Braille Monitor January 1985
by Kenneth Jernigan
The concept of discrimination is an essential component of present-day American life. It fills the newspaper columns, dominates the nightly news, and permeates every aspect of culture and thought. More often than not, when we think of discrimination, we conjure up pictures of chanting crowds, threats of physical violence, and scenes of intense personal confrontation. However, there is something beyond. There is always the day after--the nitty gritty of working out details and arriving at new understandings and changed relationships. The marches and cameras are essential, but they are not the end. They are only the beginning.
Dennis Polselli (see Braille Monitor, March, 1984) is an administrator at Framingham State College in Massachusetts. He is also blind and a Federationist. When he applied to enter graduate school at Framingham State to finish a master's degree in counseling, he encountered unexpected obstacles. They were not spectacular or dramatic but low key and seemingly routine. However, when viewed over a period of time, the pattern was unmistakable. It was as clear as segregated housing or the requirement to sit at the back of the bus. The hurt was no less deep and the denial no less real because of the lack of drama. Exclusion is ordinarily more a matter of subtlety and waiting than of clear-cut immediacy.
In the long march from inferior status to first-class treatment the blind have matured and learned. So have those who discriminate. When a college administrator comes to the office of a blind colleague and concludes their conversation by advising the blind person to go outside and get some sunshine while the day is still young, what does it mean? Would he have done the same with a sighted associate? When the application file is incomplete, and notice is not given for several months, when the file is still said to lack certain materials even though those materials have been sent and are later determined to be present, what is the remedy? All of the elements of the classic patterns are present: The National Federation of the Blind intervenes; the college consults its lawyers; and the Federationist refuses to give up. The lawyer threatens, and the Federation responds. But there is more. Dennis Polselli and the Federation chapter president will not allow themselves to be ruffled, will not stop discussing the issues, and will not allow the college officials to do so. The persistence and the accumulated know how pay off. Tempers cool; college officials save face; the lawyer fades into the background; and the obstacles begin to disappear.
The story is told in the following letters. In their own way they convey a message as dramatic and compelling as a confrontation at the school house door. They underscore the vitality and value of the National Federation of the Blind. They speak of the commitment and savvy of its leaders and the growing maturity and confidence of its members.
Al Sten is not only a Federation chapter president but also a successfully practicing attorney. He did an internship at Federation headquarters in Baltimore during the summer of 1980. He takes his Federationism seriously, but he is not seeking confrontation. He wants peace and civility, but he wants justice and opportunity for the blind even more. He would prefer to have both. The same is true of Dennis Polselli. Peace and good will--but not at the price of blighted opportunity and second-class citizenship, not at the price of a backward step for all of the blind. The long view, patience, persistence, determination, good will, and know how--these are the elements:
June 18, 1984
Dr. Justin D. McCarthy, President
Framingham State College
Dear President McCarthy:
A problem plagues the psychology department of Framingham State College, the problem of prejudice.
As you know, Dennis Polselli is an administrator at Framingham State. He works in the Office of Residence Life. He obtained a master's degree in higher education from Syracuse University, where he also minored in counseling. Last fall he decided that it would make sense to earn a master's degree in counseling, and he clearly is qualified to undertake that course of study. That he is blind should make no difference at all, but it seems to be the reason that his entry into Framingham State's graduate program in counseling has been obstructed for the moment. He finds no pleasure in confrontation and gets no thrills from the heat of battle, but he does intend to enter that program and earn his degree. I am committed to giving him all the help that I can. Mr. Polselli is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind, having joined both the Boston and Fall River chapters. I am the President of the Boston chapter, and one of the duties inherent in that elective post is to assist blind persons (whether or not they are chapter members) in dealing with the kinds of difficulties that the National Federation of the Blind exists to eradicate. Mr. Polselli thought I should write to you because it would emphasize that the specific instance of wrongful discrimination I am about to describe is but one expression of a pattern that is quite familiar to blind people generally. The aggregate of myths and misconceptions with which the blind must contend almost daily stood as unassailable as an ancient citadel until only decades ago, and it will be some time before we have reduced it to rubble. As enduring as it has been, however, it is still a construction of falsehoods. Once this is understood we shall have no trouble working together to consign those falsehoods to the dusty pages of textbooks of ancient history. I am aware that Framingham State is already taking some important steps in the right direction, so I am sure that problems like this one will be far less likely to occur in the future.
Mr. Polselli applied to Framingham State's graduate program in counseling in October, 1983. At that time he provided official transcripts from Stone hill College and Syracuse University. Three colleagues at Framingham State agreed to write reference letters for him.
In December Mr. Polselli got word that only one of the three reference letters had been submitted. This problem was rectified promptly, and Mr. Polselli believed that he had complied fully with the requirements for applying to the program.
In late April and early May Mr. Polselli phoned the Office of Graduate and Continuing Education several times to ask about his application. He was told that no decisions had yet been made. (He has since heard that at least some decisions may have been made in March.) On May 7 he was advised that his file was incomplete because it did not contain information about his employment at North Adams State College and Syracuse University, information not requested in his original application.
It was at about that time that he began getting some evidence that the psychology department had not been dealing fairly or sensibly with blind students. I understand that the matter has been or soon will be brought to your attention. I mention it only because it provides a context in which to consider this letter.
Mr. Polselli wrote to the chairperson of the psychology department. (The letter was sent to the Office of Graduate and Continuing Education.) His message was that any doubts about the ability of blind persons to complete successfully a course of study in counseling are groundless. He also sent a copy of a newsletter in which he dealt with the particular problems that disabled students face and the ways they have of solving them.
Inherent in that message is a crucial assumption: Blind applicants to the counseling program--or to any program must and can meet the same qualifications as are imposed on their sighted peers. We of the Federation seek equality, not pathetic favoritism. The lack of sight is an inconvenience in any event, but it need not be any worse than that. There are blind counselors and psychologists. There are also blind carpenters, physicists, chemists, machinists, doctors, professors (as you know already), secretaries, electrical engineers--and the list goes on and on. We devise tools and techniques to do the things we would do with sight if we had it, and most of these are not wonders of modern technology but simple products of individual creativity. That they work should be evident from the broad array of occupations we have chosen. Our principal problem is that there are far too few of us in any occupation--or, for that matter, in life's other normal pursuits. We have been restricted by an attitude that was forcibly expressed in the comment that loss of sight is a dying. (Ironically, those sentiments were uttered by a very respected figure in the field of work with the blind, a man after whom an agency has been named.) Polls have indicated that cancer is the most feared medical problem, and blindness comes next. I have known many people who avoid the word blind, almost as if using it would be a cruel thing to do. This sort of thing can hardly be expected to promote the idea that blind persons can and should have first-class status in society. That, then, was what Mr. Polselli hoped to convey with his letter. It should have provoked some careful thinking by those who had the chance to read it. Apparently it didn't.
Mr. Polselli received a call from Dr. Arnold Good, and they met in Mr. Polselli's office on the morning of May 25th. Dr. Good began their discussion by suggesting that the counseling program might not be the right choice for Mr. Polselli and that his decision to enter it was, perhaps, uninformed. Dr. Good urged him to look into the public administration program and a graduate assistantship in that field. Though Mr. Polselli talked in detail about his reasons for choosing to earn a master's degree in counseling, and also of the background and experience he already has in counseling, Dr. Good stayed on his original track.
Dr. Good told Mr. Polselli that he should take some "core courses" in psychology before seeking admission into the counseling program. Mr. Polselli asked for examples of "core courses," and three were mentioned: theories of personality, social psychology, and abnormal psychology. Mr. Polselli pointed out that he has taken all of those courses. Dr. Good certainly should have known that. He would have if he had looked at Mr. Polselli's transcripts. Having failed to persuade Mr. Polselli that he might not be adult or informed enough to make his own decisions, Dr. Good said that his file was incomplete because it did not contain reference letters from persons not employed by Framingham State. Surprise, surprise! This problem--if indeed it truly was a problem--could and should have been brought to his attention in December, when he was first contacted about his file or at least in time for him to correct it. My own experience teaches that this is the way in which applicants to academic programs and institutions are usually treated. Also, if this had been the crux of the problem, it would have been the first issue raised by Dr. Good, not one of the last. (Please note that Mr. Polselli was quick to rectify his error, and his file now contains an abundance of reference letters and additional materials.)
The discussion ended with a comment by Dr. Good that Mr. Polselli should go outside and get some sunshine while it was still a nice day. He seems to have thought he was talking to the equivalent of a drunkard or an hysterical child, not a colleague, an administrator who, like Dr. Good, had several hours left in his work day. Even if he had made it a full-fledged project to try, he could have found no better way to express his demeaning, condescending attitude. Sexist males have called women girls, and racists have called black men boys. I have been called a boy too, and since I am old enough to drink, vote, and practice law, I find that less than complimentary. I doubt that Dr. Good would have given his irrelevant advice about nice weather to you or to any other administrator at the college. However, because he happens to be blind, Mr. Polselli had to hear it.
When Mr. Polselli brought up the possibility of discrimination by reason of his blindness, Dr. Good said something like, "There are laws against that kind of thing." That he has heard of laws against discrimination does not mean that he knows what discrimination is. He seems to have walked into Mr. Polselli's office for the single, immutable purpose of dissuading him from trying to enter the counseling program, and his reasons appear to have had nothing to do with the quality of the application materials submitted by Mr. Polselli. (As I have said, one might wonder whether he even read them.) Discrimination can take many forms, and this is one.
Discrimination against the blind rarely springs from hate or ill will. Usually it is rooted in pity, in a wish to be charitable or even protective. Still, the result is wrongful discrimination: We have trouble getting hired for jobs we can do, taking courses we can take, and doing a host of other things that are a part of everyday living.
Mr. Polselli's original hope was to begin his studies this past spring, but that he could not is no fault of those charged with passing upon his application because only one of the reference letters he requested reached them in time. As it now stands, he will have to wait until the spring of 1985, and that is their fault. He should have been told of any genuine errors in his application soon enough for him to correct them. As far as I can tell, he has acted quite promptly to deal with any problems when he has been notified of them. I believe the failure to contact him when it would have made a difference was deliberate. After all, if you have a goodly number of applications to consider and you doubt that a blind person can handle the program anyway, you might not bother to challenge your sacred preconceptions by scrutinizing carefully the merits of that person's application. Having used such strong wording, let me stress that this letter is not an attack on you or on Framingham State as a whole. Mr. Polselli has told me that his colleagues have become increasingly conscious of issues concerning the blind and the disabled generally. The revamping of his job so that he will have responsibilities that more adequately reflect his talents and training is one result. Another is that the college wishes to be viewed as an institution that welcomes disabled students. I am sure, therefore, that you will do your very best to see that disabled persons at Framingham State will not long have to contend with stubborn stereotypes. Nor do I want to alienate Dr. Good by this letter, though I doubt he will be happy with it. He did not contrive the false notions about blindness that have so far misguided his judgment. They are part of the general culture; they are older than the Redwoods of California, and they are much harder to kill. Like the blind people whose lives they blight, he is a victim of them. Nevertheless, my words have been selected deliberately throughout this letter to make it clear that the harm inflicted on blind people by those false notions is severe. The need for prompt, intelligent action is compelling.
As far as I am concerned the National Federation of the Blind is the best resource there is on blindness. (It is, after all, a membership organization of blind people.) Please be assured that its wealth of knowledge and its fundamental philosophical insights are available to you whenever you need them. As NFB members, Dennis Polselli and I are willing to work with you, and there are others who are equally willing.
I thank you very much for your attention to this letter, and I truly look forward to hearing from you soon.
Albert E. Sten, President
NFB of Greater Boston
P.S. I am sending copies of this letter to Dennis Polselli, Dr. Arnold Good, Dr. Douglas Bloomquist, Dr. Robert Marsh, and Dr. Robert Grant. I am also sending a copy to The Braille Monitor, the NFB's monthly magazine.
July 23, 1984
Dear Mr. Sten:
Your letter of June 18, 1984, addressed to D. Justin McCarthy, President of Framingham State College, has been passed on to me in order that I might respond on both his behalf and that of the College.
Let me begin with my conclusion: I find your letter grossly irresponsible. Without even the most rudimentary inquiry concerning the facts, you presume to assert that Dennis Polselli is qualified for admission to the graduate program in counseling at Framingham State College, you presume to assert that those at the College charged with making academic judgments concerning Mr. Polselli's qualifications have chosen to disregard their academic, ethical and legal obligations in doing so, and you presume to conclude that Mr. Polselli's application for admission, which remained incomplete as recently as July 9th, has not been acted upon favorably because all those responsible for judging it are prejudiced against him by reason of his blindness. None of your presumptions find any basis in fact. All applications for admission to the graduate program in counseling are reviewed by several individuals, including members of the departmental graduate committee. All of those applications were delayed this past year by the department chair's neglecting to pass them on to the Committee as quickly as has been the practice in the past. In Mr. Polselli's case, this delay was compounded by the incompleteness of his file, a circumstance that slowed the process for considering his application when, as eventually happened, his and the others' were brought to the Committee's attention. Mr. Polselli has been fully informed about these events by Professor Douglas Bloomquist, Chair of the Department of Psychology.
Dr. Bloomquist and Mr. Polselli have also discussed what you allude to as "evidence" that the department has not been dealing fairly with blind students. That there is no such evidence has been acknowledged by Mr. Polselli, yet you construct from your innuendoes and from others like it the whole of your diatribe against the department.
You should know that no one at the College having responsibility for considering Mr. Polselli's application to the graduate program will have any regard to your letter when doing so. While those who have seen it are angered by it and conclude, as have I, that it is an act of irresponsibility, they properly regard you rather than Mr. Polselli, as being solely responsible for its authorship and publication. I wish to conclude by stating my position with respect to your informing the College that a copy of your letter has been transmitted to The Braille Monitor. Because I am of the opinion that certain of the statements contained in your letter are defamatory, the publishers of The Braille Monitor should understand that any publication of the content of your letter, in whatever form, will ground a claim for libel. By copy of this letter, I am informing them of this fact.
Any future communication in connection with this matter should be directed to me at the above address.
Mahoney, Hawkes & Goldings
July 30, 1984
Dear Mr. Peters:
I wonder what purpose you sought to accomplish by writing your letter dated July 23, 1984, to Mr. Al Sten. Surely it was not to convince Mr. Sten that you were capable of demonstrating ill temper or bad manners. He could have learned that from the first few sentences. I this matter be removed from the legal realm, and that there be lines of communication between Framingham State College and organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind. Additionally, the college should have internal grievance procedures that will make letters like Al's quite unnecessary. Though the college has a Section 504 coordinator, he is so spread out that he does not (and, perhaps, cannot) view 504 as a high priority. If Framingham State is to compete on an equal basis with other institutions of post-secondary education, it must make a real effort to recruit disabled students and to address adequately their real needs, including, at times, needs for specialized services. The same can also be said with respect to its disabled employees. We have no mechanism for internal communications regarding problems of disabled students--or, if we have, it is not working. Memos suggesting procedures by which the bookstore can obtain copies of textbooks early for blind and learning-disabled students (so that they may be recorded on cassette) have been unanswered. Materials given to me by the Office for Civil Rights, which address issues facing handicapped students, have not been distributed. Along with the problems concerning my application to the counseling program, these and other problems constituted the basis for my involvement of Al Sten (and, thus, the NFB) in these matters. Because Framingham State College is a public institution, and because higher education is becoming more and more diversified, organizations must have a way to express concerns about procedures, about whether or not persons are being excluded. It should be possible to clear up misgiving without calling in a law firm. Note that the regulations implementing Section 504 require institutions to involve representatives of the disabled (45 CFR Part 84.6(c). This pertains to self-evaluations. It is also widely recognized that colleges and universities should have committees on issues relating to Section 504 and that these committees should involve disabled students. On July 6, 1983, I was told of such a committee by Dr. Jack Horrigan, Vice President of Administration and Finance. My best information is that this is not the case.
Instead of looking at Al's letter as irresponsible and arrogant, you should look at it as the letter of a person representing an organization of disabled persons. It expressed his and the organization's willingness to participate in the process of making Framingham State College equally accessible to all citizens of the Commonwealth. Instead of reacting in anger, the department should examine its procedures and administrative methods to see if flaws exist in them. (For example, I inquired why the process of application did not include interviews, and I was told that paperwork was the important criterion.) I came to work at Framingham State College on August 15, 1983, as a staff assistant in Residence Life. While exploring the college, I discovered that a counseling program was among its ten master's programs. I decided that this would be a golden opportunity to finish my master's in counseling, since I had minored in it at Syracuse University. (That was where I obtained my degree in post-secondary education administration.) I decided that I would apply sometime during the first semester, early enough so that I could start in second semester.
In mid-September I received an application form and filled it out. I sent away to Syracuse University for my master's transcripts and to Stonehill College for my undergraduate transcripts. I chose three people as references, since my files at Stonehill were getting old.
In October I received word from Syracuse University that I needed to make a payment on my loan before my transcripts would be sent. I made the payment, and by November all transcripts were in the hands of the Office for Graduate and Continuing Education.
In mid-December, I received a note that I was missing two reference letters, and I promptly got in touch with the individuals who were to submit them. The note failed to mention that a statement of purpose was missing.
Until May 7, 1984, there was no further written communication from the Office for Graduate and Continuing Education. The letter I received in December indicated that my application would be considered by the Admissions Committee for the fall of 1984. This was a disappointment. I couldn't obtain advisers to take some core courses. I had already taken four counseling courses at Syracuse University and minored in psychology at Stonehill. I was not sure what courses would be accepted and what ones would not, having not yet been considered for the program. Thus, it was, "Wait another semester." Another source of anxiety was that my contract was for only one year. I hoped my employment would continue, and it has, but there was no guarantee of that. I might have had to go somewhere else or seek an alternative funding source. In March I began inquiring about my application. I was always told, "The committee hasn't met yet." This streak of phone calls continued for two months. I explained that I wanted to be able to start planning about my books--which ones could be taped, and which ones I would use readers for.
By this time I had developed relationships with a couple of administrators.
We figured that we could work together to provide good quality services to handicapped students without going out and spending money. We found that we needed, but did not receive, strong assistance from the 504 coordinator. This frustrated our attempts. Some strong memos from him to faculty members could result in the provision of needed accommodations for students.
On April 30 seven disabled students met in my office to discuss a wide range of issues. I asked the students to list their immediate concerns so that the fall semester might begin smoothly, and we decided that other issues could wait. We had as a goal to establish an organization of disabled students to give feedback where necessary. I presented our list of concerns in a memo to the 504 coordinator, and I was told four weeks later that he would bring them up with the president.
I also was getting reports from blind students that they were being told not to take computer science because, in the words of one administrator (which I have on tape), "I don't know how a blind person can handle computers."
Blind students were giving me booklists, which I forwarded to the 504 coordinator by June 15. (One student made his own arrangement with a publishing company.) The bookstore called me with the question, "What should we do? Can we set up a procedure for next year?"
I dealt with these situations by writing a memo giving information that would be useful, including the telephone numbers of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and the NFB.
As May dawned I grew angry because of reports I was receiving from the Psychology Department and because of the hold-up on my own application. A blind student reported to me that she had to fight to gain entrance into a psychology course. An administrator confirmed this, saying she (the administrator) had to guarantee that the faculty member in question would not have to worry about how tests would be taken or how the student was to study. The problem was worked out, and the student got an A, but even in mid-April she was angry about the experience.
This student experienced skepticism concerning admittance to a cave exploring course. The professor expressed a wide range of worries, including fears about her climbing rocks and how they could be described to her. This set of problems was cleared up by the efforts of the student and the above mentioned administrator.
This student's difficulties with courses began with, "You can't enter," instead of "How can we accommodate." It was in this climate that I learned in mid-April that my application might have been held up because of departmental concern about blindness, which concern had apparently been expressed at a meeting that month.
I decided to go for broke, and I wrote to Dr. Douglas Bloomquist. It was an angry letter, as angry as I then felt. I was concerned about the continuation of my employment (about which I did not hear until May 7th), with the brush fires I was fighting, and with the effort to organize disabled students. With that letter was a copy of my newsletter dealing with attitudes about the disabled. I was later to learn that Dr. Bloomquist got my letter but not the newsletter accompanying it.
On May 7, 1984, I received a letter from the Office for Graduate and Continuing Education informing me that my file was incomplete. I needed a statement of purpose, as well as recommendation letters from Syracuse University and North Adams State College. I certainly would have supplied this material in a timely manner if I had been told of the need for it in a timely manner. Since I was not, it appears that I cannot enter the program until the spring semester of 1985.
On May 22 Mrs. O'Brian, secretary to the director of career planning and placement at Stonehill College, sent to the Psychology Department four letters of recommendation from Stonehill, a reference letter from Alice Howard (also at Stonehill), a reference letter from Katherine Johnson of the Health Center, one from Linda Sullivan (Stonehill's registrar), one from a Stonehill history professor, and three reference letters from Syracuse University. Additionally, I obtained a reference letter from James Sulzmann at North Adams State College, where I was an assistant resident director. I submitted my statement of purpose, as well as an evaluation of my performance in the St. Luke's Hospital pastoral counseling program. I recite all of that in such detail because your letter to Mr. Sten says that my file was incomplete as of July 9. I checked with Mrs. O'Brian, and she assured me that the materials did go out on May 22. Now we come to my May 25th meeting, without which Mr. Sten's letter would not have been written. Interestingly enough, your letter failed to make any mention of that meeting. This may be taken to indicate that there was no denial that the meeting occurred or was conducted in the way Mr. Sten's letter says that it was.
Dr. Arnold Good is an administrator in the Office for Graduate and Continuing Education. On May 25, he came to my office to talk with me about my application and my letter to Dr. Bloomquist.
He began by complimenting my ability to write fast on my Braille writer. I accepted the compliment and, at his request, described briefly the Braille writer.
He then went on to ask me if the counseling program was really what I wanted. He said that he had worked out a graduate assistantship a few years ago. This two-year assistantship had been located in the public administration program of the college. I reminded him that I was a full-time college administrator. I also said I was sure that counseling was what I wanted. He still insisted that counseling was not where I ought to be, that I ought to be in the public administration program, that I should study the brochure for that program before making my decision because of its two-year graduate assistantship. At this point I felt that my suspicion about discrimination was justified. Here was this administrator discouraging me from applying for admission to the program. I assured him that I have a master's degree in higher education from Syracuse University, where I also had minored in counseling and found my skills to be strongest in that field. I explained to him my experiences as an assistant resident director. I told him of my work in the counseling program at St. Luke's, and that my evaluation indicated that I have counseling skills.
He suggested that I could start by takng some "core courses," and I asked him, "Like what, for example?" He answered that Theories of Personality was one: I took that course at Stonehill. He mentioned Social Psychology, which I took once at Stonehill and once during graduate school. He mentioned Abnormal Psychology, which I also took at Stonehill. He also mentioned General Psychology. All of this information was and is in my transcripts, which had been submitted when I applied. (I also had submitted my resume.) All Dr. Good had to do was read the file, and perhaps give some advice about what to do until my file was acted upon. Instead, he wasted my time telling me what I already knew, telling me to look at the brochure for another program. He seemed to have forgotten that I am an adult and a colleague, and that I knew what I wanted based on experience that has taught me my strengths and limitations.
He then informed me that I was missing letters of recommendation from the file. He brought the meeting to an end by suggesting that I should go out and get some sunshine while it was still shining or I might get pale.
If there had been confusion about procedures, I would understand. But sending Dr. Good to me on a mission of discouragement and a wish for good sunshine was condescending and, in that way, discriminatory treatment. Let me say again that I would like this matter to be removed from the legal realm. It should be discussed within the college, and I shall brief the Board of Trustees about this and other issues relating to disabled students. Thank you for your time. Please consider this letter carefully. If you respond to it, please do so thoroughly and not in the same bullying manner you used to answer Mr. Sten's letter.
September 11, 1984
Dear Mr. Peters:
Dennis Polselli called me last Friday, August 31st, to say that his meeting with Dr. Good was fruitful. What began as a confrontation may evolve into a working partnership between those who understand blindness and those who wish to understand it. Dr. Good said he would like there to be a dialogue on the issue of discrimination. This is welcome news, and I shall be glad to participate in such a dialogue if he is willing.
Albert E. Sten, President
NFB of Greater Boston