Living My Dreams
by Ron Gardner
From the Editor: As part of a panel presentation on Monday afternoon, July 5, at this year's convention Ron Gardner, President of the NFB of Utah, delivered an inspiring speech about his work as an attorney and his life as a leader of the National Federation of the Blind. He had wonderful and inspiring stories to tell. This is what he said:
Dr. Maurer asked me a few weeks ago to tell you about some of the responsibilities that I have and some of the activities that I have engaged in as a blind lawyer in the practice of law. I've been a blind lawyer for over twenty-one years, most of that time as a senior trial attorney for the office of Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service. But don't get too excited, I left them a few years ago.
I'm happy to respond for two specific reasons: 1) as a Federationist I respond to a specific request from our President, Dr. Marc Maurer, but 2) I want to demonstrate that belief in and adherence to the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind leads to independence, success, and achievement. It can also come to change what it means to be blind in the minds of society.
Notice I mentioned I was a senior trial attorney and a litigator for the office of Chief Counsel, and in that position I had opportunity on one occasion to speak with the Chief Counsel himself, a man by the name of Joel Gerber. Joel Gerber was the Chief Counsel and had been appointed by the President of the United States and came to Salt Lake City. I had the opportunity to meet with him. I left our personal interview saddened and discouraged because Joel Gerber was not interested in my abilities as an attorney; he was interested only in how a blind attorney could possibly litigate a case. He asked such questions as, "How do you conduct direct examinations or cross-examination?" and "How in the world could you possibly present documentary evidence to the court?" I assured Chief Counsel Joel Gerber that I had litigated many cases up to that point, and I thought I had the skills to continue doing so. He was as high as you could get in the office of Chief Counsel, and I was talking to my supreme boss, as it were.
It took guts, but I also had confidence. However, I must admit to you that my confidence waned a couple of years later when Joel Gerber left his position as Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service and was appointed, again by the President of the United States, to be a judge of the United States Tax Court. Now fellow Federationists, that's where I did my job. I litigated in the United States Tax Court.
So when I was assigned to litigate a case involving two hundred million dollars in bank loans, I was just a tad nervous when I learned that I was assigned to litigate that case in front of Judge Joel Gerber. I can assure you that I was prepared. I did my research, and I learned that there were two tax court cases directly against me on the issue. That didn't help my confidence. However, with fire in my belly I went into the courtroom, and I conducted cross examination and direct examination, and I presented the necessary documentary evidence to Judge Joel Gerber. I was happy then, and I am exuberant today to tell you that a few weeks later Judge Joel Gerber entered a decision directly and completely in my favor. I am happy also to tell you that he wrote an opinion that was given the highest degree of authority for Presidential value that the United States Tax Court can give. It overturned the two previous cases directly on point, and it was also given the distinction of being a tax court en banc opinion.
Now fellow Federationists, as a litigator or as an attorney I've also had the opportunity and distinct pleasure, from my point of view, of leaving the Internal Revenue Service and becoming the legal director of the Disability Law Center, which is a protection and advocacy agency in Utah. A protection and advocacy agency has the direct responsibility to enforce and strengthen the laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities through legal advocacy. As its legal director I direct and supervise all of the litigation and legal activities of a staff of approximately thirty people in five different cities in the state of Utah.
I'd like to tell you, though, as legal director I have the responsibility, not only to supervise litigation, but to make the hard decisions about what cases we will select. One of my direct responsibilities is to determine and to insure that our funding and resources go as far as possible, which means that I have to look at each individual case and determine whether we should use litigation or whether we should use other means. In other words, I want the legal remedy that is achieved not only to solve the problem for the individual client but also to remove the systemic barriers that block the way for people with disabilities.
I remember a man who had severe schizophrenia and suffered from external voices that continually invaded his mind. He was housed in a facility that was operated by the Department of Corrections--in other words, the prison. On one occasion, in an attempt to escape the voices that were invading his mind, he pulled a pillow case over his head and attempted to escape these voices. But rather than receive mental health treatment from the doctors who were on staff, prison guards entered his room, stripped him naked, placed him on a restraint chair, and left him there. This didn't help the voices that were invading his mind, and it certainly didn't help his blood circulation either. A blood clot formed in his leg, and, when he was finally let up from the chair, the blood clot broke free, causing his instant death. In other words, the facility that was supposed to be giving him mental health treatment had caused his death. And of course local news media and national news media immediately became involved.
I was interviewed about what I as legal director was going to do about the case of this man's death. I can tell you also that the news media contacted Mr. Lane McCotter, the Executive Director of the Department of Corrections. Mr. Lane McCotter said that Ron Gardner and the Disability Law Center were going to see to it the restraint chair was never used again. He referred to me and to the Disability Law Center as a gadfly. I'm sure he meant something annoying, but nothing to be worried about. I think that as Executive Director Mr. McCotter expected me to enter his office and plead that the chair not be used.
I can assure you that that's not what I did. In fact, what I did do was to enter the office of the Governor of the State of Utah and speak directly to the Governor and to his chief legal advisor and explain to them the ramifications to the state of Utah if they continued to use this deadly restraint chair. A few weeks later Mr. McCotter was looking for a job, and the restraint chair has never again been used in the state of Utah.
I guess my response to Mr. McCotter's reference to me as a gadfly is, if I were a fly, I'm glad I didn't have to deal with the north end of that southbound horse. I can tell you, though, Federationists, it was not always this way. I did not always have this fire in my belly. Mostly as a young blind boy I was afraid. The only blind adult that I knew was a pitied and pitiful man who sold pencils on the street corner. I had an older brother who was blind; then we had a little brother who was blind. Mostly my parents were supportive, but they didn't know much what to do, and neither did the school system.
My second grade teacher said, "Now kids, we are going to have a spelling test," and she held a picture up in front of the class and said, "Spell what you see." I scampered up to the front of the room and scampered back to my desk and wrote the word, "dog." She said, "Now children, let's stay in our seats." She then held up another picture. I scampered up to the front of the room, looked at the picture, went back, and wrote "cat." Well this time she directed her wrath at me and said, "Ronald, I told you to stay in your seat." She then held up the third picture. Now what was I to do? I'll tell you what I did; as surreptitiously as I could, I scampered up to the front of the room, looked at the picture, went back to my desk, and wrote down, "cow." The next thing I remember was Mrs. Johnson's ruler being almost broken over the knuckles of my hand.
Now I don't think I thought of these two words, but for the first time the concept of alternative techniques came forcefully to my mind. I learned from my eighth grade teacher that you don't have to study all of the answers to the questions, just do the first ten. The next day, when I was prepared with all one hundred answers to the questions we were to be given in science class, he gave the exam to the other students and then called me up to the front of the class and asked me the first ten questions, and I answered them correctly. He then said, "That's all." I said, "Mr. Bowman, I know the answers to all the questions." He taught me a very depressing lesson. He said, "Ronald, you have got to learn to take what people are giving you." Now I think what he meant was, you've got to learn to take it when people dump on you.
I had an older brother who had gone to college, and I wanted to go to college because I knew I could. But my high school counselor told me, "Don't waste the time and money; enjoy bucking hay." Well, I did like bucking hay, but I didn't want to do it forever. "Enjoy irrigating." Well, I enjoyed working in the fields, but I didn't want to do it forever, and I knew that I could go to college. I didn't know anybody who had gone to law school. My dream was to go to law school.
I can tell you that during the last year of college I received a telephone call from my brother Norm Gardner. He called and told me that he had received a call from Jim Omvig and that Jim Omvig was going to be calling me directly. The two of them talked to me on the telephone several times along with Jim's sister Jan Omvig, and they started filling my mind with the truth about blindness. Not only that, but they sent me records with speeches from Dr. Jernigan that truly articulated what I felt in my heart. Norm Gardner opened the doorway to Federationism to me, and Dr. Jernigan opened the doorway for me to go to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1975 and work with Mr. Jim Gashel in our office that was then located in Washington and go up to the Hill and deal with legislators, Congressmen and Senators, about important matters up on Capitol Hill.
Not only that, but later that summer I went to the Palmer House in Chicago, Illinois, and I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. It was a life-changing experience. But you know I met two additional people that changed my life forever. Those two people were Peggy Pinder (we know her as Peggy Elliott). Now here was a young woman who was blind, and she told me that she was going to law school. My ears perked up, and I got excited, and I thought somebody is living my dream. But I also met another young man who told me he had finished his first year of law school. His name was Marc Maurer. We know him as Dr. Marc Maurer, and he had finished his first year of law school, and I knew it could be done. If they could do it, I could do it. And I started feeling that fire in my belly again.
Fellow Federationists, I am here to tell you today that the dean of that law school I was told I could never go to just notified me last month--Dr. Maurer doesn't even know this yet--that I have been selected out of the thousands of lawyers of that law school to be the Honored Alumnus.[applause]
I have a very special place in my heart for blind children and teachers and parents of blind children, and I am here to tell you that your children can grow up and have normal educations and get normal jobs and have normal lives, and I am here to tell you that, if they get these normal jobs, they can own a normal house just like the one that I have.
My house has a swamp cooler on it, and I am going to tell you about my swamp cooler. One year I delayed getting up on the roof to fix that swamp cooler, and it was hot. It was well into June. Blind guys aren't supposed to get on the roof, but I got on the roof to fix my swamp cooler about every year. Now it was into June, and I decided I'm just going to wait until it cools down. So I waited until about ten o'clock at night. My neighbor came out, heard the commotion, and said, "Ron, what are you doing up there?"
I said, "Bob, I'm fixing the swamp cooler."
He said, "Ron, it's dark."
I said, "Bob, it gets dark once a day, every day about this time." The next day in church he cornered me along with some of our other mutual friends in the hallway at church and said, "Ron, you know you don't act like a normal blind person." (Now I'm not sure what a normal blind person is supposed to act like.) But he went on, "As I see it, you have two alternatives: either you act like a normal blind person, or you quit carrying that white cane."
I said, "Bob, as I see it, there's a third alternative--you can change what you believe blind people can do."
I want to end with one final, very personal story. When Bruce Gardner was fifteen years old and I was nineteen years old, and I don't know how old Norm was, I was serving as a Mormon missionary down in Guatemala when my mother died of cancer. Before she died, she called my brother Norm to her bedside and said, "Norm, I'm frightened; I'm afraid. I don't know what you and your brothers are going to do." This was before Norm knew about the NFB. She said, "Norm, promise me that you will find a way to take care of your little brothers who are blind. Help them find the way." Norm, I'm here to tell you that you found a way. I want to thank you with all of my heart for introducing me to the National Federation of the Blind, to Dr. Jernigan, and to my mentor and teacher, Dr. Marc Maurer, who not only told me in 1975 but showed me in 1975 that blind people really can live their dreams.