Friday, March 4, 2011

Kornbluh on the National Federation of the Blind and the "Right to Organize" in the 1950s

The most recent issue of the Journal of American History includes an article by Felicia Kornbluh (University of Vermont) titled "Disability, Antiprofessionalism, and Civil Rights: The National Federation of the Blind and the 'Right to Organize' in the 1950s." Here's the first paragraph:
In the late 1950s the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and its allies introduced a series of bills into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. These proposed laws concerned what was called the “right to organize” of blind Americans, that is, their freedom to join the activist NFB without suffering harassment or the loss of their livelihoods. The bills also encompassed a right that blind people claimed to be consulted in the creation and implementation of programs that affected them—a “maximum feasible participation” mandate years before the inclusion of such a mandate in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. When they claimed the right to be consulted, blind activists expressed a long-held desire on the part of disabled people to participate in the philanthropic, professional, and bureaucratic deliberations that concerned them. Unlike earlier advocates, however, they expressed this desire in relationship to the specific programs and personnel of the post–New Deal state. The NFB formalized its demand at least fifteen years before the slogan “nothing about us without us” became a rallying cry of the movement for disability rights and almost a decade before a large-scale movement for welfare rights began to make comparable demands. [footnote omitted]
This history -- of the “right to organize” campaign and the activities of the NFB -- is important for at least three reasons, Kornbluh argues: it "alters the conventional timelines of civil rights progress and the critique of professional power in the United States"; it "illuminates contradictions that accompanied early activism by physically disabled people"; and it "reveals people with disabilities as authors and objects of major reforms, engaged critics of a national government with whose policies they were unavoidably entangled."

You can find the full article here.