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LightHouse HIstory

Oral History: Gil Johnson reflects on eight decades of blindness training, advocacy and community

A distinguished longtime board member and pioneer of rehabilitation services at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, there are few denizens of our community more respected and knowledgeable than Gil Johnson. Growing up as a confident, free-thinking young blind man and coming to the LightHouse during a pivotal moment for blindness in the late seventies, Johnson changed the course of our training services and defined the future of the then somewhat fractured LightHouse organization.

In honor of Johnson’s 80th birthday, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin set out to record an oral history: to capture the nuances of Johnson’s early life, career, and ongoing journey after LightHouse. The result is nearly six hours of humorous, thoughtful reflections on the past, present and future of what it means to be or become blind.

The podcast series was recorded on three separate days and is broken into seven total parts below. Mp3s are available for download or to stream directly.

Part 1 (recorded November 2017, 2 segments): Gil talks about his childhood, development as a young blind man and the early career moves that brought him to the blindness field.

 

Part 2 (recorded December 2017, 3 segments): Gil discusses the state of LightHouse when he arrived in the late 70s, and goes in depth into the challenges and opportunities as he took on the task of innovating in rehabilitative training through the 1980s.

 

Part 3 (recorded August 2018): Gil discusses his transition away from LightHouse, taking on services for the blind in Illinois and the new era for the LightHouse and its community as the 1990s approached.

 

Contribute to the LightHouse Time Capsule

We’re setting up a LightHouse Time Capsule in our new building, to be opened on the 200th anniversary of the LightHouse in the year 2102, 86 years from now, and we need your help.

We’d love to add your old LightHouse-related historical and more recent documents, photos and small items to our time capsule. So check your closets, garages, attics and basements, get out the old photo albums and look for particularly special snapshots or papers that are related to our history. We may utilize items for our time capsule or our history exhibits.

For example, some of the things that are destined for the time capsule include: a bottle of beer brewed by our Blind Brewers Club, tactile maps made for the TV show Daredevil and historical annual reports.

Please consider donating your LightHouse photos and memorabilia, including items associated with the Reading Room for the Blind at San Francisco Public Library and San Francisco Association for the Blind’s Blindcraft operation. Your donations may be tax-deductible and if requested at the time of donation we will gladly return original photos or negatives, after making copies. Contact Jennifer Sachs at 415-694-7333 or jsachs@lighthouse-sf.org.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”- A History of the LightHouse

1097 Howard Street

1097 Howard Street Circ. 1950, Credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library www.sfpl.org/sfphotos 

The following is a brief history of the various stops along the way to 1155 Market Street.

On August 18, 1902, Josephine Rowan and her husband Andrew created the very first iteration of what is now LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, by establishing the Reading Room for the Blind in the basement of the San Francisco Public Library. Josephine’s brother was blind, and his experiences impressed upon Josephine the need for the blind to have access to books, magazines and other literature.
Rowan photo
How to Be Happy Though Married,” San Francisco Daily News, 1931 January 13, MS 1836, Josephine Morris Rowan papers, courtesy, California Historical Society, MS 1836_002

Four years later the library burned down in the 1906 quake, and the Reading Room relocated to Jackson Street, where services expanded to include employment for the blind as basket weavers. By 1912, it was clear that services for the blind needed more space than the confines of a library, so the organization was re-incorporated as the “San Francisco Association for the Blind,” and in 1914, relocated to a small building on California Street between Larkin and Polk, with a small shop on Florida Street for a rattan weaving business known as “Blindcraft.” This move would prove invaluable, as the outbreak of WWI in August of 1914 pulled sighted weavers away from their work in an “all hands on deck” mindset to serve the war effort, allowing blind weavers to fill in this gap.

With blind U.S. veterans returning from WWI in need of services, and an influx of people moving to the Bay Area, the Association continued to grow until 1924, when the Cowell family donated the land and building located at 1097 Howard Street, “to meet the employment and social needs of the hundreds of blind who came to us for their every need.” In addition to making baskets, the Association fulfilled government contracts, including splicing and tying knots in rope for the use of ships at the rapidly growing ports in the Bay.

Read more about the Howard Street building.

In 1956, thirty-two years after moving to Howard Street, the San Francisco Association for the Blind relocated to Buchanan and Grove Street. Two years later they merged with Recreation for the Blind—a non-profit started by Rose Resnick that also included Enchanted Hills Camp—to become the “San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind.”

During the 50s and 60s, the San Francisco Lighthouse continued to grow its community and this included a blind drama group called Shadowplayers, which was established in 1953 and performed until 1990. By 1965, our mission coalesced into four principles: improving the employment, recreational and educational opportunities of the blind, while providing relevant services to increase blind people’s independence.

By the 1970s just providing services to the blind was insufficient. Civil rights and disability rights were in the national consciousness and this naturally led to a growth in social activism. San Francisco Lighthouse supporters and employees were instrumental in the disability rights movement. In 1977, Gil Johnson was one of 150 disability activists who sat-in at the Health, Education, and Welfare Federal building at UN Plaza. The demonstrations hastened President Carter’s Administration to issue regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a precursor to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. At the time, Gil was San Francisco Lighthouse’s Director of Rehabilitation/Social Services, later he would become LightHouse Board President. In a poignant bit of history, the new LightHouse Building at 1155 Market stands just across the street from the old Federal Building which disability protestors occupied in 1977.

Gil Johnson

Gil Johnson speaking at the 504 sit-in protests in 1977; Photograph by HolLynn D’Lil from her book, Becoming Real in 24 Days.

In 1980 San Francisco Lighthouse moved to 1155 Mission Street—coincidentally the same street number as our new headquarters office on Market Street—with the intention of expanding our services to children and families with children who are blind. We also grew our Orientation and Mobility and Information and Referral departments, which today serve thousands each year.

The 80’s were a critical time in San Francisco Lighthouse’s history and growth, as we became global pioneers in serving people with AIDS-related blindness. By 1984, we were committed to meeting the exponentially growing need for blind services during the AIDS crisis, and began looking for a location with more space. By 1987 our name changed once again, this time to “The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired,” and we consolidated all of our programs under one roof at Twenty 10th Street in SOMA. Then in 1993 we merged with the agency Rose Resnick had more recently headed, the Rose Resnick Center, incorporating Rose Resnick’s name for a time into our official name and relocating to 214 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Here we expanded our services to include more focus on community outreach and braille production.

While LightHouse has had eight major moves in our 114 years, every move has been as intentional as our current move to 1155 Market Street. When Josephine Rowan started the LightHouse in 1902, she was concerned with making books accessible to the blind. As she continued to expand blindness services throughout the West, she developed a relationship with Helen Keller, who encouraged Josephine to grow her organization to include employment opportunities (Blindcraft), social gatherings (like Enchanted Hills Camp), and community events (like sponsoring the 1940 Golden Gate World Expo).

As far back as 2007 the LightHouse began to imagine a new building that could house our growing services, and be technologically advanced enough to carry us fully into the 21st Century alongside our Silicon Valley compatriots. The financial markets had other ideas, and we were forced to table our dreams until interest rates lowered from more than 10 percent down to below 4 percent. Nine years later, in 2016, we are poised to move into our expanded headquarters, which will serve blind people from across the country and world.

Our new location will enable us to teach more blind people the independence skills they need to thrive. We will be able to invite people to stay overnight while they participate in intensive blindness training—a dream 100 years in the making. Our technology and STEM labs will empower intrepid blind youth to engage fully in the sciences and technology fields that run Silicon Valley. Our outreach to Deaf-Blind individuals, while already robust, will be even stronger with the latest technologies for deaf and deaf-blind individuals. Already groups from across the world are eager to learn from and tour our new space, which is being globally recognized as one of the most subtly-designed buildings built by the blind anywhere in the world.  And finally, our space is large enough to help support other organizations by lending space and shared resources.

Title of this article taken in part from the book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel)