Sarah’s Diary Episode Ten

Jenny wanted to take a break from the traits of innovators and the process they use to help students understand the challenges of getting innovations accepted. She was worried that the students felt that the innovation breakthrough was the end of the story. Unfortunately, that was rarely the case.

“Today I would like to share with you the story of an innovator. As you read the story, I want you to focus on the challenges she faced as in getting her innovations accepted.”  She handed the students the story off Bessie Blount.

In 1914, Bessie Blount was born in Hickory, Virginia. When she started elementary school, her teacher rapped her knuckles for writing left handed. Bessie had to learn to use her right hand even though her left was her dominant hand. She also taught herself to write with a pencil in her mouth. Little did she know that skill would become important later in her life.

Bessie’s formal education ended in middle school. There were no more resources to teach African American children. Undeterred, Bessie continued to study on her own and earn a GED. She studied nursing at a local hospital and then attended what is now Montclair State University to become a certified physical therapist.

Many of Bessie’s patients were World War II veterans with injuries that kept them from feeding themselves or performing other basic life functions. She taught them to use their mouth and feet to perform some of those basic functions – a trick she had taught herself.

Bessie invented an electric self-feeding device for amputees. She got a patent on the device, but the Veteran’s Administration refused to buy it. She then gave the rights to the French, who planned to use it in their military hospitals. When asked why she didn’t cash in on her invention, she replied, “Forget me. It’s what we as a race have contributed to humanity – that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets.”

Bessie went on to invent other devices which made the lives easier for those who no longer had full physical capabilities. In most cases, the Veterans Administration rejected using her patented devices.
At age 55, Bessie began a new career. She found a relationship between fine motor skills and some forms of diseases, especially neurological ones. She created a new analytical approach called medical graphology. Her analysis of handwriting became a vital forensic science tool.

Once the students read Bessie’s story, Jenny led a discussion of the innovation journey that she had taken. She asked the students, “Were you surprised by the struggle that Bessie had in getting her ideas accepted? What challenges did she face?”  The conclusion of the class was that innovators faced a number of challenges including:

  • Innovators may lack the pedigree that leads to acceptance.
  • Status quo protectors are likely to oppose any innovation.
  • Innovation acceptance is something that takes time.

What Jenny wanted to emphasize was that innovators must also be advocates for their ideas. “When you think of an innovator, the image that often comes to mind is someone who isn’t that social or comfortable around other people. That may be true, but they must realize that their innovation may not go anywhere unless they move outside of their comfort zone and advocate for it. Bessie’s persistence with her ideas eventually made them the forerunner of a series of devices available today for those who are physically challenged.”

“In our next class, I want to focus on how Hiram and Mable Malcomb developed advocacy skills in their children.”

* * *

“All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.” – Samantha Power (former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.