, perhaps weary of being interrogated by Diderot and his friend as if he were a circus animal, eventually asked them a question of his own. “I perceive, gentlemen, that you are not blind. You are astonished at what I do, and why not as much at my speaking?”
More than any of his sensory skills, it was the blind man’s self-esteem that surprised Diderot most.
“This blind man,” he wrote, “values himself as much as, and perhaps more than, we who see.”
I’ve learned from my blind friends and colleagues that blindness doesn’t have to remain tragic. For those who can adapt to it, blindness becomes a path to an alternative and equally rich way of living.
One of the many misconceptions about the blind is that they have greater hearing, sense of smell and sense of touch than sighted people. This is not strictly true. Their blindness simply forces them to recognize gifts they always had but had heretofore largely ignored.
A few years ago, I allowed myself to be blindfolded and led through the streets of Lhasa by two blind Tibetan teenage girls, students at Braille Without Borders. The girls had not grown up in the city, and yet they traversed it with ease, without stumbling or getting lost. They had a specific destination in mind, and each time they announced, “Now we turn left” or “Now we turn right,” I was compelled to ask them how they knew this. Their answers startled me, chiefly because the clues they were following — the sound of many televisions in an electronics shop, the smell of leather in a shoe shop, the feel of cobblestones suddenly underfoot — though out in the open for anyone to perceive, were virtually hidden from me.
For the first time in my life, I realized how little notice I paid to sounds, to smells, indeed to the entire world that lay beyond my ability to see.
The French writer Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his sight at the age of 8, understood that those of us who have sight are, in some ways, deprived by it. “In return for all the benefits that sight brings we are forced to give up others whose existence we don’t even suspect.”
I do not intend to suggest there is something wonderful about blindness. There is only something wonderful about human resilience, adaptability and daring. The blind are no more or less otherworldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable or deceitful than the rest of us. It is only our ignorance that has cloaked them in these ridiculous garments.
When Helen Keller wrote, “It is more difficult to teach ignorance to think than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara,” she was speaking, obviously, of the uplifting and equalizing value of knowledge.
Many of us are taught to make sure our sites can be used via keyboard. Why is that, and what is it like in practice? Chris Ashton did an experiment to find out.
— Read on www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/07/web-with-just-a-keyboard/
This is very relevant to Guide Dog users in British Columbia who want fair treatment when using ride sharing services.
I have been alerted about the Province having an all Party discussion with Uber about it starting up in BC. A short blurb was on the CBC recently. Someone contacted his/her MLA and was given a phone number to call to give input. Considering what we have seen about how Guide Dog Teams are treated in the Province, this seemed like a good issue for the Province to be contacted about.
If anyone wants to get involved, the Ministry of Transportation is the relevant respondant, at 250 387 1978. From past experience we know that if you are calling from outside Victoria, you can call 1 800 663 7867 and get them to connect you without having to pay Long Distance charges.
This is a long read, and shows how one person can make a huge difference in the lives of those who are touched.
Cherished Teacher, Mentor, Author, Advocate, and Leader
From the Editor: Unlike most articles that appear in the Braille Monitor, this one does not begin with a byline. The person who helped put it together chose to express her love for Jerry Whittle by organizing the heartfelt tributes that follow, and Rosie Carranza should know that we see her handiwork in this article and the love it represents. One other person has worked to coordinate this collection of the tributes that spring from love, and you will not be surprised to learn that this silent contributor is none other than Pam Allen. I am taking the liberty of including the remarks she sent in forwarding this article in the tributes that follow this introduction.
What is abundantly clear is that many of Jerry’s starfish have returned to the sea. They have not taken their new lease on life for granted; they have taken the time to say thank you. They have recognized the blessings received and have made a conscious choice to pass on and add to those blessings with their own commitment of energy, love, dedication, and passion.
Jerry and I shared one thing in common; we both enjoy reading and writing. Debbie and I had the joy of vacationing once with Merilynn and Jerry, and both of us spent a lot of time on benches while our wives searched the stores of North Carolina looking for treasures that begged for a new home. I hope you enjoy reading this tribute to Jerry Whittle as much as I have enjoyed editing it. Thank God for this man, and thank God for the people who cared enough to stop and say thank you.
In 1985 the Louisiana state legislature gave funding to the NFB of Louisiana to establish the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Inspired by my own life-changing rehabilitation experience, I wanted to replicate the ground-breaking training model that Dr. Jernigan used to teach me and countless other blind people in Iowa. My search for Center staff led me to Jerry and Merilynn Whittle, whom I heard about through the “blind grapevine.” I called them up, explaining that we were only awarded one year of funding and that we had no building, no equipment, and no students. Essentially our empowering NFB philosophy and our nonvisual training methods were the two forces pushing our dream forward.
Jerry and Merilynn did not hesitate; they immediately agreed to become part of our pioneering team of instructors. Jerry came first, and when her job concluded, Merilynn arrived in Louisiana. They brought with them an unwavering belief in blind people, a deep loyalty to the Federation, a joyous energy, and a willingness to sacrifice and give to others. They were dependable and so hardworking; they worked day and night to launch the Center.
Soon we had our inaugural group of students. Our first training center operated out of a four-room house. Mismatched donated furniture and lively chatter filled the space. The Braille classroom that Jerry and his students occupied had a large table that was made by attaching legs to an old door.
Even in the early years of his teaching career, Jerry recognized that his job as Braille instructor was just the beginning. He fulfilled the roles of counselor and mentor. He spoke with students about their futures, what jobs they could do, and what they could become as blind people.
With great enjoyment, Jerry also dispensed love advice to those seeking a partner. For instance, he warned, “You should never marry someone unless you have traveled with them on a trip. You learn a lot on these trips that might influence your decision.” More broadly, he told students “If you want to succeed in life, you must look at your fatal flaws and change them. We all have them.” Jerry had such a tremendous sense of humor. When crossing a street, you could hear Jerry shouting, “Oh, feet, don’t fail me now!” And, oh my, did Jerry get after students if they were slacking or not fulfilling their potential. These are just some of the phrases and techniques that I witnessed Jerry using as tools to create bridges to the lives of his students.
The most significant thing that Jerry gave us was the “minor ingredients,” the invaluable elements that made our dream of creating a fun and productive training center come true. Jerry developed many traditions and pursued projects that engaged the varied interests of Center students. He started a garden, devised creative fundraising activities, and organized many trips to festivals, movies, concerts, flea markets, and sporting events. He formed a blind football team and wrote many plays. He started a Toastmasters group to provide students the opportunity to enhance their public speaking skills. He planted trees with the students to beautify the city and to memorialize students or staff who had passed away. Jerry also awarded “Whittle sticks” to recognize the Braille achievements of his students. He carefully selected tree branches that he lovingly made into beautiful walking sticks that his students eagerly worked to earn.
Jerry started our freedom bell tradition. He began ringing the bell whenever a student conquered a challenge or met an important milestone—crossing a busy street, reading at a certain speed in Braille, getting married, or becoming employed. He would say, “When the bell sounds, all blind people have gained new ground.”
Yes, Jerry, you have and will continue to help the blind gain new ground. Your life is a real tribute to our dream.
Jerry Whittle’s life was changed when he found the National Federation of the Blind, and the lives of thousands of blind people were changed as well. I first met Jerry while organizing a chapter of the NFB of South Carolina near Jerry’s hometown of Central located in the northwest corner of the state. Jerry served in numerous leadership roles both nationally and in the NFB of South Carolina and was integral in the development of programs at the Federation Center of the Blind (the NFB of South Carolina headquarters) and Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center of the Blind. His penultimate (Jerry’s favorite word) achievement, however, was his over thirty years of service as the Braille instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
As a young man, Jerry played his beloved sport of baseball. He discovered his blindness while playing one night in a lighted stadium and finding that he could not see the ball as it sailed to him at second base. This was a whole new world to Jerry and one in which he struggled to adapt. Early on, he found little encouragement about his future from his vocational rehabilitation counselor who, as Jerry once told me, suggested that he go into a workshop or janitorial work. But Jerry knew intuitively that he could do more with his life. He responded to a public service announcement by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and thus began the journey to realizing his dreams for a literary career. He graduated from Clemson University, and his academic success led to graduate school at the University of Tennessee where he earned a masters in creative writing.
Jerry and I shared so many memorable times as friends and colleagues. I remember most vividly our NFB work and the adventures around our pioneering establishment of the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston under the leadership of Joanne Wilson. Always at his side, Merilynn shared in all of our triumphs as we celebrated the accomplishments of our students and the growth of the Center. From the acorn grew the strong oak of Jerry Whittle.
He brought the gift of Braille literacy to thousands of blind people, sprinkling his lessons with philosophy and high expectations. Throughout his tenure as a teacher and beyond, Jerry continued to pursue his love of writing, producing plays to inspire and engage blind actors and publishing a number of fictional and autobiographical works. Jerry was Godfather to my oldest son, Nicholas, and we are blessed to have many of his original manuscripts of his plays. How grateful we all are that Jerry did not succumb to the low expectations of the early guidance about his career choices. How fortuitous that he found the NFB, and how truly fortunate that the world and thousands of blind people found him. By knowing Jerry and loving him, our lives have been enriched beyond measure, and he will always reside in our hearts and minds.
Roland Allen (LCB alumnus, 1987)
It is so hard to describe adequately the impact Jerry Whittle had on me. When I enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind shortly after my high school graduation, I did not consider myself to be blind, and I was not sure what to think about the idea of blind instructors. Jerry had a unique way of meeting people where they were and helping them to discover themselves, conquer their fears, and build self-confidence—to realize that it was respectable to be blind. Regardless of a person’s life experiences, he would find a way to connect. I knew early on in my training how important the National Federation of the Blind was to him, how it had changed his life in ways he shared with us. Though we certainly worked on Braille, and I learned to read and write with confidence, we also tackled other philosophical topics in Braille and outside of class. Jerry and Merilynn were always ready for an adventure and encouraged all of us to join in, even if it was something we might never have experienced before. They showed us how to seek and find beauty in the small miracles of life and how to live each day to the fullest. Jerry was always honest and genuine. He listened and gave advice and was not afraid to challenge me and my fellow students to push the boundaries imposed by society and the low expectations about blindness we faced.
Like Jerry, I have retinitis pigmentosa, and I was reluctant to travel in unfamiliar places, especially at night or in dimly lit venues like movie theaters. Jerry and I had discussed this at length, and he knew that I would always go to the movies with a friend or sibling. He invited me and some other students to the movies one evening. Before the movie began, he showed me how to use my cane to navigate around the theater and find my seat. Because of his encouragement and belief in me, I applied what he taught and independently found my own seat. I can remember the pride I felt as I turned to yell to him from several rows ahead “I did it!” Jerry knew that accomplishing this “little thing” in life would be one of the many building blocks that allowed me to grow and achieve those “big milestones” later in life. I had no idea then that I would ultimately become a cane travel instructor helping people overcome their fears and replace self-doubt with hope as he did for me. Jerry was, and still is, an amazing role model for me in the ways he gave above and beyond the call of duty. He always took time to listen, to give without counting the costs, to share his love of the Federation, and to find ways to cultivate talents in others. Later, when I began to work at the Center, I continued to learn from him as a colleague and peer. He kept dispensing advice and wisdom and even gave a toast at my wedding.
Most importantly, Jerry was my beloved friend! I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could count on him. And I know today that he knows he can count on me to continue to challenge myself and push myself and my students beyond what we thought was possible, to share the lessons he taught me and so many, and to continue his legacy through my work at LCB and in the National Federation of the Blind. Every time Pam and I see a movie, one of our favorite pastimes, we will smile and think of him. I will forever be indebted.
Jesse Hartle (LCB alumnus, 1997)
While attending my church service tonight, my priest said that we know God loves his children because he always provides for them. If that is true, then I can only assume that it is also true that Jerry Whittle loved his students, because he always gave to them. When we had concerns, he gave us his counsel. If we were having a rough day, he gave us his humor. When we thought we would never improve our reading or writing skills, he gave us encouragement. When we accomplished a goal, he gave us a pat on the back for a job well done. If we were slacking off, he gave us a swift kick in the pants. He gave us knowledge through Braille. He gave us Austen, Brontë, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, and many more. Jerry Whittle was never just an eight-to-five instructor. He gave us his time.
Students were always welcome to join the Whittles for a Friday night trip to the movies, a Louisiana Tech football game, a night at the theater, an afternoon at the flea markets, or a myriad of activities outside of normal class time at the LCB. He gave us challenges that would make us better the next day than we were before, whether that meant stepping out on stage or stepping on to the football field. He gave us a view of his faith, and he certainly showed us his love for Ms. Merilynn. Every single day, Jerry Whittle gave us his all so that we might succeed.
When I was twelve years old, I was a quitter. I was accepted into the Louisiana Center for the Blind’s Buddy Program, but after three weeks I decided to quit. Frankly, it was just too hard to learn the nonvisual skills my counselors were trying to teach. This decision of course was a mistake, but from mistakes come opportunities to learn. While waiting on my parents to come and take me home, I was invited to go to lunch with Mr. Whittle. Knowing what I now know about Jerry Whittle, this was not just a kind gesture. It was another opportunity to do what he loved—to do his best to teach blind people that blindness did not have to dictate the terms of their life. That day I heard the story of someone who had experienced all that I was experiencing at that moment. Mr. Whittle had been told by sighted people about the limited jobs available to a blind person. Only he had a different plan which did not include settling for such low expectations. He discussed the important role that the training he received played in accomplishing his goals. I remember admitting to him at some point in the conversation that I could understand how the cane could be useful for me, but I could not see the point in learning Braille. He explained that a blind person had to develop a well-rounded set of skills to maximize chances for success. For example, if you were the best traveler in the world, but you could not read, you would probably not be able to get a job. Likewise, if you had great technology skills, but you did not have the ability to match your own clothes, you probably were not going to keep a job. While I now understand this thought process, to a stubborn twelve-year-old boy, this man clearly did not realize that he was talking to me, the exception to the rule.
However, during the next year his words would come back to me. I began to question myself when certain situations came up. Was I choosing not to go to the movies like other people my age because I really didn’t like movies or because I did not have the travel skills to maneuver in dark places? Was reading just stupid, or did I not like it because I could only read around twelve words per minute on a CCTV? An honest self-evaluation told me that in most cases I was letting blindness dictate the terms of my life. I knew that the annual NFB of Louisiana student seminar in Ruston was approaching, so I began to put a mental list of questions together about how blind people could accomplish certain tasks. I remember getting off the bus and walking into the activity center, where dinner was already underway. And there at the front of the line, waiting to show those of us who did not know how to serve our own plate, was Jerry Whittle, once again leading by example. If you have been privileged to know Jerry Whittle, you know that my story is not unique. All I had to do was scroll through my Facebook feed on the days around his passing to see the affect that this man had in the lives of blind people. We may not have cleared every bar that he set for us, but it was not because he did not expect us to! What a world it would be if we all lived like Jerry Whittle taught us, by striving to be better tomorrow than we are today. I will miss you Dr. Dots, but I will never forget our lunch on that Monday afternoon in July 1991. The food the waiter brought was generally forgetful, but the food for thought you served was life changing.
Zach Shore (LCB alumnus, 1988)
I first met Jerry Whittle in June of 1988 when I arrived as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I last spoke with him at length by phone in April of 2017. In those three decades I never stopped marveling at what he had to teach me. It was so much more than Braille.
The greatest teachers are not great because of what they teach. They are great because of what they give. Jerry Whittle gave so much to so many. He gave us his words through the books, plays, and stories he wrote about the blind and our struggles for dignity. He gave us his wit through his corny humor, puns, and word plays. He once quipped that old Braille teachers never die; they just get de-pressed. He gave us his wisdom; that nothing is ever granted freely to the blind. If we want equality, we have to earn it. We have to help our blind brothers and sisters as well; he showed that through his work in the NFB. Sometimes, it’s not fair, but gritty determination sure beats self-pity and sloth.
Above all he gave us his warmth through the love he ceaselessly showed to those around him. He would stay late at work to help a student finish reading his first Braille book or write her first Braille sentence with a slate and stylus. He would organize a literary night at his home with his wife Merilynn to instill in us a love of reading. It seemed to me that he knew no off-hours. Quietly, reliably, selflessly, he simply offered what he had. I hope he knew how much we profited from all the gifts he gave. Thank you, Mr. Whittle. We miss you beyond words.
I was introduced to Mr. Whittle through a dear college friend. I needed some extra cash, and Mr. Whittle needed a reader. The friend who introduced us said Mr. Whittle and I would become fast friends; however, little did I realize that my part-time gig would grow into a genuine friendship that would have a lasting impact on my future.
Anyone who knew Mr. Whittle knew about his aversion to technology. Part of my job was to bridge the gap between the world of computers and the world of Jerry Whittle. My first project was to help him type and edit a manuscript for one of his plays. I quickly came to realize that our business relationship was atypical, because our work tasks often veered into witty conversations about Mr. Whittle’s life. He certainly didn’t mind that our paid hours of reading time usually descended (or ascended) into colorful stories of his past and present.
On occasion Mr. Whittle would have me read through Braille book catalogs, from which he selected literature for the Louisiana Center for the Blind library. When I became curious about Braille, Mr. Whittle eagerly put a Braille block in my hand and began to teach me. This was, as well, on his time. He didn’t mind.
I also assisted him by going through his numerous emails. Mr. Whittle had a social network before social networking was cool. He received countless emails every day from friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and strangers. He answered every single one. I learned a lot about a lot of people I didn’t know—the NFB, Federationists, the LCB, the Braille Authority of North America, former students, and many more. Mr. Whittle and I spent hours engaged over the content of all those emails. I asked Mr. Whittle one time if he knew he was paying me to hang out with him. And he said, “I know that Mandi…don’t you?”
During my time spent as Mr. Whittle’s reader, all of the misconceptions I had about blindness and Braille vanished. After graduation I went home for a while and tried to begin my life as a college graduate. But in the back of my mind I knew what I wanted; I wanted to teach blind kids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mr. Whittle had been molding me with his stories and with his passion for Braille.
I applied for the O&M and TBS programs at Louisiana Tech University and went back to Ruston. And in the year and a half that followed I gained invaluable experience, achieved my master’s, met my husband, and received multitudes of opportunities that got me to where I am now. Today I am teaching Braille and encouraging my students to live the lives they want. My job as Mr. Whittle’s reader became secondary to what I gained from knowing him. Much of who I am now I attribute to the influence that he had on my life. I can say with all honesty that if not for Mr. Whittle, I would not have the fulfilling life that I have today.
Karl Smith (LCB alumnus and Chairman of the LCB Board of Directors, 1989)
I first met Jerry Whittle in 1988. I was on a tour of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where I became a student in 1989. I was immediately impressed with his commitment and passion for the importance of Braille and also with his encouragement that I set goals that push me outside my comfort zone in all aspects of life. It was during this tour that I first heard Jerry say, “If you want to kill time, you have to work it to death.” And “We’re not running a happy home for the blind here.”
During my training, Jerry helped me build my Braille reading speed and taught me to make the slate and stylus a working tool. As valuable as these lessons were, I found that I learned some of the most important things about myself, my blindness, and what it meant to live the life I wanted to live outside Braille class. These informal life lessons occurred during many conversations that we had after hours, over a burger, or over a glass of muscadine juice. It was during these discussions that Jerry suggested that a few of us get together and produce and act in a play. Two fellow students, Jamie Lejeune and Jennifer Dunnam, and I along with Jerry, produced and performed John Brown’s Body, a play based on the epic poem by Steven Vincent Benét. We performed this play for the Ruston community at the Louisiana Tech University Theater.
This experience served as the foundation for the subsequent plays that Jerry Whittle would write and direct, casting Center students like myself to perform at national conventions for more than twenty-five years, with the proceeds going to support the Buddy Program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He believed so strongly in giving our blind children the skills for success and immersion in the positive philosophy and mentoring of the National Federation of the Blind. Because of these experiences, I auditioned for and was selected as a lead player in a musical presented at the Promise Valley Playhouse in Salt Lake City in 1993 and 1994. I would never have had the courage to attempt such a thing without Jerry’s encouragement. Needless to say, I learned my lines for all these plays with a Braille script. Jerry continued to be a good friend and mentor in the years since I graduated from the Center. I value all the times we had together talking, joking, playing poker, and solving the world’s problems. I will miss him greatly, but I will always value his wisdom and strong values.
Angela Frederick (LCB alumna, 1995)
How does one begin writing about a man who was such a powerful influence on the lives of his students? Of course, I immediately think of the gift of Braille literacy and the love for reading and writing Jerry Whittle gave to his students. But it was the special way he offered this gift that made Mr. Whittle such a force for change in his students’ lives. Mr. Whittle had a unique way of recognizing the core of his students and offering them a version of literacy which spoke to that core. “Oh, you’re interested in presidential history” he would say. “I have an amazing book about Abraham Lincoln for you.”
I am a sociologist now. My life’s work is teaching, researching, and writing in the academy. I can trace much of my love for reading and learning to Jerry Whittle. The beautiful Braille library he built at the Louisiana center was the first library I entered that felt like it was built for me. During my summers I spent at LCB as a teenager and young adult, I would spend hours looking through his vast collection of books. I would have to stand on chairs to reach the top of the mountains of pages he created along the walls of the Braille Room and the center library.
As a young person growing up in Louisiana, I was desperate for information about the larger world. One of the most well-read people I had met, Mr. Whittle’s presence felt like a gateway to something bigger for me. I always tried to finagle my way to sit next to him to soak up all of his wisdom. And I would always find myself gravitating to the Braille room, where I knew some kind of lively conversation would be happening between Mr. Whittle and his students.
Jerry Whittle had a unique capacity to love you dearly and scold you, all in the same breath. He didn’t hesitate to give you the world’s greatest compliment or take you down a notch, depending on his assessment of what you needed to hear that day. In between explaining how to remember the Braille letter E and telling his infamous jokes to keep us on our toes, Mr. Whittle would offer his students little nuggets of life wisdom in the LCB Braille Room. And one nugget of wisdom he offered me as a young adult has stayed with me for decades, “Truly smart people can create the world they want to live in.” We love you, Mr. Whittle.
Louise Walch (LCB alumna, 2006)
First there was Louis Braille, and then there was Jerry Whittle. Doubtless there were some in between, but that was the sequence for me. If there were a Braille hall of fame, Mr. Whittle’s face, complete with grey beard, would be up on the wall, larger than life. Between Braille lessons he would tell stories of his college escapades and more about his early days “beating the bushes” to find blind people and organize NFB chapters. During one of my Braille lessons, he mentioned he had been thinking a lot about how blind people don’t tend to play much football, and it wasn’t many weeks after that we all found ourselves measuring up for uniforms. That’s how the first blind football team was formed. We were a motley crew, but you better believe none of us were sitting on the sidelines. We were in the game.
Mr. Whittle was coach on the blind football field and coach in the classroom. We were always strategizing on how to get better and faster at reading Braille. He would regularly time all his students, and on those days when you were really zipping along, he might praise you with one of his signature Whittle phrases like “Wow, you are really tearing up the pea patch.” That was when you knew you could be proud. Or if you were really lucky, he might hand you a can of his favorite Buffalo Rock ginger ale. Or on one of your not-so-hot days he might say, “You sound as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Then you could have a laugh and get back on the job.
I remember him telling me once about how as a young blind adult he would give himself daily travel assignments. Although he had no orientation and mobility instructor at the time, he would hone his cane skills just by getting out there with a stick and doing it. I’m sure there were many setbacks and a lot of discovery, but in the end, it was his decision to act rather than to be acted upon, that set the upward trajectory for his life.
He encouraged all his students not to be afraid of a little dot five W. That’s Braille shorthand for work.
I was just one of the thousand or more students who sat across the table from him during one of his thirty years of teaching Braille, but any one of those students would tell you that it wasn’t just Braille that he taught; he taught us to believe in blind people, to believe in ourselves. This brand of belief had little to do with platitudes, the kind of empty words you might read on some website. No, his belief was soul deep. Whether you were there sitting across the table from him surrounded by those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of Braille that he was so proud of or in a raft shooting down whitewater in Tennessee or rehearsing one of the many plays he wrote and directed or donning the helmet for a game of Coach Whittle’s no-kidding-around blind football or just sitting with him in a diner chatting over a bowl of grits, you would know that you were somebody, and here was a man who believed in God and believed that whatever might knock you down, you could get right up again. It might be inconvenient, but it’s okay to be blind. You learned that you had blind brothers and sisters around the country in the NFB who were there for you. Get yourself a good mentor like Mr. Whittle if you can, but just get yourself out the door.
Bre Brown (LCB alumna, 2012)
When I met Mr. Whittle in 2011 as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, he was incredibly welcoming. He made class challenging and entertaining. Yes, we did Braille, but we learned so much about life. He was always sharing stories and educating us about various things, such as how to live on your own as a blind person or how to navigate at a football game or Mardi Gras. He strongly believed every person should go and live independently at least once, in order to set in stone the fact that a person was truly able to be successful and trust themselves. He often shared his passion for nature, flowers, trees, and plants. His love for students was palpable. He always found ways for people to be involved in activities such as plays and cultural events. He also spent time with students to discover what motivated them. For example, Mr. Whittle gave me opportunities to try new things, such as directing one of his plays.
Earlier this year, he asked me to help direct his play, All Shot, performed at this year’s national convention. I never could have imagined it would be his last one. In October he asked me to direct Santa Rides Again, the play he wrote about Santa Claus losing his vision and receiving training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Directing the play also involves supervising the choir. I love to sing, and this is a fun and challenging way of using my skills. I really love how he showed everyone, including me, that you can do whatever you desired, including loving life despite blindness. I am thankful for all of his thought-provoking questions he had for me, his encouragement even when I doubted myself, and his way of living life as a pure example—open and honest, loving and caring, with every imperfection acting as a learning opportunity, not a downfall.
Six years ago I had no idea that I would be a Braille teacher. I have always loved Braille, and the National Federation of the Blind showed me that I could be a teacher. As a student I learned so much about teaching Braille from Mr. Whittle through observation. He showed me that just because you know Braille, there are still things you can learn or upon which you can improve. Over the years, he answered any question I had about teaching Braille as I was working in the LCB summer programs. He also instilled in me a belief that Braille class is not just about Braille; there are many important life lessons to learn. Some of it is life skills like budgeting and list creations, discussing student perspectives on blindness, motivating people to continue no matter their circumstance, and truly listening and empathizing with students. I saw from his example that the learning did not stop, even after five.
As we all know, Mr. Whittle was not a fan of technology, but he enjoyed learning about his iPhone. He did learn how to text with dictation. A few years ago, we started texting with each other almost every day. Some days it was just simply saying hello. It was sharing stories, him encouraging me as I continued through college and started my career, talking about vacations, just anything. He often said, “Go get ‘em,” even if it was just going to class, teaching Braille, or doing something totally new.
These exchanges and life lessons meant the world to me as a student and are just pieces of what Mr. Whittle gifted me. He taught me so much that it is difficult to narrow it down. Today, I have the incredible honor of continuing the legacy that Mr. Whittle has built. I am so thankful to keep giving the gift of literacy, the gift of Braille, and to find ways to keep students involved in the National Federation of the Blind to which he gave so much, their communities, and their own lives. “Read until you bleed!”
It is so hard for all of us to capture what Jerry meant to each of us. Words just don’t seem sufficient. I think the suddenness of his passing has made it even more emotional for all of us to absorb. You will see the common thread in these words. The hard thing is there are thousands more where these came from. Jerry was humble and hardworking, loyal and loving, humorous and creative, steady and trustworthy, and not afraid to admit when he was wrong and make amends as needed. He and Merilynn set such a wonderful example as a blind and a sighted role model. The ripples they made will be felt forever! So many whom Jerry taught are now teachers and leaders in the field of blindness. So many are using Braille and his life wisdom to propel themselves forward in other careers outside of blindness. So many are part of our Federation family because of his love and encouragement! He never had biological children but raised many children throughout his time with us.
Jerry always said, “Time is not eternal.” This is just another reminder of how we can never take the time we have for granted nor fail to share our love and appreciation for the people we have in our lives. Jerry always did this!
Dr. Marc Maurer
Jerry Whittle was not only quite knowledgeable about literature, history, philosophy, and education; but he was also a quiet, understated, and most jolly human being. He could find humor in most things, and he was friendly in showing you where it was.
I met Jerry Whittle first in South Carolina, where he was working to bring blind people into our movement. I came to know him even better in Louisiana, when he was teaching Braille. I visited the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I sat in his classroom with him and students. He asked me if I could read poetry, and I admitted that I could. He said he wanted to record me doing so. I agreed. He turned on the recorder and handed me a copy of “Jabberwocky.” I had never before read “Jabberwocky.” It is a poem that contains many words that do not appear anywhere else in the English language. One of the simpler lines is, “The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!” I did my best. I have no idea what the recording sounded like, but I read the “Jabberwocky.”
Jerry Whittle talked me into doing many things I did not expect to do. He called me to say that football was needed by the blind, and he asked me for money to get the equipment together. I wanted to know what he meant. He said that blind people were going to play football with some rules that he had devised for the game. He said that when you run onto the field and smack into a guy on the other team and knock him flat, this is fun. I, who am smaller than he was, wondered if he could really mean it. I wasn’t as sure that I would enjoy it as he was.
Jerry always believed that he could do something to bring joy to people’s lives, and he was prepared to go the extra mile to do it. He thought that there was not enough literature depicting the reality of blindness. He was helping to solve this problem by writing plays that brought the daily experiences of the blind to life. He worked with his mind, but he also worked with his hands. He made me a walking stick from a piece of blackthorn that I carry still. I love the feel of my Whittle Stick. My life is richer because I knew Jerry Whittle.
Access Stories Related to the British Columbia Guide and Service Dog Act
From the time when the province of British Columbia first introduced Bill 17, which has now become the British Columbia Guide and Service Dog Act, the Canadian Federation of the Blind (along with other rights holders) has warned that some of its provisions would create access problems. In particular, we warned that the emphasis on stopping members of the public from claiming that their pets are service dogs could lead to increased scrutiny of legitimate guide and service dog handlers. We feared that the portion of the definition of “guide dog” that defines a guide dog as one that has been certified by the province would lead to a two tier system that would leave those from outside British Columbia unprotected. We also raised the alarm about the stated intention to use a “graduated enforcement” strategy rather than a stringent implementation of applicable fines in cases of access denial.
This is a request for those of you who live in British Columbia, have visited the province, or know someone who has had difficulty because of the BC guide and service dog law.
We need your stories. Because the provincial system for handling access issues has been so ineffective, government officials who need to know about problems with the new law aren’t being made aware of them. If you’ve been asked to present identification before being allowed to access a public place or had service or access refusals, we need to know what happened, when it happened, and the end result. Even if you were able to negotiate the issues successfully, the fact that you faced issues is extremely significant. If you are from outside of British Columbia and were denied enforcement because you lack BC certification, we need to know that, too. Your experience could help educate lawmakers about the unintended consequences of the British Columbia law.
You can write me at email@example.com with your story. If you have questions, phone me toll-free at (866) 670-0052.
Mary Ellen Gabias, President
Canadian Federation of the Blind
Barrier-Free Manitoba and partner groups have launched the “Accessibility is the Law / Participation is Your Right” public information campaign. The campaign’s goal is to promote awareness of new accessibility requirements established under the landmark Accessibility for Manitobans Act (AMA) for all public meetings
Under the AMA, provincial government departments have been responsible to ensure the full accessibility of public meetings and events since November 1, 2016. Starting November 2017, most public sector organizations beyond government must do the same.
That means that organizations are required to ensure that:
• notices and promotions of public meetings and events are accessible to Manitobans with disabilities
• public meetings and events are held in spaces that are accessible
• Manitobans with disabilities are invited to request accommodations required for their full participation
• the physical and communication needs of persons disabled by barriers are met on request.
These organizations include:
• All government boards, commissions, associations, agencies, or similar bodies for which all board members are appointed Act of the Legislature or by the Lieutenant Governor in Council
• All colleges and universities
• All regional health authorities
• All school divisions and schools
• The cities of Brandon, Dauphin, Flin Flon, Morden, Portage la Prairie, Selkirk, Steinbach, Thompson, Winkler and Winnipeg.
In the past, while all Manitobans with disabilities have had the same legal right to participate as everyone else, many thousands of them, in practice, were denied their human rights to full citizenship because of barriers. The requirements established under the landmark Accessibility for Manitobans Act have now changed this. We think that this is wonderful news.
This campaign is intended to:
• Inform Manitobans with disabilities of the requirements removing barriers to their right to participate.
• Inform organizations what they are required to do to fulfill the requirements.
Celebrate and Exercise Your Rights
Please take every opportunity to celebrate and exercise your rights. Please become and have others you know become accessible public meeting champions who help ensure that organizations are meeting these new requirements.
If you see a notice in newspapers, online or elsewhere of public meetings and events being held by the organizations listed above, and it does not include an open and clear invitation for Manitobans with disabilities to request accommodations, call the group and express your concerns. If you want to attend and need an accommodation, request it in advance. If you see that a public meeting or event is scheduled to be held in space that you know is not fully accessible, call the group and express your concerns.
If you still have concerns after speaking with the group and/or if the group tells you that they won’t provide the requested accommodation, we strongly encourage you to work with VIRN and contact the Province’s Disability Issues Office:
Toll Free: 1-800-282-8069 (Extension 7613)
Change is hard, even a really important change like this. We expect that at least some of the organizations are going to need a little encouragement; together we can provide that encouragement. Please become and have others you know become accessible public meeting champions who help ensure that organizations are meeting these new requirements.
Finally, BFM would like to thank the partner groups that have helped organize this information campaign:
• Deaf Centre Manitoba Inc.
• Manitoba Deaf Association
• St. Amant
• Manitoba Deaf-Blind Association Inc.
• Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities,
• Canadian Hard of Hearing Association – Manitoba Chapter organizations are meeting these new requirements.
Blind News Victoria
A publication of the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind
After two months of sun and relaxation, its back to school for the Pacific Training Centre students. Classes will commence the week of Monday September 11, with classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. . All returning students will be contacted prior to their first class. We are looking forward to an exciting year and will be expanding our program to serve students from outside the Victoria area. We also hope to take on one more staff person to help us meet the growing demand for blindness skills training.
Please consider becoming a member of the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind Society. Membership is only $5 per year. The greater the membership, the more successful the Society will be in acquiring grants from the government which are essential to us carrying on the vital work of the PTCB.
To join call Elizabeth at 250-580-4910 or email
Mark Your Calendar
PTCB Annual General Meeting
Tuesday September 19 at 4:00
Disability Resource Centre Board Room – 817a Fort St.
The meeting is open to all PTCB current and perspective members and there will be a phone in option for those who cannot attend in person. The meeting will be followed by pizza and refreshments. Please RSVP if you plan to attend in person or need the conference call details.
RSVP 250-580-4910 or
Get Together with Technology (GTT)
Date: September 6, 2017
Time: 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Where: Community Room, GVPL, Main Branch 735 Broughton St
First Hour: Presentation from Heidi Likenby, Heidi works with the Public Service Agency in BC Government Digital Experience. She is currently working on a project to bring disability awareness and accessibility to the IT forefront throughout government. She is an accessibility advocate and is very interested in finding out more about GTT and also having the chance to meet some of the members, see first hand how they use assistive technology and hear their points of view on web design and accessibility.
2nd Hour: Steve Barclay, Canadian Assistive Technologies will provide a demonstration of what’s new in low vision and blindness tech, and offer a hands-on opportunity to those in attendance.
Contact Albert Ruel for more information or to receive future notices.
VocalEye at the Belfry Theatre this fall
- The Children’s Republic
Sunday October 1 at 2 p.m.
Sunday, October 29 at 2 p.m.
Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave., Victoria
This year, the Belfry is offering an annual subscription to VocalEye patrons. This subscription includes tickets to the VocalEye performances for each of their four main productions. A subscription costs $98.68 including tax ($24.67 per show). Single tickets are also available for $30.98 including tax. There is no special rate for companions this year.
To purchase a single ticket or annual subscription call the Belfry box office:
VIP Singers first practice
Monday September 18, 10 – 12
The VIP Singers is a group of blind and sighted singers and musicians who meet once a week to learn the words and harmonies (by ear) for original arrangements of popular songs and old time favourites. Anyone who likes to sing is welcome. The VIP Singers perform gigs at seniors’ homes and hospitals. Practices are on Mondays from 10 – 12 at the James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies St.
New members are always welcome. No previous choir experience is required. If you like to sing, please join us. For more information call Marcelina 250-516- 0584.
Victoria Community Report on AMI Audio
September 21 6:00 a.m. (repeated at 8 a.m.)
Linda Bartram has been contracted by AMI Audio as a Community Reporter for Victoria and Vancouver Island. Her interview can be heard on Live from Studio Five every fourth Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m. (repeated at 8 a.m.). She will be featuring cultural events and activities of interest to persons who are blind. AMI Audio can be found at 889 on your television or on line at
About the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind
The Pacific Training Centre for the Blind (PTCB) is a Canadian grassroots nonprofit charitable service organization founded and run by blind people. Its training fosters independence, where blind people empower blind people to be employed, independent and free.
The Blind People in Charge Program, provided by the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind, is the only program of its kind in Western Canada that offers regular, intensive rehabilitation to people who are blind or who are losing their vision; it is also the only program that uses an empowering, problem-solving model of instruction, where blind people are the teachers, planners, directors and administrators.
The program involves a collaborative, positive, and empowering approach to blindness, where blind people learn from and teach each other in a supportive, can-do atmosphere. Instructors and mentors teach the skills of independence such as Braille, adaptive technology, cane travel, cooking and other life skills, and develop strategies for coping with blindness and vision loss in a sighted world.
The Blind People in Charge Program held at the Victoria Disability Resource Centre 817a Fort St., runs two days a week from 10:00 – 4:00 and participants are encouraged to attend as full time students (12 hours a week). Drop in students are also considered. Teaching takes place in group and one-on-one sessions and participants progress at their own pace. Past participants have ranged in age from 24 – 88. Anyone over 18 who is blind or is experiencing significant vision loss may apply including those who are experiencing other challenges. There is no charge to students; however donations are always welcome. For more information, or to participate in our program, please contact us.