Storytelling forum tells of Berkeley’s legacy for the blind

Over 50 blind and sighted people attended the storytelling event Saturday night at the East Bay Center for the Blind.  Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Over 50 blind and sighted people attended a storytelling event Saturday night at the East Bay Center for the Blind. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

For Judy Wilkinson, her story as a UC Berkeley student in the 1960s was the story of T22.

T22 was a campus building for blind students near Cal’s Doe Library. As a student, Wilkinson spent many nights in T22, long past her co-op’s curfew, listening to books on its recorders. She would wake up in the classroom and grab breakfast in the building next door.

Torn down decades ago, T22 was once the epicenter of blind student activity on campus. Wilkinson forged lifelong friendships, and paved her career as an editor for a publication of the California Council of the Blind, in the hallways of T22.

“I am who I am largely because of the politics I learned and the friends I made there,” Wilkinson said. “It was our little world. Nobody knew we were there.”


Dozens of blind residents from Berkeley and nearby, including Wilkinson, gathered to share and listen to life stories Saturday night at the East Bay Center for the Blind, at 2928 Adeline St. in South Berkeley.

With a cadre of scheduled speakers each touching upon a different piece of the legacy of the city’s history related to the blind, the storytelling forum served as both a remembrance of Berkeley’s importance to the national and global blind community, and a discussion on what the future might bring.

To most sighted people in Berkeley, the history of blind Berkeley is shrouded in the unknown. Older residents may recall that the current Clark Kerr campus dormitories were previously the California School for the Blind before it relocated to Fremont in 1980.

The school attracted blind students from across the country and became fertile ground for political activism for disability rights. The local blind community was instrumental in leading the independent living movement, founded by Berkeley alumnus Ed Roberts.

UC Berkeley provided further educational advancement for blind students, especially in technology. Developments in screen and voice readers necessary to computer access for the blind were largely developed in UC Berkeley.

The campus also employed several blind faculty members who became leading pioneers of the American blindness movement.

Local disability historian Ken Stein, left, speaks at the mic about the history of the blind community in Berkeley. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Local disability historian Ken Stein, left, speaks at the mic about the history of the blind community in Berkeley. On the right, Joshua Miele, event organizer. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

“Blindness is everywhere in Berkeley,” said Joshua Miele, the organizer of Saturday night’s event. “I believe that Berkeley is the spiritual center of the blind community in the Bay Area.”

One of the most influential blind political activists was Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, who taught speech and political science at UC Berkeley. He is nationally recognized as the founder of the National Federation of the Blind, the oldest blind organization in the United States.

TenBroek took many blind Berkeley students under his wing and groomed them to be the next generation of blind leaders.

Wilkinson was one of his proteges. She interned for tenBroek in his home in the Berkeley Hills when she was not spending time in T22. She reminisced about how tenBroek, despite his gruff demeanor, made sure the students of T22 had enough supplies and book recordings to study.

“He was our mentor,” Wilkinson said. “You can’t talk to anybody who knows anything about the blindness movement in the United States without knowing the name Dr. Jacobus tenBroek.”

Bill Gerrey, left, speaks about his experience at the California School for the Blind as organizer Joshua Miele watches. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Bill Gerrey speaks about his experience at the California School for the Blind. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

The future of Berkeley as the city of the blind was debated through the event.

While there are several blind organizations in Berkeley, the relocation of the California School for the Blind to Fremont three decades ago stripped away some of the vibrancy in the blind community.

The decline of political representation for blind and other disabled people in city government was also a concern for some.

“Berkeley does have that reputation to being friendly to people with disabilities,” said Mike Cole, one of the speakers of the night. “But whether Berkeley really earned it has to do with the activism of the people.”

Seung Y. Lee is a journalist who has previously worked at the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Daily Californian.

Related:
The FBI’s secret war against Berkeley (08.29.12)
A latchkey kid roams Berkeley ghost town full of promise (01.26.12)

Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.