by Mary Fernandez
From the Editor: Mary Fernandez is a 2010 NFB scholarship winner who comes from New Jersey and attends Emory University, from which she will graduate in May. This presentation was made at the winter meeting of the National Association of Blind Students in Washington, D.C. I have observed that meetings of students are not always quiet, but they are generally respectful. When Mary made this presentation, however, you could hear a stylus drop. Enjoy:
It was the middle of the afternoon in late May. Although the summer had just started in Atlanta, I was still grateful for the little spot of shade I was sitting in while I handed out my bags of goodies. Each bag had a six pack of condoms, a rubber stopper, some gauze, some soap, and some other supplies. The people I was handing them to were mostly homeless and mostly drug addicts and lived in the poorest area of Atlanta. I smiled at everyone, happy that I was being useful, but also extremely nervous because it was my first day on the job.
Back at the beginning of the spring semester of my sophomore year, I had wracked my brain about how I could earn some money during the summer. After an extensive search, I received a message in my inbox that looked truly promising. The Emory Center for Ethics would be sponsoring twenty-seven students from Emory to work in different nonprofits throughout the city. The Ethics and Servant-Leadership Program would include eight weeks of work. In addition, each week we had to meet at the Ethics Center for discussion on—surprise--ethics, and nonprofit management. The final portfolio and other small requirements seemed worth the effort since I would also get a $4,000 stipend. So I figured I'd apply.
The first step was choosing one or two organizations where I'd be interested in working. The one that I kept coming back to was the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center, a small nonprofit that served marginalized communities in Atlanta. Unlike homeless shelters and rehab or crisis centers, they had a different approach to dealing with drug use in society. Instead of denying services to drug users, they had decided that they would try to reduce the harm that drug use can have on a community--hence the bag of goodies. The most controversial service AHRC offers is completely illegal in the state of Georgia--needle exchange. Basically, clients bring in their dirty needles, and we give them clean ones. When I worked for AHRC, we received 10,000 needles in two months and gave out almost double that number. We got away with it because of a little loophole in Georgia law. Since drug users will use drugs no matter what, it's better that they do not spread AIDS in the process.
I was one of three candidates being interviewed for the job. The day of the interview was rather interesting. My interviewer was actually forty-five minutes late. The forty-five minutes waiting out in the heat and sweating under my suit jacket helped to calm my nerves and give me a bit of my confidence back, although I kept worrying that I'd smell terrible by the time he got there. Finally he came, and we talked for an hour.
Two weeks later I got an email saying that I had been chosen as their intern, and I walked on air for days. I had a job and would be living in my own apartment that I would have to find and would be going to work every day. Oh joy! That first day was a Wednesday, and we did street outreach on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So we hit the street corner, and, after chatting with my coworkers and seeing how everything ran, I asked if I could help with handing out the paper bags, since they had no idea of what I could and couldn't do. All the clients were polite except that about halfway through two gentlemen approached me. I did my usual, hi how are you spiel. One of them whispered to the other in a rather carrying and dramatic whisper, "Hey, Bro, do you know she's blind?"
The other man responded in a rather loud and indignant tone, "Yes, I know she's blind, you rude, m***f***er. My mother was blind, but I bet you she can hear your rude a** talking s**t." Extremely amused by this time, I gave one of my characteristic cackles, as my new advocate apologized for this "fool’s BS," and said he was happy I'd be working there for the summer.
As the weeks went by, I met more and more people and was given more and more responsibility. Though at times my coworkers would ask if I felt comfortable doing something, they couldn't afford not to give me work because I was blind. AHRC was struggling, and they needed all the work they could get from me. After I had spent three weeks on the job, our outreach specialist Verna told me I'd be responsible for teaching the substance abuse management class every week until the end of the summer and that I'd be starting that day. I had to keep forty people, most of whom were rather gregarious men, interested in a topic. Somehow, after a few false starts, I managed to get them talking, and the time flew, full of great discussion and a lot of laughter. I also helped with our other groups, including a graphic form of sex education.
I didn't feel that I had truly been accepted until the day that I had a client ask for me specifically and come to talk to me at my little cubby. Later in the summer I found him on our porch steps because I was the first to come in that day. He was battered and bruised and had slept outside the night before because he had been beaten up and thrown out of the shelter he and his partner had been staying in. They were gay and were not welcome at that shelter anymore. That day Verna and I worked on finding him a place, and we talked to him for a long time about being twenty-five, having AIDS, and being a sex worker in downtown Atlanta. We pointed out that he was spreading AIDS every time he hopped in with a business man on his way home headed to his wife.
Working at AHRC taught me much about the struggles of those that we shunt to the outskirts of society, those that we are ashamed of. Though I had rough patches during my internship, my blindness seemed to be almost natural to them. Many of our clients were often surprised when they asked me about my blindness to realize that people treated me as incompetent. They wondered how someone could think me dumb and as needing constant help, when I managed to walk in and out of the hood of Atlanta every day, do what all my other co-workers were doing, and just go on with life. Their acceptance gave me confidence and a sense of accomplishment, which in some ways made aspects of life a bit more frustrating when I got out into the world. I remember having a meltdown on the bus back home while talking to my friend on the phone about how frustrating it was that, as soon as I hit the train station, I had people grabbing and pulling me just because I was using a cane. She told me to calm down. She assured me that no, I didn't look weird because I was tearing up in the bus. She had seen much worse on MARTA. She told me that I needed to let my confidence in my abilities shield me from the ignorance of people. She said I should not internalize their low expectations because, even if we don't know it, it is easy to start believing that we can't make it to the right platform if someone isn't leading us.I want you to take away from my ramblings that you can really do what you think you can do. Often we talk about misconceptions about the blind in society, but we don't talk about the effect that has on us, even if we are fully confident in our abilities. We may know that we can take the bus, go shoe shopping, and do everything else independently, but having constantly to reassure others of that fact can be wearisome. But let's not dwell on that; let’s prove them wrong. Let's go out there this semester and look for something awesome, adventurous, and a little scary to do this summer. Whether it is a Google internship, study abroad in Japan, or interning with EPA, you can do it. I know that because I know blind students who have done it. So grab that cane, that résumé, and that great suit, and go. After all, as T.S. Eliot said, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." So go too far; it’s better than going nowhere. And once you find that limit, push it and see how far you can stretch it. You might actually surprise yourself.