Braille Monitor April-May 1985
by Gary Wunder
(Note: Gary Wunder is one of the leaders of the Missouri affiliate. The following article appeared in the January, 1985, Blind Missourian, the newsletter of the affiliate. Gary is editor of the newsletter.)
Last spring my telephone rang, and the party on the other end had a simple request. She asked if I would participate in the making of a film to promote eye research for the Lions Eye Research Foundation. My warning alarm went off, and memories of all those soapy commercials with their sickening portrayals of the blind flashed before me. But, I said to myself, this is not some far away national organization. This is the Eye Research Foundation, a local concern. I live next door to the girl friend (and now wife) of the Director. I have several good friends who are members of the local Lions Club. I know the lady making this request. What in heavens name is there to be afraid of anyway? Besides all that, just think about how much good PR will come to the Federation by showing a willingness to cooperate. There is no reason to dogmatically believe that our messages to the public are at odds with each other. Be a free spirit, and give it a chance.
Several days later I received a call from the public relations firm hired by the Foundation. The field representative, trying to merge the talk of the salesman with the talk of the sympathetic colleague, proceeded to tell me about the goals of the Foundation and the company it had hired. He said that this job was ideal for him, that it gave him a chance to make a contribution to his fellow blind. The gentleman said that he and I were the same, that he understood blindness because he could only see out of one eye. He drove a car, read the newspaper, and knew none of the skills commonly associated with those of us who are blind. He was not aware of organizations of or for the blind, everything being a foundation or an association.
Enough of describing our friendly PR man. We agreed on a time when he would come to photograph me at work, and that was that.
When the time came for our appointment the PR man and a medical student came to my work station, and we all made introductions. The PR man asked if this was where I worked, and I said it was. He left for a short time, and the medical student and I got to know each other better. When Mr. PR came back he said that he wanted to use a different location for the shooting, something a bit more classy than my six by six cubicle. I told him my equipment could not be moved and pointed out that the Braille terminal weighed almost 250 pounds. He said equipment wasn't important and that he simply wanted some shots of someone reading to me. Innocent enough I thought, especially since I often hire readers and sometimes use a conference room.
It turns out that our PR man had not selected one of the three available conference rooms but instead had decided on using a location in the word processing area of my building. Apparently he had surveyed the area, found an empty work station, and assumed it would be okay to use. When we got to the location, however, its occupant had returned. That didn't bother Mr. PR a bit. He simply explained that we were on some very important business, that we needed this station only for a short time, and wasn't it worth five minutes of her time to help in the conservation of sight. How could she argue with that? Before I could apologize for the inconvenience the woman and her coworkers were gone. I should say here that my office is large enough that I am not personally acquainted with each member of the staff. What a wonderful first impression.
With the medical student as reader, we took several shots. But, of course, that wasn't enough. Could I put my hands on the keyboard and simulate typing? Why not? After all, the keyboards were basically the same, and it was all just a film clip anyway. There are two things I really admire: staged reality and planned spontaneity.
Mr. PR next said we should go outside and get pictures of me traveling. He noted that I had expressed an interest in mobility for the blind and thought this would fit perfectly into his script. Keep in mind that my office is located in an abandoned rock quarry. The building is new and quite nice, but the area is not exactly in the center of downtown. The only reason you'd be there is work.
When we got outside Mr. PR told the medical student to start walking and that I would take his arm. The objective was to photograph me being helped across the street, he explained. I said no and said this was not the image I wanted to convey. Mr. PR was very patient. He explained that this was not a film on the independence of the blind, that we had to focus on our audience and understand what was expected from them. People needed to be convinced that there was a reason to donate to eye research, and that reason had to be some kind of limitation they could see and relate to. It was all part of the business, and he knew I could appreciate the fact that he was the expert in these matters.
There are times when I doubt the good of all we say and do to communicate with the public, but to my joy the medical student became angry. He asked Mr. PR if he had heard what I said. He reiterated what I told both earlier about the PR we try to generate as a movement and how hard it is to get a really good story out to the press. He asked Mr. PR whether he really thought it would serve my interest, or even that of the Foundation, to stage such a scene. Mr. PR deferred to the wisdom of the upstarts, and so we did a scene with me using my cane to traverse the cars that lined the lot.
I don't recall much more about the day except that I was wary. Perhaps this was a bad idea. Mr. PR wasn't happy, I wasn't happy, and the friend who had asked the favor might not appreciate my good will gesture after all.
Several days later I got a call from the medical student asking if he might take more pictures. He apologized for Mr. PR, said he thought the behavior so inappropriate that he had complained to the director of the Foundation, and that the director had asked him to convey regrets from the Foundation and get some shots we could all be happy about.
After that shooting session I didn't give the project much more attention. Melissa (our new baby) was here-all else could wait. Perhaps some day would find me writing about the misunderstandings that can arise between independent blind people and PR folk who think they know it all.
I'm not sure when, but one Sunday afternoon I had a caller saying they had seen me in the Eye Research Foundation film. "Oh," I said. "I haven't seen it."
"You ought to do so," was the reply. It seems that my hard fought battle to get a shot of a blind person traveling was shown in a most interesting context. First you see me, a blind man, walking alone in a lonely parking lot. Then you see a picnic and a father surrounded by his children. The narrator asks, "Which would you prefer, this, or this?" and the the two scenes are displayed in sequence.
To the credit of the board of the Eye Research Foundation, the film was rejected, and the director tells me the highly paid consultant (his characterization) was sent home. Plans to use the material he created are said to be out of the question. Great, great, great! But where does that leave the Eye Research Foundation, and where does it leave us? I really don't know. On the one hand I'm glad to see how far we have come in communicating our concerns to the well meaning citizens who serve on boards such as the Foundation's. On the other hand my temptation is to be dogmatic. I'm almost convinced that most people who sell eye research to the public haven't a single approach that talks about the virtue of preserving a God given gift. Fear and sympathy appear to be the essential ingredients in the approach, and at whose expense? Ours! For our part, what is our message-that it is okay to be blind, that our condition does not stop us from leading happy, normal, and productive lives, and yes, our message is that we, too, can be that father in the park. Can both these acts be worked into a single play? If so, I've not seen it. Until I do, I think I'll stay away from good deeds which will cause others to ask that I compromise my beliefs about blind people and the lives we lead. What are your thoughts?