Braille Monitor May 2008
by Jennifer Sutcliffe
From the Editor: The following article appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on February 28, 2008. Anil Lewis is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia and a member of the NFB board of directors. He is also one of the most sought-after national representatives for state conventions. This article explains why. Here it is:
Over one weekend Anil Lewis's world turned dark. Lewis was well on his way to a bachelor's degree in business administration from Georgia State University. He was ready to hit the ground running in the business world.
But Lewis was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease and the leading genetic cause of blindness. In November 1989 Lewis went blind in a few days. "All of a sudden doors that had been open to me slammed shut," said Lewis, forty-three, of Gresham Park in southeast Atlanta. "It was scary—for the moment."
In the year after he became legally blind, capable only of perceiving light, Lewis learned to read Braille, use electronic resources, and walk with a white cane. He listened to the woman in disability services at Georgia State who told him he didn't have to quit school. He finished his undergraduate degree and earned a master's degree in public policy.
Now, as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia, Lewis is opening those doors for others. This month the Community Leadership Association, a national organization of state and local community groups, gave him its Distinguished Leadership Award. "He has a deep understanding of human nature, and he really does care about building a better community," said Sara Fountain, executive director of Leadership DeKalb, who nominated him for the award.
Lewis joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1992. What drew him was its fight for a bill to ensure Braille instruction in public school, he said. Since he became president of the Federation's Georgia affiliate in 2002, the Atlanta native has successfully pushed legislation through the Georgia General Assembly. One bill made more than two hundred newspapers available by phone. The Federation's NFB-NEWSLINE® program was implemented in 2006. Another bill he advocated as part of a national effort would help K-12 schools provide textbooks for blind students. It passed in 2004.
He came to Fountain's attention in 2003 when he entered the ten-month leadership program that trains leaders in DeKalb County. The first challenge for his class of about fifty was a team-building outdoor ropes course that involved climbing on logs and other obstacles. Fountain said, "He got right in there and did something that would be difficult for a sighted person."
That determination carries over into his work, Fountain said.
"He spent over two years lobbying for [NEWSLINE], and he never took the
credit for that," she said. "He will give the credit to others, always."
Not taking the credit is part of Lewis's philosophy. Societal prejudices against
the blind make it difficult for them to be self-reliant, Lewis said. "[The
prejudice] stems from a lack of exposure to blind people," Lewis said.
"People adopt a caretaker mentality. If you're blind, you're either seen
as a Stevie Wonder or an invalid. There's no in-between."
When he still had his eyesight, Lewis said he was just as guilty of that mentality. Both his older brother Rafael and sister Patrice became legally blind at an early age from retinitis pigmentosa. Only his younger sister Dominick went unaffected. Lewis was close to his brother Rafael and helped him through his schooling. But he considered him unable to live on his own.
"I used to think that I'd need to take care of him someday, that he couldn't be self-sufficient," Lewis said. While Lewis went through the Atlanta and DeKalb public school systems without any trouble, his brother struggled. The paternalistic attitude that many took toward Rafael was his downfall, Lewis said. In school he was initially labeled as educably mentally retarded—as was Lewis, because the school figured it ran in the family. "That's what they'd do back then, especially with young black men," Lewis said. "They thought he couldn't read, but he couldn't see. He grew up in a time when services weren't being provided."
It wasn't until he was about fifteen years old that he was diagnosed as legally blind at Grady Memorial Hospital. The resources he was denied, such as Braille and electronic textbooks, are mandatory under the K-12 law that was passed. "We're not demanding anything out of the ordinary," Lewis said. "You wouldn't send your child to school without his textbooks."
Lewis is now pushing for legislation that would require textbook companies to provide electronic versions of their texts to postsecondary schools that request them. He's also turning attention to working-age blind people, 70 percent of whom are unemployed, according to recent statistics. Many are placed needlessly in assisted-living homes, Lewis said.
Instead, qualified professionals can teach them to be independent, Lewis said. The National Federation of the Blind is planning a new Center for the Visually Impaired that would provide all the resources the blind need to succeed. Atlanta is one potential site of the center, which would be run by blind people, and is set to open in 2011. "There are blind people who are doctors and lawyers," Lewis said. "Blindness is just a characteristic. Our goal is not to be special; our goal is to be normal."
1989: Lewis goes blind at age twenty-five.
1992: Lewis joins National Federation of the Blind (NFB). He becomes a local leader in the fight for a bill to ensure Braille instruction in public schools.
1997: The "Braille provision" is added to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, making Braille instruction mandatory for students who need it.
2000: Lewis becomes president of the Atlanta Metropolitan Chapter of NFB.
2001-2002: Lewis works with Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox to make Georgia the first state in which all blind residents can cast an independent private vote.
2002: Lewis becomes president of the Georgia affiliate of NFB.
2003: Lewis is named to NFB's national board of directors. Lobbying begins locally and nationally for a bill requiring textbook publishers to provide electronic versions of textbooks used by blind students in K-12 and postsecondary schools.
2004: Georgia General Assembly passes the bill for K-12 schools. Lobbying continues for a postsecondary bill. Lobbying begins in Georgia for a program that would give the blind access to more than two hundred media outlets read over the phone.
2005: Georgia General Assembly passes the Georgia Audible Universal Information Access Service bill.
2006: NFB wins bid to provide the service. Its NEWSLINE service is implemented by the Public Service Commission.