An Interview with Josephine Lister Taylor
Interviewed by Michael Bina
MB: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Why do you think readers would like to know more about Jo Taylor?
JT: Well, you should be the one to know since you decided to interview me. But though I’ve been told many times that I’m a "legend in my own time," I think people hear that and want to see who that "legend" is.
Also they may have read some of my writings or heard me speak. And also since I’ve been in this field for well over fifty years, it would give a historical viewpoint of the development of professional preparation training programs.
MB: Does it make you feel uncomfortable when you are referred to as a "legend?"
JT: No, I laugh about it. You don’t know what the "legend" really is so I don’t pay too much attention to it. They never say it to me directly; it’s always when somebody is introducing me. One of the interesting things that might be part of my legend is that I’ve always been appreciated and people have always expressed it. And they’ve also expressed when I was "off on the wrong track."
MB: Off track, such as when?
JT: Oh, well there’s one in particular that I think of. This is while I was directing the program in New Jersey for twenty five years. We had many very severely handicapped children, what we then called retrolental fibroplasia youngsters. A group of parents had meetings once a month in different parts of the state. There was a home for children with asthma and it wasn’t filled to capacity, by any means. One of the parents who was a doctor—of course, I’ve always had to battle the idea that doctors know more than I do. This parent asked me if they could open up a wing for a group of children including his own son. I thought that these people don’t know what they’re getting into and I shouldn’t do it. The other parents in the group all kept pressuring me saying that you said you’d try to find a place for our children—and we found it. We went to look at the facility and started the program.
The program lasted for only a month. They got in touch with me and said that I had to get their children out of here. Well, I had hired staff, some of whom are in prominent positions today, like Jerry Mundy. I had hired him and a few others to help with the gym to give these kids physical exercise.
I had always sworn that I would not have an institution for blind children in New Jersey, but there was an institution that had been the vocational school for what they called colored youth and of course, they had to close that down. They had developed a boarding house training program for the highest level of students in the various state institutions for the retarded and they were going to train them to go to public school classes. They found a space for us on the third floor which had been condemned, but I took our needs to the head of that institution. I worked it out and also developed plans for a new building to be built on those grounds—which happened. I never saw it used, but it was a nice building so the earlier failure turned out to be resolved by many people coming forward to save it.
MB: Now with the benefit of hindsight, when you look back on your many years as a service provider and administrator, what would you do differently?
JT: Well, I made many mistakes and I repeated some of them several times because of pressures. There were great pressures and demand for staff and employees with more and more blind retrolental fibroplasa babies referred to us. We also had some families who moved in from other states because the parents knew that in New Jersey, the kids could live at home and go to a local school. This was the case unless they were not able to because they were too multi-handicapped, although later we might or could have accommodated them these children.
One challenge was that we often did not get good reliable references on new staff. Some of the hires unfortunately were not good. I learned to look more carefully how they were able to relate to children, to parents, to school administrators, or to their co-workers in the department. If I were going to give advice to administrators that is one of the main things I would advise. Be sure you really look into the applicant’s background.
MB: As administrators screen applicants, what do you advise they should look for during the interview process to ensure the very best staff get hired?
JT: Well, I think you really have to be sure that they have a clear clean vita, check into periods where there are gaps in employment. Find out how they relate to people. Letters from previous employers always don’t tell you the whole story.
MB: Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to observe applicants working with students as part of the interview process?
JT: Well, Dr. Joan Chase came to me for an interview for a job. I planned it on the day the psychologist was there. I asked her if she would she mind watching over this child while I talked to the parents. And after a while, she realized she was being observed, but she did didn’t alter her interactions. She did things the same way. Seeing applicants with the children, yes, is one of the best ways, I think.
MB: What else in your experience would you do differently?
JT: I wouldn’t change my basic philosophy about the education of visually handicapped children, which I have followed ever since I’ve been an administrator, which was about 1942, I guess. My philosophy is to get a thorough assessment of the child’s ability and disability, an assessment of the local school programs and facilities, the alternatives programs and facilities, and then find the one that meshes together the best. If they don’t, develop them. Keep the child in that educational program as long as things remain the same. That requires continuing assessments. You have to have an understanding that if the child is moved from one program to another, it’s not because the first one failed, but because of the changes in the whole life situation and pattern that made another program better. I wouldn’t change that. That was the case even with Chris, my own foster child. I had to take him out of the school where I was very fond of the staff and put him into a new program, because he had changed.
MB: What three things in our field would you fix? Let’s say I give you a wrench—well perhaps, I should apologize suggesting you use a wrench. Maybe this isn’t the appropriate tool for you.
JT: Oh, I used wrenches before! However, now that I have arthritis in my hands, I don’t use them. You should know I used to repair my own car. I even cleaned the spark plugs.
MB: Did you do other work on your cars?
JT: Oh, yes! I used epoxy— you know "Bondo" to patch the holes in the body.
MB: Body work, then.
JT: Yes, and if the tail pipe was falling off, I would just get some epoxy and put it back again.
MB: Where did you learn to do those kinds of things?
JT: I learned to do these things during World War II when I was a teacher at Perkins School for the Blind. Perkins was a half a block away from the U.S. Arsenal. We had to be prepared to evacuate the school in the case of an emergency. Even though I was only a teacher, Dr. Gabriel Farrell, the director, who knew me quite well and had great confidence in me, put me in charge of evacuating the campus to a shelter at the nearby Arsenal. I guess he knew I was bossy enough so that people would follow my instructions if I yelled it at them. I had unit directors so there were eight of us who had training through the Red Cross which had the total evacuation program for Watertown, the city in which Perkins is located.
At Perkins I learned to use wrenches and do body work. We had to take the course in automobile repair. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me as far as what I learned at Perkins.
MB: Do you agree that for our students with visual impairments, in particular, the development of vocational "hands on" skills in these areas are critical even if they are "college bound?"
JT: Oh, I agree especially for our students. Yes.
MB: What are three things you would fix in our field with your wrench?
JT: I’ve already mentioned that I would be careful about hiring the staff. I would suggest to administrators that they have to think of the child with all the assessments more than their schools. They have to think what is best for that child, more than what they need for their schools.
I would also start services the day diagnosis was made. I think these two things have improved for the field. And staff should develop the kind of relationship with the medical profession so that early referrals will be forthcoming.
I am going to talk mostly about New Jersey because 25 years of my professional life was spent there. We happened to be across the river from the Colombia University Eye Institute and there was a famous doctor there, Dr. Elgin Reese. He was famous for retinal blastoma. In the beginning for these retrolental fibroplasia children, the diagnosis was often made of retinal blastoma, because it looked pretty much the same in the eye. He got many, many referrals. After a couple, I got in touch with his office manager, who was a social worker also, and arranged for her to talk to the parents and refer them right away. We also had children who had been to many, many other places but none of them had good referral systems. I talked to all the ophthalmologists in the state and as many pediatricians as I could. I was responsible for a rather large program so it was only incidental that I could talk about early referrals and only if they invited me to speak.
MB: Did the ophthalmologists respond to your calls for earlier referrals?
JT: Not always, because in the first place, doctors hate to admit there is something they can’t handle. They didn’t want to tell the parents and the obstetricians didn’t either because they felt the parents would blame them. But usually the child is born in a hospital and through talking with the ophthalmologist; he would let the social worker talk to the parents. Then they would refer them to my agency, the Commission for the Blind. At first I was the only person they knew.
MB: So improving communication with the medical staff is key to get an early referral?
JT: Yes, and parents would continue an assessment of vision, hearing, health, the home school and so forth. I would also provide services wherever visually handicapped persons of any age live, wherever they happened to be. And this means a different kind of personnel, better and more appropriately and extensively trained. A training program for these staff probably would be a several year program.
They tell me Texas is supposed to be one with regionals centers, but I can’t believe that those children, get all the services they need with the limited staff they have and this of course includes O&M. And it would also make it possible, even if itinerant staff were coming out of a center, if you have several people there who picked up whatever was needed at the time. This would eliminate isolation and loneliness of being the only person trained in whatever area of vision they’re trained in, for hundreds of miles around. If you had several then they could spread out and you would still have a group for someone else to talk to, someone to discuss things with. That’s one of the things I would do.
Now there would be specialists, and they would get a better salary, of course, and other perks to make it possible to recruit people. I would also try to get people who already have roots in that part of the state that I was looking for staff hire.
MB: Are there any other things you’d like to change?
JT: Yes, I think I would have better communication with children and with their parents, with co-workers, teachers, school personnel, medical personnel and with everyone who has any contact with the child or adult. And this applies to all ages, all degrees of visual disabilities and also with people who are allied service providers. Better communication involves being able to listen. Most professionals, I think, like to expound and talk, and I’m guilty of course, but if you’re counseling, you have to listen and observe body messages and what is being said. If you have a compulsion to lecture, you’re in the wrong profession, get out. You have to learn to listen. Even in universities, seminars are better than lectures.
I also taught in a university—actually several universities. I think the new instructor sometimes is so nervous that he or she prepares a nice lecture and gives it, because then there isn’t a chance for somebody asking questions and not having the answer. I remember when I was teaching at Teacher’s College Columbia. One day I had this nice outline, day by day, and I started with a lecture and someone interrupted me and asked a question. I said "Oh, we’re going to discuss that thoroughly day after tomorrow. It isn’t in today’s notes."
I had been so well prepared because I was scared, you know it’s a frightful thing to start out on something like that. I think that in time, many get over it but I think that most young professors start out with a lot of lecturing so that they keep control of the situation. Just as many blind persons do a great deal of talking so that they can keep control of the situation because they don’t see the things that are going on and the glances between people.
It is something I think we need to work on with children as they are growing up and with newly blinded adults. They have to assume a normal amount of the conversation. I suggested to my foster son, Christopher, who is visually impaired, to ask other people question about themselves to be less focused on himself and more interested in them.
After some neighbors came over for a visit and I went into the other room, later Christopher told me that he did just what I suggested. He said he asked what our guests did in their jobs. I am very proud of Christopher. He has a learning disability among many others. He’s very multi-handicapped, but what a delightful young man he is.
MB: Tell us more about Christopher.
JT: I was the director of the program for visually handicapped children for the state of New Jersey and I had a staff of supervisors what we called educational counselors, which was an appropriate name for what they did. They were trained teachers of visually handicapped children who counseled and gave minimum service to those who needed minimum service or none to those who just needed a check to see if they were getting along alright. The staff covered the whole state.
One of the educational counselors brought to my attention a young boy who was visually impaired with other disabilities who was in need of a foster placement. When I first interacted with Chris I began doing some little games that I do with young children—"ride a cock horse" and few others and he laughed. Nobody had heard him laugh or cry out loud. One of the first interactions I had with him, I said to him, "Hi Christopher, hi Chrissy," and he stood up and I walked over to him put him on my lap. We definitely had a connection. He responded to me. He didn’t respond to anybody else, so what could I do? He chose me.
When I moved to Washington, he had been to regular nursery school where he did very little, but his speech did improve. Then he went to the Maryland School for the Blind when I came to Washington, and later he attended Perkins. (Smiling) That’s how he chose me.
MB: In your relationship with Christopher has this affected your sensitivities to parents?
JT: Well, I like to think that I was always sensitive to parents and I think most people would say so. Parents that I knew when their children were infants, who should be now in their mid-fifties, are still in touch with me and ask about me. I think that my good relationship with parents was perhaps because I didn’t have parents of my own and I felt their importance. So I don’t know if I am more sensitive.
MB: How would you describe yourself?
JT: I would say I’m intelligent—and shy. Most of the time when I get up to say something in a meeting which I do so often—I tremble—and my hands are clammy. I am most shy about meeting new people, especially on my own.
I’m empathic, forthright, a procrastinator, and interdependent. I’m independent, but in my later years I have learned to be dependent on friends and neighbors. Before I thought "I can do it, I can do it, now it’s okay to have other people’s assistance."
I’m also ethical and determined. I asked a good friend I’ve known a long time, Dr. Gideon Jones from Florida, and he said, "You are feisty." To which I replied, "Oh, no, I’m not feisty anymore!" And he said, "Oh yes you are!" So I will say, based on that, "feisty."
I also say that I’m foresighted and I am loved. Loved by many, many people. I am very fortunate that I have so many people that I love and so many that love me and usually they’re the same.
MB: When you described one of your experiences at Perkins, you used the phrase to describe yourself as "bossy."
JT: Well, I think I’m "bossy," but I’m not as "bossy" as I was. Now I would say that I am not "bossy", but "determined."
MB: You also described yourself earlier, as "Only a teacher."
JT: Well, that was the attitude we had then. I did say "only a teacher" being given huge responsibility for working out an evacuation plan and getting 500 people out of 20 buildings to a safe place away from the U. S. Arsenal. That’s why I used "only a teacher."
MB: Do you agree that teaching—influencing a child—is a huge responsibility?
JT: Yes, of course. I was a wonderful teacher—and yes, teachers play most critical roles.
I still know many of the people I taught who may not have thought some of the things were so important at the time, but now do.
MB: What don’t most people know about you?
JT: Well, I speak up about things. And that goes under describing myself as "forthright," too. I was brought up, raised, by grandparents. My grandfather had a very strong feeling and told me frequently about it. He stressed that if something is incorrect or wrong, and you know it to be, and you keep silent and do nothing about it, you’re just as wrong as the person saying it or doing it.
And I can’t seem to resist, getting up and letting people know that they are mistaken. Dr. Carson Nolan, President of the American Printing House for the Blind, said that if they had one award, they would give it to me as their "Most Positive Critic." The award would be for the critic whose criticisms helped them the most. You see he and a lot of people always thought— all the time—that I was being "feisty." But I have never been feisty unless I thought it necessary to get a point across when I knew people were mistaken.
MB: Are you saying that sometimes it was necessary—to improve services—to "step on a toe or two?"
JT: Well, sometimes they would think something wasn’t possible, but it obviously was. There was one, no make that, many situations that if Dr. Nolan and I sat down we could write a book about all the things that have changed because I fought for it. Of course there were many conversations even before he was manager of the Printing House. I was going there before he was even on the staff, so I guess if Margery Hooper wanted to add to the book, she too could.
MB: Would you share a little bit about your early years? What influenced you as a person and as a professional?
JT: A lot of people and circumstances influenced me. My parents, my brother and I lived in Seattle, Washington and just before my third birthday, my mother and I came down with diphtheria. That was in 1913, which was before they had vaccines for diphtheria. My father sent for my grandmother and she came out to help. I stayed in my room. There was a door with a window at the top that she would look through at me in the crib. She couldn’t send me to school because I was paralyzed from post diphtheria paralysis. So she taught me to read at home. This had a serious effect upon many years of my early education, because I was always a "misfit."
I couldn’t go to kindergarten because I wasn’t going to be five until December. It was World War I and there was overcrowding in the schools. I couldn’t go to first grade until I was going to be seven. I’d been reading then, you see, for four years— and reading advanced materials so that I was always in trouble. One day I got up and started to walk out of the room. The teacher, Miss King, asked me where I was going and I said I’m going home. She asked if I was sick. I told her I was not. I said first grade is boring. So she said you go tell Miss Ford, the principal, that and I did. Miss Ford called my grandmother, my grandmother got into her electric car and came to school and they discussed it. They promoted me to second grade.
The second grade teacher was not happy to have me. Every seat was filled but they put in a chair in the back. Unhappy with the school situation, we moved to California. I was in third grade and I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Hull. From then on, school was wonderful but that first year being "bounced around" and a "misfit," I’ve never forgotten. It was a nice ending with a teacher who really made school worth it—and I wanted to go.
MB: Did these experiences impact your empathy for students with disabilities?
JT: And kids who were "misfits."
MB: Were there any other things in your early years that had a significant impact on you?
JT: Well, I’d say that everybody that I’ve met has had an influence on me. In my professional life, children and their parents, my co-workers, personal friends and more specifically my first three bosses. I was very fortunate. I had three directors who listened when I had ideas how things that could make things better and let me try it. The first one was Catherine E. Maxfield, you probably know of her from the Maxfield Adaptation. She came to take over a blind babies nursery. There were a lot of those back in those days. They thought that the parents should take their babies to a special place and special people would take care of them. In early 1934 she planned to have it be a diagnostic and an outreach program for children who lived in their own homes. She had a little demonstration nursery school while the children were being assessed. She even had a cottage where the parents could live with their children while this was going on.
I started out as a housemother and I failed at that. I just kept fighting with the cook because she felt that the children had to be at meals on time and I had eight little girls and I felt that I had a responsibility to teach them to dress themselves, which meant they never got to breakfast on time. So finally, Catherine Maxfield was finishing out her contract with Perkins where she was head of Psychology. She finally came and saw the problem and promoted me to being a teacher. Well, I don’t know whether it was a promotion because I failed as a houseparent—but anyway I got to be a teacher.
Then she brought in Harriett Totman and Catherine Maxfield. They had both gone to Mount Holyoke and had studied under the young Dr. Samuel P. Hayes. Harriett had taught at Overbrook and then she went to Cleveland as a visiting teacher who worked with parents of the children who were in the public school program there and also worked with the pre-school children. Catherine brought her on to teach us some ways of planning some games that blind children could play with seeing children. She talked in the meantime about putting children in a regular kindergarten. Well that just fascinated me so I asked Catherine when we would be doing that. She asked me, "Is that what you meant by your outreach program?" I told her, "Yes" and then she asked if I would you like to do it. So I got to be what today we would call an itinerant teacher.
MB: So the people who had influences on you were the parents, the students you worked with and you mentioned some of your bosses.
JT: Yes, the next director was Gabriel Farrell. I’d been interested in blind children ever since the days when I was in boarding school. I skied on the same hills with blind kids from the school for the blind. I saw it as an exciting different world, so I had already decided that’s what I wanted to do.
I knew about the only place you could be trained was the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I hadn’t been the best student until my senior year. So I wasn’t even sure they would take me at Harvard but Catherine Maxfield wrote a fine letter about what an intelligent person I was. So they let me in. Then I really wanted to go back to New Jersey to work. There was a resource room opening, but the head of the Commission who also knew me because of my preschool work, knew that Dr. Farrell had offered me a job. Dr. Maxfield recommended that I teach at Perkins as this would prepare me to do a much better Job when I would return to New Jersey. So I didn’t really have any choice.
Dr. Farrell proved to be a marvelous administrator. I had a mixed group of kids. I had one who had never been to school with an IQ of 50 and another with an IQ up in the 90s with others ranging from 70 to 120, all this one classroom. One day the principal, Frank Andrews, who later became the director of the Maryland School for the Blind came over and said he would make some changes. They had a woman who was head of a progressive private school in Cambridge as an advisor and she advised they break the class into three groups. The idea was not to care too much about the academics but to broaden their interests and we had a wonderful time. I taught them ice skating, and I was a great skier. I let them ride on my skis behind the apple orchard and I taught them to swim, we had cooking classes and we had science experiments. These were nine and ten year olds. We had white rats and Guinea pigs. We wrote a science newsletter and we even had one subscriber outside of school. Well, it was a wonderful time.
In the meantime I had gone down to Columbia and studied about partially seeing children and I was very anxious that we should do something about those kids. I used to, on the sneak, have them reading print books and writing at the time that braille was the only option at the school for the blind. It really wasn’t "on the sneak," everybody knew it, including Dr. Farrell. The next year I could start a program for partially seeing children.
They asked me to review all the visually handicapped children in New England who were not attending Perkins. There were some children there who were really doing quite well, but needed extra help. So I talked with Farrell and Andrews and said I’d like to go see these kids a couple times a week. So we started a program of itinerant teaching. That was in 1941. Most people don’t realize that these itinerant services came out of school for the blind at that time. I also got two different kids out of the institutions for the retarded and into Perkins. I also got some who were severely orthopedically handicapped into programs being taught by teachers of adult blind. So by summer, he offered me a Job. I went back to New Jersey for twenty-five years and that’s another whole book.
MB: What would you describe as your proudest accomplishments?
JT: Well, there are many things in many phases of my life. I will always remember my teaching at San Francisco State and three different New Jersey Colleges. When I was at San Francisco State, I had a shock or two for me because I came from the New England area. When I was teaching in New York, I never had people coming to class with bare feet and wearing ragged, purposely ragged shorts. They were a bright group. It took me awhile to adjust to them and the fact that I was going to be interrupted all the time by their questions.
MB: It sounds like these students were questioning authority. Were there any "Jo Taylors" in the group?
JT: (Smiling) Oh I think probably so. Only I had that shy side so that I was less so than they. If I wasn’t so shy I might have been more of a rebel in my mind…
MB: …but not in your dress, like your San Francisco students?
JT: (Smiling) No, not so much!
MB: What advice would you give students who are blind or visually impaired?
JT: In the first place, I would tell them they need to learn to listen. Kinda funny since I’ve been talking rather steadily for several hours here. Students need to have peer relations, no matter where they go to school or whatever the situation.
MB: If you didn’t become a teacher of students who are blind or low vision, what do you think you would have become?
JT: Well, I never really wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I felt very strongly against being a teacher. I wanted to be a social worker. I had a scholarship to go to the University of Chicago, but I had a friend who was doing an internship at Yale and he got me a job there. It was during the Depression and I failed at being a houseparent, but I was successful as a teacher. And I think I was a very good teacher.
MB: You have gotten many awards.
JT: Yes, I have and it’s embarrassing.
MB: Why would your being honored embarrass you?
JT: I’m embarrassed by the number of them.
MB: But that many people who nominated you can’t be wrong.
JT: No, I admit that I was a leader!