The Braille Monitor March, 2004
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by Scott C. LaBarre
From the Editor: Scott LaBarre is a longtime member and leader of the National Federation of the Blind. He currently serves as second vice president of the NFB of Colorado. He, his wife Anahit, and their young son Alexander live in a home in a Denver suburb. The following article appeared in the twenty-fourth Kernel Book, The Car, the Sled, and the Butch Wax. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:
Scott LaBarre is president of the National Federation of the Blind's special interest division for blind lawyers. There are elements of humor and irony in his story, which illustrates the profound disconnect that, all too often, still exists between the reality of blindness and the perception of it. Here is what Scott has to say about Cab 452:
I am a blind lawyer who owns and runs his own firm. Recently I got married, and my wife and I are proudly expecting our first child. We also look with joy towards living in a home that we have just purchased. In other words, I normally think of myself as the typical young professional starting a family and pursuing a career.
From time to time, however, something occurs that reminds me that my blindness makes me vastly different from the average young American professional. Even though I have accomplished much in my life, sometimes people are not able to look past the fact that a blind man is before them, and when they concentrate so heavily on my blindness, their natural tendency is to prescribe to me the characteristics they believe a blind person possesses rather than consider the life I have actually lived.
About a year ago I elected to take a cab home from the office for the specific purpose of swinging by the dry cleaner to collect a bunch of clothes I had dropped off the previous day. I needed to collect the clothes because the next day I was flying off on a business trip in connection with one of my cases.
After waiting outside of my office building for a short while, Metro Taxi's Cab 452 came speeding up. Soon after getting into the cab, I realized that the driver was in a hurry, because he rapidly flew out of the parking lot. When I told him that I had to make a stop at the dry cleaner, the driver groaned. Upon later reflection I am certain that I unconsciously adopted this guy's impatience. So as we rocketed up to the dry cleaner, my desire was to make the retrieval of my clothes as expeditious as possible.
When he said, "We're here," I quickly opened the door and heard a sickening "thunk." The driver had parked his size-twelve cab in a size-ten parking space. You guessed it. I had opened my door onto someone else's vehicle.
As I wriggled myself out of the cab, I heard somebody running up and screaming, "You (expletive deleted), you scratched my new SUV!" As soon as this new SUV owner realized that I was blind, he immediately turned his wrath upon the cab driver. Then began an hour-long ordeal.
My cab driver's first tongue was not English, and the SUV owner's use of the language was grotesque, to put it kindly. SUV Man screamed at the driver, "How the (expletive deleted) can you park so close to my car and let the blind man out there?" Mr. Cab Driver yelled back, claiming that there was no scratch and that it was not a big deal. He also said, "Give this poor blind guy a break. He couldn't see your stupid car."
SUV Man kept yelling at Mr. Cab Driver that he better damn well pay for the repairs. Mr. Cab Driver said, "There is no damage. We're leaving!" SUV Man replied, "There is no (expletive deleted) way you're leaving. I'm calling the police!"
From there the conversation between these gentlemen degenerated quickly while they hurled vicious insults back and forth. They both went into the dry cleaner to accost potential eyewitnesses about what had happened. I followed the quarrelling twosome into the store and attempted to gain their attention. No one was paying me any mind amidst the raging storm of verbal putdowns.
We in the National Federation of the Blind often say that we seek to achieve first-class citizenship for the nation's blind. We also say that with such first-class citizenship comes first-class responsibility. At the time this event occurred, I remember feeling at fault for what had happened. I told myself, "You should have been more cautious and opened the door more slowly."
I also asked myself what would have happened if I had been a sighted man getting out of the cab? I suspect that the sighted man would bear the responsibility for what had transpired as a result of his lack of caution.
On that day I attempted to get the attention of the two men so that I could discuss with them my role in the whole mess. At first they ignored me altogether. Finally I stepped in front of SUV Man and handed him my business card.
As I started to say something to him about the fact that he could call me about any potential damages, he said, "You don't have to give me your lawyer's card. You're blind. It's not your fault." Handing the card back to me, he once again said, "I don't need to talk with your lawyer. This stupid cab driver will need a lawyer."
Then the cab driver chimed in, "It isn't this blind man's fault. Give the poor guy a break. And I am not the stupid one."
I then tried to tell both gentlemen that I was, in fact, a lawyer and that my purpose was to help resolve the dispute. Once again they ignored me and took their battle outside of the store.
Later the police did, in fact, arrive. The officer examined SUV Man's vehicle and said that he could see no scratch. The officer spoke with both gentlemen, and they both described me as "this poor blind guy." The officer agreed that whatever had happened was "not the blind guy's fault." The officer never once spoke with me to ask about what had happened.
Finally the ordeal came to an end with both combatants yelling at each other and getting in a few last insults. On the way home I attempted to tell the driver of Cab 452 that I felt bad about what had happened. After all, I opened the door onto SUV Man's prized possession. The cab driver stated over and over that "Life must be hard, man. It isn't your fault." I tried repeatedly to explain that my life was fine.
When we got to my home, I left the cab, telling him that his supervisor could call me at my law office if there were any lingering questions. Apparently no official action resulted from the incident because I never heard from anyone regarding the matter.
Several weeks after the event, Cab 452 once again answered my call for a taxi and again picked me up from my office. The guy immediately said that he was the driver who had taken me to the dry cleaner, and he launched into an account of how stupid and ugly SUV Man had been. Then he asked me, "Is that building your doctor's or counselor's office?" I said, "No," and explained that I was a lawyer and that the building was home to my office.
The driver of Cab 452 was shocked. He asked me, "You work? Work as a lawyer?" I again told him what I did for a living, and he repeatedly commented that he was impressed and couldn't believe it. The incident at the dry cleaner and the subsequent ride in Cab 452 are not earth-shattering events but are the kinds of events that remind me that I am not the average young professional chasing the American dream. Such events force me to reflect upon the status of blind people in our society.
At the dry cleaner, initially, SUV Man started yelling at me about the alleged damage done to his car. Once he saw my white cane and realized that I was blind, all blame instantaneously shifted to the cab driver. Both at that time and afterwards, the driver made comments that said, in effect, "Give the poor blind guy a break."
Does my blindness absolve me of all responsibility in this kind of affair? Arguably, the cab driver probably should not have parked so close to another vehicle. However, maybe I shouldn't have been in such a hurry. Maybe I should have opened the door more slowly and carefully. Certainly SUV Man should not have overreacted and screamed so viciously and made a federal case out of such a small matter.
Regardless of how much blame should be assigned to the different individuals, there is no question in my mind that at least part of this accident was directly attributable to me and my actions. Neither the cab driver nor SUV Man nor the police officer ever wanted to hold me responsible in any way. They all agreed that I was faultless because of my blindness.
What struck me even more forcefully is the way these gentlemen reacted to the fact that I am a lawyer. Their response was disbelief. When I handed SUV Man my card, he assumed that the card was somebody else's. He did not consider for a moment that I was the lawyer named on the card. The cab driver did not understand until much later that I was a lawyer with my own practice, even though I had explained it several times. When he finally understood that I practiced law, he was shocked, to say the least.
Blind people have served as lawyers in our country for decades. In fact, the first president of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, practiced law and taught at a major university starting in the 1930's. Even though there have been many blind lawyers, the gentlemen involved in this incident either could not or would not believe that I, a blind man, was a lawyer.
This phenomenon occurs with quite some frequency as I travel through life. Not a month goes by without someone expressing absolute surprise that I am employed as an attorney.
When I became blind as a ten-year-old boy, I literally thought that my life was over. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I could pursue a challenging career, marry a beautiful woman, raise a family, and own a home; but I am doing all those things. The National Federation of the Blind has taught me to believe in myself as a blind person. The Federation has also made me realize that we have an obligation to spread a positive philosophy about blindness and to educate society about the true abilities of the blind.
Incidentally, I saw Cab 452's driver recently. His name is Mustafa, and he now has a much broader understanding of how blind people get along in the world. After seeing and listening to me enough times, he has learned that blind persons function in all walks of life and do so well. He is no longer shocked that I am a lawyer, and my blindness does not seem to be something unusual to him or something that should be pitied.
Our road to first-class citizenship has been long and hard, but we are getting there. Person by person, action by action, we change what it means to be blind. Cab 452 has reaffirmed my conviction that we will realize a day when the blind are full, first-class citizens in our society. With the work of the National Federation of the Blind and a society willing to listen, that day may not be all that far away.
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