An Address Delivered by MARC MAURER, President
National Federation of the Blind
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Chicago, Illinois, July 6, 1995
The history of the world is, according to one notion, the biography of inspired human beings who have faced and surmounted prodigious obstacleswho have been instruments in the instigation or resolution of conflict. Conflict challenges order and stability, but it can sometimes also channel and focus energy and power. Conflict can be a destructive force, but not all conflict is regressive. Frederick Douglass said:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
Even if all progress must be stimulated by conflict, conflict itself is not enough. Whether the conflict is productive or destructive depends on the imagination, the insight, the spirit, and the courage of the people involved. It is essential that the objective to be gained be worth the risk, for no conflict exists without an element of loss. It is how we respond to the risk and the possibility of loss that determines not only the outcome of the current dispute but to some extent the prospects for the future as well.
If we are so timid that we are unwilling to let our convictions compete with those of others and if we fail to support our convictions with reason, effort, and resources, then progress can never be ours. But if we recognize that the history of the world must include the biography of inspired human beings (be they blind or sighted) who have faced and surmounted prodigious obstacles, then a future with greater opportunity than we have ever known (both for us and for society as a whole) is an achievable goal. Much of the world's history has been written without us because until recently we had not developed the mechanism to handle conflict. But we will be absent from the biographer's notebook no longer. We have created the vehicle; we are collecting the resources; and we have certainly found the will.
We, the National Federation of the Blind, are prepared to meet contention and have conflict if we must, but our purpose must be seen in perspective. We recognize that, even for the winner, all conflict has within it an element of loss; we recognize that the potential gain must equal or outweigh the risk; and above all, we recognize that progress cannot come without conflict, even for those who want peace. With that understanding and in that context, let me make one point unmistakably and irrevocably clear: We intend to have progress!
There are two dangers in conflict: one that we will have too much of it; the other that we will have too little. In the beginning of our organization (in 1940 when Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and those few others who were with him brought the National Federation of the Blind into being in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), there was almost no conflict at all about blindness or the blind. Blind people had traditionally been without power, and until we came to know our strength, this remained true.
It is not that there was no hardship. God knows, there was plenty of that. Employment opportunities for blind people were almost nonexistent. The vending program established under the federal Randolph-Sheppard Act was in its infancy, with very few participating vendors; and working conditions and wages in the sheltered shops for the blind were dismal. Education for blind children was narrowly focused and dead-end in nature even though the schools for the blind had existed for a hundred years and even though some of them had excellent academic programs. Training in mobility and the skills of daily living that the blind need in order to function and compete in the world at large had not yet been developedat least, not as we know those skills today. Although the Social Security Act had been adopted five years earlier in 1935, the programs for the blind that are now a part of it had not been created.
Despite these disadvantages, we found the strength to organizeand then, necessarily, we found ourselves in the midst of conflict. By the 1950's our activities had expanded to include making surveys of state programs for the blind. In these surveys we, the organized blind, criticized the programs that were not providing adequate serviceswhich at the time meant most of them. This role of vigilant monitor of programs dealing with blindness remains as important today as it was then. Programs established to serve the blind must be responsive to the needs of the blind. The blind who are to be served by these programs are, collectively, the best judges of their performance.
However, some of the officials in the field of work with the blind had never imagined that the blind (the people they thought of as their clients) might try to speak and act and think for themselves. They believed that it was somehow inappropriate for the blind to examine the performance of the governmental and private agencies established to give them service. With our insistence that the blind have a right to a voice in shaping programs that affect their lives, there came a heightened awareness of the Federation, as well as increasing controversy. If there was to be any progress at all, how could it possibly have been otherwise!
During the decades that followed, conflict within the field of work with the blind ebbed and flowed, but it was always present. Most of the time the disputes involved the organized blind on the one hand and officials of governmental and private agencies for the blind on the other. By the late 1980 's, however, the bitter clashes that had so long characterized matters dealing with blindness had diminished to such an extent that they had becomeif not nonexistent, then certainly muted.
What happened to cause this alteration? And of even greater importance, what does the change signify for the future? If there is no conflict, there can be no progress, but we must always keep in mind that the first great danger in conflict is its potential for destructivenessthe risk that it may get out of hand and eliminate the good along with the bad. We must, however, with equal clarity remember the second great danger inherent in conflict (just as destructive as the first, and perhaps more threateningcertainly more insidious because it is usually not recognized) that there may be too little of itthat the total absence of controversy may signify stagnation. The trick, then, is to strike a balancethe minimal amount, enough but not too much.
Is the apparent diminution of controversy an indication that the creative spirit regarding blindness and the blind is gone? Although confrontation within the field of work with the blind is no longer one of its principal characteristics, conflict regarding blindness still exists. The basic misunderstandings about blindness and the blind have not been totally eradicated. There are still many among officials of agencies for the blind, among the members of the general public, and even among the blind themselves who believe that blindness means inferioritythat the loss of eyesight is equivalent to the loss of productive capacity. This means that conflict (although not always represented by confrontation) is still very much with us.
However, there are also an increasing number of people who recognize that blindness is not the devastating affliction that, at one time, it was almost universally thought to be. This alteration in the perception of the nature of blindness has largely occurred because of our strength and our activities-- because of the determined efforts of the National Federation of the Blind. Today, in many instances, those managing programs for the blind have come to realize that blind people are not enemies but potential allies. Furthermore, acceptance of blind people as valued participants in the broader community is increasing.
The process has been a long and painful one. But through the strife and confrontation we have accomplished an objective which was, at one time, not only implausible but virtually unimaginable. We have created the potential for alliances within the field of work with the blind that permit us to expand our efforts. If we properly assess the opportunities which are becoming available to us (with all of the dangers that accompany those opportunities) and if those involved in programs for the blind can bring themselves to make the same assessments, we will no longer face the disadvantage of constant abrasive conflict within the arena of blindness. We may even be able to forge a cohesive alliance that can bring real equality and full independence to the blind. This is the heritage of conflict.
The possibility of alliances with the agencies for the blind offers opportunities which have not been available in the past, but if those alliances come, they will not come without danger. Those who join alliances must, of course, have a shared objective, a mutual understanding, and a common bond. The best alliances demand not only commonality of purpose but mutual trust as well. If we let the agencies trust us, we must be prepared to trust them. If we engage in alliances with others, we accept and promote (even if only passively) the positions they espouse and the actions they take. Consequently, we must guard against the danger of being bamboozled by the rhetoric of cooperation. Otherwise, we may come to believe that those things which in the past we deplored in the performance of many of the agencies were really not so bad--when it is perfectly clear that they were.
We may be tempted to assume that, because we have formed alliances, it would be difficult or impossible to survive without them. On the other hand, if we are not quick on our mental feet, we may fail because of former conflictsstruggles that are no longer relevantto take full advantage of the cooperation that might be achieved. Despite all of the dangers that accompany our burgeoning relationships with programs for the blind, these growing interactions give us the opportunity for more progress than was formerly possible. Although conflict need not be in the form of confrontation, it must occur for future growth. Therefore, if the agencies for the blind want to join with us, what are they prepared to bring to the table? Our agenda will always be action-oriented, and anybody who makes an alliance with us must be willing to help promote our projects, and not just expect us to promote theirs.
What will be the focus of our collective effort today and in the years ahead? Although conflict within the field of work with the blind has diminished, misunderstanding about blindness in the public mind remains all too common. Unless this misunderstanding is eliminated, we who are blind will be prevented from reaching our potential. Therefore, the direction of our action in the years ahead is perfectly clear.
There are still some people who believe, even today, that blindness is entirely negative and that the blind have nothing to contribute. A report from the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, entitled Vision Research, A National Plan: 1994-1998, describes the plight of blind people in a way that holds out little hope for those who are unfortunate enough to be afflicted with that condition. The report says in part:
Although seldom fatal, eye diseases cause suffering, disability, and loss of productivity for millions of people in this country and throughout the world. These diseases may have their most pronounced effects on an individual's quality of life, affecting the ability to act independently, recognize family and friends, read, drive a car, and perform a host of other activities that we consider routine daily tasks.
So says the report, but the writers from the National Eye Institute add something else. They tell us that sight is "our most precious sense." It will come as no surprise that the report contains nothing about the abilities of blind people or the alternative techniques used by the blind. We who are blind (the National Eye Institute would have us believe) have lost our independence, our ability to read, our productivity, our capacity to recognize family and friends, and our chance to engage in a host of other routine activities. There is one small consolation though: Blindness may cause suffering, but at least, as these authors tell us, it is seldom fatal.
What a dismal picture! Is it true that our lives are devastated by the loss of sight? Can it really be said that sight is our most precious sense? What about the sense of touch? If we were totally without it, we would lose one of our greatest protections, the ability to feel pain, which really means the ability to survive since pain tells us when our bodies are being injured by hot or abrasive objects, or when we are too cold or have eaten or drunk damaging substances. Of course, the reverse of pain is pleasure, and certainly the sense of touch provides more of that than most of us have thought about. Begin with sex, and take it from there. But all of this quibbling about which of the senses is most precious misses not only the meaning of daily purpose for the blind but the purpose of life for everybody.
Life is more than the five physical senses. There are other senses, those that make us human. What about the sense of judgment; the sense of commitment to family and community; or, for that matter, the sense of humor? Perhaps one of our most important senses is the good sense to know when to disregard the opinions of the National Eye Institute.
We are not saying that sight is of no importanceit is. However, sight is not the essence of life. It may be pleasant to see a face or drive a car or watch a sunset, but the absence of these things does not in and of itself cause mental imbalance, physical immobility, or economic destructionnor does it rob us of pleasure or the capacity for a full life. We who are blind are no longer willing to permit fear and misunderstanding about blindness, dressed up in the language of a scientific report, to limit our lives. We will avoid conflict when we can, but as I have said before, we intend to have progress.
The research of the National Eye Institute has what might be called a sight bias. Without examining the fundamental reason for doing so, these researchers assume that those who possess eyesight will do well and those who are without it will not. These researchers are not the only ones who conduct business from this point of view.
Here, for example, is a report from the Baltimore Sun for August 10, 1994.
Some scholars [the article says] believe most audiences tend to hear what someone says first with their eyes. "The research on how listeners process vocal messages shows that 55 percent of the impact is visual, 38 percent is vocal [meaning the tone of voice] and 7 percent is verbal," says Andrew Wolvin, chairman of the department of speech and communication at the University of Maryland, College Park.
How does this research as reported by the Baltimore Sun apply in practice? If only 7 percent of a message arrives verbally, and 38 percent is conveyed by the tone of voice, does this mean that the blind are deprived of the remaining 55 percent? What about sighted people who talk on the telephone? Do they lose 55 percent of the message? On the other hand, do blind people (being deprived of sight) concentrate more fully on the language being presented? Is the visual information (all 55 percent of it) a distraction from the real meaning of the speaker?
You can argue it both ways, and the Arkansas Gazette demonstrates this. On February 12, 1995, an article appeared which declared that, in certain instances, sight is more of a hindrance than a help. The paper reported in part:
A study published recently says the best chance of catching a lie is when you're not distracted by how the liar looks. "People [the article continues] spend a lot of time remembering what they are doing with their faces," said Joseph Cappella, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "We have a strong visual bias," agreed Judee Burgoon, professor of communication at the University of Arizona. If you're watching for lies, "it's not a bad idea to close your eyes. "
This is the report from the Arkansas Gazette, and following its logic, it may be argued that the blind, not being distracted by the visual image, get more out of a speech or an audio presentation than the sighted.
This proposition is reinforced by a scientific study being conducted by the National Institutes of Health. According to a report drafted in the winter of 1995, the visual cortex of a blind person's brain is activated by non-visual stimuli. Even though our hearing is no different from the hearing of the sighted, perhaps a larger segment of the brain of a blind person is used to process auditory information, which means that the processing is done with more efficiency, more speed, and more analytical power.
Or does all of this speculation miss the point? The need to gather information is as important for the sighted as it is for the blind, and as important for the blind as it is for the sighted. Human beings are inventive. They use alternative channels to get the same information. As long as the knowledge is obtained, it makes very little difference what mechanism is used to get it. Our experience demonstrates that the blind can compete on equal terms with the sighted, and those who describe us as lacking in perception because of our inability to see (or, for that matter, as having more of it because we don't) have a lot to learn. Perhaps they should go back to the drawing board and try again. As it is, they invite controversy without purpose.
Maybe the members of the press and the researchers at the National Institutes of Health can be excused for their lack of comprehension because they have very little experience with the blind. However, those who are in the field of work with the blind should have a more thorough understandingand, thankfully, many of them do. A book of helpful hints for the visually impaired, published in 1994 by Vivian Younger and Jill Sardegna, entitled A Guide to Independence for the Visually Impaired and Their Families, expresses the view that blindness is completely debilitating. It is, they suggest, possible (by using the material contained in their book, of course) to regain a measure of independence. However, blindness (they say) alters dramatically almost every aspect of life. For example in the chapter dealing with social interactions, the authors say this:
The more impaired your vision becomes, the less you may feel a part of the sighted world. Vision is a major source of information gathering, and without it you are cut off from a lot of clues you once unconsciously depended on. Where you were once able to see a friend's facial expression, you may now be able to see only his shadow. He may eventually become a disembodied voice. You also may [the publication continues] feel detached from your own body. You may wonder what your face is doing or what emotions it is expressing. You may even feel faceless.
I interrupt the narrative to ask: Can they really believe it? I have heard many bizarre experiences ascribed to the blind, but I have never before in my life known anybody to believe that blind people become detached from their own bodies and unconnected with their own faces. Have you ever really wondered what your face was doing? Yet there are those who will question why we object!
But there is more:
How [ask the authors] do you deal with these problems and start becoming reoriented to the world? Ask a friend over to watch televisionand you can serve canned juice and potato chips. Have your children take turns walking with you to the corner each evening until you feel safe and confident traveling alone.
You can call family members and say, "We're having a change of menu. I'm serving pizza and soda this weekand by the way, can you pick up the pizza on your way over?" Serve that double cheese and anchovy deluxe on paper plates and drink your soda from cans until you have mastered pouring.
This is the advice given in Chapter ten, and it speaks for itself. Although some newly blinded persons may temporarily have trouble in pouring, there is really nothing very intricate about it. The trouble with this book is not the detail of it but the emphasis and the overall perspective, the custodial tone and the looking down.
But these authors have not exhausted their recommendations to assist us in gaining full and independent lives. Earlier in the publication (in the chapter called "Getting Reacquainted with Your Home") there is a passage offering advice to the blind person about the bathroom. If I hadn't read this myself, I would have found it hard to believe. See how this strikes you. The authors say:
It is unavoidableyou will need to find your way around the bathroom almost immediately. Fortunately, because it is smalland because we often use it in the darkthe bathroom may be the easiest room in the house to get accustomed to with little or no vision.
Make your starting point [the authors say] the entrance to the bathroom.
I interrupt to ask where else would you make the starting point? But back to the text.
Although you can probably count the number of steps to the toilet, start by following along the wall using the sweep/step method. Notice the contrast of the bath mat to the floor, the towels to the wall, or the tub wall to the floor. If you are worried about slipping on the bath mat, you can tape it down or replace it with the nonskid type.
This is what the authors sayand again, the trouble is with the emphasis and the talking down. If a person is elderly and frail, then he or she (whether sighted or blind) may be concerned about slipping on the bath mat and may want to tape it down or replace it with the nonskid type. But age is not mentioned. It is blindness. And as all of us in this room know, blindness has absolutely nothing to do with slipping on a bath mat.
As to the foolishness about counting the steps from the bathroom door to the toilet, I won't dignify it with a comment. Persons who need to use that method won't know why they started or what to do when they arrive. As to trailing the wall with a sweep/step method: Forgive them, Lord. They know not what they say.
But we are not through with the bathroom. Consider how these authors deal with the bathtub. Here is what they say:
When you get to the bathtub or shower, take a few practice attempts getting in and out. If you have trouble getting into the tub, face the wall and brace yourself against it with your hands for support. Next, feel with your knee for the top of the tub. While holding onto the wall, step up, over, and into the bathtub. To get out of the tub, just follow these directions in reverse.
This is the advice from the guidebook for those who have become visually impaired. It was published in 1994. Is all conflict in the blindness field at an end? Don't you believe it! But before we leave the bathroom, here is one final hint from the authors.
The biggest problem you will probably ever have in the bathroom [they say] is finding the toilet paper. The dispenser is often located in the most inconvenient and illogical place. So take time when exploring this room to practice finding the toilet paper while sitting on the toilet.
I remind you that the authors are speaking about the exploration of the bathroom in your own home. How often have you lost the toilet paper dispenser? How much practice is required to find it? You may even have designed the layout.
With self-proclaimed experts like these offering advice to the blind, is it difficult to understand why we sometimes face attitudes which question our initiative, our judgment, our competence, and our very capacity to be full citizens and human beings? How should we respond? Even though all conflict has within it an element of loss, we cannot accept this erroneous description. It must and it will be challenged. We have created the vehicle to handle conflict, and you can put money in the bank on this: We intend to have progress!
The writings of the public press are often a reflection of popular thought. A report from the Denver Post on December 18, 1994, describes the reactions of a veteran reporter when visiting a program for young blind children. This emotionally charged feature entitled "Brightening the Lives of Blind Babies" says:
Their mysterious, dark world is full of danger and unimaginable challenges. They hear voices but cannot see faces. They hear music but cannot see the band play. They must learn to walk without ever having seen someone take a step. They must learn to grasp without ever having seen a hand. They must learn to read without ever having seen a word. They must learn to eat without ever having seen a spoon.
They are blind babies.
that's what it saysand it just gets you right here, doesn't it? Whether it's little kittenslittle hungry, sore-pawed kittensor whether it's a blind baby who has to learn to walk without ever having seen somebody else do it, the emotion just drips, and the tears come rolling after. As Mark Twain said in another context: Great legend; great lie. Pass on!
And, of course, it is a lie, but that is not the real trouble with it. I have no objection to letting people clean out their sinuses, their tear ducts, or their guilty consciences with a heavy dose of false beliefs and misplaced emotionbut I do have an objection to condoning such exercises when they damage lives and blight futures. And in this case that is exactly what is happening.
Of course, blind children learn to eat without having seen a spoon, and they continue eating that way for the rest of their livesalong with a knife and a fork into the bargain. Most of us here in this room have done it tonight, but we haven't mixed tears with our gravyand that goes for the sighted among us, too.
Have I been too hard on this reporter? Not at all. Listen to more of what he says.
Nothing in thirty years of journalismthree decades of seeing misery and sorrow and suffering on five of the Earth's continentshad prepared me for the emotional impact of this assignment.
When I first walked into the room, the sadness overwhelmed me. I stood there, a veteran journalist who isn't supposed to get choked upand I fought back tears.
So have I been too hard on him? You bet I haven't. As any blind person with an ounce of sense knows (and most sighted people, too, if it comes to that), this is a bunch of disgusting twaddle. Yes, it does make you want to cryand yes, for the blind children about whom he is writing. But not for the reasons he gives. The tears come for the damage this so-called "veteran journalist " is doingthe doors he is helping to close, the dreams he is" helping to kill, the futures he is helping to twist and destroy. But he is not finished:
A little blind girl was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a darkened room [he says], next to a bright white table of light, desperately trying to pick up the brightly colored plastic triangles, squares, and circles.
The operative word, of course, is "desperately." If she had just tried to do it by using her sense of touch, she might not have had any problem with it.
But back to the text.
Without a bright light [the reporter continues], the little girl couldn't see the shadowy shapesbut even with brilliant light, she can't see the colors. One of her playmates today is a little girl who was born without eyes and who will never detect a dim shadow or a vague shape.
There you have itthe cause of misery: two little girls playing togetherboth blind. Is that really tragic? But the author is not finished:
My first impression [he says]as is most visitors'is one of near hopelessness. Every tiny lesson is a monumental struggle for the child and for the parent. Learning how to pour milk into a glass can take years.
If it takes years, probably you can't learn to do it at all.
But back to the report.
By the end of my second visit [he says], I had begun to conquer that sense of awful hopelessness. I had seen the smiles, and heard the laughter, and witnessed the courage.
They exercise, they discover, they socialize. They talk, and they sing, and they laugh, and they touch--but all the time they are learning to cope with the unseen, scary world around them.
So says the reporter. The children have courage. The world is scary. This description reminds me of a conversation I once overheard between two sighted volunteers who were planning an outing for blind people who were members of a large church. One volunteer said to the other: "First we give them lunch. Then we walk them on the lawn."
Undoubtedly our veteran journalist would have felt right at home "walking them on the lawn." But we should not do this man an injustice. He has not written casually. He has thought it through and has a philosophy of blindness.
Since 90 percent of a person's learning is by sight [he says], these kids suffer the biggest learning handicap of alland many of them have other physical disabilities to add to their burden.
In the spirit of his philosophy, here is how he describes the techniques used by these blind children to identify objects:
To find his seat at the lunch table [the veteran journalist tells us], four-and-a-half-year-old Vincent feels along the row of chairs, touching an item on the back of each. When he finds the piece of macaroni, he knows that's where he sits.
Vincent has chosen macaroni as his sign, to mark his chair and his storage cubiclebecause he can't see his own name.
Does it occur to you to wonder what stimulated this tear- jerking piece of trash? Well, the answer is not hard to find. The article appeared a week before Christmas, and the program for the blind in question was being hyped to receive donations from the 1994 charity drive then being conducted by the Denver Post.
The final portion of the article is thoroughly appropriate in the context. Here is what it says:
To contribute, use the coupon on Page 8T in today's Denver Post.
Pleasedo it for the Macaroni Kid. So that's the Christmas present the Denver Post gave to the blind of the nation last year. If any of you leave your chairs and plan to return, I assume you will tie a lettuce leaf on the back or smear a little gravy for identification.
But enough of this foolishness! In reality it isn't funny. We are dealing with something that is as sinister and serious as the lives and destinies of us all. The fact that most people won't see it that way doesn't lessen the damage. It makes it worse. As to the Macaroni Kid, he won't thank the Denver Post as he grows up--or if he does, there will truly be cause for tears and pitytragedy indeed. His chance for a full life will be much enhanced if articles like the one I have just quoted cease to be written.
And here is where we come in, we of the National Federation of the Blind. If we are willing to let this article (and others like it) go unchallenged, all will be peace and goodwill. But if we challenge and debunk such articles (as surely we will and must), conflict and resentment will inevitably result. In the circumstances and with carefully considered and deliberate purpose, I say: Let it be so. Let the conflict come. In fact, if it does not come to hunt us, we will go and hunt it. We will do it for the blind of the nation; we will do it for ourselves; and, yes, we will do it for the Macaroni Kid. He deserves better than he got, and we will help him get it.
And it is not just the Macaroni Kid who gets hurt by articles like the one in the Denver Post. This spring, as I was preparing for the convention of the National Federation of the Blind, I received a call from a woman who was clearly in a state of agitation. She told me that she had been receiving our literature and that she didn't want it anymore. From the tone of her voice I could tell that she was extremely upset. I asked her what the trouble was, and she responded by telling me that she had asked in the past to be removed from the mailing list to receive our literature and our monthly magazine, the Braille Monitor, and that she could not have this literature coming to her home. She said that her children would see it. I said that our literature might be of help to her, and she said: "I realize that, but my children are not dumb. They will know."
With real reluctance and great sadness I removed her name from the mailing list. This woman is becoming blind. We had been sending her our literature because she clearly needs it. However, she thought that she could hide her blindness from the members of her own familyand she felt the need to do so. She won't accept our help because she is ashamed of becoming blind, and she is making a desperate effort to prevent others from learning that she is losing her sight. She wants to keep this from her children. She wants to protect them from the shame, and she wants to hide.
With such an attitude this woman is destined for failure. Such is the result of articles like the one in the Denver Post. Such is the predictable fate of the Macaroni Kid unless we can change it. Such is the tragedy of blindness. Such is the challenge for all of us.
As I have said, we in the Federation will avoid controversy when we can, but we will meet it when we must. We have the vehicle to handle conflict, and we know how to use it. We know that all conflict contains an element of loss but that without conflict there is stagnation. There is no progress. And one thing is certain--we intend to have progress.
As everybody knows, we live in a time of turmoil. The federal government is re-examining its role in programs for the blind, and the state governments are doing the same. So is the private sector, and so are we. A few years ago many of the groups of the disabled (including some of the blind) seemed to think that the Americans With Disabilities Act would solve all (or, at least, most) of our problemsbut we in the Federation never felt that wayand we don't feel that way now. Whether the restructuring of public buildings, the redesigning of the workplace, and the reconfiguration of the environment mandated by the ADA are a good or a bad thing is not pertinent to what I am saying tonight. What is pertinent is this: Ultimately government cannot make us free, cannot make us equal participants in society. Business cannot do it; the press cannot do it; the public at large cannot do it; and the agencies for the blind cannot do it. We will either do it for ourselves, or it will not be done. Others can help (and certainly they can hinder)but in the total scheme of things they cannot give us freedom, and they cannot keep us from having it. We have come too far for that. We are too strong, too determined, too well organized, too knowledgeable about our own needs and strengths, and too close to the final goal to allow it to happen.
I want to be clearly understood. We are not seeking unnecessary conflict, and we are not trying to belittle the importance of the help which agencies for the blind and the general public can give. Without goodwill and understanding on the part of the public, we can't make it. But the same is true of every other segment of society. I believe we will have public goodwill and understanding because we will work for it and earn it. I also think we need the assistance of the governmental and private agencies doing work with the blind, but we must establish the context and define the terms. The nature of the contact with the agencies and the extent of their influence must be limited, not total. We must have partnership, not custody.
There is still much to be done as we move from second-class status to first-class membership in society. Certain representatives of the press; some of the scientific community; the remaining misguided, self-proclaimed experts in the field of work with the blind; and even some of us who are blind hold outmoded notions that look to yesterday instead of tomorrow. But with all of our problems we are making more progress than we have ever made, and our future is bright with hope.
As to our relationship with agencies for the blind, conflict has diminished, and increasingly we are considering alliances and turning outward to broader confrontations. This does not mean that all conflict inside the blindness field is finished or that it will not recur. It simply means that we are making progress. We take pride in our heritage, both in the progress and in the conflict which was necessary to achieve it. What we have done has worked. Look about you tonight for the evidence. We the blind have come here in our thousands. We have come from every part of the nation. We have come with our hopes and dreams. We have come to reaffirm our unity and purpose as the strongest collective force for growth in matters dealing with the blind. We have come, not only to remember the past, but to plan for today and to build for the years and the decades ahead. We have come with the knowledge that we possess the capacity to meet the challenge. As we have repeatedly said, we want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. Our future is in our own hands, and it has never looked better. If we do not go the rest of the way to full membership in society, the fault will be oursnot somebody ELSE 's. We can ask no more; we will accept no less. And make no mistake! We intend to have progress! My brothers and my sisters, let us make it come true.