Page 1: Biography
White, Cyril Charles William
Piano tuner and repairer, advocate and worker for the blind
This biography, written by Esther Irving, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Cyril Charles William White was born in Hastings, Hawke’s Bay, on 7 September 1909. His parents, Ernest Alfred White, a carpenter, and his wife, Edith Mary Ritter, had four children; two, Cyril and his elder sister Gladys, suffered from congenital glaucoma. When Cyril was five, he and Gladys entered the Jubilee Institute for the Blind in Parnell, Auckland.
Cyril became proficient at Braille, typing, and tuning and repairing pianos. At this time residents at the institute had little contact with the outside world and were expected to spend their lives completely dependent on the charity of the institute; discipline was rigid. Clutha Mackenzie, who was appointed director in 1923, had a harshly controlling influence over the inmates. But Cyril was an independent young man and left at the age of 18. He ran a successful business working from the family home, which was now in Auckland, as a piano tuner and repairer, remaining somewhat aloof from institutional activities. The White family were Baptists, and Cyril was a lay preacher for some years. On 14 January 1939, at Papatoetoe, Cyril White married Alice Mayall. Alice was sighted, and would later travel overseas many times with her husband.
When in the 1930s radios became popular, Cyril White experimented with sound recording and reproduction. He also worked with the new ‘talking books’ that were starting to arrive in New Zealand. Although they greatly improved the access that blind people had to information, talking-book machines were rather cumbersome and heavy because of the long-playing records that were used. Furthermore, they were expensive to import, and thus beyond the range of many blind people. White was quick to see their potential. With a friend, he produced a talking-book machine prototype from old parts and by 1949 had manufactured several hundred sets, working from his home in Papatoetoe.
In the 1940s residents of the Jubilee Institute for the Blind were becoming increasingly vocal and united about their treatment, especially in relation to the paternalistic attitude of the institute management and the low pay and poor conditions. For one thing, workers in the outside world had the benefit of the 40-hour week, which the blind workers did not. There were stop-work meetings and strikes; resentment and anger mounted. In 1945 an attempt to advertise a meeting of the blind to seek relief from their situation was thwarted. However, on 8 October at a gathering in Newmarket, Auckland, a resolution was passed to form an association of the blind, which became known as the Dominion Association of the Blind (DAB). For the first few years the DAB had problems becoming established and there was friction with the Blind Welfare Committee and institute leaders, but in 1947 it obtained legal status.
Cyril White was among the early members. He rose rapidly to take office and had a considerable influence on the direction taken by the DAB. In 1953 he was appointed chief spokesman on the petitions committee to Parliament, and over the next few years led frequent deputations relating to blind welfare. As a result the means test on personal earnings was abolished, and the electoral laws to allow the blind to cast secret ballots were revised. The design of decimal currency was changed to enable blind people to handle money easily, travel and postal concessions were introduced, and customs duty was removed to allow a more realistic cost of talking books. There were also improvements in the broadcasts of church and news services. In 1955 the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind Bill became law.
From 1954 to 1963 and 1964 to 1967 Cyril White was president of the DAB. A powerful leader, he was also an intelligent and lucid speaker, had excellent debating skills, and was determined and sincere. An early issue to be tackled was representation of the DAB on the Board of Trustees of the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind (NZFB); Cyril White became the first blind person to be elected by the blind themselves. He gained not just concessions and privileges, but also established a sense of independence in blind people, creating opportunities for them to fulfil their potential and to be recognised as having equal rights with sighted members of society. One of his important recommendations was for the introduction of guide dogs to New Zealand. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association of New Zealand was formed in 1962.
In 1960 Cyril White joined the staff of the NZFB as technical adviser. He tested mobility aids, such as sonic devices, and was invited to change the talking book from the old long-playing record to the new magnetic tape system, a development White had already anticipated. He also designed and equipped studios for creating the books. These studios were opened at the NZFB site in 1966.
In 1969 Cyril and Alice White spent some time overseas, visiting libraries, talking-book studios and organisations for the blind. They then travelled to New Delhi, where Cyril was a delegate to the assembly of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, and where the International Federation of the Blind (IFB) was formed. He assisted in drawing up the important Charter for the Blind of the World, a 12-point document enumerating the ways in which the blind people of the world could take more control and direction over their own lives. He continued as a delegate to the IFB for 15 years and spent 5 years on the executive.
The NZFB’s library had been in the care of Cyril’s sister Gladys for 48 years. When she retired in 1973, Cyril, who had been library manager since 1966 when the library consolidated with talking-book services, took over her responsibilities and remained until his retirement in 1980. He kept active on behalf of the DAB, and continued his dedication to blind politics and welfare. In 1975 he was made an OBE for services to the blind, and in August 1983 the DAB (now the New Zealand Association of the Blind and Partially Blind) presented him with the first Beamish Memorial Medal, an annual award to a member who has made an outstanding contribution to society.
Cyril White’s determination that the blind and partially blind should have equality with the sighted had not always endeared him to those in authority. His independence of thought and his shrewd awareness of politics had often been met with impatience and even hostility. A man of stature and dignity, he had been a familiar figure in Parnell, highly respected by both blind and sighted people alike. He died on 5 July 1984 in Remuera, Auckland, survived by his wife, Alice. There had been no children.