Break out the birthday party hats! State Services for the Blind (SSB) is marking 100 years of service to Minnesotans in 2023.
Long before the SSB predecessor Minnesota Board of Control was created on July 1, 1923, Minnesotans recognized the importance of education, independence and employment of people who are blind or live with visual disabilities. The Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, which was started in 1866, began a first of its kind education program in 1907. An academy graduate earned his PhD. from Yale University. It is believed to be the first degree of this kind to have been earned in residence and received in this country by a blind man.
On May 27, 1920, a group organized to improve the quality of life for all blind Minnesotans, called the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind. That group today is the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. It is one of many advocacy groups today, working on issues including social justice, accessibility, literacy, employment discrimination, and service access.
Employment efforts came later. It wasn’t until 1941 that Minnesota appropriated $2,500 for vending stands to be run by blind entrepreneurs. And on May 1, 1947, Business Enterprise Program vendors were provided rent free space throughout all state buildings to vend soft drinks (excluding 3.2 beer), food, candies, tobacco, souvenirs, notions and related merchandise.
In 1953, the Hamm Recording Project was responsible for making textbooks, Minnesota magazines and Minnesota authors available in an audio format for people who were blind and visually impaired. By 1969 the Hamm Recording Project, now the Communication Center, was also providing Braille for Minnesotans, and had expanded their volunteer base considerably. On January 2, 1969, thanks to the brilliant minds of C. Stanley Potter and his coworkers, the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network went on air. It was the world’s first radio reading service for the blind.
Today’s Braille Unit is an active partner with the Minnesota Department of Education, brailling K-12 textbooks. This team is even working on developing a Braille code for the Dakota language. The Audio Services Unit produced the first accessible audio books in Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Anishinaabe. Radio Talking Book, once listened to on radio receivers in Minnesota, is now streaming across the world on mobile devices and smart speakers.
Passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was hailed as the foundation of civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. But years of activism and protest were needed so that the provisions in that landmark legislation were carried out. Significant amendments passed in 1978 finally began to address the needs of a whole category of people who had never before received federally funded support, namely, seniors living with vision loss. Today the SSB senior unit is second only to California in number of people served. That is just one of many accomplishments over a century.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org