BRS History: Army Programs and VA's New Mission
On January 8, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made an extraordinary commitment to our nation's war-blinded servicemen when he signed an executive order declaring: "No blinded servicemen from World War II would be returned to their homes without adequate training to meet the problems of necessity imposed upon them by their blindness."
In order to meet the demands of this obligation, it was determined that the social adjustment training of blinded soldiers would become the military's duty whereas the Veterans Administration (VA) would assume responsibility for any vocational training. A three-phase program was subsequently developed.
The initial phase called for the Army Medical Corps to provide basic blind rehabilitation instruction to newly blinded servicemen at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, PA and Dibble General Hospital in Menlo Park, CA. Although 80% of the blinded soldiers had no sight at all and had a great need for rehabilitation training, it was clearly understood that time would not permit a comprehensive process to occur at these facilities because their primary mission focused on surgery and health recovery.
The skill training that did take place included teaching introductory techniques in Braille, typing, writing, and "orientation." "Orientation," or independent travel, was initially accomplished using a cross-body protective technique until Richard Hoover introduced his newly designed long cane at Valley Forge in June 1945. Hoover later developed a methodology for using the long cane as a navigational tool and blinded Veterans soon learned to appreciate the respectability and safety afforded by using this device as a travel aid in conjunction with a scanning technique.
The second phase of the Army Medical Corps program consisted of an 18-week personal and social adjustment rehabilitation training course conducted at the Old Farms Convalescent Hospital in Avon, CT. The Avon staff did not allow the use of canes in their program since blind people did not use aids when they moved around their homes and offices. The Avon program emphasized the use of reflected sound in getting around and used the term "mobility" rather than "orientation." It is noteworthy that, prior to the influx of war blinded soldiers, most of the blind population in the United States still retained useful vision. As such, it was conjectured that Avon reflected the prevailing attitude in American society that blind persons should be as inconspicuous as possible.
The Avon program also included an introduction to vocational activities with an emphasis on job sampling through experiences in woodworking, auto repair, and factory work. Study techniques and interviewing skills were taught in addition to advanced Braille. However, there were nearly 200 trainees in the Avon program, far too many to get the kind of benefits derived from having a small close-knit group of people going through a difficult experience together.
The third and final stage of the rehabilitation program involved vocational training and placement. Vocational training and placement was supported by the Veterans Administration and typically took place at a VA regional office located near the Veteran's home.
VA Adopts New Mission
With the conclusion of World War II, it was acknowledged that the military would deactivate their blind rehabilitation program. The question arose as to which agency should undertake the responsibility of providing remedial and ongoing treatment of America's 1,400 war-blinded Veterans. One possible choice was the Veterans Administration, but this option was met with some strong opposition from various VA administrators. Moreover, the Federal Budget Bureau questioned whether the VA could legally provide any services beyond vocational rehabilitation.
President Harry Truman finally settled the issue on May 28, 1947 when he signed a Presidential Order transferring responsibility for the social adjustment training of blinded Veterans to the Veterans Administration. Within a month, all wartime rehabilitation programs for blinded Servicemen were deactivated by the armed services.
On September 15, 1947, C. Warren Bledsoe was appointed VA Coordinator of Blinded Veterans Affairs by Major General Paul Hawley, Chief Medical Director of the Veterans Administration. Bledsoe was very familiar with blindness. His father served as superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind and Bledsoe spent his childhood living on the school's campus. Following his graduation from Princeton University, Bledsoe returned to the Maryland School for the Blind and taught for six years. During this time, he also participated in an advanced training course at the Perkins School for the Blind. During World War II, Bledsoe enlisted in the Army and spent some of his time at Valley Forge where he had some impact on the mobility program. Following his discharge from military service, Bledsoe functioned as a consultant for the VA regarding blindness issues while also working for the American Foundation for the Blind. Bledsoe also contributed to and served as editor of Outlook for the Blind, a professional publication for the field of blindness. It was from this vantage point that he moved into his official position as Coordinator of Blinded Veterans Affairs and given the charge to develop a blind rehabilitation program.