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Why I Am a Federationist
by Carlos Serván
From the Editor: The following story is reprinted from News from Blind Nebraskans, 2001, Issue 1, a publication of the NFB of Nebraska. Carlos Serván is the President of the NFB of Nebraska and Deputy Director of Vocational Rehabilitation at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He is a native of Peru and immigrated to the United States several years ago. On Saturday, October 7, 2000, he addressed the NFB of Nebraska convention, relating the moving story of the way he came to terms with his blindness and the way he joined our Federation family. Here is his story:
What we believe about ourselves determines the way we act. What society believes about blindness determines the manner in which people are likely to treat us. In order for the blind to be successful we need first to believe in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. Second we must be able to put this philosophy into practice by learning and mastering the skills of blindness. Finally we must be aware of the general public's misunderstanding about blindness. We cannot permit it to interfere with our journey to success.
In April of 1986, while I was in military training in Peru, a grenade exploded in my right hand. I lost that hand and was blinded immediately. I suddenly learned how differently people treat you when you are blind. I was not included in social events; I was not included in my family's decisions. People felt sorry for me, and my girlfriend left me.
My family started to overprotect me. My brother wanted to help me go up and down stairs, shave me, change my clothes, and give me a bath. I did not even have a chance to try to do things by myself. Furthermore, neighbors and colleagues started to talk to me in a different way as if I had lost my brain along with my eyesight. After I realized that I could not see, I tried to get a job in the police department in communications. I was told that a blind person could not work for the police. People suggested that I become a wine taster or taste chips to determine whether or not they had enough salt. The way in which society thought about blind people was the way they started treating me.
Because I was part of society, I also had misunderstandings about blindness. I lost my dignity, my expectations, and my self-esteem. I thought the only way to get them back was to have my sight restored. In an effort to get my vision back, the Peruvian government sent me to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. I arrived in the USA in April of 1989, had surgery the same month, and was immediately given the negative results. I knew that back in my country I would not be able to find training, nor were there any opportunities for the blind. So I searched for help.
Being in a new country and not knowing much about it (only what I saw on TV, including the way blind people were treated), not speaking any English other than saying "good morning," "good afternoon," and "goodbye," I went to church and prayed. I prayed that I could get some help, prayed that I could have the desire to start all over again, prayed that I could work in a sheltered workshop, that I could stay in a residential home for the blind, where people would take care of me.
My self-esteem was down, and I did not have high expectations at all. I thought that all I could do was to work for a sheltered workshop, maybe making just enough to survive. I did not want to go back to my country because I was ashamed that I could not make anything of my life or do anything for myself because of my blindness. I had already experienced the altered treatment.
After some research my church discovered an organization called the National Federation of the Blind, and a volunteer took me to the National Center. Once I was there, a lady approached me and talked to me. I didn't have any idea what she was saying. Just picture this conversation in your mind. I did not speak any English, and she did not speak any Spanish. This was Mrs. Maurer, and after several attempts to communicate, she gave up and gave me a long white cane and a tape with some literature in Spanish. I thought to myself, "Is this what I get from the most powerful country in the world? Is this what I get for praying--a long white cane and a tape?"
When I went back to the apartment, I borrowed a tape recorder and started to listen to the tape. It contained a couple of articles by Dr. Jernigan, "A Definition of Blindness" and "A Left-Handed Dissertation." Can you imagine what I felt? I started to read and pay attention to every word and sentence. The information that I was processing made me think, and I did not want to miss any of it. It was another blind person telling me that blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance, that with proper training and opportunity we can compete on terms of equality, that the real problem was the public's misunderstanding about blindness. He was talking about regular jobs and not just sheltered workshops.
I started to regain dignity. I learned that it is respectable to be blind, that collectively we can change what it means to be blind. Finally, after three years of uncertainty and misleading information, I heard the truth about blindness. Indeed I was making the first step toward success by starting to believe in the philosophy of the NFB. I thanked God for answering my prayers.
I also learned that the National Federation of the Blind is a great family that supports us. Next I was introduced to Eileen Rivera, an NFB member fluent in Spanish, who called me to tell me that Mrs. Maurer had asked her to assist me and inform me that I would be going to New Mexico for training. After all, in New Mexico most people speak Spanish. Each time Eileen called, she gave me more information. I started to wonder how I was going to get to New Mexico. How could I get the money? She told me that she had talked to the Baltimore chapter and that they had collected money from the members to buy me a plane ticket. Also arrangements had been made for me in New Mexico. She told me that the NFB is like a family, and it was conducting itself like one. Even though I never went to a chapter meeting in Baltimore, I felt that I was part of a family.
Once I was in New Mexico, the NFB of New Mexico also collected some money from its members to give to me so that I could attend the National Convention in Denver, Colorado. I did not understand why they wanted to invest time and money in me to take me to the convention. When I arrived in Denver, I understood why. The power of success starts when we care about others.
The convention was full of excitement and things to learn. I met many successful and interesting blind people. I said to myself, "What a great family, and what a powerful and organized collective movement." At the time I did not understand the speeches, but I could feel everything else. As the convention progressed, I noticed the harmonious and enthusiastic feelings and knew that this organization was not passive; a driving force in the movement makes it unstoppable.
Now was the time to put into practice the philosophy, to learn the skills of blindness. I started my training in New Mexico in July of 1989, still not knowing English. I decided to work very hard. I disciplined myself and was determined to learn, worked hard, and had only a few hours of sleep every day. I had to learn English; I had to learn Braille, cane travel and personal independence. I did learn and was ready to start an independent life in America.
In January of 1990 I started an intensive English program at a community college in Albuquerque. During an interview at the college with the office of special services to determine how they could help me, I told them that I wanted to become an administrator and that I wanted to have my law degree. The counselor told me that I would not be able to get my law degree, that it was very difficult to become a lawyer, and that I should think about taking on only a short career. She said that she was from America, English was her first language, and she didn't even think about going to law school. She also said that I seemed intelligent, but I needed to remember also that I was blind. She said, "For a blind person you are doing great, but you have to be realistic." What she meant was that I could not compete with my sighted colleagues, implying that blind people should be measured by different standards, and that I was inferior because I was blind. But this time I was prepared to welcome this challenge and had the tools to deal with it.
Now I knew that it was my choice to determine what would happen with the rest of my life. Once again I worked harder and studied from 8:00 to 1:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., 1:30 to 3:30, and 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Every day I was reading and practicing. By July of that year I learned enough English to pass the English exam for international students and was ready to start college. So I attended college, and my grades were good. Let me tell you, though, during this period I confronted many adversities and obstacles.
However, each time I went to a state or national convention I learned a great deal and recharged my batteries. I became more determined and always tried to remember that "Freedom cannot be given; it must be taken." I became President of the New Mexico Student Division in 1990, and I didn't understand why I was elected. I was ready to decline, but I was told to sit down and shut up. I was honored and privileged to be elected President. This position had a great deal of responsibility, which I was eagerly ready to face. Some leaders told me that the best place to make mistakes was in the student division.
I told Dr. Maurer once, "I was lucky to find the Federation." His reply was, "Carlos, do you know what luck means?" Knowing that he was ready to teach me a lesson, I responded with the usual definition from the dictionary, "Luck means something good that happens to you when you have not planned it or by accident." He paused and said, "Luck is the corner where preparation and opportunity meet."
As an active member of the NFB I was determined to make a difference in my life and the lives of other blind people. In 1990 the University of New Mexico did not permit blind students to choose their own readers, and the recorded books were on two tracks and normal speed. When I asked the counselors about this, they told me that, if I wanted readers, I should take what they gave me. By this time, as you can imagine, I was not prepared to accept this as an answer. The student division organized student seminars to empower our members and educate university officials. We invited the director and counselors of the University of New Mexico Special Services office to discuss issues regarding blind students. They were persuaded, and we were permitted to choose our own readers.
The problem we faced now was that they did not have enough money to buy APH tape recorders and asked us to assist them with many issues regarding blind students. I was a candidate for the Student Senate and was elected. This position enabled me to have more influence with the administration. We approached the president of the university and received the funds to purchase the recorders. Then we approached the other institutions of higher education across the state and accomplished similar outcomes. Needless to say, blind students in New Mexico can now choose their own readers, and university officials are educated about blindness.
However, throughout this time I always remembered that "Freedom cannot be given; it must be taken." As you can see, we can determine our own future. I am a Federationist because of who I am and what I have accomplished. I started out with little or no expectations and absolutely no self-esteem and became aggressively determined and assertive. I completed my bachelor's degree, my master's in administration, and a law degree within seven years and graduated with distinction and honors. In addition, while attending school, I also worked for the Center for the Blind and was active in my community and my family. We of the NFB are seeking complete integration of the blind into society, and in order for us to accomplish this objective, the general public must become aware of the capabilities of the blind.
"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today," said Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Have you made your campaign pledge yet? We need everyone's help. The construction cost of our projected National Research and Training Institute for the Blind is eighteen million dollars. Please take this opportunity to complete your pledge form. Without you our job will be just that much harder.
The Campaign To Change What It Means To Be Blind
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