By Teddy Jacobsen
Colorado Community Media (Via AP Storyshare)
It only takes an introduction and a few minutes of talking with historian Peggy Chong to learn something new.
Chong, also known as The Blind History Lady, can easily rattle off countless names and stories of blind people throughout history. For instance, you may know Stevie Wonder but you probably don’t know Gov. Elias Ammons. Chong has researched the stories of the blind for over three decades. She excitedly shares their biographies with anyone willing to listen, primarily through a monthly email list.
“People often find the stories hard to believe, that there’s something special about these blind people,” Chong said. “If you read on, you do find that there was something special about them because they just never quit.”
Chong, who lives in Aurora, was born blind into a family that understood her struggles. Three of her four sisters and her mother were also born blind. Chong said the support and connection she received from her family is rare for the majority of blind people.
“Everything you do feels like you’re reinventing the wheel,” Chong said. “And you may not have a community around you to help you not feel that way.”
Almost 8% of the U.S. population are visually impaired in some way, according to Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.
Just over 4 million Americans aged 16 to 64 have a visual disability and another 3 million people 65-years-old and older have one, according to the National Federation of the Blind.
Chong said most people go blind later in life due to health issues or injuries. She said it is easy for people to lose faith in their abilities because of a stigma about what blind people can do.
“Too often we’re told that a blind person can’t do that, but blind people throughout the years have accomplished so much in their work,” Chong said.
The main stories she tells involve the jobs and work that blind people have had over the years.
Over 70% of potentially employable adults with a visual disability in the United States do not have full-time jobs, according to Cornell University’s U.S. Disability Statistics.
Chong said sharing stories of blind people inspires people today to work the jobs that they want to do, in spite of the adversary.
For example, Chong said most Coloradans don’t know the state had a blind governor. Elias Ammons was the 19th governor of the state, serving from 1913 to 1915. Although he had some vision, Chong said, it was not enough to read or recognize people across the room.
“The irony of some of the discrimination is unbelievable when you find out what these blind people accomplished later in their lives,” she said.
Chong moved to the state five years ago, where she almost immediately started searching through records in the Colorado Center for the Blind basement. She said she discovered records dating back more than 100 years.
She led the effort to digitize and transcribe the pages for blind people to read through optical character recognition, which is a system that scans printed text so it can be spoken in synthetic speech or saved to a computer file.
The project started four years ago, and Chong said she is almost done putting the files on the Colorado Virtual Library website.
President of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado Jessica Beecham said Chong’s work is vital for showing other blind people their rich history is out there and worth sharing.
“As a blind person, I never knew our history,” Beecham said in a press release. “I thought we as blind people were always the first to do or try anything. That is so lonely. But, through her research, I, and thousands more are learning that we have broad shoulders of our blind ancestors to stand on, inspiring us to climb higher and reach farther.”
Chong won the Jacob Bolotin Award at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Houston, Texas earlier this month. The award comes with $5,000 to help her advance her research into the history of the blind of the United States.
The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards honor individuals and organizations that are a positive force in the lives of blind people. The namesake of the award, Bolotin (1888-1924), is hailed as the world’s first physician who was blind from birth.
Each year the National Federation of the blind presents the awards at its annual convention. This is the second time she received this award for her work, the first coming in 2018.
Her new project will take her to the Library of Congress archives in Washington D.C. where she will research and tell the history of an awards program through the Harmon Foundation from 1928-1932.
“This award means a lot to me,” Chong stated. “It represents the validation by my peers that my work to uncover the lost history of our blind ancestors is important.”
To join Chong’s monthly email list, send an email to email@example.com.