Daniel Frye Lessons Brought to Light by Daniel B. Frye ********** From the Editor: Before walking into a new situation, it isn't unusual for blind people to indulge in fantasies about how things will go. Frequently in the daydream it is our competence, poise, and articulate handling of awkward situations that transform the silly notions of strangers into rational behavior. Unfortunately the real world is seldom as neat or satisfying as fantasy, and we are much more likely to think of the perfect response long after the offending person has wandered off.
We have no choice but to deal with ignorance and prejudice that don't go away just because we are doing things right. The following recollection describes one such experience. Dan Frye was a 1990 NFB Scholarship winner and is now an attorney and NFB leader in Washington State. Here is his story: ********** During the summer of 1988 I got a job as a Senior Counselor at Camp Merry Heart, an Easter-Seal-sponsored challenge and recreational retreat for physically disabled people--in the rural outskirts of Hackettstown, New Jersey. Hoping to enhance my resume by successfully working a summer job and with an earnest interest in testing my Federation philosophy, which until that time was primarily a set of theoretical principles, I left the comfortable familiarity of college life in South Carolina, boarded a northbound Greyhound, and set out on a summer adventure which promised to be exciting and instructive.
In an effort to make a good first impression, I called the camp supervisor from the Greenville, South Carolina, bus station and politely declined her offer to have a camp representative pick me up at the Port Authority in New York City. I explained that I was confident of my ability to make the necessary transfer to the commuter bus which would take me directly to Hackettstown. She reluctantly resigned herself to the travel arrangements I-- her new twenty-year-old blind summer employee--proposed, and we agreed to meet the next morning for staff orientation.
While alone in the darkness of night on a sixteen-hour bus journey which would transport me from the tranquil South to the teeming North, I had ample opportunity to entertain a range of feelings from eagerness to apprehension. Based on the Camp Merry Heart literature, which I had read before accepting the counselor position, I was certain that I would be participating in one of the nation's most progressive summer camping programs, in which residential disabled campers would spend the season with non- disabled day campers from the surrounding communities. This structure seemed likely to foster genuine public education and increased understanding among disabled and non-disabled people, a seemingly ideal prospect.
While my spirits were bolstered by the possibilities of the summer to come, I simultaneously felt the anxiety inherent in being a newly independent young adult traveling to an unfamiliar region of the country where I would assume the responsibilities of a vaguely defined summer position. I hoped that I could do the job well. I hoped that I would fit in and develop pleasant working relationships with my colleagues and the campers. And, most of all, I hoped that my blindness would not be used as a justification to bar me from completely fulfilling my obligations as a staff member or represent a barrier to my integrated entry into camp life. At some point in the wee hours of the morning I concluded that further analysis of my emotions would be fruitless, and I drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened by the announcement, "Arriving, New York City."
My transfer to the commuter bus was uneventful, and after settling in to the rustic, un-air-conditioned log cabin which would be my home for the next several months, I reported to the camp dining hall for staff orientation. I was encouraged by my initial reception from the other counselors (most of whom were also college students on summer vacation), but it became apparent immediately that the camp's management did not share my peers' faith in my ability to function as a capable staff member. Despite my certifications in CPR and Advanced Swimming by the American Red Cross, I was not permitted to participate in "Life Drills," a procedure which involved four staff members--tethered equidistantly to a rope stretched across the camp lake--diving, exploring, and resurfacing together in search of a hypothetical accident victim. I protested that, in addition to being competent in swimming and first aid, I would face minimal safety risk because this operation was executed in teams of four, that we were all secured by a life rope, and that most of the underwater exploration was accomplished tactilely because of the lake's murkiness.
The management decision to forbid my service as a counselor in the integrated day camp, which catered to both disabled and non-disabled campers, resulted in a second restriction on my full conduct of camp responsibilities. The rationale offered for this policy was that vision was essential to the successful supervision of the more active camping population. These and other less blatant acts of discrimination became the norm throughout my summer employment at Camp Merry Heart.
I privately resolved to stick it out until my employment was scheduled to end in mid August. Frequently, however, my spirits wavered, and I was tempted to offer my premature resignation to demonstrate my disdain for the arbitrary distinctions made by Merry Heart management. Ultimately I decided that the image of blind people would be better served by my decision to stay with my employer, conducting the tasks assigned to me with efficiency and dignity while trying to educate and advocate for improvement of management's attitudes about blindness. I reasoned that, if I did my job well and used the art of diplomacy to enlighten camp leaders about my disability, I could acquit myself with distinction and preserve opportunities for any future blind candidate seeking employment with Camp Merry Heart.
As the days melted into weeks, I slowly settled into the established routine of camp life. Waking to Reveille at 6:00 a.m., I helped my campers prepare for the day ahead. I escorted them to flag-raising, accompanied them to breakfast, and returned with them to our quarters for morning cabin cleaning. By 8:30 a.m. we'd leave for camp exercises, field games, arts and crafts, swimming, and other traditional camping activities. Once during every week-long camp session, we'd conduct an overnight outdoor camping excursion complete with cooking over camp fires and sleeping under the stars.
Our evenings would usually conclude with an assembly of sorts, in which campers put on plays, participated in talent shows, or simply socialized with each other in the central dining hall. Lights went out at 10:00 p.m., and weary counselors on night call duty would quietly meet on the front porches of their cabins and talk about home, life at college, and personal dreams and generally spend time building friendships with one another.
It was those relaxing summer evenings, long after campers had retired, that I came to cherish most. In whispers so as not to disturb the campers, my friends and I would discuss the pros and cons of the Merry Heart experience. Invariably we would analyze my dissatisfaction, frustration, and exasperation with the regressive attitudes exhibited by Merry Heart leaders about my blindness. We agreed that it was unfortunate and ironic that such a flagrant lack of confidence in an independent blind person prevailed at a camp which prided itself in its belief in and support of "true achievement." Without my prodding, several of my acquaintances realized that the treatment I received at the hands of Merry Heart administrators was likely to send an especially discouraging message to the campers about the opportunities they could expect as disabled people from society.
By no means am I suggesting that all my co-workers immediately came to appreciate the significance of my objections to the condescending conduct of the Merry Heart management. Some of them came to this understanding only after several evenings of animated conversation in which we discussed the nature of independence, the cultural consequences of accepting unnecessary assistance or charity from the general public, and the proposition that blindness, in and of itself, is not an overwhelming tragedy but a human characteristic which, like other personal traits, consists of certain inherent limitations and inconveniences. By way of analogy, I suggested that blindness, like intellectual capacity or physical size, entails certain advantages and disadvantages to which we all have to adapt and adjust. Gradually some of my friends came to adopt my common- sense notions about blindness, and I derived enough comfort from this support to sustain my confidence and composure while dealing with the emotional assaults I encountered each work day.
Near the summer's end I told a few of my friends of my intention to use part of my salary to explore some of the quaint towns within a several-hundred-mile radius of Hackettstown. Preferring the allure of New York City's bright lights, everyone to whom I had extended an invitation to accompany me for this weekend declined my offer, so I made arrangements to travel alone.
Despite my educational efforts throughout the summer, a couple of my friends and a member of the camp's administration expressed some surprise and concern that I had not altered my plans once I learned that nobody else was joining me on my trip. They asked me how I thought I would manage without somebody around to orient me to my surroundings and whether it didn't make sense to identify a specific destination so that I could have some idea of what to expect. Realizing that changing ingrained notions about blindness is always a slow process, I patiently explained that with my cane and some cash I would be fine and that the absence of plans was largely what made the adventure attractive.
On a Friday afternoon after all the campers had bid their farewells and the facilities were shut down for another two-day respite, I got a ride in to Hackettstown, asked the ticket agent what the final destination of the New York City commuter bus was, and purchased a ticket to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Several hours later I was comfortably ensconced in a small hotel. Having ordered a pizza, I luxuriously stretched out across my king-size bed and contented myself watching former Texas Governor Ann Richards deliver a televised nomination speech for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic national convention. Throughout the rest of the weekend I watched movies, swam, explored the town and its history, and found other amusements with which to occupy myself. In short, I had a great time.
During these days of recreational solitude, I had considerable opportunity to reflect upon the events of the summer. I smiled inwardly at the knowledge that I was growing up and that the philosophy about blindness to which I had always subscribed really seemed to work. Having determined to visit Wilkes-Barre on a whim, I found that I was managing well and that blindness was not much of an issue. Further, I concluded that I was actually quite satisfied with my successful performance in what could be fairly characterized as my first real job.
Even when I pondered the turbulent and bittersweet aspects of the summer's experience, I realized with pride that I had been equal to the challenge, and I noted with corresponding sobriety that as I matured it would be necessary for me to develop sophistication in effectively addressing social misunderstandings about blindness. While vacationing in Wilkes-Barre, I reaffirmed that the best way to accomplish this would be to play an active part in the National Federation of the Blind.
As this contemplative weekend drew to an end and I prepared to return to Camp Merry Heart to finish the last several weeks of my summer job, I decided that on the whole I was glad I had come. **********