Braille Monitor                                                         June 2007

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Blind and a Carpenter: We're Here to Tell You

by George Wurtzel

George WurtzelFrom the Editor: George Wurtzel is a blind carpenter who lives in Michigan. His brother Fred is president of the Michigan affiliate. On Thursday morning, July 6, George Wurtzel addressed the 2006 NFB convention. He was the first speaker on that day’s memorable agenda, and he captivated his audience. This is what he said:

I was sitting in the back row in the makeup department--that’s where you make up what you are going to say--thinking about the difference in my life that this organization has made. The very first line of information that I have in my little note card to talk about is “confidence,” how you gain enough confidence to be good at whatever you choose to do. For me to be confident enough to go into a lady’s home and say to her, “We’re going to tear out all your kitchen cabinets, and we’re going to expand the back of your house out twelve feet, and we’re going to put it all back together, and you are going to like it when we are all done.” The fact that she looks at me holding a white cane in one hand and a Sawzall in the other builds confidence in the carpenter as well as demonstrating the confidence of the homeowner.

A few of the things I am going to tell you apply to absolutely everything that everybody does in this world, and they apply to me in the construction business and construction trade. The very first thing you have to do is learn about your industry. Whatever it is you decide you want to be, whether it’s a lawyer, a doctor, or a NASA scientist, you need to learn about your industry by going to the trade magazine. Every industry in the world--picture framers, cabinet builders, countertop makers, or massage therapists--they all have a trade magazine, and they all have some sort of convention just like we hold. If you want to learn about blindness, you go to NFB conventions. If you want to learn how to be a carpenter, you go to the building trade conventions. You have to learn about your industry. Every one of them has some sort of magazine that comes out monthly. Everybody has online Web sites. You have to learn, you have to look, you have to listen, you have to pay attention and find out everything you can. You have to be the best at whatever you are going to do.

You need to build alliances and find the people around the edges of your industry. I have been in the construction business all my life. I occasionally need a good plumber. Good plumbers are not easy to find. A plumber who will show up on Tuesday when you want him there is hard to find. If you find the guys that will show up at 10 o’clock on Tuesday when you need them, whether it’s a plumber, a drywaller, a roofer, or a subcontractor to do concrete work, you have to build alliances. And you build alliances by trading with them. In my business I go to the local plumbing showroom and say to them, “I would like to build a couple of displays to put in your showroom.” Then I am in and out of the showroom regularly, maintaining and changing the displays. Those people get to know who you are and what you do. You walk in with your cane in one hand and a pile of samples in the other and introduce yourself to the sales people. That’s how you build alliances.

What are you good at? In my case and what I’ve done for at least the last ten years, I’m a Corian fabricator. Corian is a type of countertop material that goes in people’s kitchens. It’s not on the low end of the spectrum as far as price goes, but it’s also not the most expensive thing you can put in your kitchen. I went to school to learn how to do it. When I went to the school to learn how to install it (you have to be certified in the product), I filled out the paperwork, sent it in, and took another employee with me when I went to get the certification. When we walked in, the people immediately started talking to my employee because I’m the guy with the white cane, and he is walking along with me. The guy with me turned to the person asking all the questions and said, “I don’t know; I work for him,” pointing his finger at me.

The man’s immediate response was, “How are you going to do this with dangerous tools?”

The guy points at me again and says, “He taught me how to do it.” You have to learn to be good at it. It goes back to the same thing—learn every aspect you can. I took the time to go back to the community college in my town and take classes in my industry. If you do that enough, you start to build a relationship at the school. Now the people at the school call me to come in and teach classes or segments of classes that have to do with my industry.

A lot of industries require licensing to participate in the industry. If you are a plumber, you have to become a licensed plumber. If you are an electrician, you have to become a licensed electrician. If you work in the state of Michigan and you are going to take out crucial construction elements of a house--that is, if you take out a weight-bearing wall and the house falls down--you are responsible. You have to be a licensed builder to do that. I was the first blind person in the state of Michigan to take the licensed builder’s test and pass it. An interesting story goes with that. I went to take the test, which is two parts. A large written test asks you questions like, if the basement is X big and you take out how much dirt and the foundation is X big, how many blocks do you need? How much concrete will you have to pour, and those kinds of common things that everybody knows [laughter]: how many cubic feet are in a yard, how much fill you need.

Then there is a large practical part of the test where they give you a blueprint and a list of questions, and you have to go retrieve the information off the blueprint and answer their questions. The first time I took the test (it took two tries to pass it), they were very accommodating. They did supply a person to read the blueprint to me. The problem was that she didn’t know how to read the blueprint. I spent the first half of the timed test teaching her how to read a blueprint. She went to the person who was giving the test and said, “I am totally inadequate in helping this man with the test.” I asked if I could retake the test with somebody who could read the blueprint. The man in Michigan who was in charge of the whole testing for building licensure found out that a blind person was trying to take the test. He was convinced that it wasn’t possible for a blind person to do this, so he agreed to come and give me the practical part of the test.

Within the first three minutes of the half hour allotted, we had gone through the first ten questions of the twenty-five. Every question that I knew the answer to instantly and could direct him to the blueprint to find, I answered; then we went back to fill in the answers that were more difficult and required more thought and more calculation. In college I had learned to go through and answer all the questions you know first and then go back to do the hard ones afterward. There were twenty-five or thirty questions on the test. I missed only one question on the whole test, which was pretty amazing. I had taken a class on how to take the test, but they don’t know what’s going to be on it the next time. They quiz people about the test questions as they come out. There are a hundred different copies of this test, so they put together a list of questions they think the testers are going to ask. I was lucky because they asked questions I knew the answers to. There were definitely some they could have asked that I didn’t know.

I’ll go back to the same thing that I had on my card in the beginning: what are you good at? You have to figure out what you are good at, and you have to get passionate about that. I am extremely passionate about what I am good at. I read every trade journal that comes out; I pay someone to read articles to me. I go to every trade show. I belong to a home builders’ association. I go to every single meeting, and I walk around and say, “Hello. My name is George Wurtzel.” I contribute to their newsletter, not as regularly as I should, but you have to find ways for people to get to know who you are and what you do. People have to recognize you for what you do, not who you are. When someone is looking for somebody who can do the really oddball things in the Corian business in Lansing, Michigan, people call me up.

I’ve recently changed the direction of my life somewhat. I got hit by a car three years ago walking down the sidewalk going home for lunch. It was raining out. A truck was backing out of its driveway. There was a lot of street noise, and rain falling on the leaves. The man was talking on his cell phone. The back of the vehicle and I became very well acquainted. It did serious damage to both knees and my back, so my construction business has wound down to a very small business where I do a little bit of subcontract work out to other people. I am a licensed Corian fabricator, which is something that is hard to get, so I just do enough to maintain that licensing.

Now I am running a camp for blind kids in Michigan called Camp Tuhsmeheta. We are making a difference in what it means to be blind in the state of Michigan for kids. We bring them there and teach them different things. We are working on putting together a project that I have been talking to President Maurer about. It’s going to be a house-building project for blind people. We are going to bring in people from all over the United States to build a house. You may be thinking that you are not interested in house building at all. But there are a thousand unrelated jobs associated with building a house. Real estate people, community planners, people in distribution, people in the trucking business, interior designers, people in sales—pretty much anything you can think of is related to the construction of a house. The nice thing about the construction business and whatever you are looking at as a life vocation is the fact that it’s going to be a long time before the construction of a house over here on Second Street goes to China. You need local people who know how to work in the industry and people who know how to mount the kitchen cabinets that came from China on the wall, because they won’t get up there themselves.

So we are building an alliance with the National Federation of the Blind and with the National Home Builders Association, which I am a member of, and with Habitat for Humanity. Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, which is the nonprofit spearheading the project, is putting it together. The place where it’s going to happen is Camp Tuhsmeheta, near Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is where we are going to house the people and build a house.

In conclusion, whatever you decide you really want to do is the very first thing you need to become confident about yourself in. The next thing is asking what you are good at. Then ask what you can do to get out in the marketplace and tell people about who you are and what you do. P. T. Barnum said that he didn’t care what was in the newspaper about him as long as they got his name right. If you can get your name out there, you are ahead. You would prefer to have the story be about the confident blind person who is capable and can do marvelous and magnificent things, but if it is a sappy story about the inspiring blind guy who installs kitchen cabinets, put that article up on the wall in your office. It costs a lot of money to get on the front page of the newspaper. Reprint those articles and hand them out. Then go out and seek the people who write the articles in your trade magazines and dictate what the next article will be. This time you give them the information and make the article into what you want it to be.

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