How Blind Activists Fought for Blind Employees

The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 is now more than three decades old, but the roots of disability rights go much deeper. Historian Felicia Kornbluh examines the efforts of the National Association of the Blind (NFB) to organize visually impaired people in the 1950s.

The NFB, founded in 1940, was, according to Kornbluh, “the first national organization in US history that was led exclusively by blind men and women”. But his “carelessness … was an insult and perhaps a threat to the public and private blind bureaucracy that had developed in the 1950s”.

The NFB argued that blind people should be involved in the formulation and implementation of policies and programs that affect them. But the idea was rejected by self-proclaimed professionals who stood up as lawyers for the visually impaired without being themselves.

Blind workers were not even covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set standards for safety and pay.

A focus of NFB activism has been to work, particularly in the “sheltered shops” of charities and public institutions. Sheltered businesses employed blind people below the minimum wage, as many without disabilities believed that blind workers would never be as productive. Blind workers were not even covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set standards for safety and pay.

There were disputes over collective bargaining. The National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, in its 1956 statement, was unanimous on its lack of “belief or trust” in the NFB. One of the council representatives accused the NFB of “subversive methods”, which was neither the first nor the last red foundation against the organization.

The NFB pushed for federal law for the “right of the blind to join organizations for the blind,” as the 1957 bill proposed by Senator John F. Kennedy states. But according to Kornbluh, the mainstream blind organizations worked to delay congressional hearings and instead advocated the formation of a commission. The head of the National Rehabilitation Association argued that “blind people, like other disabled people, sometimes have unreasonable ambitions”.

The NFB stressed that she was fighting for workers’ rights rather than civil rights, which helped her gain supporters in Congress. In March 1959, hearings on the rights of blind people in the workplace were held for a full week. ”

Even so, the NFB didn’t get the federal law its leaders wanted. They were hindered by the opposition, internal division, and politicians who turned to other things. However, similar laws have been passed in some states. And the Federal Economic Opportunities Act of 1964 required something close to the NFB goal – “maximum feasible participation” from those for whom government programs were created.

The pioneering work of the NFB was taken up by the entire disability rights movement at the end of the 1960s, when “nothing about us without us” became a catchphrase.

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By: Felicia Kornblau

The Journal of American History, Vol. 97, No. 4 (March 2011), pp. 1023-1047

Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians

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