Tuning in to Federationism
by Donald L. Mitchell
From the Editor: In the following story Don Mitchell describes the ways he has found to use the opportunities presented by his job to educate the public about the abilities of blind people. Don describes himself as a relatively new Federationist, but he has already learned the knack of representing the organization positively wherever he goes. This is what he says:
As a fairly new member of the National Federation of the Blind, I am still tuning in to the philosophy of the organized blind movement. I am learning what this movement is and why it is necessary. As I learn, I find that there are no real surprises.
Like most other blind people I have seen and experienced condescending treatment by those who don't understand our capabilities. As a professional piano tuner and teacher of piano tuning, I am regularly exposed to the common and not-so-common stereotypes the public have about blindness. Every day as I meet the public, I have the opportunity to educate people about blindness and to promote equality for all blind people.
As I go into the homes of my clients, I am greeted with a variety of responses. It is not my practice to announce to a client on the phone that I am a blind tuner; this is not relevant. I am a tuner, trained and prepared to do a good job. Because I hire a driver and carry a white cane, my customers quickly realize that I am blind. This is where the varied responses begin.
A few are concerned and express disbelief that I can really do what they hired me to do. In my twenty-five years of experience I have had only one client refuse to allow me to service her piano. Some are overly solicitous. They may begin to move furniture out of the way or even try to carry all 200 pounds of me to the piano! Yet other clients are astonished and go on about how amazing it is that I can do what I do. Fortunately, a little patience and the competent doing of my job usually convince the skeptics.
Those customers who prefer to worship the ground I walk on can be harder to deal with. I don't want to be thought of as brave or wonderful or extraordinary just for doing my job.
Since I rely on these people for my income, it is important that I do nothing to offend them, but at the same time I cannot allow inappropriate treatment to continue. I have made it a practice to talk to these persons about their attitudes. After many years of experience, I can carry on a conversation while doing most of my work. This gives me one or two or even more hours to discuss blindness and related matters.
The issues I am often called upon to discuss include (1) the hearing ability of a blind person; (2) the natural musicianship of the blind; (3) the ability of a blind person to move around without vision; (4) the way a blind person does the basics like eating meals, reading newspapers, and traveling throughout the community. All of these things are easily performed by visually impaired persons trained in the alternative techniques well known to most members of the NFB.
As an established piano tuner-technician I am in contact with thousands of households every year. I have the opportunity to be observed by and talk to both children and adults in the family. Many of these families become regular clients with whom I will work through the years. This provides the piano tuner with great possibilities: to educate families about blindness, to confront common stereotypes, and to make progress in changing the perception of what it means to be blind by demonstrating in real, practical ways that the blind are normal people who happen to be blind.
These issues are very important to me as an NFB member. I was recently asked to take the lead in organizing the Piano Tuners' Division of the NFB. As tuners, the blind have opportunities to educate the public as well as to perform a valuable service to the music world. Unfortunately some blind persons are unaware of how excellent a career choice piano tuning can be. This, I am sure, is a result of our history. Piano tuning was developed as a career choice for the blind by well-meaning sighted people. In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, blind men were routinely tracked into this profession. The concept of self-determination was unheard of.
Thank goodness things have changed today! Blind persons can choose almost any career they want. But piano tuning, which continues to be an excellent occupation for blind people, is attracting at least twenty sighted people for every blind person.
Blind men and women should not overlook piano tuning as a profession. Piano tuning gives us the chance to educate the sighted world about what it means to be blind and while doing so to be honorably, gainfully, and enjoyably employed.
If you want more information about piano tuning as a new,
challenging profession for the blind, please contact Don
Mitchell, Director of Education, Emil Fries Institute of Piano
Tuning and Technology, 2510 E. Evergreen Boulevard, Vancouver,
Washington 98661, Phone (360) 693-1511, Fax (360) 693-6891, e-