Braille Monitor                                                     October 2007

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On Advocacy: A New Paradigm and Personal Reflection

by Gary Wunder

From the Editor: On Wednesday, July 4, the NFB Department on Affiliate Action sponsored a workshop on advocacy at the national convention. Gary Wunder, NFB secretary and member of the Scholarship Committee, was invited to wrap up that workshop. Because of his scholarship responsibilities, he raced into the workshop at the last moment to make his presentation. This is what he said:

Gary WunderI want to begin this evening by apologizing. Normally I have to do that at the end of my speeches anyway, so we'll just get it out of the way right now. Seriously, this is a different kind of speech for me because I make it a practice to participate fully in seminars and conferences where I'm honored with the opportunity to speak, and this participation gives me a sense of the audience which I'm just not able to have here tonight. I mean no disrespect by showing up here at such a late hour and hope you will forgive anything I say which simply repeats what has been said earlier.

When I was in high school, I had a most eccentric English teacher, who stressed how important it was to capture information and inspiration when they came your way. Inspiration and information were precious gifts, and if you let them slip by, you might never recapture what had once been yours for the taking. All of this was embodied in one sentence, which was repeated every single day of the school year: “It only goes by once.”

I tell you this story because, when Dan called for the name of my presentation, I was at work and was struck by the inspiration which resulted in this title. The call complete, I went back to work coding a program, and three weeks later, when I saw the agenda, there was this impressive presentation title with my name beside it. I remembered the letter asking if I would present, remembered the phone call to confirm it, but couldn't think for the life of me what new paradigm I had had in mind.

When first I came to the Federation, I couldn't believe what a ruckus some blind people were making. I was sixteen years old. Discrimination was a word I had heard quite a lot but always on television in the context of minority groups who were demanding more from America as the first-class citizens they intended to be. Never had I heard a blind person use the word to describe something in his own life—never, that is, until I started receiving the Braille Monitor. At first what I read was too distant from my life to have meaning--I understood the words, admired the writing, but really wondered whether these highly articulate people had reasonable concerns or were simply playing for a little recognition, some power, and of course some money.

Eventually my involvement with the Federation brought me to meetings with leaders I had kept emotionally at arm’s length. All of a sudden they were more than voices on a sixteen-RPM record, celebrities like those I watched on television but never hoped to meet. These were real people, good people, and I realized their cause was not cynical or self-serving. Coming to that realization wasn't easy, for to admit they articulated genuine concerns meant changing some fundamental beliefs about the world and the place of the blind in it. Never had I, a young white male, thought of myself as a member of a minority. “Oppressed”--now there was a word I related to--poor immigrants used to pick crops and then sent back home. The closest I ever came to feeling oppressed was when, on a Saturday morning, Dad would say we were going to work cleaning up the yard or shoveling out the barn.

My conversion to the mindset of the Federation didn't rely solely on the charm of our leaders and their ability to persuade, for as I got older and moved from the protective environment of home and family, I too began to encounter discrimination based on a fundamental misunderstanding of blindness and the power agencies for the blind could exert. I couldn't really be an advocate until I could find in other people's stories some part of my own life experience. I'm convinced you can't really be an advocate until you have personally felt the sting of an unreasonable no, the rejection of a perfectly rational argument with a dismissive "So what," and have learned first-hand that the issue is power--power someone has that you do not.

All of this background is to say that, as I became a bit more seasoned in the Federation, I began to look forward to my monthly Braille Monitor and would seek out stories in which competent blind men and women were defended by their blind brothers and sisters with a reasonableness and persistence that made me both angry and proud--angry at the pig-headed people who thought more of their traditions and policies than they did of human beings, and proud I could be a part of an organization with the commitment, the resources, and the sophistication to defend their rights.

Whether it was my youth or the way things were thirty-five years ago, I can't say, but for a good long while everything in these battles was good vs. evil; enlightenment vs. ignorance; intelligence vs. stupidity. In those days, or at least in my memory of them, our magazine was filled with case after case in which blind people were routinely and unashamedly denied their rights. Based solely on blindness, capable women and men were denied the right to rent apartments, to be accompanied by their guide dogs, to buy life insurance, to ride buses without an attendant, to be admitted to law school though they had the grades and test scores to qualify for admission, to take certain state and federal exams to qualify for employment, to rent motor vehicles that others would drive--the list seemed almost endless.
So, as I moved up the ladder of leadership, I yearned for just these kinds of cases. I wouldn't say I was looking for a fight, but my ears certainly perked up when I heard words like “denied,” “forbidden,” and “charged extra.”

Two things have happened since my early days. One is that I've come to realize there really are two sides to every story, even if I'm very committed to one of those sides. The second is that the world doesn't stay the same, and people learn from their mistakes.

Discrimination today is in many cases more subtle than it once was. The outrageous statements we used to get routinely from those who were surprised anyone would object to the denial of a blind person have vanished as publicity about the ADA has made it clear there are some questions one can't ask and things one can't say if she wants to be on the side of legal safety and political correctness. Seldom do we argue about whether a door is closed to us. Now the issue is, to what degree is what we find behind those doors usable by blind people and to what degree are we or some agency responsible for the improvements needed to make it truly accessible.

I'm going to share a few stories that taught me more than I used to know when reading my Monitor and cheering for the home team. I'll preface this by saying I've been blessed to have been a part of many successes in advocacy, most of which are documented by the annual report I write each year for the NFB of Missouri. What I want to focus on for just a few minutes here are cases that were real learning experiences for me and that taught me to safeguard the reputation of the Federation, to make sure I had all the facts, and to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that the people for whom we advocate really are on board and are a part of the process we undertake.

One of the first cases to come my way as a new state president involved an angry guide dog user who had been denied access in renting an apartment. Given that we had just passed the Model White Cane Law after an eight-year fight, I was more than willing to take on the landlord, establish some case law, and recruit for the Federation a new member who would appreciate our willingness to come to his assistance.

The first thing I did was listen. I encouraged him to tell me his story when he was piqued and at times when he was more relaxed. Then I asked questions to ensure I understood what had happened, when it happened, and all he could recall that had been said. Next I wrote down the events as I understood them and read them back to him for approval. I must have done a pretty good job of capturing them because, when I finished my recitation, he was just about as angry as he had been on the day he was denied.

I told him we now needed a strategy. Since the landlord wouldn't bargain, I thought we needed publicity. "Expose him!" he said. Actually what he said was, "Expose the old--expletive deleted." So I did what I had learned from The Media and the Message, a publication of the Public Relations Committee of the NFB. I wrote a release and distributed it to radio, television, and newspapers in his area. The response was overwhelming--reporters and editors were interested--"Legal challenge will soon determine whether new law for the blind and their dog guides has teeth"; "Keep out sign extended to the blind"; "Landlord says second floor too risky for the sightless." I was elated--he was not. When he was contacted for interviews and one of the TV stations offered to send out their Action investigative reporter, anger at the landlord turned to anger at the NFB and its foolish young president. His standard line soon became that this had all been blown out of proportion; that he really didn't care if one landlord refused him admission because he could always find another place to live; that he had just been letting off steam and had never wanted this kind of publicity; and, as everybody knows, the NFB is a radical, militant group always looking for a fight.

Lessons learned: Don't assume someone complaining to you will stand firm when it comes time to tell people who can make a difference; most of us are eager to complain, but when a complaint threatens really to rock the boat, a different level of commitment is required, and it is our job to see beforehand that this commitment is there. After long experience I've learned to start by giving people who want our help an assignment. Hopefully that assignment has something to do with furthering resolution of their dispute--send me the paperwork; write things out chronologically so I can better understand them; get me the CEO of the company we might take action against. In making an assignment, I have to assess the competence of the person on the other end of the phone--a developmentally challenged person may not be able to write out a time line, so for her the assignment may be to sign and return a release form I send. Never mind that we really have no release form and don't need one. The assignment is just to see some follow-through. I can't make the task so hard that the person seeking help needs an advocate to get an advocate, but for me the important measure is that I see initiative that goes beyond complaining and indicates a tangible willingness to work at resolution.

Now I move to a case involving a very capable young lady who wanted to be licensed to do day care. Some of you will think I'm talking about Carol Coulter, but don't get ahead of me, for this is not her story. I spent hours on the phone with this young woman, becoming ever more convinced that anyone who would deny her what she sought was an absolute idiot. She was a successful mother; already ran an unlicensed day care facility with happy customers; had good social skills; and was unquestionably bright, attractive, well dressed, and motivated. I wanted to ride the big white horse for this woman, to see her house full of children, and to have her license from the State of Missouri on the wall. So, after gathering all the facts I needed, I went off angrily and self-righteously to confront the bureaucrats in our state capitol, only to learn that my blind friend was not being denied a license on the basis of blindness but because her husband was the subject of an active investigation into charges of child molestation.

Wooh--jump back, Jack. I had talked with my blind friend so frequently that I knew everything there was to know about her case--everything, that is, that she wanted me to know, everything she thought I needed to know, everything except information that might explain why she wasn't getting a license. Was her husband guilty of molesting a child? I suppose I'll never know. Was she smart enough to recognize what I would be encouraged to hear and what would put me off? You bet she was! Her response when I asked her why she didn't communicate something so important was, "Well, it's just nonsense. My husband wouldn't hurt a fly," which might have been true, but interestingly, when the couple divorced several years later, the charge was again repeated, and this time by my friend seeking to end her marriage.

Lessons learned: Be careful when you think your client walks on water or your opponent is dumber than dirt. Proceed with passion and conviction, but leave the wrath of righteous indignation to God. Always remember that, when people come for help, they're engaged in selling their case and asking you to buy it with our reputation, our resourcefulness, and our money--be open to offering all of these, but guard them diligently.

If I have really recaptured the new paradigm I so dreamily envisioned when coming up with this presentation's title, it is that advocacy is usually more about seeing people get what they need than defending them against outright denials and unwavering prejudice. Being a good advocate is traveling the harder road and demanding self-reflection and honesty from the people we help. If your spelling is poor because you didn't learn Braille, my job is to move you beyond that story to the place where you become a better speller and learn to read. My job is to say that your story must be told for the benefit of generations to come, that we will use it in shaping public policy and programs, but that it must not be the stopping place where all your thwarted aspirations are explained and your identity as victim is forever enshrined.

Being a modern day advocate means swimming upstream against the prevailing mentality that I will be served, that the system is responsible for my troubles, and that the system is responsible for fixing them. If a change in the system is required, we must work to bring it about, but in the meantime our job is to solve that problem with the person we're helping and let him or her move on to other challenges and successes.

If we are going to say the hard things that sometimes need saying and practice what is commonly known as tough love, we have to start by evidencing that love in all our Federation interactions. The man we help has to know that our commitment to him goes beyond the specifics of his issue. If we encourage him to learn, he has to know we will be there to teach. If we encourage a woman to improve her blindness skills, she must have the faith that we'll be there to see that she gets the training. She must understand at a gut level that she is more than a case, more than a deadline for filing, and more than a possible article in the Monitor. We need to know her favorite stories and see how they make her the person she is. Her current struggle is one small part of who she is, and we're not in this just to win her case but to win her heart and soul to join in a cause larger than herself. Part of our goal in advocacy is to develop our replacements. We work for her, but we also work in the belief that those who are today's receivers will be tomorrow's givers.

When you find the gems who need and want our help, give them your all. You can't promise outcomes, but you can promise the best of everything we have to give. Being the advocate sets you up to be the hero or the heel, and which you will be depends, not on whether we win or lose, but on whether you keep the promises you have made.

My last thought on advocacy, or at least the last one I can fit into this presentation, is that being an advocate is a tremendous honor and gives us the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people we have pledged ourselves to serve. It can create lifelong bonds of trust and friendship and can be the foundation on which many more lives are changed for the better. At its best, advocacy is a tangible way to make Federation philosophy more than words on a page. It is the way we demonstrate the transformative power of challenge and belief and a living, breathing testament to the love we have for others who are blind.

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