by Angela Howard
From the Editor: Angela Howard is Second Vice President of the National Association of Blind Students. This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter, 1999, issue of the Student Slate, the publication of the NFB's student division. This is what she says:
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was growing up in Atlanta, he rode the public bus across town to school every day. Segregation laws forced him to take a seat in the back of the bus, even if the seats in the front were vacant. Unable to do anything about the situation at the time, Dr. King decided to leave his mind in the front seat and promised himself that one day he would put his body where his mind sat. Years later Dr. King led African-Americans in a movement to put an end to segregation.
The blind do not endure the segregation laws that once confined African-Americans to the back of the bus. But, due to negative attitudes about blindness, we continue to endure a kind of spirit-squelching segregation that has threatened to confine us to a world of high unemployment and social isolation. Members of the National Federation of the Blind have developed a philosophy that has directed us to move towards a life of complete integration and full participation in society.
Our movement for equality demanded at one time that we march and campaign in order to be heard, and this is still sometimes necessary. But more often today our struggle takes place in the work and play of our everyday lives. As Federationists we struggle to put our bodies where the Federation has led our minds and spirits. We struggle for the opportunity to participate fully in our homes, schools, and communities.
Recently my Federationism led me to a very special place. I spent the summer living with the homeless of Atlanta. The Open Door is a community of religious leaders and former homeless people who live together in service to those who are on the streets. I took part in this community as a resident intern. In the Federation we like to say that blind people possess the same range of personalities that any cross section of society would produce. I have become convinced that this holds true for every other group in society as well. I faced the same struggles against negative attitudes living with homeless people that I do in any new community of which I become a part. Most assumed that I would hold a marginal position in the community, and in the beginning no one expected from me what I was capable of contributing. It was up to me to break down those walls that threatened to steal my right to full participation.
My struggle against negative attitudes began the first night I moved into the house. The woman assigned to be my spiritual advisor reviewed with me the general rules of the house. She then suggested, "We thought you would be good at handing out hard-boiled eggs to the homeless people at breakfast." When I learned what my schedule was to be for the following week, it became clear to me that passing out eggs during breakfast was the only job they thought I could handle. After three days of handing out eggs from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and having nothing else to do for the rest of the day, I decided that things were going to have to change.
I began to voice my belief that I could do much more than hand out eggs. I also developed another strategy for solving this dilemma. I was beginning to get to know many of the people living in the house and could sense which ones had the most faith in my ability. When I noticed that one of these people was doing a certain job, I would sneak over and ask him or her to show me exactly how the task was performed. I even got people to let me try. Then during breakfast and lunch circles, when certain jobs were delegated, I would raise my hand.
"Are you sure you can do that, Angela?" they would ask.
"I've done it before," I would say. My strategy worked. I found my schedule for the following week much more promising.
Phone and door duty is one job frequently delegated to resident interns. The responsibilities of this assignment include answering phones, answering the door, and supervising our homeless friends as they pick out T-shirts and socks from the sorting room. As you can guess, the leaders of the community did not consider the possibility that a blind person might be capable of meeting this challenge.
By the end of my first week they decided that I might be able to answer the phones. I assured them that I could write out the important phone numbers in Braille and deliver messages personally rather than writing them out. They agreed to let me give it a try.
By the end of my second week they trusted me to answer the phones, but fulfilling the other responsibilities of phone and door duty was out of the question. Another helper was always assigned to answer the door for me. I am not proud to admit this, but even I was not sure that I could handle the responsibility of managing a room of people who are often under the influence of drugs and who are known to try to get out of the house with as many things as they can. Pretty soon, however, all of us in the house learned a valuable lesson about blindness.
Phone and door duty is often a demanding job. I found myself quite naturally falling into the role of assisting the person in charge of managing the folks coming in and out. This gave me the opportunity to develop some alternative techniques for getting the job done. For example, I learned very early on, because it was not possible for me to describe someone visually, I needed to have another method of identifying the people I was letting in. When a homeless person would come to the door and ask to be let in to grab a T-shirt, I would ask for his or her name. This practice also helped me to develop good relationships with the regulars who came through our doors. I found that people appreciate being called by name rather than being directed by a finger. Developing relationships of mutual respect with many of the regulars put both them and me at ease. Soon supervising the sorting room no longer seemed like an impossible feat.
My biggest challenge was figuring out how to keep people from taking more items than they were permitted. When people are struggling to meet their most basic needs, they are often forced to try to survive by manipulating others. Some of our homeless friends have been known to get out of the door with eight pairs of socks instead of one. I found that, since I couldn't monitor with my eyes how many pairs of socks someone was taking, it was easier for me to hand them the socks myself. I also learned to listen for clues that would tell me if someone were trying to get out with an extra shirt or two such as a bag rustling too long or too many coat hangers being moved.
I do not think these alternative techniques were entirely theft-proof. I am sure that some of our homeless friends sneaked out with an extra shirt or two. But it is an understood rule at the Open Door that our friends will leave the house with extra things. The key is not to let it be excessive. My alternative techniques worked, and after a few weeks I was entrusted with all of the responsibilities of phone-and-door duty.
Phone-and-door duty was the most unpopular job among the resident interns. I hated doing it as much as anyone else. But being expected to do the job gave me a sense of satisfaction that ran much deeper than my hatred of performing the task. Being assigned to phone and door duty meant that I was needed. It meant that expectations of me were as high as they were for any other resident intern. And, perhaps most important, it meant that I got the chance to complain about how grueling the job was right along with my peers.
Creating allies in our friends and associates is an essential component of achieving full participation. Befriending the other residents of the Open Door, as well as many of the homeless people we served, helped me in my struggle for equality. Many volunteers stopped by the Open Door at random to help us out. Coping with the negative attitudes of new people day in and day out was a difficult challenge for me last summer. My roommates and I used to joke that we had to hear the amazing-blind-person speech every time someone new walked through the door. On several occasions a new volunteer assumed that I was one of the people she was supposed to help. I found, however, that as those living in the house began to understand my struggle, they participated in helping me to educate the new folks.
Every morning, after we served breakfast to the homeless, we would sit down with our own breakfast and reflect together on how the morning had gone. We learned many lessons about blindness during these reflection times. One morning I had been assigned to hand out tickets in the yard to those who wanted to come in for breakfast. A volunteer, who had just arrived the night before, shared in her reflection time that she was amazed that I could go out into the yard and hand out tickets.
She said, "I am afraid to go out there, and I can see."
We in the Federation know that the even-I compliment is no compliment at all, and I was preparing to give a little speech on the subject. Much to my surprise and delight, however, my housemates in the group picked up on the fallacy of her logic and called her on it.
One man said, "It ain't got nothin' to do with sight. You're just scared of homeless people, and we've gotta help you with that." At that moment I felt like the teacher whose student had won the National Spelling Bee. Not only did my friends inside the house help me to educate people about blindness, but I found that my homeless friends also helped me to educate others in the neighborhood. I had one friend on the street who was particularly special to me. His street name is Bear. Bear is a crack addict and the most widely respected and feared person in the community. As one man put it, "Every homeless person and policeman in the city of Atlanta knows Bear." Bear has a gift for being brutally honest and is a champion for justice in his own way. Once a man who had a reputation for paying homeless workers illegal wages came into the yard and asked who wanted a job. Many of the men began begging him to let them work, and it was Bear who said, "Don't let that man take your dignity."
It came as no surprise to me that Bear would help me in my struggle for equality. Bear became my good friend and helped me to educate others. When someone would make a nuisance of himself by trying to help me too much, I would politely try to manage the situation. But Bear did not believe in sugarcoating words. He would say in his gruff voice, "Shut up, she don't need no help." Bear disappeared for several weeks in July, and when I saw him again, he was excited to inform me that he had seen people from our National Convention downtown. I had told them all about the National Federation of the Blind and about our convention. "I saw all them people you were talking about downtown last week," he told me with glee.
Bear and the other homeless people I befriended at the Open Door made this a summer I will cherish for years to come. I am grateful to all of my friends in the Federation who continue to push me to put our philosophy into daily practice. Let us all continue to put our hands and feet where the Federation has taken our minds.