Once in a great while there comes a dramatic change an event so striking in its effect that forever after a new direction is inevitable. But more often, change does not have the appearance of drama. Instead, there is a slight shift in emphasis an alteration of mood. Often the change that tips the scale is so slight that (at the time it occurs) it is completely unrecognized. Only later, with the long view of history, can it be seen that this was the particular moment, the watershed, the critical juncture.
Today, the world (whether Christian or non-Christian) counts time from the birth of Christ; but twenty centuries ago, at the time the event occurred, the vast majority of Roman citizens were totally unaware of it. Even if they had known, it would have seemed of no significance.
Fire is generally regarded as the essence of drama. Flames shoot dozens (even hundreds) of feet into the air, but fire is merely oxidation at a rapid rate. Although it is momentarily spectacular, its consequences are far less significant than those of other forms of oxidation. In the total range of rust, rot, leaf mold, and metabolism fire is (so to speak) only a flash in the pan, a momentary aberration. Of vastly more importance to the people of the world are the slow, unspectacular chemical changes which take place every day the oxidation of millions of tons of matter, occurring so slowly as to pass without comment.
This does not mean that drama is unimportant, that fire can be dismissed with a shrug and a yawn. Nor does it mean that the actions of everyday life have no effect or drama. The events which cause hope and despair, joy and depression, are of tremendous significance even when they pass unnoticed and without remark. The process of quiet but dramatic change is an integral part of being human. It is also the very essence of the National Federation of the Blind. The cumulative effect of the drama without fanfare which is reflected in the growth of our movement and the lives of its members is perhaps more spectacular than any other single event which the decades have brought, regardless of how pivotal and far-reaching that event may have seemed at the moment.
In 1940 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a handful of others formed the National Federation of the Blind. Only later was it fully recognized that these pioneers had done something so dramatic that the lives of the blind throughout the world would never again be the same. The spirit which came into being at our founding in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, took root quietly. There was no roll of drums, no clap of thunder, no blazing fire to celebrate the event only Dr. tenBroek and the small group who gathered with him to dream and plan for the future and take the first steps toward making it happen. They did not indeed, could not know what the final outcome would be. They were people of discernment and tremendous insight, but they could not have imagined that from that humble beginning would spring the organized blind movement of today the powerful fifty thousand-member National Federation of the Blind which we have become and now are. Still, they believed that a future could be created, that the years would not slip away with only emptiness for the blind, that it was possible for the blind to build and grow and come together in one great family. That dream, that faith, has partly been realized but the road stretches far ahead, and the rest is for us to do. And we will do it. We will do it by education and unspectacular change if we can. We will do it by more dramatic means if we must but we will do it. As Dr. Jernigan has so often said: We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens.
For forty-seven years we have been working quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) to win our way to first-class status in society. There have, of course, been public demonstrations, dramatic confrontations, and historic documents; but these have not been the primary vehicles of change and accomplishment. Instead, the individual hopes and dreams of blind people the cumulative effect of their unspectacular daily decisions and actions have come together to create the positive and powerful force which is represented here tonight. No one who is in this room or who is in any way connected with affairs of the blind needs to be told what that force is. It is the National Federation of the Blind.
When I joined the Federation in 1969, there had already been twenty-nine years of hard, dedicated work; and the results were plain. The Federation had built a solid record of accomplishment. There was a body of literature about blindness which undergirded and gave direction to our efforts. The ideas and basic assumptions contained in the writings of Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan had been put to the test. There was no doubt that blind people could compete successfully in business or the professions. The programs of the Federation had demonstrated that this was not speculation but fact. The theories worked. Blind people got jobs. The question was not if or whether but how and when. The problem of 1969 was to expand the scope of our activities. We needed more than a demonstration. We needed opportunity, and not just for a few.
In 1969, as I came to be part of the movement, I did not know that these things were true. Only in retrospect did I know it. In one sense I did not (when I joined this movement) understand the organization at all, but even in my ignorance, the Federation spoke to me with quiet force. For the first time in my life what I thought made a difference. It was absolutely astonishing to me that this was so that anyone would do something because I, a blind person, wanted it done. I did not understand the reason for such unusual behavior, or appreciate its significance; and although I was fascinated with the Federation, I must confess that I did not think it would change my life at least, not very much.
As I was growing up, I (like all others, blind and sighted alike) was conditioned by my culture and society. I hoped that there would be something interesting or important for me to do, but I was afraid that blindness might keep me from it. When I came to the Federation, I found blind people working and making substantive contributions. I was told that blindness need not be a terrible limitation. I hoped that the Federation was right, but I had doubts. Nevertheless, I said that I believed, and I tried to act as though I did. It was only later that I realized (with something of a shock) that the belief had come to be a reality in my life and a good while before I recognized it.
Dr. Jernigan taught me about blindness and the organized blind movement and there were others. I talked with blind people who were lawyers, teachers, factory workers, and farmers. At Federation meetings blind leaders spoke of the power of collective action. Soon I began to repeat what those around me were saying: that blindness could be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance, that with proper training and opportunity the average blind person could do the average job in the average place of business in short that it was respectable to be blind.
Then, I went to college at Notre Dame and it was a sudden plunge into ice water. On a campus with six thousand other students, I found myself completely isolated and alone. I could not find a single other person who understood what I thought I understood or believed what I said I believed, the simple truth that blind people had capacity and could compete. I met no one else who thought it was respectable to be blind. The coach in the athletic department told me that I should not take any gym classes because I might get hurt. When signing up for an accounting course, I was praised by the professor for my great courage. Then (without even changing gears) the professor promised me a good grade. I got the idea that I did not have to earn it, that just being there and being courageous would be enough. I worked hard to deserve that grade, and I worked hard for the other grades I got, too. It was an unforgettable experience; and although I have physically returned to that campus only once since graduation, I have (sociologically speaking) been back to Notre Dame many times through the years.
That first semester I learned with real force (I might say with dramatic force) that blindness could not stop me, but I also learned that prejudice and misunderstanding might. Something had to be done. The situation was intolerable. All of those professors and students had to be told. I needed help. I needed the National Federation of the Blind. As the years at the university passed, I became increasingly active in our movement. My priorities crystallized and became clear.
After college I did graduate work, and in 1977 I finished law school. In 1978, with the help of Federation members, I got a job in the office of the General Counsel at the Civil Aeronautics Board. With my philosophy and idealism in hand, I went to that job willing and anxious to work. I wanted to give of my time, my effort, and my energy. I wanted to advance myself and the cause of the blind. The Civil Aeronautics Board made United States civil aviation policy. Here, I thought, is an opportunity for me to do something really useful. However, I soon discovered that a pattern existed a pattern which reminded me of the professor who told me that I was courageous, and promised me a good grade. I felt right at home. It was just like being back at Notre Dame.
My assignments were almost always routine. If there was a trip to London for an international negotiation, somebody else was asked to go. If a hearing officer needed to take testimony in a small town to determine the feasibility of air service, I was never sent. These assignments (calculated to vary the routine) were highly prized and much sought after. Others went while I stayed home and was courageous. Sometimes there was not enough routine work to fill my day. So I was left to occupy my time as I chose. My superiors would have been content if I had spent my time listening to the radio or reading. They would have been content but I would not have been content. I did not want the rest of my life to be a sham and a deception, a guaranteed succession of endless raises and lack of meaningful work. Discrimination is not necessarily confined to the job interview or the entry level. It can also happen after employment is permanent and safe.
My job with the federal government was absolutely secure. It would have lasted until retirement through a long and rustful life. There was something else: we all tend to be conditioned by our environment. I knew that if I stayed long enough and my salary became high enough, I might begin to succumb to temptation and rationalize. I might become accustomed to the lack of useful activity and gradually lose my initiative, my sense of values, my perspective, my willingness to leave, and my soul.
Not only had the Federation taught me about blindness but also about self-examination, objectivity, and perspective. In 1981 I left the Civil Aeronautics Board to start my own law practice. I knew that I might starve, but I also knew that if I starved, it would be a starvation of the body and not of the soul. I knew that I would be free, and not a token or a cipher. Slavery does not have to be a matter of chains and whips. It can also be a captivity of the mind and a shackling of the spirit. Every person in this room can give testimony to that. We in the Federation have cut our teeth on it, and we never stop learning it. On a daily basis we continue to teach it to ourselves and each other, and we give it in strong doses to new recruits. This is why some, who do not understand our philosophy, call us militant.
In the practice of law my dream that I might do something worthwhile and useful came true. Again, Federation members and leaders helped and encouraged me. As part of my practice I frequently found myself representing blind persons. The textbooks tell us that American law is based on fairness and justice regardless of who is involved or what the circumstances may be. My job was to help make this principle applicable to the blind as well as the sighted.
When I represented blind people, my opponents were often major employers, airlines, departments of government, or agencies doing work with the blind. Although the approaches of these different entities might vary, their opinions about blindness usually did not. Whether it was an airline, an employer, a department of government, or a service agency for the blind, what they said about blindness was always just about the same. I felt right at home. It was exactly like being back at Notre Dame. The blind are courageous; they will get a good grade; no need to work; and plenty of meaningless assignments. Of course, when I insisted on equal treatment for my clients, attitudes hardened. Those across the table now thought the blind (and that included me) were ungrateful, unreasonable, and unrealistic not courageous at all but just plain radical and militant.
If (after my experiences at Notre Dame and the Civil Aeronautics Board) anything else was needed to confirm me in my opinion that the National Federation of the Blind was not only needed but necessary, I found it in the practice of law. It is not that people mean to be unreasonable or that they are deliberately cruel. Rather, it is that they have the ancient fear of the dark and that they equate blindness with darkness, and darkness with evil and lack of ability to perform. Despite the progress we have made (and we have made a great deal of it), regressive attitudes about blindness are unfortunately still the norm.
The director of sales for Elsafe Hawaii, Incorporated (a company that markets safes), writes to say that he is selling a special safe for the blind. He says:
I would like to take this opportunity to acquaint you with this product, as it seems to be particularly well suited to the needs of the blind. This safe is operated by means of a combination that is entered via a keypad identical to a standard telephone keypad. There are no keys required for normal operation and, therefore, nothing to lose. I would like to make the members of your organization aware of this product.
The conclusion is inevitable. This man believes that the blind, incompetent as we are, cannot keep track of the simplest objects including keys. To help the unfortunate blind he wants to sell us special safes, but one wonders if he understands the implications of his own letter. If blind people cannot manage keys, how can we collect anything of sufficient value to put into his safe?
A radio commercial from the Corning Glass company for Corlon lenses opens with a man speaking to a coat rack. He does not possess Corlon lenses, so he mistakes the coat rack for an assistant in the eye doctor's office. As the commercial proceeds, the man causes a stir by almost sitting (inadvertently) on the lap of a lady in the waiting room. Without the lenses he cannot see her. Finally, this poor unfortunate (blinded by the absence of Corlon lenses) attempts to leave the office through a closet and becomes completely befuddled. Sight, according to this advertisement, is required to prevent a person from mistaking a coat rack for a human, from becoming lost in a closet, and from social blunders such as sitting in other people's laps. The inescapable conclusion is that blindness means almost total helplessness with a dash of buffoonery thrown in for good measure. I cannot recall having spoken recently to a coat rack, and I doubt that you can; nor do I think the reason why blind people sit in laps is usually that they do not know what they are doing. We are frequently exploited by companies which take advantage of the stereotypes about us to sell products, regardless of the truth of their claims or the harm they do.
The Konica Medical Corporation of Wayne, New Jersey, provides darkroom equipment to hospitals. Not long ago, Konica became aware of two blind people working as darkroom technicians in a Florida medical center. As a gesture of good will, Konica issued a press release about the valuable work of these two blind employees. The release said in part, Visually Impaired Technicians Find Rewarding Careers at Medical Center. The article went on to say, Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to live without the ability to see the world around you. Simple tasks like walking, eating, and reading would take on a whole new complexity.
As I studied this press release, I felt conflicting emotions. The headline tells us that blind people are at work in rewarding careers at a hospital; and even though I think blind people are often pushed toward the darkroom in the mistaken belief that the absence of ordinary light makes this job especially suitable for them, I recognize that darkroom work is a useful activity in a competitive occupation. But the body of the release ruins the headline and takes it all away. It declares that the blind have trouble with the most mundane tasks. Is it really so hard for us to walk? And how about eating? We don't seem to have had much trouble at this banquet. Of course, reading requires the use of alternative techniques such as Braille, recordings, sighted readers, and the like; but even here the situation is more a matter of coping than crying.
The message of the companies in private industry is based on a common theme. They say that blind people are different and less able than others. Even when these companies attempt to be positive and offer commendation, they say that we cannot do anything as well as the sighted and that we are very limited, very special, very deprived, very brave, and very subnormal. People with this kind of attitude refer to the blind and other groups as handicapable and physically challenged, and they use other such cutesy euphemisms which are uncalled for, unhealthy, unhelpful, unconvincing, and unbecoming.
But if private industry is uninformed, having relatively little exposure to the blind and facts about blindness, surely the agencies doing work with the blind are more enlightened. One would think so, but as we have learned to our cost, the exact opposite is often the case. Consider, for instance, the South Carolina Commission for the Blind. That agency was brought into being in the mid-1960s through the efforts of Don Capps and the other leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. There was also assistance from beyond the borders of the state. Dr. Jernigan went to South Carolina to testify before the committee which the legislature had established to study the matter, and a leading South Carolina legislator came to Iowa to examine the programs which Dr. Jernigan was operating at the state Commission for the Blind. Justifiably the blind of South Carolina regard the Commission for the Blind as theirs.
Imagine, then, how they feel (and how responsible staff members at the South Carolina Commission feel) when an official publication of the Commission embodies the worst of the harmful stereotypes about blindness and is massively circulated throughout the state. They are understandably outraged. But let the brochure speak for itself. It consists of fifty-eight so- called helpful suggestions for families and friends of blind persons, grouped under six headings as follows: General, With People, In the House, Traveling, Guiding, and At the Table. You may have thought that the proposition in the Konica news release (that eating for a blind person takes on special complexity) was simply to be dismissed as the chatter of a well-intentioned kook.
Listen, then, to the experts. Here is what the South Carolina brochure says about eating. Twelve helpful suggestions are listed under the heading At the Table. I can do no better than give them to you as they come, word for word from the brochure. Here they are:
1. Maintain usual standards. 2. Tell him what is in the dish or on the plate which is being passed. 3. Don't pass things across in front of the blind person. Expect him to share in the passing of food. 4. Address the blind person directly so that he will know that he is being asked to pass something. 5. Mention what is on his plate so that he will know how to handle the food. 6. At first, if he wishes it, cut meat, and butter the bread. 7. Get in the habit of placing the meat to the front of his plate. It is easier to cut there. 8. Use good-sized napkins. 9. Don't make unnecessary comments when food is spilled. 10. If food is spilled on clothing, mention it casually so that it can be removed at once. 11. Ask the individual if he wants sugar or cream as these are difficult for him to serve himself unless the sugar is in lump form and the cream in individual pitchers. 12. When serving food, mention where it has been placed so the individual will not accidentally knock over a glass, paper cup, sherbert (sic), cup and saucer, etc.
Although these helpful suggestions for family and friends cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called subtle, the pamphlet does not say precisely what it means. Let me offer the writers at the South Carolina Commission for the Blind some helpful suggestions of my own. Let me say in clear statements what their pamphlet necessarily implies, and what (though they might deny it) I think they really mean. Keep in mind that they are talking about you and me. Here, then, is the truthful rewrite:
Maintain usual standards. You do not need to be sloppy just because a blind person (who will undoubtedly be sloppy) is at the table.
Don't pass things across in front of the blind person. Expect him to share in the passing of food. The blind person, just like a three-year-old, will be flattered if you let him help. If he isn't motivated by the flattery, you may have to prod him a little.
Mention what is on his plate so that he will know how to handle the food. The blind person is probably not accustomed to eating in polite society and will likely not be able to identify food without your help. In any case, it is your responsibility, not the blind person's.
Use good-sized napkins. Of course, the blind person will be messy and spill things, and you must look out for him or her. After all, it is your responsibility. Certainly the blind person is not in charge. You are.
Ask the individual if he wants sugar or cream as these are difficult for him to serve himself unless the sugar is in lump form and the cream in individual pitchers. After all, the blind person can't ask for what he wants. You must take the initiative and take care of him.
When I first came across this brochure, I felt that I had gone back to Notre Dame, for it deals with something much more far-reaching than table talk. It embodies a whole way of life, an entire philosophy, and a complete cultural tradition. Through every line is the implicit assumption that somebody else is in charge and that even if the home and the table belong to the blind person, he or she is no longer in control, no longer the host, no longer an equal among equals. If you are still not convinced after all you have heard, consider these other samples from the pamphlet. Here they are exactly as they appear:
Talk and act naturally when with a blind person. Be frank. If he needs to shine his shoes, tell him so. Do not needlessly hurry a blind person. He will appreciate a calm approach to the matter in hand. Let him do everything possible for himself. In helping a blind person, do not make him conspicuous by the way you do things. Read his mail promptly and refrain from commenting on the content of the letter unless requested to do so. A second reading is often appreciated. Refrain from uncouthness in the presence of a blind person; he can hear you picking your teeth. Be alert but restrained; do not startle a blind person needlessly. Don't let a blind person's hand dangle in the air. If obviously it is his purpose to shake hands, grasp his hand and greet him. Don't limit your knowledge and interest in the blind generally to the blind mendicant who is sometimes a social parasite from choice. Do not patronize blind persons; they're `just regular people' more than you realize. In conversation, address the blind person by name if he is the one expected to reply. Otherwise, he may not know the remark is being directed to him. Leave the possessions of a blind person where they have placed them unless you indicate specifically where they may find them. When traveling, describe interesting and beautiful scenes. Comment casually on sensations which blind persons can enjoy such as pleasant odors, a cooling breeze, the tinkle of a brook, etc. When taking an individual into a restroom indicate position of toilet, paper, washbowl, soap, and towels. When walking with a blind person, mention familiar landmarks so that he can get his bearings. Don't push a blind person ahead of you. Walk straight across the street. To do so diagonally may cause the blind person to trip when reaching the curb.
There you have in summation the philosophy of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind, and I believe that I have never in all of my life seen such a concentrated dose of distortion and false notions. Is it any wonder that the blind of the state are at war with the agency? How could it be otherwise? I have no doubt that Don Capps and the other Federationists in South Carolina will teach the Commission a new way of looking at blindness. Our role may not be as limited or our temperament as passive as the South Carolina custodians think.
And, of course, it is not just South Carolina. There are other agencies in other states. Consider, for instance, the Mary Bryant Home for Blind Men and Women, located in Springfield, Illinois. Keep in mind, as I describe this facility to you, that it is not a place exclusively designed for the elderly. It is meant for the young as well. I feel it necessary to make this point since otherwise you might have difficulty believing what you are about to hear.
Therefore, I offer in evidence a letter dated March 23rd, 1987, to directors of rehabilitation agencies in a number of Midwestern states. The letter is signed by the Administrator of the Mary Bryant Home, who has the rather intriguing name of Frances Trees. The letter says:
As you are aware, there comes a time in the lives of many visually impaired persons when they are unable to live independently. Some younger persons return to their homes following their education from a school for the visually impaired. In many cases, these young men and women are returning to homes where both parents are employed outside the home, and find themselves staying alone all day with nothing to do.
Some older persons no longer have a support system to aid and assist them to live independently. Many are sent inappropriately to nursing homes, where they are often endangered by not being able to protect themselves.
The Mary Bryant Home is a resource I wish you would consider when it comes to assisting individuals or families to deal with the issue of placement.Currently our residents range in age from 24 to 96 years of age.
Frances J. Trees
As we examine what the Mary Bryant Home says about itself, remember that some of the residents are as young as twenty-four and that they are at the Mary Bryant facility because, as Administrator Trees says, these young men and women are returning to homes where both parents are employed outside the home, and find themselves staying alone all day with nothing to do. Here are direct quotes from the packet of literature sent by Administrator Trees to the rehabilitation directors:
The building is rectangular in shape, which allows the residents to walk in a circular pattern for exercise especially during inclement weather.The home is arranged for convenience, on one levelno stairs.Hand rails are installed throughout the home.Our full and part-time staff provide round-the-clock service to the residents seeing to their health, safety, nutritional, recreational and emotional needs.Leave of absence may be taken by residents for a short period of time providing the person taking the resident out sign a release of responsibility for injuries, accidents, or illnesses which might occur during the time they are away from the Mary Bryant Home.Personal property, other than clothing, may be brought to the home only with the prior approval of the Administrator.Food is prohibited in the resident rooms. BEER, WINE, AND OTHER INTOXICATING LIQUOR: Only when approved by the resident's physician please, and all items of this nature are to be kept at the Medicine Room, not in resident's room.Incoming calls for residents may be received on the house phones, but it would cause less confusion and less interruption if these calls were to be made between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.Visiting hours are from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Visits will be restricted when adversely indicated in the opinion of the resident's physician and so documented in the resident's clinical record.Smoking in resident rooms is prohibited for both residents and visitors. Residents who are capable of handling smoking supplies with safety may smoke in the activity room, and we request visitors to smoke only in these areas also.
There is more, much more but I think I have given you enough to make the point. Any self-respecting blind person faced with such an outrageous conglomeration of insulting rules, directives, requirements, and restrictions would walk out the door three minutes after arriving. Of course, most blind people that I know would resist going to such a facility in the first place. With all of the work we have done to change public attitudes, many people still feel that the blind should live in segregated homes, or sometimes nursing homes. In this connection I recently received the following letter:
My mother has been legally blind for about twenty years. During all that time she has been in a nursing home in Rochester, Indiana, and she is only forty-three years old. She has not in all that time had any training that the blind need, such as how to read Braille. The nursing home has been her only world because of her inability to get around. I feel my mother desperately needs help. She needs to be taught the things the blind need to function in society. She is much too young to be in a nursing home.
I wonder if the National Federation of the Blind can help in this matter. I don't have money or the know-how to assist her, and I was told maybe you could help. She's wanting to get out of the nursing home.
Twenty years of a person's life is a long time and for this woman (and many others like her) those twenty years are a bleak memory of twisted hell of desolation, pain, and lack of opportunity. We in the National Federation of the Blind are organized to make it absolutely certain that brochures like the one issued by the South Carolina Commission for the Blind stop being written, that facilities like the Mary Bryant Home either change their philosophy or go out of business, and that blind men and women have something better to do with their lives than go into nursing homes in their twenties. We are committed to changing public attitudes so that manufacturers will not believe that we cannot keep track of our keys, so that companies can no longer get away with picturing us as helpless and pathetic unless we have eyeglasses, and so that the public will no longer tolerate advertisements which exploit the concept that we are especially suited to work in the dark. We are determined to educate not merely the public at large but also our fellow blind and ourselves and, of course, we are doing it.
On Saturday, May 23rd, of this year I did not physically leave Baltimore but on that day (as I have so often done) I went back to Notre Dame. I was in a clothing store, trying on the very suit I am wearing tonight. At a critical juncture in the fitting, the salesman said to the sighted person who was with me: Can you take off his shoes? I suppose I don't need to tell you that I did not walk barefooted to Notre Dame. I removed my own shoes.
The changes we are making in public attitudes often seem slow and long in coming, but (like oxidation) they remove more trash and debris than the flames of spectacular conflagration. Since our founding in 1940 we have removed a tremendous amount of garbage some by conflagration, and a great deal more by steady oxidation. We also (even those of us who have never been to Indiana) continue to return to Notre Dame but (thankfully) the visits are becoming fewer and farther between.
For those of us who are blind, the world holds more promise today than ever before in history. It is not that incidents of the kind I have described are more numerous now than they formerly were. Rather, it is that we are more aware of them and more prepared to take appropriate action. Once they were universal. Now, they are only usual. But since 1940 there has been a new element, a new force which has changed the balances. You know what it is as well as I do. It is the National Federation of the Blind. As everyone in this room knows, we are thoroughly organized, fully aware of where we have been and where we are going, and absolutely unstoppable.
No power on earth can now send us back or keep us from going the rest of the way to freedom and first-class citizenship. We know it; our opponents know it; and the public at large is beginning to learn it. As we approach the end of the twentieth century, our mood is optimistic, and our hearts are joyous. My brothers and my sisters, let us march to the future together!
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