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The Braille Monitor–March, 2001 Edition

 

Seeing That Justice Isn't Blind

by Kevin Flowers

From the Editor: The following article appeared in the December 13, 2000, edition of the Erie, Pennsylvania, Times. It nicely illustrates the contribution that one Federationist is making in her community. Here it is:

 

While waiting for a bus in downtown Erie three years ago, Becky Mazary witnessed a disturbing scene of prejudice. Blind since childhood, Mazary didn't see what happened. But there is nothing wrong with her hearing.

A woman standing near Mazary asked a man for directions, which he provided. Then, as the man walked away, he spat a racial slur at the woman--a vile word that let Mazary know the woman was African American.

Two years later, in April, 1999, Mazary thought about the incident again while attending an Erie City Council meeting. At that meeting Councilman Chris Maras announced an opening on the Erie County Human Relations Commission.

Mazary approached Maras and lobbied for the appointment. As someone who has been pigeonholed and ignored because of her blindness, Mazary thought she would like to give the Human Relations Commission a try.

Two months later Maras chose Mazary, forty-three, to fill out the term of a commission member who resigned. Last month Mazary was re-appointed by Maras to a four-year term.

The nine members of the commission are appointed by Erie City Council and Erie County Council. The commission meets regularly to discuss discrimination claims filed by Erie Countians who claim they have been denied employment, housing or education based on race, sex, disability, age, or religion.

Mazary saw the appointment as a chance to help people recognize the link between discrimination and ignorance and to work out their differences. This kind of community involvement is now typical of Mazary--but that was not always the case. Over the years, Mazary has grown from a shy teen-ager struggling to figure out "what a blind person can do with their life," to a woman who earned a degree in social work from Gannon University and now serves as vice president of the National Federation of the Blind's Erie County chapter.

She is now a well-known advocate for the disabled and serves as president of the tenant council at the downtown Erie apartment complex where she lives. Mazary is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State Police's Citizens Police Academy, a member of Mayor Joyce Savocchio's Round Table on Disabilities, and active in the Erie County Republican Committee and the Erie Caged Bird Club. And three years ago Mazary was honored as the state's top adult newspaper carrier.

Mazary's involvement with the Human Relations Commission has once again shown her that limits are largely self-determined. "I grew up in a small town, in a little white neighborhood, where I wasn't exposed to the kind of prejudice that I witnessed that day waiting for the bus," Mazary said. "It wasn't until I started to educate myself that I realized that (race relations) are still bad. And unless we try to understand where someone else is coming from, they won't get better. I've tried to spend a lot of my life educating myself, not only about what I can achieve, but about the way other people live and the kind of help they need," Mazary continued. "From a young age I knew I needed to learn more to understand things better. And learning has been a big confidence booster for me over the years."

Self-assurance was something Mazary rarely exuded while growing up in Arnold, a town of 6,100 about twenty miles northeast of Pittsburgh. "I was born with scar tissue on my retinas," Mazary said. "I was always told that I was not supposed to see colors, but I can a little bit. And I also have some depth perception. I try to use everything around me to help me get around."

Mazary said she knew no other blind children growing up. When she was in high school, Mazary usually sat home while friends attended football games, school dances, concerts, and movies.

"I couldn't do any of those things ... so I spent a lot of time alone," Mazary said. "I listened to the radio a lot." In school she often struggled because "teachers didn't know how to deal with me," Mazary said. "If someone verbalized lessons to me, I could understand them. But I couldn't read, and I didn't know much Braille. Eventually I began getting some books on tape, and that helped me do my work."

After graduating from Valley High School in New Kensington in 1975, Mazary spent the next twelve years "doing a whole lot of nothing," she said. She worked as a baby-sitter to earn extra cash, spent time studying at a Bible school in Bradenton, Florida, and took a computer class in Arkansas.

Mazary dabbled in these activities because she lacked direction. She wanted a career but had no idea what field she should enter. "I didn't know what I was good at," Mazary said. In 1987 a friend told Mazary about a program at Penn State-New Kensington that helps people determine what occupation best suits them. Mazary took a test that indicated she might want to try social work.

"Before I knew it, I was in college (at Penn State-New Kensington) getting A's and B's," Mazary said. Through class lectures and with the aid of computers and books on tape, Mazary learned how counseling, health clinics, recreation, and other types of assistance programs aid the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, and why such programs are necessary to ensure community health. "Sure, I could clean a house. Whoopee! But how would that help me in life?" Mazary said. "My experiences in school showed me that it was extremely important to me that people have access to services, especially the poor, and that I wanted to help them get that access."

Mazary finished her degree at Gannon after moving to Erie in 1990. Shortly after moving, she met Judy Jobes, a Human Relations Commission member who was affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind.

That year Mazary accompanied Jobes to the Federation's national convention at Charlotte, North Carolina, an experience that inspired and enlightened a young woman who grew up without knowing other visually impaired people. Mazary met blind doctors, lawyers, and college professors. "I even met a blind waitress. Imagine that," Mazary said. "I found out how these people had fought their way up to where they were and how they overcame stereotypes to move forward.

"I talked to little kids, three, four, and five, who used white canes. I couldn't believe it, she continued. "For the first time in my life, I had peers to talk to, people who knew what I was going through. And these people could help me get to where I wanted to be by just talking to me about how they did it." Jobes said it was important for someone like Mazary to attend such a conference.

"When you come from a small town like Becky did and go to something like that, it just blows your mind away," Jobes said. "Blindness isolates people, but the key is to develop skills, like learning to read Braille and computer skills, and to get involved in groups that include other blind people because no one else truly understands your condition," Jobes continued. "That is what Becky did, and at the conference she saw there are a lot of blind people out there who are living normal lives and holding down really good jobs."

Mazary said that earning her social work degree from Gannon in 1997 proved that she, too, could succeed. "Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew I had some ability. How to bring it forth was a complete mystery to me for years," Mazary said.

Before the April, 1999, City Council meeting, Maras knew Mazary through her work with various local advocacy groups. Her reputation for hard work and conscientiousness is why Maras named her to the Human Relations Commission.

"Out of all the appointments to boards and commissions I've made over the years, Becky Mazary is definitely one of the best," Maras said. "When she approached me at that council meeting and said she'd like to serve, I didn't hesitate," Maras continued. "I knew Becky was an advocate and a hard worker. I knew she was someone who was heavily involved in the community. I thought she'd be perfect and a great addition to the commission. And she has been."

The commission certainly keeps Mazary busy. In 1999 the commission handled 297 complaints of discrimination, according to the group's annual report. That represented a 26 percent increase over 1998 and a 37 percent increase over 1997.

Mazary said the commission's job is to help and educate. Discrimination is "rude and unnecessary," she said. "You hear some of these complaints, and you realize that we're going to need a human relations commission until we can all treat each other with respect," Mazary said.

The work is most rewarding when the commission helps settle disputes before they go to court, she said. "If a human being sits down and honestly talks to another, if both sides can just listen ...then maybe after a while each of them can understand the other person's point," she said.

Jobes said Mazary and the commission are a perfect fit, especially when you consider that 25 percent of Erie Countians have some kind of physical disability. "That's a huge number of people to exclude," Jobes said. "The (Americans with Disabilities Act) makes people with disabilities a protected class. You need to have someone on the Human Relations Commission who understands that." When she is not busy with commission work or her other volunteer groups, Mazary likes to relax with her pet cockatoo, Gabby, and her guide dog, Mr. B, inside her cozy one-bedroom apartment at the Richford Arms Apartments at State Street and North Park Row.

She might tune her stereo to a pop or easy-listening station, settle down in a rocking chair to do some knitting, or surf the Internet with the aid of voice-activated computer software. "I enjoy anything that keeps my little mind active," Mazary said.

Mazary is currently without a job. "I'm a professional volunteer right now," she said with a chuckle. Someday Mazary would like to be a professional lobbyist in Washington, D.C., fighting for the rights of the poor and disabled. She also said that she will continue to serve on the Human Relations Commission and volunteer with other local groups as long as they need her.

"I am enjoying being in touch with people," Mazary said. "That's the main thing. And I want to keep doing it ... because I didn't do that growing up."

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