President of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, Stephen O. Benson was born in Kewanee, Illinois, in 1941. Blind from birth, he attended the Chicago Public Schools using large print books through the first four grades. He was not excited about attending Braille classes the next year, but he did so and for the first time in his life learned to read well. He also began to learn the other skills of blindness, which he found more efficient than using sight. In high school Benson was barred from taking physical education although he would have liked to do so. He found this prohibition disturbing and nonsensical since he was permitted to take the Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) course, swimming in the same pool that the physical education classes used. In fact, in Boy Scouts he was able to earn his swimming merit badge and took life saving. Benson found R.O.T.C. a positive experience and enjoyed scouting, but he never could understand why regular physical education classes were off limits.
In 1965 Benson graduated from De Paul University with a major in English and a minor in education. Before he decided to specialize in English, he had intended to major in psychology. The state rehabilitation agency for the blind threatened to cut off financial assistance to him because of his change in plans. According to the experts, blind people could not teach in public schools, and as a result, the rehabilitation officials refused to finance such an absurd major. Benson remembers that his attitude at the time was
"I dare you to try to stop me!"
and the government agency backed down.
After graduation he prepared himself for the usually difficult task of job-hunting. Surprisingly, he found employment rather quickly, however, as a tenth-grade teacher of honors English at Gordon Technical High School in Chicago. But teaching was not satisfying to Benson. In 1968 he sold insurance while looking for another job. He took one in 1969 with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois, teaching Braille and techniques of daily living. His title was Rehabilitation Specialist. He continued to work at Hines Blind Rehabilitation Center, Veterans Administration Hospital, until 1983. In 1984 he became assistant director of the Guild for the Blind in Chicago.
Benson married Margaret (Peggy) Gull in 1984. They have one child, Patrick Owen, born in 1985.
Benson first joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1968 when a new affiliate was being formed in Illinois. He was immediately elected to the state board of directors. From 1974 to 1978 he served as President of the Chicago chapter, after which he became President of the N.F.B. of Illinois, a post which he has held ever since. He was first elected to the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind in 1982.
Benson has received many honors and appointments. In 1963 and '64 he was president of Lambda Tau Lambda fraternity. From 1976 to 1981 he served on the governing board of the State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Illinois. He has served on the Advisory Board of the Illinois State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and on the Advisory Board to the Attorney General's Advocacy for the Handicapped Division.
"Although I have had good blindness skills for many years,"
"my involvement in the N.F.B. has imbued me with confidence and perspective on life and blindness that have focused my activities and energized my efforts on my own behalf as well as for other blind people."
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