Building Better Lives With Jobs

Building Better Lives With Jobs

By: Peggy Chong

From the very beginning, employment has been this organization's ultimate goal for blind persons. In the 1920's, the most common occupations were rug weavers, piano tuners, and broom salesmen. These were the openings to the working world that made it possible for blind people to expand to the variety of careers that we enjoy and expect to be employed in today. The Industrial Center for the Blind (see "The Home and Center for the Blind") is just one example of how this goal was carried out. The Center was to be a place where blind entrepreneurs could find space and sometimes financial assistance to start their own business.

Those blind businessmen who formed this organization banded together, raising money from themselves and the community for "start up" money for blind-owned and operated businesses.

Some of the first members to benefit from the "start up" money were Frank Jordan and William Schmidt. Frank Jordan was a rug weaver who received money to purchase looms and was given space in the back of another member's store to start his business. He was successful in his business and later moved to his own space. His arrangement with the Board of Directors was that he would hire only blind persons for his business at all levels if possible.

William Schmidt received money to purchase vending machines that at first only dispensed gum. His business was extremely successful. In no time at all, he had enough capital to pay back his loan, hire more staff and expand his business. One of his arrangements was that his business would contribute 10% of his net proceeds to the organization and place advertisements for the organization on his vending machines. Each month in the minutes, there is a notation of his contribution for the month. For years, this monthly contribution would be over $100, even during the first year of the Great Depression. It seems that Mr. Schmidt was quite a financial success! A vending stand at the Home was staffed by a resident for many years. The stand sold candy, gum, combs, and incidentals to residents and visitors.

Items were made at the Home, then sold by the organization as a fundraiser. A mat-making machine was purchased by the organization and residents and other members could work on the machine making belts, runners and rubber door mats. They were made from old tires that the Board of Directors had obtained. Blind men and women were hired as solicitors by the Board to sell the items made at the Home.

Musical groups were formed to play for public functions for many businesses, the State Fair, and organizations around the Twin Cities. This not only brought invaluable PR for the organization, but it also was an opportunity for blind musicians to gain distinction, experience and a chance to earn extra money.

In the late 1930's and early 1940's, the organization wanted the state agency for the blind to take a more aggressive role in getting blind persons in the WPA and war-effort programs. However, at the 1941 state convention, the representative from the state admitted that the agency had not done much to secure employment for blind Minnesotans in those programs.

One reason for the good working relationship between the organized blind and the Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault during the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's, was the treatment of the blind staff persons. John C. Lysen, superintendent of the school, hired competent blind teachers and paid them the same salary as the sighted staff members. In the thirties, this was unheard of. The school attracted blind educators that were active in the blind community. Many instructors at the school were active members of the organization and some were elected to the Board of Directors.

There were many piano tuners in the organization. They got together and decided that if the organization were to purchase piano-tuning supplies in large quantities that they could get them at a much lower cost. This was done in the mid 1930's and was the beginning of the Sales Service Committee. Piano tuners began holding clinics at the Home and Center on March 25, 1950 to encourage other blind individuals to become tuners and to share new techniques with each other.

After World War II, vending stand operation became a popular job opportunity for many blind Minnesotans. Conventions and Minnesota Bulletin articles kept members and vendors informed on the latest changes in the law. In 1945, the convention addressed the vending stand operators concern that they be allowed to handle their own money. As it was, the state agency required sighted persons to handle the books. This had proven to the organization that the amount of sight did not necessarily make one a better bookkeeper. Many vendors had complained that the sighted bookkeepers had handled their books incorrectly and that they had to clean them up. A Loan Committee was established on February 10, 1951 to lend money to members for a variety of reasons. A person needing money to start a business or new job was given priority. The first loan was made to Margaret Kline on May 5, 1951. The rate of interest was 3 percent with a 25-cent monthly service charge. A member could borrow up to $300. It was called the Lend-a-Hand program.

The Blind of Minnesota Credit Union was formed in April of 1959. Because of the new Credit Union, the organization decided to end the Lend-a-Hand program as it was a duplication of services.

But from time to time, blind persons needed just a little help in securing a loan from the credit union for their business. The credit union and the Federation would work together to get the blind person started in business. At the August 14, 1975 NFB of Minnesota Board of Directors meeting, the Board decided to co-sign a loan for a blind man. Warren Ranger wanted to start a candy business in his home. He wanted a loan from the Blind of Minnesota Credit Union. NFBM put up collateral of $4,000 that it had in the Credit Union. Mr. Ranger succeeded with his business and quickly paid off his loan.

In 1981 the shares held in the Blind of Minnesota Credit Union were again used as collateral on a loan for a blind hog farmer, Irwin Johnson, to start a hog farm. That venture was not fruitful, and NFBM lost the money. The first State Fair booth that sold items was a fund raiser in 1960. The organization sold products made by the blind. Individual members were also encouraged to put out items that they had made and were allowed to keep the profits. As the decades came and went, more professions were opened to blind applicants. Sometimes it took a bit of a push from the organized blind. Resolution SA-70-10 called for blind teachers to be allowed into the teaching profession. In other parts of the country, blind teachers were working successfully as teachers in all areas. Blind Minnesotans should also be given the same opportunity. The resolution was submitted by a new member, Joyce Hoffa (Scanlan). In 1971 a bill was introduced that would allow a blind person to take the Civil Service test in Braille or use a reader. A resolution was passed and circulated that called for alternate testing options for blind applicants with the same weight as any print test with Civil Service. This resolution was to address and educate the City of Minneapolis after it tried to keep a blind member out of a computer programming job that he was highly qualified for. Legislation was constantly introduced or modified to liberalize the Aid to the Blind law so that blind Minnesotans could get the training they wanted and needed to be competitive in the job market. Until the 1960's it was legal to deny rehabilitation services to a blind person who did not take the advice or services offered by his or her counselor. If the counselor said there was an opening in the vending stand program and you wanted to become a lawyer, if you wanted funding you became a vender. If the counselor felt that you should try corrective surgery for your eye condition and you declined, this too could jeopardize your rehab plan.

When we read today of the problems blind persons are having on their jobs or entering into new fields, we can see how far we have to go. But when we remember the rug weavers of the 1920's, we can see how far we have come.