Braille Monitor May-June 1986
by Gary Wunder
JOB (Job Opportunities for the Blind) is one of the most successful programs the National Federation of the Blind has ever established. There are many reasons why this is so, but one of the most important is the quality of volunteer leadership we bring to the effort. Gary Wunder is a prime example. He is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also perceptive and practical. Here is what he said at the JOB seminar in St. Louis March 1, 1986.
When I began my college education the questions I heard repeated every single day were "What is the meaning of life? Why are we really here? What's it all about anyway?" We did not ask the questions simply because their utterance made us feel like one of the crowd, although they did. We did not ask simply because the high sounding nature of the questions might make us feel mature, although they did. We asked because each of us had a purpose, and that purpose was to be a success. We reasoned that there was no way to be successful without understanding what it was we were to achieve, no way to pursue a goal that was invisible, a goal which defied being defined.
I cannot say whether it was the atmosphere of higher education, the obsession with theory, or our preoccupation with words and language. But the end result for most of us was that we either could not define the meaning of life and what it took to be successful, or our definitions were so long and cumbersome, so qualified, and filled with so many disclaimers that we managed to struggle through four or five years of education, living from day to day, reacting rather than molding, until at the end of our education we found ourselves again asking the same old questions. This time, however, we could not take comfort in the rationalization that we were just young college kids trying to find ourselves and that, after all, we still had two or three years before we had to declare our life's calling.
Although searching for meaning and success is hard enough for any young adult, it is made even more difficult for blind people. Growing up as a blind child presents one with many contradictions which we are unable or unwilling to solve. Many of us have been extremely overprotected. From the beginning we are praised for the most minor accomplishments. While we tell ourselves all this praise means we are really quite super, deep in our souls we know that what is being said is how little we can do and how little will be expected. We may tell ourselves we reject the expectations of others and that we regard them as an insult to our ability, but over time we tend to do only what is expected. If the school counselor believes that taking four courses is heroic, we find it convenient to take three courses and four study halls, which we use to read a spare time book or to daydream.
Add to lower expectations and the temptation to take advantage of them the fact that blind people do not have other blind people to watch and imitate. Instead of realizing how tragic this situation is, we make a virtue of it. Taking at least some of the exaggerated praise for small deeds to heart, we come to believe (and are proud of the fact) that we are not like other blind people, that we are quite exceptional--for a blind person. The compliments inflate our ego on the outside, but they also shape and limit our perception of what blind people can achieve.
Regardless of how seriously we take the compliments of others and how superior we may feel, at the gut level we know that being compared to other blind people provides no real yardstick by which to measure our progress or potential. When one grows up with constant references to the sighted world, how can comparisons to other blind persons provide more than an occasional defense against the thought that one's best efforts may not be enough in the end.
It is said that seventy percent of the blind are unemployed. That statistic can't bring much comfort to those of us in this room--be we parents of blind children, blind job seekers, or blind children just beginning an education. Much of why we are here today has to do with finding a solution to this problem.
For parents with blind children: Your challenge is to raise your children in a manner which will cause them to reject, by virtue of their experience and the experiences of those around them, the notion that to be blind is an insurmountable barrier to living a normal, happy life. This means that you must first come to believe it and be aware of things which can block or erode positive attitudes in your children.
For the blind child: Your challenge is to learn as much as you can and to always look to the future. You must work at understanding that what may be an easy way to get out of things today will hurt you tomorrow. You must understand that many of your friends and neighbors will not know what it is like to be blind. Sometimes they will ask you to do things you cannot do, but most likely they will try to keep you from doing things which you can and should be doing. You must be strong in demanding that you be given a chance, and you must be even stronger in seeing that you do not take advantage of people by getting them to do things for you which you know you can and should do for yourself.
For the blind job seeker: Your challenge is, perhaps, the hardest of all. Your task is likely to be humiliating, regardless of how many pitfalls you manage to avoid in growing up as a blind child. Even if you are the most competent blind person God has ever placed on this earth, you will face people day in and day out who will doubt your ability to work in their place of business. You will be turned down for interviews without a stated reason, and you will suspect that attitudes about blindness are the culprit. You will be interviewed by persons who consider themselves especially enlightened and these people will be quick to tell you that blindness means nothing to them. They will avoid asking you the questions which, if answered, might make the difference between a "yes" and a "no." As if that weren't enough, keep looking and you'll undoubtedly find someone who will tell you that he knows about blind people, that he has seen the blind in action, and that his grandmother did remarkable things for herself though she could barely see to read a book. When he thinks of you for a job, he'll think of that woman straining to pour a cup of coffee. He'll think of how well she traveled (around the yard, of course), and he'll wonder (without asking) how you will get to work on your own and how you will traverse his lunchroom. He may have good intentions, but in the end he is likely to conclude that hiring you would place an unfair strain on his other employees. Meeting the needs of his grandmother was a family obligation, one which has nothing to do with business.
I do not intend to sound harsh or to leave any of you with a negative impression. The people who will conduct interviews are not cruel, hostile, or uncaring. They simply do not understand, and anyone looking for a job should know that he may meet many rejections which have nothing at all to do with his competence or interviewing skills.
I want to move now to the most difficult part of my remarks. I want to talk specifically with those of you who are job seekers, or potential job seekers, and who know that your skills are limited to such a degree that you question, in the privacy of your own thoughts, your ability to earn a salary. One of the most critical judgments you must make is whether your lack of success has to do with the attitudes I mentioned a moment ago, or whether a significant reason for it has something to do with your level of competence. Certainly none of us is competent at everything, but it is equally true that all of us must be competent in a variety of areas in order to get and hold a job.
I want to relate some rather personal information to make my point and to show that I'm not just talking in generalities about someone else. When I started college I was scared stiff. I was the only person in my family ever to have the opportunity to go, and this fact was repeated to me at least one hundred times in all the goodbyes that preceded my enrollment. People had always known I'd go away to school. They never talked much about what I might do after college but that I would do well was never a question in their minds.
What they couldn't know was all the shortcuts I had taken and all the times I had been given a better than equal opportunity for a grade, if not for real learning. People liked me and, besides, they didn't really know much about teaching me. I was the expert, and when I realized it, that's when the fun really began. Being the expert meant that I dictated the terms of testing, negotiated how fast I could work, bargained about how letter perfect my papers had to be because, after all, I couldn't see the work. At the time I didn't think of it as intentionally sliding by. I thought what was expected was reasonable and, besides, how bad could the consequences be?
College was going to be different. No one knew me. Would they make the same kind of allowances? With five hundred students to the class, these people might not even know I was blind or take the time to admire all my great effort which might make the difference between one letter grade and the next. I hadn't always done well on achievement tests. What if one really needed to know all they tested for to make it in college?
What I found was both uplifting and somehow depressing. On the one hand, I had to work hard for my grades, and I found that I had the talent. On the other hand, there were still escape hatches where I could avoid responsibility. I could even pay other people to take that responsibility for me. If only this service had been available in high school, I told myself. Did I pay people to do my papers or attend classes for me. No, but I did pay them to type my papers, and in so doing got them to spell and punctuate material which was then graded, in some part, on their skill and not my own. I attended classes faithfully, but in some I hired the best students I could and paid them to take my notes. I wasn't competent enough, or so I thought, to do it myself. If money had been made available, blind people must need this service.
There's nothing wrong with hiring a typist or someone to write a note, but honesty is demanded of those who intend to be successful. I'm not saying that blind people who get jobs are more honest than those who don't, or that honesty is some virtue which ought to be especially cultivated by people who are blind. I'm simply paraphrasing that tired old phrase that there's no such thing as a free lunch. What one finds easy now will cost him dearly later.
Luckily for me, I found something I really wanted to do, and it made me take chances I would never have considered taking for anything else. I was offered an opportunity to get training in the field of electronics, something I had dreamed of all my life but which I had ruled out as unrealistic long before. In order to qualify for the program, I had to take twelve hours of math, something which scared me to death. I had to take chemistry, though I had avoided the sciences in college, believing that I could not handle the formulas and the diagrams. I had to take physics, meaning more math, lab work, etc.
It turns out that I do not now work in the field of electronics and, in fact, I decided before graduation that I would not. My goal had been to be a teacher. I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that I could not run a shop or my own because maintaining a Brailled diagram for each and every electronic gadget I might be asked to fix would be impossible. My resolve to educate the young men and women of America grew all through preparing for classes, and then I learned, much to my displeasure, that my best teachers were men and women who had worked in industry. My worst teachers were those who could only recite paragraphs in my textbook.
What I gained from my experience was the knowledge that I could do things I had thought impossible for me. I learned that I was truly a person capable of being competent. I found having to take high school math courses in college a bit humiliating, but I also found that it was less humiliating to admit that I needed to gain competence than it was to feign competence, knowing all the while that my words were empty and that they would betray me to anyone who wanted to pursue a conversation. I'm reminded of the amateur musician who knows the first few bars to several difficult pieces. He plays these without seeming to care whether he finishes or not, but though you press him as long as you wish, he will never complete the piece, for he cannot.
While there is a great deal of discrimination against the blind in employment today, there are also many barriers which are not our fault, but the failure to get one now rests squarely with us. It is not easy to admit that at thirty one does not really know or understand the rules of grammar, but failing to admit it will mean that at forty the same problem still persists. For far too many of us, experience teaches us to sharpen our defenses, to protect ourselves against those who have legitimate concerns about our abilities. Far too often it is easier for us to proclaim beliefs in words which are not reflected in our daily lives. No one is deceived, not even ourselves, but every lie or untrue inference we make takes us one step away from doing what we need to do. There are many opportunities open to those of us who will take them. For learning the skills of blindness there are rehabilitation centers, for education there are night classes, and for knowledge in almost any area of endeavor there are books. The facilities for education and rehabilitation may be lacking in many areas we consider essential, but they offer to us a place to begin.
In the National Federation of the Blind we have vowed to fight discrimination wherever and whenever it occurs. There are two things we require: one is the resources with which to take swift and positive action, and the other is to have competent and capable people who deserve the opportunities we seek. I hope this seminar will help to strengthen us in both areas. Through your understanding of our programs I hope to gain resources, your money, your time, and your commitment to our cause. I also hope this semianr makes it clear that there are opportunities, rights, and chances for success. There is also a price to pay for each. I would like to leave you with the words from one of my favorite songs:
"You know good dreams don't come cheap, you have to pay for them. If you just dream when you're asleep, there is no way for them to come alive, to survive."
All of us (children, parents, and students) can help each other with those dreams. It is our choice whether to react to life passively or to mold each day into what we want it to be. Think; learn; understand what you can about blindness, and appreciate the wonderful opportunity given to each of us who is blessed by being alive.