In the 1950s, the state Department of Public Welfare provided services for South Carolinians who were blind or severely visually impaired. The department’s Division of the Blind taught home crafts, supervised vending operations and placed clients in the Broom Shop. Services were buried within the welfare bureaucracy, and many individuals who were blind or visually impaired felt the situation was demoralizing.
At its 1964 convention, the South Carolina Aurora Club of the Blind, now known as the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, passed a resolution calling for the creation of a separate agency to serve individuals who are blind. Two obstacles had to be overcome: the hesitation of legislators to create more bureaucracy by adding another state agency and the fear by Public Welfare officials that losing a part of their constituency meant losing power.
In early 1965, state Sens. Walter J. Bristow and Earle E. Morris Jr., along with Reps. Owen Cobb and F. Hall Yarborough introduced the bill in the General Assembly. A public hearing on the matter resulted in the formation of a nine-member legislative committee charged with exploring the feasibility of creating a state Commission for the Blind. Sen. Morris served at the helm of the committee.
After careful study, the committee recommended establishing a new agency. The committee based its decision on data showing that only Mississippi and Hawaii exceeded South Carolina in the incidence of blindness per 1,000 people. Nationally, the state ranked among the top 10 states in the number of new blind cases reported.
On May 6, 1966, Gov. Robert E. McNair signed the bill creating the South Carolina Commission for the Blind. The agency’s first governing board was Dr. Sam M. Lawton, Spartanburg; R.F. Neidhardt, Columbia; Dr. Michael Holmes, Kingstree; Katherine Morrison, Columbia; and Doris McKinney, Greenwood.
Dr. Fred L. Crawford was appointed the first commissioner. He was succeeded by Henry Watts (1973-77), Maxine Bowles (1977-84), William K. James (1984-89), Donald Gist (1990-99), Dr. Nell Carney (2000-05) and James Kirby (2005-present).