REFLECTING THE FLAME
by Marc Maurer
1991 National Convention Banquet Speech National Federation of the Blind
[PICTURE] Marc Maurer
"Human history," said H. G. Wells, "is in essence a history of ideas."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., declared that "men may come to believe that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."
In 1644 John Milton wrote, "Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"
At the beginning of the sixteenth century Erasmus stated, "Time reveals all things."
Such eminent scholars have believed that a new idea--one which expresses perceived reality more exactly than its predecessor--is, in and of itself, imbued with sufficient power to banish error. According to these philosophers, the innovative thought (once formulated) will inevitably, in the course of time, replace the old. However, the record of events in our own century fails to substantiate this hypothesis. We have seen the most generous and benevolent of creeds and the most despicable and tyrannical of practices exist in the same country at the same time without any indication that either was unalterably fated to triumph. The assertion of individual freedom and the toleration of slavery have occurred side by side in modern civilization--and racism (of both kinds, incidentally) is still with us.
If the objective in seeking the truth is to achieve fairness and decency--and I believe it is--time and a new idea are not enough. Within the framework of time there must be at least three components that come together. First, an idea must be conceived which contains an element of understanding that has not previously been reached. Second, a proponent of that idea must arise—a leader with the capacity to articulate the nuances in a way that will compel recognition. And finally, there must be a group of individuals prepared to defend what has been propounded. Such concert of effort is essential not only to protect the new thought but to give it body and substance, to explore its full meaning and implications.
In a fireplace one log by itself, regardless of how big, will almost certainly fail to burn. There must be at least two. The flame from one is reflected by the other. The brightness and heat come from the space between the logs, the reflection of the flame.
As it is with flame, so it is with ideas. A new idea has only a limited time to take fire, to catch the imagination of the public and burn. And if the flame is to be reflected--the kindling point sustained--more than a single person is required. There must be two, five, ten--at least a handful--to build the heat and speed the process. Regardless of its merit, if an idea (once ignited) fails to reflect the flame of group interaction, its time will soon pass, and it will disappear into insignificance and be forgotten. Of course, an idea can be revived (many times, in fact, if the need is sufficiently urgent), but the process must always begin anew. And if the idea is to live and prosper--if it is to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people--all of the elements must be present: the idea, a leader, and at least a handful to reflect the flame.
And what of the blind--what of us? Time and time again throughout our history one or another of the elements has been present: the idea of a better life for the blind; a leader, like Zisca, the blind fifteenth-century general and statesman from Bohemia; or a group of blind people, like the medieval guilds, prepared to take collective action. But in each instance, there was something lacking. However, in 1940, all of the elements came together—a new idea; a vibrant, inspiring leader; and a dedicated group of blind persons prepared to help each other in shaping the future. In that year Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a handful of others from seven states gathered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to inaugurate our movement, which has changed forever the expectations and aspirations of the blind.
When the National Federation of the Blind was founded, the prospects for the blind of this country were utterly desolate. There was little education, almost no hope of a job, and virtually no chance for meaningful participation in other activities of life. Books for the blind were few and very difficult to get. Communication among blind people (at least on a nationwide basis) was almost nonexistent. The guarantee (or, for that matter, the recognition) of meaningful civil rights for the blind was a matter for the distant future--if anybody thought about it at all. Sometimes there were dreams of a home, a family, and the duties and privileges of citizenship; but these dreams rarely came to fruition. From such unpromising beginnings almost no one (no one, that is, except the founders of the Federation) believed that a dynamic national movement could arise. But look about you! We are here in our thousands--we who embraced the new idea, hoped and fought for a brighter tomorrow, and stayed to become the most powerful force in the affairs of the blind in the nation—the National Federation of the Blind.
Tonight (over fifty years after our founding) as we gather from every corner of the country, our record of accomplishment spans the years for all to read. Indeed, not all of our problems have been solved--but many have. And those that remain appear more glaring and unrelieved because of the distance we have come from the beliefs and general climate of the 1940s. To confirm this fact, compare the conditions of our first decade with our situation today. How do the general public, the agencies for the blind, and the media view us--and, for that matter, how do we view ourselves? How have we fared in half a century?
Attitudes today are so much better and more realistic than they were during the first years of the Federation that we tend to react with outrage and resentment when we find instances of what would have been commonplace in our first decade--especially when the outmoded ideas come from supposedly enlightened quarters.
Consider, for instance, one treatment of the blind by the medical profession--generally regarded as among the most scientific of the disciplines. Although these statements were made only four years ago, they are reminiscent of the attitudes which predominated when the Federation came into being. In an article entitled "Identifying and Treating the Client with Sensory Loss" (which appeared in the Summer, 1987, issue of Physical & Occupational Therapy in Geriatrics) the argument is made that decreased visual function causes decreased cognitive function. In other words, if you can't get information from your eyes, your capacity to think diminishes. Perhaps it is obvious that if there is no stimulation whatever from any sensory organ, there will be no raw material to use in the thinking process. If this were all that was meant, no one could quarrel with it. However, the article demonstrates unmistakably that the claim being made is much broader. As you ponder this so-called scientific treatise, keep in mind that the grammatical construction and usage are those of the author--not mine. And also keep in mind that the author is talking about you and me. Here are quotations from the article:
Impaired vision can result in a person behaving as though they were demented. Low vision decreases an individual's social interaction due to the inability to perceive non-verbal cues such as smiles, frowns, gestures, and even recognition of faces. Snyder, Pyrek, and Smith found a direct inverse relationship between vision impairment and mental acuity.
I remind you that this is not a passage from an ancient, hoary work of mysticism. It is less than five years old. And I must say that this supposedly objective author packs a lot of prejudice (and a good deal of ignorance) into a very few words. In this one brief excerpt, she says that the blind may exhibit the behavior of the demented, that we are unable to interact socially, and that the less we can see the more we can't think. And in case there is any doubt about the attitude of the writer toward the blind, consider this recommendation from that portion of the text containing so-called "strategies to help." Remember that the person about whom this advice is being given is blind--not emotionally traumatized, not mentally unhinged, not psychologically deranged--just blind.
It is important [the author says] to avoid moving personal belongings and furniture without the consent of the visually impaired client, especially in the client's home.
A brief quotation, not dramatic--but examine the nuances. Do the medical professionals you know come to your residence to rearrange the furniture? Is it assumed that one of their responsibilities is to decide what pattern should be established in your home--presumably, of course, just for your own good? Or is this simply another variation of the ancient myth not only that we who are blind memorize the location and arrangement of all items in our homes but also that movement of anything will visit disorientation and danger upon the unfortunate automatons who live there?
Such fables and stereotypes (even when surrounded with the trappings of science) are still only fables and stereotypes. Their placement in the literature of the medical profession does not change their pseudoscientific nature. They are as ridiculous and as devastating to the future of the blind as any of the misbegotten, benighted theories of the Middle Ages--or the 1940s--or, for that matter, last week or yesterday. They are not a description of reality but a reiteration of ignorance. Blindness does not mean that we have lost our sanity, our ability to think, or our interpersonal skills. Let those who doubt our capacity come to this convention. We will interact socially with the best of them; we will continue to think for ourselves; and we will make the plans and take the actions to determine the shape of our own tomorrow. We have the ideas; we have the leadership; and we have the people. Nothing can prevent us from going the rest of the way to freedom, for we will not let it happen. We have reached the kindling point, and we absolutely intend to reflect the flame.
As members of the National Federation of the Blind know, an increasing number of our experiences with the scientific community are not negative but positive. In fact, many of us work as members of the scientific establishment. There are blind physicists, blind chemists, blind electrical engineers, and blind computer scientists. Then, too, there are the mathematicians.
The cover story of the May 13, 1989, edition of Science News describes the work of Bernard Morin at Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France. One specialty of mathematics is topology, the study of the relationship of shapes. A classic problem in topology is how to reverse the surface of a sphere (turn it inside out) without permitting it to crease. The solution to this (and other abstruse conundrums) has helped resolve problems in disciplines outside mathematics--such as molecular biology, particle physics, and cosmology. Although it has been theoretically possible to perform this sphere reversal (known as an eversion), nobody has been able, until recently, to describe the concept in three-dimensional terms. However, the problem has now been solved. And how do you suppose the solution was reached? Here are excerpts from the Science News article:
Morin [the article tells us] starts with a cuboctahedron, which looks like a cube with its corners lopped off, [and] transforms the cuboctahedron into a curiously shaped figure, which he calls the "central model," with only twelve faces. A sequence of six elementary moves carries the central model through the tricky stages of the eversion. A final flurry of moves produces an octahedron again, now turned inside out.
Quoting the scientist George K. Francis the article continues:
Bernard Morin is not distracted, like the rest of us, by pencil and paper and the business of drawing and looking at pictures. He is blind. With superb spatial imagination, he assembles complicated homotopies [transformations] of surfaces directly in space. He keeps track of temporal changes in the double curves and the surface patches spanning them. His instructions to the artist consist of a vivid description of the model in his mind.
This report in Science News illustrates the fundamental proposition that understanding is not a matter of visual acuity--but even in doing this, it shows the power of the outmoded stereotype. Morin, we are told, is not distracted like the rest of us by pencil and paper and the business of drawing and looking at pictures. He is blind--and so, presumably, in a rarefied inner world of his own, not troubled by the humdrum images of everyday life. Nonsense! If he is intelligent, he is intelligent. Blindness has nothing to do with it.
Most of us do not know and could not imagine why the topological problem of the French mathematician is important. But we can readily understand that the blind are as capable as others of addressing and solving complex questions. The factor limiting our progress is, as it has always been, the failure of society to believe in our ability. It is not the absence of the visual image that stifles growth, but the failure of imagination. Not all of us are scientists, but some of us are. Not all of us aspire to study mathematical relationships, but all of us insist that those with the talent and desire to participate in this exacting discipline should be able to do it. With such commitment we will expand our horizons and create greater opportunity. With such dedication we have built the National Federation of the Blind. With such determination we reflect the flame.
A recently published collection of character sketches by Amy Hempel entitled At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom contains a one-sentence description of an encounter with a blind man. Apparently without giving it a thought, the author reinforces the belief that the blind are incompetent, that we are very often lost, that we do not have the ability to perceive our surroundings, that it is customary and decent to give preference to the blind, that very often the primary interest of our lives is food, and that we are pathetic. It is all accomplished in a single sentence, done with fewer than twenty-five words. Here they are: "Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line, where he ordered a B.L.T."
Dramatic? No, of course not. In the story the incident is unemphasized, routine, taken for granted. A blind man walks into a bank, is automatically moved to the head of the line, and then is so disoriented that he orders a sandwich instead of money. If we aren't careful, the significance is so astonishing as to be lost in the shuffle of the everyday. The author finds this occurrence so commonplace that it is unemphasized, routine, taken for granted. That is precisely the point. More often than not our road to hell has been paved with things which have been unemphasized, routine, and taken for granted. But no more! We have the idea; we have the leaders; and we have the drive to work together, to support each other, and to advance our movement. We have reached the kindling point, and we intend to reflect the flame.
In the spring of 1990 Newsweek magazine reported in an article entitled "Making the Most of Sight" that, "After AIDS and cancer, the medical crisis Americans fear most is blindness. Not being able to see the stark outline of a winter tree," the article tells us, "or the final scene of 'Casablanca'--the loss is almost unimaginable." When I read this item from Newsweek, I was struck by the contrast contained in those first few lines. AIDS and cancer kill. Blindness does not. So what is the almost unimaginable loss? Is it really so bad to be without the visual impression of a tree in winter? Is it truly of vital importance to observe visually the final scene in a movie? Does blindness mean that we cannot enjoy art or appreciate the experience of nature? Many (far too many) of the sighted would say yes, but we who live with blindness every day emphatically say, no! After all, we are the ones with the data to know. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that there is (at least for this blind person) much joy to be gained from a brisk walk in a winter wood. Is the joy as much for me as for my sighted neighbors? One is tempted to ask, "Who cares?" The experience is exhilarating, fulfilling. That is sufficient. When our lives are diminished, it is not our blindness that does it but the misconceptions and oddball notions we face. It is not the failure to see the stark outline of a winter tree that gives us trouble but some of the stark attitudes we have to deal with.
Let me be clearly understood. I am not saying that sight is not useful. Nor am I arguing that it is wrong to try to improve one's ability to see--quite the contrary. However, I am saying that sight is not a requirement for a good life--not the beginning and the end of existence. We who are blind are not automatically prevented from having joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment; and those who believe otherwise are simply misinformed.
An advertisement published in the Guy-Gannett newspapers in Maine about a year ago says: "Illiteracy is a little bit like blindness. Both are handicaps. And both mean you can't see everything. A person who can't read can't really see the morning paper or a child's report card, a street sign or a prescription. Fortunately, illiteracy is a handicap one can overcome." Implied in this advertisement is the notion that both blindness and illiteracy make a person unable to function but that although both of them are bad, at least illiteracy can be changed. For the blind, apparently, there is not much hope.
What a distortion! To be blind is not to be ignorant, and we are not prepared to permit such a portrayal of ourselves. Federationists in Maine took the newspaper to task. Rank-and-file members communicated their indignation to the newspaper's management--and the combination worked. Within a few days a retraction appeared. The blind are capable, and we intend that the public shall recognize this fact. Newspapers, some of the most powerful shapers of public opinion, often reflect the misconceptions that are a part of the public image of blindness. But when it comes to blindness, they are not the authorities. They must learn from us. In half a century we have gained more knowledge and experience about blindness than anybody else, and we know how to apply the lessons we have learned. Regardless of the source, we simply will not accept ignorance about blindness without protest. We have a right to expect a public image that will not stifle our hopes or limit our opportunities, and we have formed the most powerful organization that the blind have ever known to get the job done. You know the name of that organization as well as I do—the National Federation of the Blind.
There are a number of university programs which attempt to instruct teachers of the blind. Some of the most obnoxious presentations about blindness may be gathered from the literature being disseminated in these academic settings. Consider a description of the blind contained in course materials currently being distributed at San Francisco State University. An article by Mary Morrison entitled "The Other 128 Hours a Week: Teaching Personal Management to Blind Young Adults" asserts that many blind adults do not know how to make a peanut butter sandwich, have not learned to pour cereal into a bowl, have not been taught to purchase items from the grocery store, are unable to handle money, cannot boil water on the stove, are unfamiliar with the location of the refrigerators in their own homes, and are so weak that they cannot lift a pitcher to pour water. Unless you study some of this material for yourself, you will have difficulty believing that the prejudice can be as pervasive and deep-seated as it really is. Perhaps the segment of this article which begins with the caption "can openers" will illustrate the point. Notice the folksy manner of speech used to help persuade the student that the statements being made are accurate. Here is what the author says:
Now, I believe, we are up to the can openers. Each can opener seems to have a special trick to operating it. And, nearly without exception, the blind young person is not even allowed to try to use it. In any event we turn to the manual can opener that mother finds in the back of some drawer, and then we run into the "strength" problem. Opening a can requires strength.
I can immediately think [the author continues] of five young people on our caseload who are not considered to be handicapped other than by their blindness, who cannot lift a full two-quart pitcher to pour from it. I first learned this when I naively asked a 21-year-old college student to pour a cup of coffee from a fresh pot on his stove. Not only did the heat terrify him, he actually could not lift the coffee pot off the stove! Why? He and the others never lift anything! They do not exercise. They do nothing but go to school (which exempts them from physical education), go to church, and watch television. Their arms are limp. So we have to go back to the beginning with pitcher, partly full, with cool water, and learn how to pour.
That is what the author says, and one is tempted to pass off such drivel with the remark that no serious-minded human being could be taken in by the idiocy. Of course, there are occasional blind people who cannot find the stove or tie their shoes. However, to generalize from these isolated cases that the blind are incapable of a wide array of the simplest daily chores is, to put it mildly, utter nonsense. But those who would dismiss these course materials have not reckoned with the pedestrian nature of certain professional educators who teach the teachers of the blind. Along with the article I have quoted are included separate evaluation sheets constructed so that the person teaching the blind client can record the progress of the student. One of the categories to be registered in these evaluations is--if you can believe it--pouring. The evaluation sheet for Level I contains the category "Pouring--Cold liquids." In Level III the student has progressed to "Pours hot liquids." In Level IV the entry is "Pours (advanced)." What, one wonders, is included in the arcane science of "advanced pouring"?
The insufferable arrogance inherent in these writings is epitomized in the explanation of the title, "The Other 128 Hours a Week: Teaching Personal Management to Blind Young Adults." The underlying premise of this outline of teaching techniques for instructors of the blind is that almost all of the schooling for blind recipients of rehabilitation has been directed toward the skills needed for sedentary employment and that it is the job of the rehabilitation counselors to teach them how to manage their leisure and personal activities. In each week there are seven 24-hour days. Forty hours are used for work. So what do the blind do with the other 128 hours a week? The bombastic conclusion is that without the ministrations of the so-called "professionals" of rehabilitation, we might be faced with the prospect of sitting around doing nothing. As the author says, we just mostly go to school, go to church, and watch television. Don't you believe it! Those who have been to this convention could tell her otherwise.
I have been reading documents from the "professional literature" about blindness for more than twenty years, and I cannot remember ever running across one which contained so little discernment. Where do such people get these ideas? Think about it. Do you have the strength to operate a can opener? Can you make a sandwich or pour a cup of coffee? They are writing about you and me. They tell us--and anybody else who will listen--that they have come to help. But we don't want such assistance--and we don't need it. Of course, like anybody else, we need education; and we also need training in the skills of blindness--but in matters such as those described, we can and we will do for ourselves. The description of the blind by this author as little more than basket cases is among the principal obstacles preventing us from becoming successful, competent people. But we are changing the image. We have reached the kindling point, and we intend to reflect the flame.
One Friday evening a few months ago, I reached into my mail basket and found a letter from a man from New Jersey. If his story were unique, it would be poignant enough--but it is not unique. It is an everyday occurrence in the lives of tens of thousands of the blind of this country, underlining with grim insistence the need (yes, the necessity) for the National Federation of the Blind. The details, reported in an article published in an Atlantic City newspaper, show once more why we have organized and what we must do. Here, as told by the reporter, is the saga of Bill, whose real name, for obvious reasons, I have not used:
What happens to a man who suddenly loses the tools he used to measure his worth in the world?
What happens to a man when he turns to those whose very job it is to help him, and he is ignored?
This is what happened to one man.
On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988, he woke up blind.
At once, he denied what was obvious.
He washed and dressed and picked up the morning paper--a habit as fixed as pulling on his pants. He couldn't read it. He put it down, said nothing, and left the house.
He drove to the office, slowly, deliberately, guessing at the traffic lights he could not see.
When he arrived at the office, he was alone. He sat down at his computer terminal, and there confronted the cold fact that he could not see the copy he was supposed to type.
Bill started to come undone.
He had no idea what would happen next. He had worked as a typesetter and computer operator all of his adult life. What could he do now?
Bill saw the publisher of the paper. When he explained to her what had happened, she offered him a handshake and two words: "Good luck."
The next day, Bill registered for state disability payments. He would receive less than half of his old salary.
He doesn't sit still well. Retirement was never part of his life's plan. Work was all. He needed to regain his workday world. He needed a start.
It was October when he called and spoke with a receptionist [at the New Jersey Commission for the Blind]. She said a representative of the commission would get in touch. Soon afterward a caseworker called to make an appointment.
He arrived full of assurances.
Bill told him what had happened. He spoke of his work as a computer operator and supplied the caseworker with his medical history. He also spoke of the long and lonely days he had been living through.
"I told him I was going nuts. He asked me what I liked to do, and I said, `read--but I can't even do that.' I told him, `I need to find a job.'
"He said, `You have been paying into the system all of your life, now it is time to reap the benefits.'"
The caseworker was sympathetic. He said he would provide a cassette player for Bill and arrange for him to receive books on tape from the library.
Bill was led to believe that the commission would help him return to work. He was told he would need a medical examination. He was told the commission would pay the doctor's bill and instructed to wait until the appropriate forms were assembled. The caseworker said he would call when everything was in place to make the appointment.
The commission appeared to be a godsend. Here, Bill thought, was more than a promise to help; here was the way back into the world.
During the weeks that followed that first meeting with the caseworker, Bill grew anxious. He made several calls to the commission's offices. None was returned.
November turned into December. Bill had been out of work for more than three months, a fact made all the more harsh when he realized that his [medical insurance] coverage had been cut off on September 1.
It was early in December when the caseworker called again with the go-ahead to schedule a medical exam. Bill was told to call back with the date arranged so the forms for payment could be forwarded to the doctor. He did, and on December 7, Bill saw his doctor. Bill left the doctor and stepped up to the receptionist's desk. He asked her about the forms. She said they had received no forms. He paid for his visit. A few days later, the caseworker called to arrange another meeting.
"He was here for maybe ten minutes. I told him I went to the doctor, but they didn't have any forms from the commission so I had to pay for the visit. I showed him the receipt and he said okay. I expected him to say that I would be reimbursed, but he didn't. He said the commission's doctor would review the results of my exam. I told him I never received the cassette player. He said he would check on that when he got back to the office and call me."
A few weeks later, Christmas arrived looking like just another day. No word from the caseworker.
In January, 1989, the state disability payments stopped and Bill became eligible for Social Security. His income dropped again. He made more phone calls to his caseworker. None was returned. The cold bound him to the house, and it was easy to ride out the day on the endless stream of daytime TV. One day turned into the next, each the same, as empty as the slate-gray winter sky. January eventually became February.
By March, 1989, Bill had been unemployed for more than six months. More than three months had passed since he had heard from his caseworker.
Phone calls to his caseworker at the commission's office in April were never returned.
[This is a tiny part of what the extensive newspaper article tells us about Bill's story. It goes on to say that a friendly newspaper reporter called the Department of Human Services on Bill's behalf to complain.]
The next day [the paper continues] Bill got a call from his caseworker.
When [the commission staff member] arrived at the house, there was no mention of his nearly five-month absence, not a word about all of the phone calls that were never returned. Instead, he announced that the commission had reviewed the medical exam performed in December, [remember that we are now in April] and was now prepared to address the problem.
In August, Bill was given a series of oral and written examinations by a psychologist at the commission's office. He was told the tests were part of the process that would return him to the workplace.
In September, he received the results of the exams. He was weak in mechanical skills, but sharp in computer-oriented skills. The psychologist noted that he was suffering a lack of self-worth. He was depressed.
In October, his caseworker brought him a typewriter. He should refresh his typing skills, he was told. The caseworker said he had also arranged for an instructor to come out to the house to help.
Bill thought it was an odd gesture. Had he been waiting a year for a typewriter?
"I was desperate. I'm sure I sounded like I was begging. I said to him, `Listen, in the beginning I told you I wanted to work to get out of the house, to have something to do. But now,' I said, `there isn't any money left. It's a necessity. I need work. Any kind of work.'"
Before the month was out, Bill met the typing instructor, a young woman, who is blind, who showed him how a blind person becomes acclimated to a keyboard. But Bill knows the keyboard. Bill thought the session pointless.
In November, his caseworker called him to the commission's office. [By this time Bill had been blind and out of work for well over a year.]
And that day, for the first time, there was talk of a job.
"The caseworker said, `I'm going to Atlantic City tomorrow to see about getting you an appointment at Bally's Grand.' I said, `great.' I was ecstatic. This was just before Thanksgiving. After the holiday, he called to say we had a tentative meeting on Friday. He would call back with a definite time."
The week faded into the next. The caseworker never called. Bill felt conned.
[This is the story of Bill as reported in the press. Do you know Bill? Do you recognize him? How many of us here in this room find ourselves painfully reflected in the details?
The article goes on to describe a series of telephone calls made by the reporter to state officials. Then it continues.]
It was now December, 1989. The client service representative, who is blind, and his driver arrived at midday. He sat down with his laptop computer in a chair near the Christmas tree in the living room. His driver sat in the kitchen. Bill spoke.
Why were his phone calls never returned? Why didn't his caseworker ever call to say what happened to the interview? Why didn't he get the cassette player? Why were his hospital bills still not paid? What was he supposed to say to the collection agencies that were now hounding him? Why, after a fifteen-month relationship with the commission, was he no better off than the first day he found himself out of work?
"I never asked you people for a handout," Bill said. "I asked for help. I need help. I'm fifty-eight years old and I'm not going to just sit around this house waiting to die."
The client service representative called Bill on December 20. It was a short one-sided conversation. "The deal with Bally's fell through," he said. "Your caseworker will be in touch with you soon."
Three weeks later, Bill received a letter from his caseworker dated January 16, 1990. It read in part: "This is to inform you that the paperwork is now being generated so the [medical] bills you incurred can be paid. I will be contacting you shortly to discuss your status with the commission and other related items."
In February, Bill received notice that a registered letter had arrived for him at the post office. It was from his caseworker. The first sentence of the letter, dated February 6, read: "On Wednesday, February 14, 1990, I will contact you via telephone between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon."
Bill was dumbfounded.
"Who sends a registered letter to a blind man. I had to get a neighbor to drive me down to the post office to get it. It cost two dollars to send it. For what? To tell me he would call me?"
On February 14, the caseworker called at 1:45 p.m. to say he would come out to see Bill on Wednesday the 21st. He would have forms to fill out.
On February 21, the caseworker called to say his secretary had not finished typing the forms. He said he would be out to see Bill the first thing the next day.
On February 22, the caseworker did not show. He did not call. Dumbfounded was no longer an adequate word to describe Bill's state of mind.
On February 27, when the caseworker did call, a new date was set for the appointment.
"In all of this time, they couldn't get me even an interview?" [Bill questioned,] "Not one interview? Is there nothing? Is this it? Look at me. I clean the house. I make lunch at noon. I start dinner at five. This can't be it.
"And yet, here I sit. I'm no better off today than I was the day I first called the commission."
That was eighteen months ago. I got Bill's letter last year just after the occurrence of the events I've been relating to you. I tried to call him, but I couldn't find a number listed in his name. I telephoned the reporter and eventually tracked down the information. I spoke with Bill and invited him to join the Federation. We talked about the work that blind people are doing all over America. I asked Bill to believe that there is more for those who are blind than the papershuffling and dreariness of some of the agencies for the blind. There is the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind--a spirit that springs from a joint effort to achieve fully productive lives, the commitment of mutual support, and the enthusiasm of the discovery that blindness need not mean helplessness or hopelessness. All of this is a part of the organized blind movement, our movement, the National Federation of the Blind.
How long does it take to extinguish the spark of initiative—to kill the spirit and crush the dream? For Bill it takes more than eighteen months. He has joined our movement, and he is once again employed as a computer operator. I suppose I need not tell you that he found the job without the help of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind.
Yet, there are those who tell us that we are harsh and unreasonable in criticizing some of the governmental and private agencies established to help the blind. Let them call us what they will and say what they please. We have the idea of freedom; we have theleaders; and we know how to work together and support each other. We have reached the kindling point--and we intend to reflect the flame.
There was a time when it was accepted that the blind would be on the fringe of society--a burden to be carried--unproductive, unwanted, shunned. There were occasional individuals who fought this common perception, but they were generally defeated by the force of so-called "common sense." But then there came together the essential elements for change. It cannot happen in a moment, but the process is thoroughly under way. Much that is written and thought about blindness is as fraught with misunderstanding as one could possibly imagine. The experts in gerontology tell us that visual acuity and intellectual capacity are linked. Newspaper editors declare that blindness, like illiteracy, indicates ignorance and incapacity. The weekly news magazines suggest that being blind is almost as bad as suffering from AIDS or cancer. The educators in the universities who are supposed to bring enlightenment to instructors of the blind disseminate the view that we have difficulty opening a can or pouring water. The agencies established to provide service to the blind direct us to wait patiently and reap the benefits of a welfare check.
Nevertheless, conditions for the blind in the 1990s are dramatically and enormously different from those that prevailed fifty years ago. Despite the litany of problems I have recited, our prospects are better than they have ever been. Our present is more fulfilling. Our future is more promising. Blind mathematicians astonish their colleagues with their innovative solutions to the most difficult problems. Despite the laziness and befuddlement of certain segments of the agency establishment, the tide is turning the other way. Increasingly the agencies are working with us, and the momentum is building. New fields are being entered, new employment and independence achieved. And of course, a growing number of agencies are managed by Federationists and operated with Federation philosophy--with dramatic results. Although the literature often contains references which belittle the capacity of the blind, there are also (and ever more frequently) the positive images--and we are not without our own capacity to write.
A powerful new spirit now moves in the blind of the nation—and also in growing numbers of the public. The vital elements for an alteration in the pattern of our experience have come together in an energetic and forceful mixture. We in this room tonight are the force which will propel our movement through the last decade of the twentieth century and into the one beyond. We are the components--the leaders from throughout the country, the rank-and-file members, the new inspiration. We will make the difference, for we must. Our record of achievement during more than half a century will be remembered with pride, but it is only the prelude. Each generation must do for itself and build on the past. We have learned that lesson well. We have learned it from each other and from our own experiences. In our yearning for freedom, others can go with us, but we must lead the way. We have not only reached but gone beyond the kindling point. We are the blind who reflect the flame. No organization on earth that deals with blindness has the strength, the determination, or the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind. My brothers and my sisters, come! Remember those who have shown the way, and those who will come after. We will believe in each other--and with joy in our hearts, we will go to meet the future!