by Stephen O. Benson
Stephen O. Benson
From the Editor: Steve Benson has been thinking and writing recently about his experience as a blind person. Steve isPresident of the NFB of Illinois and a member of the NFB Board of Directors. Here is another of his recollections:
At the time the NFB of Illinois was founded, in 1968, I was an applicant for a caseworker position at the Cook County Department of Public Aid. Though blind people had worked in that agency priorto that time, the Department balked at allowing me to take the appropriate civil service examination. Agency officials alleged that each blind person previously employed had been hired on an individual, case-by-case basis. The fledgling NFB affiliate swung into action. Letters from President Rami Rabby and television and radio appearances by Rami and me focused the public's attention on the Department's discriminatory practices.
Reluctantly Department officials backed down, and I was permitted to take the civil service exam, which of course I passed without difficulty; however, that was not the end of the dispute. Ordinarily applicants who passed the civil service exam were interviewed and assigned to a post. The County did not follow its own procedures in my case, so I demanded a hearing to force the County to grant an interview and assign me to a position.
The hearing was held, and the County Department of Personnel was ordered to conduct an interview and assign me to a post. The entire procedure took several months, and before the interview date was set, I took another job that paid substantially more than the County would have offered. However, given the time and effort the Federation and I had invested in this case and given our objective, to maneuver Cook County into changing its employment policy and hire blind people on the same basis as everybody else, I felt it necessary to participate in the interview.
On the appointed day I traveled to the Cook County Building and to the personnel office using my white cane. When I was finally ushered to the interviewer's desk, I encountered the reception I expected. The well-intentioned lady on the other side of the desk greeted me cordially and asked the required questions, but then she got down to the core of the issue with which we had been grappling from the beginning. She said: "Now Mr. Benson, you realize that this job will require you to negotiate darkened halls and stairways."
I let her remark hang in the air for a few seconds, then I said: "Madam, who better to negotiate darkened halls and stairways than a blind person?" It took her a moment to recover; then she informed me that there were no openings at the moment but that I would be called when an opening occurred.
That interview took place a little more than thirty years ago, but I remember her comment as clearly as though it had happened this morning. The age-old fear of the dark colored her perceptions and governed her reactions to a situation she was not prepared to handle. Darkness was synonymous with danger, and since she couldn't imagine how she could function on a job while blind, she concluded that a blind person simply couldn't perform the necessary tasks. She had no idea that blind people function as well in the dark as in the light.
Since my encounter with the Cook County Department of Public Aid thirty years ago, the blind of this nation have made enormous progress. We are entering more diverse careers and occupations than in 1969 and certainly more than in 1940 when the Federation was founded. With the establishment of our organization we assumed the primary responsibility for changing the public's attitudes about blindness, blind people, and the word "blind." While negative attitudes remain our most formidable challenge, we are, overall, better prepared to eliminate them today than we were nearly sixty years ago. We have developed a body of literature with which we have informed ourselves and with which we will persuade the sighted public that blind people can work, play, worship, and compete in the full current of life on a basis of complete equality.
Progress we have made, but the unemployment rate among working-age blind people still hovers between 70 and 80 percent. It is clear to me that all of us must redouble our effort to inform the public of the new thinking about blindness. Each of us must spend some time each day or week reading Federation literature as thoroughly as possible. If there are concepts, policies, strategies, or decisions revealed in that material that you don't understand, ask your chapter or state president or some other veteran member to provide explanations. In order to change the public mind about blindness, it is critical that we have a very clear picture of who we are and where we are going. It is also necessary for each of us to be able to articulate our position in understandable, persuasive terms. It is also important to share this knowledge with other blind people so that we have a steady flow of new faces, fresh ideas, and committed workers in the movement.