Blind Pensions

By Irving Bennett, O.D.

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Dr. Gideon L. Lang, Jr.

In 1950, optometrists were not permitted by Federal Law to ascertain if a patient’s corrected visual acuity was sufficiently poor to qualify for a blind pension. Optometrist Gideon Lang of Concord, NC, a recently discharged veteran of World War II, had strong compassion for indigent people, and said openly that he worried about those who would lose their vision, their livelihoods and their dignity. He was irate when he learned that a law denied him the right to certify that a patient did not have enough visual acuity to qualify for a blind pension. Dr. Lang, the fighter that he was, decided to set out to change the law. And he did it—nearly single-handedly.

The North Carolina Optometric Society retained an attorney to see what could be done about the discriminatory regulations. Title 10 of the Social Security Act stated: “In determining whether a person is blind, there shall be an examination by a physician skilled in diseases of the eye.” This law was viewed to preclude optometrists from participating. The attorney advised Dr. Lang and his colleagues to go to Washington to change the law.

Off to Washington he went, accompanied by colleague Dr. John High of Rocky Mount, NC. What happened after is a historical gem. Getting to Ways and Means Committee Chairman (Robert L. “Muley” Doughton) was not easy, but Dr. Lang made friends with Congressman Doughton’s daughter Reba, who was also the Congressman’s staff person. It did not hurt that Dr. Lang was active in Democratic politics and that in the late 1940s he served as president of the Young Democratic Club in his county. It was his county that elected Doughton to the Congress!

Initially, the Congressman had difficulty understanding why there was need to change the Social Security Act, but with Reba’s assistance he became convinced of the discriminatory nature of the law. He placed the following language into HR 6000 of 1950: “In determining whether a person is blind, there shall be an examination by a physician skilled in diseases of the eye, or by an optometrist, whichever the individual may select.”

Drs. Lang and High notified MacCracken, the AOA lobbyist in Washington, of their surprising success. However, most AOA officials really did not grasp the significance of what Lang and High were trying to do. Doughton held no hearings on the bill in the Ways and Means Committee and allowed no debate on the House floor, demanding that the House either accept the bill or kill it. The bill passed without any problem and was duly sent to the Senate.

NC-Optometrist-With the bill equating optometry with ophthalmology half way through the Congress, AOA officials perked up their ears, joined forces with the North Carolina ODs, and together prepared for a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. “At this point, ophthalmology and the American Medical Association (AMA) rang the fire bell,” according to Dr. Lang. The bill could have died then and there except Dr. Lang learned that the administrative assistant to Senator Walter George of Georgia – the Chairman of the Finance Committee – was a former roommate of the wife of a prominent Athens, GA optometrist, named Chickie Matthews. What amazing good fortune!

The main opposition to the Social Security law change came from the AMA and the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness. Optometry reluctantly worked out a compromise version of the bill, and a “watered down” amendment was proposed to the Senate committee. The day before the hearings, Dr. and Mrs. Matthews came to Washington, entertained Senator George and his wife (and the administrative assistant and her husband), and afterward Senator George was on optometry’s side. The Senate hearing was held and the compromise was accepted and it looked like a done deal.

No one told Muley Doughton of the compromise deal. When HR 6000 came to conference, Doughton was true to his nickname. He refused to consider the “watered down” amendment of the Senate, and he argued for three hours in favor of the House version. The bill was passed by the conference committee containing the optometric amendment exactly has Doughton had proposed it: equating optometry with ophthalmology, the first federal law passed by optometry and signed by the president.

The law still stands today.

This is first in a series of short vignettes on historical events that occurred in the past sixty years of the profession of optometry. Readers looking for more information on the subject of this vignette can consult Hindsight: Journal of Optometry History, the official publication of the Optometric Historical Society. Copies of the article can be obtained by contacting David Goss, OD. Ph.D., School of Optometry, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405 or e-mail him at dgoss@indiana.edu.
A full report on this subject was written by Gideon Lang, O.D. and was published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association, Vol 60, Number 5, May 1989.
Dr. Lang died in June, 2009 at age 88 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Readers who have factual stories of the early years of the profession are urged to contact foundation@aoa.org.
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