by Stephen O. Benson
From the Editor: Steve Benson is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois and a member of the NFB Board of Directors. He is also a knowledgeable and thoughtful Federationist. He recently sent us the following little meditation:
In the early '70's the NFB of Illinois rented office space in a far north-side Chicago bank building in which we held small meetings, maintained address files, stored and mailed literature, produced a Thermoformed copy of our newsletter, and Thermoformed a monthly calendar of old radio programs aired on a local radio station.
All of these activities required many hands, so we made a special effort to involve new people in keeping mailing lists up-to-date, maintaining inventory, duplicating documents, and collating and mailing materials. Often the work was done to the accompaniment of recorded banquet speeches or other recorded Federation materials. When the recording finished playing, we discussed its contents and how it pertained to us individually and as an organization.
On one occasion nine or ten of us gathered to produce and distribute a newsletter. Some of us checked addresses and stamped wrappers; others Thermoformed and collated the newsletter, while others rolled and wrapped the finished product. It was a genuine team effort, and good fellowship and high spirits prevailed. When the assembly-line work was done, we deposited several hundred Braille newsletters in a nearby mailbox.
As we stuffed the mailbox, we noticed that two or three people waited at an adjacent bus stop. When the stuffing was done, we went our separate ways, some to the bus stop across the street, but most of us headed east to the subway train several blocks away. As we walked at a Federation pace, we talked and laughed and maybe sang a little; good cheer prevailed. We were well into the second of four blocks to the train when we heard someone running after us. As the fellow drew to within a few yards of us, he began hollering, "Wait!" We stopped, amazed. He panted up to us and said: "The bus stop is back there. Aren't you waiting for the bus?" We were all so astounded by the absurdity of the question that we broke into gales of laughter. When we had regained our composure, one or more of us explained that we would most certainly have remained at the bus stop if we had wanted to ride the bus. We further explained that we were walking to the subway, and we thanked him sincerely for his concern.
After we had walked another block and were reasonably certain the poor man was out of ear shot, there was much joking about the incident. One of us observed that this was like the Boy Scout helping the old lady across the street though she had no desire to cross and though she made her intention clear.
I think this and similar situations are not so simply explained. Some folks in our society still have a compelling need to take care of us. There are those who cannot imagine that we as blind people can make decisions, know where we are, or know where we've been or where we're going. It is our responsibility, and only ours, to teach the public and our fellow blind people that we certainly do make our own decisions, that we know where we are, where we've been, and where we're going. It is essential that we convey the important fact that, when blind people have proper instruction and genuine opportunity, we can do anything that does not, by its very nature, require sight. In conveying this information, it is necessary to remain positive, poised, and polite. At the same time we should also be firm and willing to stand up for ourselves and for our rights as American citizens. We should not allow ourselves to be walked on like rugs.
Dr. Jernigan used to put it this way: when dealing with the public, we must use a glove and a club and have the sense to know when to use which.