The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April 1997

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Telling Our Story

by Michael Baillif

From the Editor: Michael Baillif is President of the Capital City Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of the District of Columbia. He is also a past president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS). He was invited to address NABS's Mid-Winter Conference on Saturday, February 1, in Washington, D.C. President Maurer made the following remarks about Michael in connection with that speech. Here are both President Maurer's comments and Michael Baillif's recollections of and reflections on the student division:

Michael Baillif is a member of perhaps the stodgiest profession in the history of the world. He is a lawyer--you know about lawyers--but even worse, he is a tax lawyer! He knows about the Internal Revenue Service and the Internal Revenue Code, the distribution deduction and the Tax Equity and Financial Responsibility Act of 1986--he knows all about it. If you want something dull, read about that. It is as dull as you can get! If you have trouble sleeping, I can recommend a book, written by Michael Baillif. He's a tax lawyer, and he's good at it, very good. He works for one of the top tax law firms in the United States.

Using this stodgiest of all knowledge, Michael Baillif helps to represent companies whose worth is in the billions. In other words, Michael helps to make tax policy in the courts of the United States of America.

You may think that the tax law is dull, and you are right unless you have to pay the tax man and with Michael's help you can find a way out of it. But I'll tell you something; Michael Baillif is not dull. You have seen that today. He has committed a very fine mind to what we have been talking about all day: our belief in ourselves and each other and our effort to create a mechanism to bring enough pressure to bear to compel others to recognize and value our abilities. He has made something impressive of all this, but all of us have also had a hand in shaping him. Did Michael do it? Sure he did. Could he have done what he has without us? No, he could not. Could we have shaped him without his ability and drive? Not at all. His success is our success; his enthusiasm is shared with us. For my part, I am proud of Michael Baillif and glad that he is my colleague in the movement.

"You are an evil generation; you wait for a sign." "You are a perverse generation; you wait for an answer." "You are a lost generation; you seek both reason and purpose." These are all statements that have been made about earlier generations. But they are equally applicable to us here today. We each come seeking something that we have not yet found: a sign, a reason, an answer, a purpose.

Today we are beginning, just beginning, to build some bridges and establish an identity. A few weeks ago I stayed late at a party. Those of us who remained were sitting around drinking very good Scotch and talking about philosophy. A friend posed an interesting question. He asked, "What do you think has been the most important career in the history of the world?"

I responded flippantly, "An attorney, of course." He said, "No, the storyteller because people's beliefs and actions and identities are in large part determined by where they fit into a story." Whether that story revolves around a religion or an ethnicity or a family or an individual dream, it has tremendous power to shape and mold, to motivate and to energize.

If I told you there is a story of hidden pain and fearful loneliness, a story of awesome determination and quiet courage, a story of constant struggle and ultimate achievement, would you want to hear it? Would you wonder whom it was about and how it ended? Well, it is my story, and it's your story, and it's the shared story of all blind people in this room and outside it. It's a story that's gone on for a long time, that took on new focus when this organization was formed more than fifty years ago, and that will be concluded by those of us with the strength and courage and passion to write it.

Let me tell you just a small part of this story as it relates to what brings us here today, the National Association of Blind Students. For a time I had a chance to serve as president in this organization that Carlos now guides so ably and so conscientiously. I can tell you that it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those of us who formed the leadership in the National Association of Blind Students, which in my heart will always be just the Student Division [applause], did two things: we worked hard and we had fun. We established this national conference of blind students some seven years ago. We initiated the Monte Carlo Night. We regularly published the Student Slate, and we went out and organized student chapters in New York, Texas, Oregon, and Minnesota.

We worked hard and achieved much, but we also had fun. We used to stay so late in bars that they had to throw us out. We talked of blindness and life and nothing at all. Today I really don't remember the content of those conversations, but they were very important at the time. We put on student division parties that were so good they rarely lasted for more than two hours before being closed down by hotel security. And we laughed a great deal, most of the time with one another, occasionally at each other. For as Jane Austen says, "For what do we live, but to be made sport of by our neighbors and to laugh at them in our turn?" And the people: they mattered more than anything else. There were Scott LaBarre and Melody Lindsey, Maria Morais and Tom Ley, Dan Fry and Melissa Williamson, Jennifer Dunham and Pam Dubel, all of whom are involved today and doing very upright and respectable things. But I'm sorry to say that we had so much fun during those days that the very best stories can never be told.

While I was president, I saw many things. Some things made me furious: the self-satisfied disability offices that because of their own pride and power and petty gratification strove to dominate the lives of blind students and push them into dependency, the apartment owner who refused to rent a room on a second floor to a blind student because he didn't think she could climb the stairs, the mobility instructor who threatened to break the long white cane of a blind student if he ever caught her bringing it to school.

I saw some things that made me want to cry, such as the blind students who themselves bought into the notions of infirmity and incapacity that the disability offices were selling, or the students who came to this event or to a national convention knowing in their hearts that we had what they needed desperately, but were so overwhelmed and afraid that they went away and never came back. There were students who went to get residential training and for the first time found out what it was like to live, but then went home, where they were viewed as having little more capacity than a rocking chair and sat in that rocking chair and are still sitting there today.

But I also saw many things that made me laugh: Joanne Wilson all dressed up and ready to go to Mardi Gras in a tiger costume complete with flaming orange wig and a tail made from one of Jerry Whittle's old dress socks, or the time at a National Convention when I got out of bed one morning and bumped into my roommate, who was standing on his head doing Yoga meditation. Then there was the Student Division party that had been going on for only half an hour when security came to close it down, and Melody Lindsey refused to let them in until they paid a cover charge.

And I saw many things that made me incredibly proud, such as looking out over the Student Division meeting audience at the 1989 convention in Denver and realizing that the room was full. The speaker was saying something important, and people were listening, really listening. There were wonderful moments when I heard that an event we had sponsored had been important to someone, had meant something, had helped that person deal with an issue, surmount a hurdle, or simply feel good, even though none of us had known it at the time. And there were times like today when I would meet blind students much further along than I was at their age--at your age. I can see unlimited potential, all that they and you can be and do and give.

So what is the Student Division to me now? Well, it is everything about which I have just spoken. It's the story that I have just told about days gone by. But it is much, much more than that. It's new ideas and energy and hope. In your hands lies the continuation of our story, and not just at some vague point in the future, but right now. Today you can go out and organize and fight for that which is good and right, and you can have an awful lot of fun doing it. You can become a part of a much larger story, the story that took on new texture fifty years ago when Dr. tenBroek established this organization and that has been evolving through the leadership of Dr. Jernigan and President Maurer. This is a great and powerful story. Yet it is a story the final lines of which have yet to be written. It is you who will write them. You who are seniors in high school and sophomores in college and you who have not yet been exposed to all that this organization is and has to offer: you will tell our story.

Where do you begin? You begin by becoming involved in whatever way you can and by accepting the involvement of others on whatever terms they can offer. This is crucial because, if you don't, if you opt out of our story, you will be alone and isolated, and not only that, you will deprive the rest of us of that special something that only you can contribute to the story.

This organization provides the only way for us to tell our own story. Unless we are all involved and pull together in whatever way we can, we will allow someone else to tell it for us. We have much too much to say and too much to do and there is too much fun to be had to allow anyone else to do it for us.

I've been a part of this story for a very short time, but I intend to be involved in it for a long while to come. I truly hope that you will share it with me and with everyone else in this organization here today.

But as Ayn Rand said in The Fountainhead, "Don't work for my happiness, my sisters and brothers, show me yours. Show me your achievement. Show me that it is possible, and the knowledge will give me courage for mine."