THREE-LETTER WORDS: "HOW" OR "WHY NOT?"

by Peggy Pinder Elliott

Peggy Pinder Elliott, a long-time member of the National Federation of the Blind, is familiar to readers of previous Kernel Books. In this story she reflects on the importance of using the right three-letter words in dealing with blindness. Here she shares with us her journey from "How" to "Why Not?"

One of the hardest things for me to understand about blindness was the little three-letter word how.

When I first lost my sight, I was a teen-ager. My brothers and sisters and I were all planning to attend college and find good jobs after graduation. Without ever expressing this to anyone, I thought that my sudden blindness meant that this was no longer possible for me. It wasn't anything specific. It was just that I didn't know how a blind person would go to college, how a blind person would find a job, how a blind person could perform work that anyone would want to pay for. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was that little three-letter word that was causing all the trouble.

Several years after I lost my sight, I met people from the National Federation of the Blind. Instantly, the three-letter word changed. How was no longer important, but two other three-letter words were. They were why and not. And I needed them both. The question was not "how" but "why not".

The change happened because I had finally met other blind people. Some sighted people, particularly my family, had insisted that blindness did not make any difference, that I could still study, still excel, still attend college, still get around and do the things that other people do. I mostly stayed in my room and told people that I loved to read. But inside myself I hotly resented this cheery and cruel advice. These sighted people were not blind. How could they understand how hard it was?

Meeting other blind people made all the difference. I could no longer say, "Blind people can't do this or that." I now knew blind people who were doing the things I wanted to do.

This change in me came from the National Federation of the Blind and the insistence of its members that blind people could figure out how to do things. It took a while for me to come to understand this, and my Federation friends patiently kept working with me, encouraging me, insisting that I stop feeling sorry for myself. The Federation ideas took root, and I began to do all those things I thought I couldn't, ending up with a law degree from Yale.

Then I started to deal with the three-letter word how, in the job market. My first job interview was memorable. When I arrived for the interview, I found that there were eight people in the room to do the interviewing. Apparently, the potential employer had decided that everyone in authority in the office needed to be in the room to get a look at the blind person. That was a bad sign.

The interview began with the office chief asking the administrator to describe the position to me. It was an assistant prosecutor's job, a commonly understood entry-level position in which one handles all the less grave offenses from filing a charge to disposition of a case.

The administrator said, "When you come to the office in the morning, you will read police reports, and, when you read the reports, based on the reading of the reports, after thoroughly reading them, you will upon reading . . ." He got stuck. He just stayed in the same sentence, never finishing it, continually uttering the word "read."

After a bit of this, I interrupted him, saying that I thought I understood that reviewing police reports was part of the job as well as other tasks he hadn't mentioned. If he wanted to describe the other tasks, I would be interested. If he preferred to discuss how I would do the reading, I would be glad to discuss that as well. He never spoke again during the forty-minute interview.

It was obvious that he didn't know how I would do the reading. I explained that blind lawyers hire readers and train them in confidentiality just like lawyers have always hired secretaries and trained them in confidentiality. I explained that I was accustomed to working that way and to meeting time deadlines. None of it mattered. The whole of-fice, present by way of its supervisors, had decided that a blind person couldn't do the job they do, and that was that.

My next interview was the exact opposite. I knew it was going to be. A friend of mine in the National Federation of the Blind who worked in the same city in which I was in-terviewing called me. The friend said that he knew the potential employer; the potential employer had called him and asked how a blind person could do the job, and that my friend had explained to him that he should just ask. My friend also gave some examples to the potential employer of how he does his job.

When I arrived for the interview, the potential employer came in alone. He sort of sauntered in, obviously comfortable, and said casually that he would like to know how I was going to do the reading. That made all the difference in the world.

Both interviews were for the same type of job and started on the same topic, but one began with an assumption that I couldn't do the job while the other began with an open mind, opened by a successfully employed blind person. I was offered this job and took it.

For me, the National Federation of the Blind provided that first vital understanding that there are answers to the question "how?"

For most jobs, the answers are as simple and inexpensive as they were in my case. For many jobs, there is already a blind person doing the work whose ideas and practical know-how can be drawn upon for the employer or the blind person who wants to work in the same area.