Braille Monitor                                                                  October 1985

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This is My Story

by Johnny Ott

(Reprinted from the August, 1985, Michigan Focus, the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan.)

Why do you join the National Federation of the Blind? Why do you attend meetings, conventions, and other functions. Sound silly? Well, stop and think for a moment. As you do, stop and think of a line from one of Joanie Mitchell's famous rock songs that was popular back in the late sixties. The song was "Pink Cadillac," and the line went: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Isn't that the truth?

When I first joined the NFB, I really wasn't sure just what it was I was looking for. At the time I was still living with my family in Detroit. The year was 1969, and the state affiliate was starting to come into being as we know it today. I had already graduated from high school, spent some time at Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind in Little Rock, and was now doing time at the Detroit League for the Handicapped.

Although I don't remember the incident, my mom says that when I first heard about the NFB I thought that it was some sort of "hell-bent, left winged, communist-inspired, wide-eyed, radical, extremist" organization. But, "I had nothing else to do," so I joined.

Well, as the years went by into the early seventies, I started attending meetings, conventions, et cetera. They were nice, and yes, I probably kind of enjoyed them. But was I really with it at that time? Well, I think one indication of what I really felt was my reaction to Dr. Jernigan's "New Insights on Old Outlooks" speech. You will recall that in that speech he mentions Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and its pamphlet on how to "teach" blind folks how to eat and drink. At that time I said something like: "I think that's terrible, stupid, dumb, and wrong. But that's way off in Kalamazoo. I live here in Detroit. What does it really matter to me anyhow?"

Well, on September 6, 1977, I came up to Kalamazoo and at least indirectly to Western Michigan University--at least, philosophically. Boy, did my world change then. I would spend sixteen months at the Michigan Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, and while there my family would be moving out of the old neighborhood and out into the suburbs. That would mean that I would be stranded for at least a while.

Suddenly, whether I liked it or not, this "remote part of the earth with its foreign university and its strange pamphlet" was on my doorstep. It was now that Joanie Mitchell's classic line would come to haunt me. For now, I was a "stranger in a strange land," where there was no National Federation of the Blind. Oh yes, there was ACB and its Kalamazoo "Federation" of the Blind. And yes, there were the other coffee-and-cake teeny bopper groups and the agencies like the "Center for Independent Living" and the various sheltered workshops, et cetera. But there was no NFB. Don't get me wrong. I had met an absolutely fantastic and wonderful girl at my church. I also had other friends and was even "living on my own." But who do you turn to when potential employers won't give you the time of day for an interview simply because of your blindness? Who do you turn to when everyone thinks it perfectly normal for blind and handicapped people not to have jobs and to live in subsidized housing? And the list could go on and on.

Well, if you believe the general public, what about "that school," as they call it--meaning the Rehab Center. Can you believe it? Every time you go into an interview for a job, or anything for that matter, everyone thinks that the agencies are supposed to provide "cradle-to-grave" coverage for us, including jobs.

The book of "Revelation" in the New Testament talks about "the end time." Among other things, it talks about things like "the mark of the beast, the image of the beast, the false prophet," et cetera. It says that in that day nobody will be able to buy or sell or do practically anything, for that matter, without the "mark of the beast."

I suppose that today in Kalamazoo the description might go something like this: "And it was given unto every blind person living in Kalamazoo and probably southwestern Michigan, that that person could not interview for a job, find a place to live, or do anything else without either the mark or the image of the Agency. And it was given unto the Agency to make referrals and to decide who would become its pet."

The masses of Kalamazoo "worshiped" the agency from afar. The blind were considered as virtual outcasts by the masses. They were told that the Agency had all power to solve all problems. Do you think that strange or weird? Well, don't. A perfect example was the night of June 14, 1982. The Kalamazoo City Commission was debating what to do with its transportation system with the pending state and federal cutbacks. It was a total disaster. For one thing, most of the "talking" was done by the various agencies, including the Rehab Center and Commission for the Blind office here in town. In every case, after the comments were made, the commissioners would ask the agency people "if they would help their clients adapt to whatever changes that would take place." And, of course, the answer was always yes.

Now, lest you think that there were just agencies that night, well you had other great entities such as the Kalamazoo Council for the Handicapped, the Kalamazoo "Federation of the Blind" (the local ACB affiliate), the Handicapped Student Services at Western Michigan University, et cetera. But there was no organization or teamwork. The night was lost. As I said, the rehab agency structure holds full and complete sway here in Kalamazoo, and the general public thinks it's normal. The rehab center never discusses the organized blind movement. But after you have been run through the system, you get invited to the ACB meetings where you get free dinners.

The blind of Kalamazoo are taught to be completely submissive. "Do as you're told, we know what's best for you," is the order of the day. Even though the general public thinks we can't get and hold jobs, they think it miraculous that we can get to the interview "all by ourselves." They probably think that the agency had something to do with that, too. And when you compare the rehab center's "Job Readiness" program and the NFB's "Job Opportunities for the Blind" program, there is simply no comparison at all.

Now lest after reading all this you think that Kalamazoo was a complete waste of time, you're wrong. It has taught me a great deal. And, believe it or not, Kalamazoo has taught me to love and more deeply appreciate the NFB and its philosophy. If anyone should ask me "Why the National Federation of the Blind," I have just one word for an answer: KALAMAZOO.

And what does the agency structure use to "drug" the blind of this town? They don't need to use chemicals or anything that toxic. They have a better solution. It's called RECREATION. Did you know, for example, that in the blind rehab program at Western they even teach "Recreational Therapy" as a class? It's true. The blind aren't supposed to work or lead normal lives. But they are strongly encouraged to play beeper ball, goal ball, go swimming and bowling, et cetera. Nothing wrong with sports. However, when the agency structure promotes (and the general public believes in) recreation for the blind and virtually nothing else, you have a very big problem.

But this lonely Federationist missionary thanks the Lord for the NFB. Without the NFB I don't know where I would be. I don't know how long I could hold out. Thank you, Kalamazoo. Thank you for making me a more dedicated Federationist. Thank you for giving me friends, not only in town but especially friends within the NFB who really care. One of these days the National Federation of the Blind will come into Kalamazoo. Several people will probably move here for various reasons; and when they do, this town will never be the same. It's been eight years of struggle and pain. But, thanks to the National Federation and its guiding spirit, I can say with Dr. Jernigan, "I know who I am, and I'll never go back."