by MELVIN J. MAAS
as told to Paul F. Healy
The Saturday Evening POST
September 5, 1959
Dont Pity Us Handicapped
A retired and blinded marine general offers his personal case as evidence that the disabled are people like everyone else.
The telephone rang in my room at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and when I answered I heard an old friend, Robert Copsey, a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, asking what I was doing there.
Bob, I told him, you remember how I always admired beautiful women. Well, now all women are beautiful.
Copsey got the point that I had gone blind, and that I was adjusting to my condition and no longer felt sorry for myself. Since that day in September 1951, quite a number of people have seemed startled by my ability to take my blindness lightly. They express astonishment, too, that I continue to travel alone all over the world in the last seven years I have covered 600,000 miles, to Europe, Central America, all United States territories and every one of the states. This travel without any escort, human or canine, has been part of my job as chairman of the Presidents Committee on the Employment of the Physically Handicapped.
What the public doesnt seem to realize, I find, is how millions of severely handicapped persons have readjusted their lives and have the ability of playing a positive, productive part in society. In my own case, the fact that I could joke about my trouble was the first sign that my rehabilitation was getting under way. It was a most welcome sign, too, because when I first learned that I was doomed to darkness, I was terrified and afraid that I would never be able to make the transition to a strange new life.
My blindness occurred with little warning in the middle of a busy career. For sixteen years I had been a congressman from Minnesota, and for ten of those years had served on the House Naval Affairs Committee. I had been a flier in both world wars, and after the end of World War II had been active as a brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve. Then, in July of 1950, just after the Korean War broke out, I was recalled to active duty in the Pentagon as chairman of a Defense Department committee assigned to draft an armed-forces-reserve reorganization bill.
While testifying for this bill during the summer of 1951 I developed a severe case of ulcers and on August twenty-eighth was admitted to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. That very day my eyes began to hemorrhage, and the sight of my right eye began to fail.
Two weeks later a Navy doctor sat down by my bed and said bluntly, You*re a marine and supposed to be able to take it, so we*re laying it on the lineyou*re going to be completely blind, and in all probability it will be permanent. I was stunned speechless. The doctor went on to explain that the blindness apparently had no connection with the ulcers and might have been caused by anyone of a hundred things, including bombing injuries I had suffered on Okinawa in World War II. When the doctor left, my first feeling was one of desperation. I had terrible visions of sitting on a street corner~ selling pencils or shoelaces. For two nights I lay in a cold sweat. I never actually contemplated suicide, but I was all too aware that I was in a room next to the one from which a depressed James V. Forrestal, former Secretary of Defense, had gone to his death through a window in 1949.
My two immediate worries were that my income would be cut off and that I would be rejected socially. For the first time in my life, at fifty-three years of age, I faced the prospect of being utterly useless. I was afraid that I would be unable to support my family and would be a burden to them as well. I wondered if my family might not be better off if I were dead and they had my life insurance.
This period of black depression might have clamped down on me for weeks or even monthsbut I was too busy. I was still working on that reorganization bill. I was on the telephone all day every weekday, discussing its progress with the congressmen who were guiding it through the House.
On the third night my panic ended. I was able to summon up a philosophy that had helped me before. It is: If you are faced with a problem and can do anything about it, get busy and do it. If your problem is something you can*t do anything about, then it is senseless to worry about it.
I began to wonder what I could do about my problem, and I began to experiment. I still had some sight in my left eye, but I wondered what life would be like when that was gone. One morning I kept my eyes tightly shut as I got out of bed; I went to the bathroom and showered, shaved and brushed my teeth without peeking once. This test brought me profound relief. If I could do that much without any trouble, life couldnt be so bad.
My re-evaluation of myself started. First I realized that I wouldnt be penniless, as I had imagined during the period of initial shock. Any officer in the armed forces who is retired for total disability nets 75 percent of the base pay of his retirement grade, and this is exempt from income tax. As it turned Out, I had reached the rank of major general by the time I retired, and thus began drawing approximately $900 a month, tax-free. Also, some years before I had bought an accident-insurance policy that brings me a substantial monthly income.
Meanwhile, the psychological readjustment with my wife, Kathy, and my four children was starting out well. Kathy set an example by treating me just right with encouragement and adequate sympathy but without coddling or maudlin sentiment. One day she brought me a brochure, which described the rehabilitation course at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Hines, Illinois. My religionI am a Catholichas taught me that if I had the will to take advantage of the compensations, God would give me the strength and confidence. The brochure said that upon completion of the Hines course a person should be able to do everything he could before he went blind except drive a car. The course lived up to its promise.
My training at Hines started in November 1951, as soon as I was able to leave the Naval Hospital. And at Hines I found myself-witlf2T500 othersmostly Korean War veteransin the same predicament as myself, but learning things, which make it possible for them to lead an almost normal life. Their constant self-kidding was wonderful for the morale of all of us. The whole course was designed to give us confidenceto rid us of the fear that we might become social pariahs. Even the compulsory dancing class with the Red Cross girls had this aim, though it took me a while to appreciate it.
The first of these dances, when a Red Cross girl asked me to dance, I tried to beg off with the old chestnut, I broke my leg in China. She didnt back down but pulled me to my feet with the remark, Oh, come on, general. If you enjoy dancing, you close your eyes anyway. After we had danced awhile, my partner asked me how I was getting along at Hines, and I admitted that I was having some trouble learning Braille. Just remember one thing, she quipped. Confine your practicing to paper. At Hines I soon acquired a state of mind, which, I am convinced, is one of the most important mental aids to the handicapped. I learned to regard my existence as a continual challenge, full of the excitement of discovery. When I woke up in the morning, I asked myself, What new things can I learn todaythings that I once thought could be done only with sight?
In fact, I sometimes tried to do more than the course permitted. Thats how I came to drive a car. One January day my instructor took me on an assignment in an outlying neighborhood. He parked his car at an angle. When we returned, a heavy snow was falling. The car*s wheels spun when we tried to back out, so I persuaded the instructor to get out and push while I took the wheel. I was able to back the car into the middle of the street. Then I couldnt resist shifting gears and driving forward a short distance. The instructor got back behind the steering wheel with a memorable sigh of relief.
The Hines brochure had not bothered to rule out flying an airplane, and I had never heard of anyone literally flying blind. Yet, one time when I was returning from Hines to Washington, D.C., in a Marine Corps transport plane, I suddenly got the urge to take the controls again. After all, I had logged between 8000 and 9000 hours as a marine pilot, and some of those hours had been fairly exciting. In fact, one of them had been downright stupid. That was back in 1931 when some of my colleagues in the House of Representatives scoffed at my notion that an enemy plane could get close enough to bomb the Capitol. To show them, I borrowed an old pursuit plane from nearby Bolling Field and made three screaming runs on the skylight of the Rouse while it was in session. Members told me later the vibrations shook some plaster from the ceilingand emptied the House in record time. Foolish though this stunt was, it proved my point.
Well, on this trip back to Washington in 1952 I asked the pilot, whom I knew well, to let me take his seat. He yielded, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. After about ten minutes the copilot leaned over and said respectfully, General, youve made a ninety-degree turn to the right. Following the usual procedure, I twisted the controls over to the left and held them there for fifteen seconds to compensate. I said, Well, son, hows that? He replied, Fine, general, except that youve made a 150-degree correction. When I returned to the cabin, I sat with a group of young marines hitchhiking a ride back to the capital. I said, Boys, you dont know it, but youve just been piloted by the blindest blind pilot in the business. They laughed and one of them spoke up.
But, general, he said, you were doing swellespecially on that 360-degree turn. This was interesting news. The copilot, a first lieutenant, apparently had been too shy to tell a blind general that he was flying in circles.
So I gave up flying. But I have never given up reviewing parades. At first it seemed silly, but now it seems perfectly natural. I can enjoy the music, and my memory of thousands of other parades helps me to visualize the scene. In fact, with someone giving me a description of whats passingand nudging me when to salute the flagI can practically see the whole thing.
Despite my blindness, I was kept on active duty at the Pentagon until August 1, 1952, because my advice was needed on technical amendments to the Reserve bill before it finally passed the Senate. During the next three years I was recalled to active duty to serve in full uniform at meetings of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, of which I was a member. Also, I served intermittently on active duty as a member of promotion boards in the Marine Corps.
One day an Army general remarked that I was probably the only general in history to remain on active duty while blind. Oh, no, general, I said, only the first to admit it. When the Presidents Committee on the Employment of the Physically Handicapped was created in 1947, President Truman had appointed me as a member, presumably to represent the military reserves. In April 1954, President Eisenhower asked me to step up to the job of chairman. I tried to convince the President that a sighted person could do a better job than I could. But I lost this argument with Ike, who had been a friend of mine since he was an Army major assigned to the War Department.
Our committee does not find specific jobs for the disabled. Its purpose is to educate employers in the practical advantages of hiring the handicapped. Our program is carried on through radio and television programs donated by industry, free advertising and newspaper space job opportunity tips handled through the AFL-CIO, consultation with state and lo cal governments and many other ways.
The committee has fifteen salaried workers plus its non-compensated chairman and 300 committee members representing civic, fraternal, labor, veterans and other national groups. Mine is primarily a public-relations job. I give three or four speeches a week before all types of luncheon and dinner meetings. Almost all my trips are by air, and I am usually met at the airport by members of the group I am scheduled to address. My first European trip after becoming blind was in 1953. After attending an international veterans rehabilitation conference at The Hague, I went on to Paris to take up a military matter with my boyhood friend, Gen. Alfred Gruenther, then supreme commander of NATO and now president of the American Red Cross. After chatting with me for a while, Gruenther asked, Whos with you, Mel? No one, I said. No one? he echoed. From the tone of his voice I could tell that he didnt believe me. So I explained that on my first trip as a blind man an escort had come along, but had become so airsick that I had to take care of the escort. After that I had decided to go it alone.
Only once has there been a serious mix-up in my solo travel arrangements.
In December 1957, I flew to Guatemala City to address an Inter-American conference. I had been told the reception committee would include quite a number of lovely young ladies. But no one at all was there to greet me at the bottom of the ramp. I followed the other passengers into the terminal by the sound of their heelsbut still no one welcomed me. For the first and only time in my foreign travels, I felt keenly my total ignorance of foreign languages.
After standing around helplessly, I recalled the name of the hotel I was booked into, and desperately began calling out, San Carlos Hotel! San Carlos Hotel! Nothing happened. People must have thought I was a barker for the hotel.
After a half hour, however, a perceptive taxi driver took pity on me and delivered me to the San Carlos. There my hosts explained the mix-upI had not been expected until the next day.
In the United States if no one meets me at the airport, I ask a skycap to get me a taxi. The taxi driver, the hotel doorman and the bellhops take over from there.
When the bellhop shows me to my room I ask him to take me completely around it, identifying each piece of furniture.
When he leaves the room, I feel my way around the walls again. After that its just as if I could see the room.
When I travel, my schedule usually puts me in a different city every day.
Early one morning I woke up and couldnt remember where the bathroom was in the room I was occupying. Then I realized I didnt even know what city I was in. Having no alternative, I called the switchboard operator and timidly asked her where I was. Before she told me I was in Cleveland, Ohio, I could overhear her turn to another operator and say, Boy, has this guy been on a bender! One of the first problems I faced in traveling was that the hotel maid invariably put my bedroom slippers some place where it was almost impossible for me to find them. Now, before I leave my room I make a point of hiding my slippers from the maidusually in a dresser drawerbefore she can hide them from me.
Like other physically handicapped persons who get around, I find that the biggest hazard is the well-meaning but thoughtless person who is determined to help me. It seems to be a natural inclination to grab a blind person by the arm and shove him along. But if Im shoved out in front of a sighted person, it means I come to the curb first, or I am pushed, into revolving doors ahead-of him. However, if he lets me take his arm, then Im a half step behind him and can tell by the feel of his arm anything hes about to do, such as turning or going downstairs.
For some reason its very hard to get people to do that. I finally -got to the point where I just let them shove me.
Ive come home from trips with my eyes black and blue or my-flesh bruised. Once I suffered a broken rib. A fellow judged to be about six feet, six inches tallnearly a foot taller than I amheld me in a vise-like grip and propelled me toward a door.
He went through the center of the door, but I slammed against the doorjamb.
Many people tell me I do not look blind at first glance, and nothing tickles me more than to be mistaken for a sighted person. When I go to the hotel dining room, for example, I ask a waiter to read me the menu. One waiter misunderstood and said apologetically, Mister, Im just as ignorant as you are,
I dont wear dark glasses or carry a white cane. A long cane gets in my way in airplanes, in restaurants, and so forth, so I use the collapsible leg of a camera tripod. It can be folded and put into my pocket when I dont need it to warn me of steps and to measure the height of curbstones.
From the beginning I was determined to avoid the telltale characteristics of
the blind. At Hines, my instructor drilled me in turning my head toward the person I was addressing, watching the smoke curling up from my cigar and in other habits of the normal person.
To avoid using Braille notes on the dais, - I memorize the substance of my speeches. As soon as I have been introduced, I usually say, I know what Im talking about because Im handicapped too. Then as a sympathetic hush settles over the audience, I add, Ive got false teeth! I can hear the tension snap. A burst of laughter follows, and from then on Ive got my listeners where I want them.
Some of my more amusing experiences are woven into my message. Once, for example, when my wife drove me to the Washington airport for a trip to Miami, Florida, she discovered before I boarded the plane that I was wearing a brown checked sport jacket with gray trousers, gray vest and gray accessories. Although I use Braille labels on my coat hangers to prevent exactly this sort of confusion, I had made a mistake that morning. So I had to go on to Miami in my scrambled ensemble. When I rose to speak on the program I explained what had happened.
And you know what my wife said to me? I told the audience. She said,
"Now youre not only blind but color blind!" Humor is a wonderful safety valve for a handicapped person. At a West Coast factory I was with a blind youth who was pushing a paraplegic to the cafeteria in a wheel chair, the paraplegic giving the directions. When the wheel chair bumped the wall slightly, the paraplegic wisecracked, Hey, look where youre going! If you dont like my driving, the blind youth shot back, get out and walk.
It would seem obvious that sighted people should immediately identify themselves when addressing a blind person, but they often forget this amenity.. Sometimes the results are funny. Not long ago a blind former Army pilot gleefully told me about going to a cocktail party where a woman greeted him by throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him.
He- reciprocated. But when the woman broke from the affectionate clinch, he amused onlookers by inquiring, Say, just who are you?
She was, of course, an old friend, but not until she spoke could he be sure which old friend. I told him I could appreciate his problem because Ive had the same pleasant experience several times.
Learning to compensate for lack of sight has been a constant challenge. Formerly when traveling -I would read or look at the landscape. Now I have trained myself to use this time to concentrate on the tasks at hand or to meditate. I believe I have learned to think more clearly than I could before I became blind.
A by-product of this concentration has been a tremendous development of my memoryit has become far more retentive than I ever imagined it could be.
For example, while I was on the Reserve Forces Policy Board, several members once challenged my -detailed recollection of the testimony a general had given-the day before. They got out their copies of the generals statement and discovered that I was right. Dr. Arthur Adams, then chairman of the board, was deeply impressed and asked me how I remembered the involved testimony so clearly.
Well, Mr. Chairman, I said. I have an advantageIm not handicapped by sight.
Since I cant use a telephone directory, I have trained myself to remember some 200 telephone numbers and as many extension numbers. Also, I have developed my own system for dialing, which is faster than that used by the normal sighted person. If you doubt this claim, let me explain that I dont have to lose any time looking for the next number, and instead of waiting for the dial to spring back by itself after each movement, I move it back with my finger to give me the reference point for the next digit.
Thanks to modern science, my life at home is anything but that separate dark world which traditionally was thought to be the lot of the blind. I am virtually self-sufficient in my soundproofed office in the basement of my Washington suburban house, where I live with Kathy and my eighteen-year old son, Melvin, Jr. My three daughters are now on their owntwo are married and one is a captain in the Marine Corps.
Surrounding my chair are a Braille writing machine, a dictating machine, a pocket-size tape recorder, an intercom connecting me with the upstairs, a radio and the audio part of a television set.
There are many TV discussion programs and detective plays which, with a little imagination, I can enjoy probably as much as people who watch them. And I take ineffortlesslymore good literature than ever before by listening for hours on end to my talking book records which, incidentally, are provided free by the Library of Congress to all blind citizens of this country. On the whole, I am busier perhaps than I ever have been. I belong to seventy-two organizationslocal, national and international and am quite active in twenty of them.
The degree to which a handicapped person can become usefully busy obviously is the most important key to his readjustment. On the Presidents committee, we define a physically handicapped person as one who has a condition which makes normal employment difficult. We believe the committee deserves some credit for the fact that, since its start in 1947, employers in the United States have been hiring the handicapped at a rate which now runs close to 300,000 a year. Approximately 7,500,000 handicapped persons are now employed in this country, and we know of another 2,000,000 who are employable if the right jobs are found.
The appalling additional fact is that on the basis of door-to-door surveys we estimate there are another 2,000,000 hidden handicapped who are unreached by doctors and government agencies. These are unfortunates, suffering blindness, epilepsy, palsy, and the like, who have been hidden away in back rooms or attics because their relatives imagine that some social stigma is attached to such conditions. So we apparently have a long way yet to go in convincing all Americans that the handicapped are human beings like everyone else and have the same hopes, dreams and need for dignity, asking only a positive role to play in society.
When a person objects to working alongside a handicapped worker, he usually explains that he is afraid an accident will happen. But this is only an excuse and has no foundation in fact. After searching workmens- compensation-law statistics all over the United States, we have yet to find a case where a handicapped worker caused an accident to a normal worker. Indeed, in the Hughes electronics plant in Los Angeles, 27 per cent of the work force is physically handicapped in some way, yet that plants insurance rates have been reduced several times because there hasnt been an accident among these workers in ten years.
No, I think the reason why a normal person is uncomfortable in the presence of the disabled goes deeper than the purported fear of accidents. There is a feeling that these people are basically different. It may well be a psychological factor that can be traced to an early exposure to the grimmer kind of fairy tales, in which deformity invariably is associated with ugliness and evil.
Despite my concern for this humanitarian aspect, we keep our pitch for hiring the handicapped on a purely practical basis. Not only do they have a better accident record than their coworkers but the handicapped out-produce them, and demonstrate more ingenuity in doing a job better or faster. Actually, of course, every handicapped person is of necessityan inventor.
My own success in drastically rebuilding my life is by no means unusual. In fact, whenever I pride myself on doing well, I hear about somebody who puts me to shame. Three years after my blindness, I confessed some momentary feeling of inadequacy to a thirty-year-old acquaintance who has been blind since he was two and could do amazing things.
He laughed and said, Oh, well, youre just a novice. Wait until youve been blind for twenty-eight years. But at least in my worst moments of discouragement, I never said to myself, Why did this have to happen to me? After all, I feel there are few people who have had a more exciting life than I have had. Long ago I decided I had more than my share of good fortune, and I still have. My greatest compensation comes from people who approach me gratefully after a speech. Many a mother has said that I have given her hope for the future of her blind child. Others have said, Ill never feel sorry for myself again. My seven-year-old grandson, Marty Martino, summed it all up better than anyone else. When he got on my knee and I explained how I was able to get around, he said, Ive got it, grandfatheryou can see with everything but your eyes!
Despite his blindness Maas travels alone on his speaking tours in this country and abroad. He never wears dark glasses and, instead of a cane, he uses a compressed leg of a camera tripod.
The author with his wife Katherine (left) and their daughter Patricia on the day of his retirement in 1952. He had continued at his Pentagon job one year after he lost his sight. Patricia is now a captain in the Women Marines.
1898 - Born, May 14.
1919 - Graduated from St. Thomas College at St. Paul.
1927-1933 Republican to Congress; unsuccessful candidate in 1932.
1932 - Received the Carnegie Silver Medal for disarming a maniac in the United States House of Representatives.(see note 1 below)
1935-1945 Republican to Congress; unsuccessful candidate in 1944.
1918-1919 - World War I, served in the aviation branch of the Marine Corps.
1925 - Officer in the Marine Corps Reserve.
1942-1945 - Served in the South Pacific as a colonel in the Marine Corps.
1949 - Became a member of the Presidents Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped.
1951 - Stricken with total blindness in August at age 53.
1952 - Retired from military reserves, rank major general, August.
1953 - Vice President, BVA
1954-1964 - Served as Chairman of the Presidents Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped.
1958 - Melvin J. Maas, Chevy Chase,
Maryland; Named on BVA Congressional Charter.
1960 - President, BVA
1964 - Died April 13.
Biographical directory of the United States
and BVA Bulletin August 1995, 50th Anniversary Issue.
Major General Melvin J. Maas
Congressman from Minnesota for16 years
Lost eyesight in 1951 at age 53
Pilot in WWI and WW II
Interviewed for article: "Dont Pity us Handicapped"
Saturday Evening Post, September 5, 1959. page 30
Paul F. Healy author.
Head of the Presidents Commission on the Employment of a Physically Handicapped
(Note 1) In December 1932, a twenty-five-year-old department store clerk entered the House gallery waving a loaded pistol. Dangling one foot over the railing, he demanded the right to speak. A mad scramble for the cloakrooms ensued. Melvin J. Maas, a member from Minnesota, quietly talked the man into surrendering his weapon. Asked by a reporter later whether he had had experience handling deranged people, Maas replied, "Why not? I've had six years in Congress." (Inside Congress, Ronald Kessler, 1997,Pg. 63)
Research by: Paul W. Kaminsky FRG