Braille Monitor October 2006
by Anil Lewis
From the Editor:
On Thursday, July 6, the afternoon session of the 2006 convention began with
the following thoughtful and inspiring address by Anil Lewis, president of the
NFB of Georgia and a member of the National Federation of the Blind board of
directors. This is what he said:
Dr. Maurer, thank you for the honor of addressing the convention. First of all I'd like to say good afternoon to my Federation family. Also I must give my sincere gratitude, appreciation, and respect to Tommy Craig and the Texas affiliate for creating such a tremendous convention. As you know, the convention is in Atlanta, Georgia, in '07, and although we may not be able to match the size--because everything is bigger in Texas--hopefully we can surpass the quality of this convention in '07.
It is indeed my honor to
address you guys. When Dr. Maurer came to Georgia a few months ago for our leadership
training seminar, he announced that I would be addressing the convention this
afternoon, and he said there would be no shilly-shallying. I don't know exactly
what that means, so, if you guys catch me shillying or shallying during my presentation,
please stop me. When I timed my original presentation, it was an hour and twenty
minutes, so I have reduced it some, to one Braille page. But in order to get
to this one Braille page, I am going to tell you a little bit and hope it all
makes sense at the end.
Let me cut right to the chase and tell you that in November of 1989 I lost my sight due to retinitis pigmentosa. It wasn't the slow, progressive deterioration that's typically associated with this disease. Over the weekend I lost enough functional vision so that I could no longer go back to work and read my computer screen, and I concluded I could no longer go back to college to complete my bachelor's degree in administration and computer information systems. If you have read by bio on the national Web site, you know a lot more than that. But for the sake of this presentation today, that's really what you need to know. That was the most frightening, isolating, lonely time in my entire life. It's very rare that you hear this type of story at a Federation convention or Federation event, because we know that it is respectable to be blind, and there need be nothing frightening about blindness.
But at that point in my life I didn't know the Federation. I was frightened. I stopped living. I laid up on the sofa and covered myself in a blanket of pity and depression. My mother, God bless her, was a very strong woman. She was a brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous lady--very soft spoken and of very few words. Yes, she was my mother, I know. I didn't get that gene. She saw me on the sofa, and as she went by, in her ultimate wisdom she said these words to me--it wasn't a long speech, very simple words. She looked at me real hard, and she said, "You need to get up and do something."
That was all it took. I got up and went to apply for vocational rehabilitation services. I became a client of VR [vocational rehabilitation]. I met with my counselor and filled out an application. I don't remember getting a copy, but I know I had to sign one because I did get the services. I don't remember receiving a client services handbook although I am sure he gave it to me. But it wasn't in a format that I could read. I went through all of the prescribed psychological evaluations, and we got to the point where we wrote the individualized plan for employment. At that time it was called the individualized rehabilitation plan. I don't remember getting a copy of that either. But he asked me questions about what types of services I would need in order to be rehabilitated.
Luckily for me, I remembered the experience of both my older brother and sister. They became legally blind long before I lost my sight. My brother attended the Georgia Academy for the Blind, where he excelled in wrestling and track and swimming, but I don't really recall any academic accomplishments. He went to community college, where I used to have to read his textbooks to him in the evening, but, because he had not developed those foundational skills of Braille and orientation and mobility, he wasn't successful in that endeavor. As a client of vocational rehabilitation, he found a job with their help through the state merit service as a file clerk. They gave him a lighted magnifier and put him back in a room and told him to file. It was a formula for failure.
Who was to blame? I don't focus on blame. I do realize that, if he had taken the opportunity, been encouraged to get or had been provided the training we all know is necessary: Braille and independent travel, he could have become a successful blind adult.
Unfortunately for him but lucky for me, I remembered that experience. In this discussion with the rehab counselor, I remembered that Braille was important. He encouraged me to use my remaining functional vision to read large print and learn to use a closed circuit television, but I insisted on learning to read Braille.
My orientation and mobility training consisted of an O&M instructor who taught me how to use my remaining functional vision to travel from one destination to another by rote. Luckily for me, the director of the center at that time was a totally blind person. We would sit and talk, and he told me, "If you truly want to become an independent traveler (at the time I knew nothing about the NFB's structured-discovery method of teaching cane travel), pick a place and go. That's exactly what I did. Periodically I would pick a place, and I would go there. My fears began to dissipate. My confidence began to grow. My ability to travel independently increased.
I spent four months at
the center learning to read Braille, learning how to travel independently, and
also learning how to use technology. Within those four months I became the Braille
instructor. I started teaching assistive technology to all the other clients.
I was a client in rehab, but because I was able to articulate to my counselor
the specific services I needed, I did become successful as a blind adult.
A lot of people argue that you should be a consumer of rehab services. I disagree with that concept. A consumer has power based on the ability to purchase. State vocational rehabilitation is a program. I encourage people to recognize that they are clients with rights and responsibilities. As a client of VR, you should know the things I had figured out, the services you need. Through informed choice you help make the decisions that are written into your plan and affect your life. Your goal is to become a consumer, an independent, gainfully employed adult with the power to purchase. And that is what I did; I became a consumer.
A lot of things transpired in the following years. A year after I started teaching I became the job-placement person, working to place blind people in gainful employment, and I took pride in my job because I was helping people attain that wonderful goal that I had achieved.
You have heard the story of the man watching an old man walking along the beach and throwing starfish back into the ocean. He walks up to the old guy and says, "What are you doing?"
The old man says, "I am saving the lives of these starfish that have been washed up onto the beach and will die if they don't get back into the water."
The young man looks across the beach with all the stranded starfish and says, "You are not going to make a difference."
The old man leans down, picks up a starfish, and throws it into the ocean. He says, "It made a difference to that one."
That's what I was doing. At least I was making a difference in the lives of the starfish that I encountered.
Then a couple of things happened that really changed my paradigm. I met Miss Thelma Godwin at the Center for the Visually Impaired. I was doing job placement there and was trying to get people employed, but they didn't want to give up their Social Security benefit because they had had to fight so hard to get it in the first place. They were experiencing a disincentive to go to work.
She put me in touch with Jim Gashel at the National Federation of the Blind national office. That was my first contact with the NFB. Jim Gashel took time to educate this poor, ignorant blind man who had supposedly been helping people find jobs for a long time about the Social Security work incentives. I tell you, my job placement rate went from six to twenty-four in a period of two years. It's amazing what the power of information can do. But with that action, though he probably didn't know it, Jim Gashel had rubbed the magic lamp and let the genie out. I had gotten infected with a desire to understand this thing called "policy," these things called "laws" and "statutes," so that I could understand them and use them to leverage my desire to help people improve their lives.
I want now to transition into the whole lawyer piece. What really happened was that I recognized that law is in everything we do. Social Security Administration statutes had been passed and become law that affected people I was trying to help.
Later on I got married and became a father; unfortunately, the marriage didn't work out. I knew that I was more competent and should be the custodial parent, but I feared the stereotype of blindness. I thought, "Oh, no way are they going to give a child to a blind person." But the Federation stepped in again. I talked to people who encouraged me and empowered me. Dr. Marc Maurer spent many, many moments on the telephone encouraging and inspiring me. Luckily I found a lawyer who knew how to be an assertive, formidable advocate. We learned last night in the advocacy training workshop that being an advocate doesn't necessarily mean being aggressive. My lawyer told me that it would be best if I tried to talk to my spouse and come to a mutual agreement. And we were able to do so. Luckily, with my self-confidence I was able to dispel the myths and fears that officials might have had about my being a competent father. I was awarded full custody of my son.
At that time I was also taking care of my mother, who was dying of multiple myeloma, an aggressive blood cancer. I tried to secure various interventions for her, but the insurance companies continued to tell me that this procedure wasn't covered by her policy and that one wasn't allowed under whatever medical provisions were available. But I studied the policies that existed. I found the necessary loopholes, and I got my mother the services that were important for her to live those last few moments with quality and dignity.
Those were my personal experiences. I leveraged them with my desire and love for humanity. I went to Savannah with Dan Goldstein. You heard him present at the board meeting. Dan Goldstein is a formidable attorney. Although he is not blind, I consider him an honorary blind man because he gets it. I talked with Dan on that trip, and he let me participate in his thought process and his strategy for helping this blind woman who had just given birth to a baby and had it taken from her by the state. We were going to get that baby back. He showed me; he walked me through it. I watched Dan go into the courtroom, and he owned that courtroom. He walked around the courtroom. You could see the adrenalin pumping. I participated vicariously in all of that, and it was a plan to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, to my dismay, we did not have to go to court. Dan successfully mediated or arranged a resolution that allowed this mother to get her baby back. But that left me high and dry. What was I going to do with all this adrenalin that I had built up? So I channeled and redirected it. I realized that my love of change had broadened. I realized that I didn't just want to help one starfish at a time, I wanted to be a starfish that had been thrown back into the ocean, where I could keep all the other starfish from getting up on the beach. I wanted systemic change; I wanted broader, bigger results. In order for me to do that, I realized I had natural ability, my love for people, my new spirit of Federationism. Now I wanted to be an attorney.
I wanted to affect policy first, so I enrolled in school to get my master's degree in public administration. As my Federation family you helped me in 2002 by awarding me a scholarship, and I appreciate that. I graduated with that scholarship in 2003 with my master's in public administration. Now, with my newfound skills, talents, and education, I applied to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation Services to make a difference as the director of the Business Enterprise Program. With ten years of experience in retail, six years of experience in banking, seven years or more of experience in rehabilitation specifically helping blind people access the Business Enterprise Program--I applied for the job, and they said I wasn't qualified. You know the end of this story: my Federation family pitched in, helped me get the broad, aggressive legal assistance of Dan Goldstein's law firm, and we won and settled that lawsuit last year.
At first I was afraid. I then became a client. Luckily I was educated and had people around me to help me understand what that meant. My goal was to be a consumer, and I became a consumer--gainfully employed, making decisions with my own money. Now I want to continue to grow in order to help others. I believe that the way to do this is to become a lawyer. I will be starting law school in the fall of '07. Only through your help and support have I made it this far, and I appreciate you, and I am glad to have this opportunity to thank you. As I said, I reduced my presentation to one Braille page. I guess I will get to it now.
I don't know the author of this quote, but it's not mine. I wish it were. A friend emailed it to me shortly before I came to convention. So bear with me as I fumble through this. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It's our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Well actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that others don't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in all of us. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, we automatically liberate others." I'm going to tell you in simple terms, as my mom would say, "You need to get up and do something."