Future Reflections          Convention Report 2007

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Expanding the Limits: The Uncertainty of Exploration


An Address Delivered by
Marc Maurer
at the Banquet of the Annual Convention
of the National Federation of the Blind
Atlanta, Georgia
July 5, 2007

Proceeding to a specific location is a journey; progressing to an unidentified destination is adventure. In other words, if you know where you’re going, it’s travel; if you don’t, it’s exploration.

Marc Maurer delivers the 2007 banquet address.Traveling often requires determination, energy, fortitude, and resourcefulness; but exploration also demands intuition, faith, a tolerance for uncertainty, the willingness to embrace change, and the recognition that the object being sought cannot always be defined with precision and will sometimes lead to unpredictable consequences.

When the exploration is pursued with passion and faith, the process not only produces knowledge but also stimulates the development of the explorers as well. Is exploration a matter of discovery, or is it the process of creation? T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

To accept without criticism the revealed knowledge enunciated by our predecessors is to be frozen in a pattern of the past, although the capacity to build upon discoveries made in former times is one of the elements essential for creating civilization. However, to reject judiciously those thoughts that do not accord with our observations is to express an independent capacity for imagination and judgment and to assert a faith in ourselves. Exploratory endeavors are vital to the development of the pattern of human knowledge, which is a prelude to the attainment of freedom. To explore is to accept tacitly that a body of knowledge remains to be created or discovered.

As Richard Cecil, an Anglican clergyman, said, “The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant.” Therefore the first step in achieving freedom is to admit a measure of ignorance, to seek intuition, to exhibit courage, and to have faith. The second step is to act within our faith.

One of the more frustrating elements of daily life for the blind is that those we meet very often think they know everything there is to know about blindness. Much of the presumption of knowledge is, of course, incorrect. To break through the wall of preconceived notions about the blind requires persistence, ingenuity, and skill. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus put it almost two thousand years ago, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

Added to this frustration is the irritant of theoretically educated arrogance. Sometimes the putative experts in the field of blindness who have received an educational credential or been appointed to positions of prominence believe that they now have the right to tell us, who live with blindness every day, that they know what’s good for us. When we challenge the assumptions of these so-called experts, they seem astonished. They tell us that they have only been thinking of our welfare. When we respond to them that our welfare is our business, not theirs, they seem to believe that we have usurped their authority, belittled their professionalism, and rejected their superior intellectual comprehension of our condition—all with a healthy dose of ingratitude added to our insolence. They never seem to comprehend that they should be listening to us rather than demanding that we listen to them. Yes, I do have somebody in mind—somebody who receives a government check and works in Washington, D. C., but we will return to the Department of Education a little later. In the meantime it is well to remember two ancient sayings attributed to the Chinese, “Rotten wood cannot be carved,” and “An ignorant man is never defeated in an argument.”

Throughout most of history, before the time of the establishment of the National Federation of the Blind, others have told those of us who are blind what we should think, how we should act, how we should feel, and what we should know. But we have accepted the challenge of exploration, we know our minds, and we will follow them. We do not always know precisely what the outcome will be of the explorations we undertake, but we know for certain that we will explore. We are the blind. We will control the development of the pattern of knowledge about us, and our sighted colleagues will welcome us for the joyous people we are. We will seek to increase our knowledge and to expand our own capabilities, and we will share what we learn. We have the faith to trust in our own future; we have the courage to strive for what we aspire to know. We will speak for ourselves with the clarity that comes from experience. Hear us, and believe!

When Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a few others gathered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1940 to form our Federation, the principles of our movement were adopted as one of the elements of our founding. We the blind have a right to speak on our own behalf, to create our own destinies, to participate fully in our society on terms of equality with others, to gain an education, to work in the professions and common callings, to establish families, to raise children, to engage in political action, to invent new products, to originate innovative conceptions of thought, and to join in all forms of endeavor available to the citizens of our nation. These principles remain as valid today as they were when first adopted more than six decades ago. However, some of our expectations of our own capabilities have changed.

During an early period of the Federation, some of our leaders believed that blind people could learn as much as the sighted, but that the learning would take longer for the blind than it would for sighted students. Today we would not make such a broad generalization. Some kinds of study do require more time for the blind than may be needed for the sighted. However, many do not. Sometimes blind people are more efficient in the methods used for learning than the sighted are.

In the early days of the Federation, according to Mrs. Hazel tenBroek, the wife of our founding president, many blind people were convinced that they could not adequately raise children. The number of children born to blind parents in those days was smaller than it has come to be today, she said. Also in the early days of the Federation, blind people often traveled by following one another in long trains or lines, each person holding to the shoulder of the person ahead, with a sighted escort in the lead. Although this sometimes still occurs, it is much less common today than it was fifty years ago. A very substantial portion of the blind population expects to learn to travel independently.

In my own case I often travel alone throughout the United States. When I fly to an unfamiliar airport, I walk off the plane and wonder where my connecting gate might be. I expect to travel independently. When I meet the agent outside the jetway door, I ask for directions to the next gate. The agent says, “Wait over here. I’ll get somebody to help you.” Sometimes the agent won’t even tell me the gate number for my connecting flight. When I respond by saying that I want directions, the agent repeats the previous instruction. Once in a while I actually get directions, but not often. After I have been through the question-and-answer exercise two or three times, I abandon the effort to extract information. Usually only two routes are available in departing from an airline gate. I start out in one of them. Very often the gate agent says, “You’re going the wrong way.” I think to myself, “Good, now I know which way to go.”

What I find particularly annoying in these exchanges is that airline personnel assume an attitude of superiority—they believe that they are responsible for me and that I am not. If I move from the place where I have been deposited without their permission, they resent it. They have a procedure, and they want me to follow it, whether it serves my interests or not and whether I like it or not. Because I expect to be responsible for my own behavior and because I object to anybody’s interfering with my freedom of movement, I find myself in conflict with officious airline personnel who think that I should ask permission from them to do virtually anything except breathe. I don’t want the airlines to care for me. I want them to fly the planes and see that my luggage gets there when I do. If I need help, I’ll ask for it, and I’ll expect airline officials to give me full and courteous answers to the questions that I ask.

Of course not all blind people have either the training or the bullheadedness I possess. Many blind travelers will need assistance, which should be freely given. Sometimes I ask for it myself, and, in the early days of my traveling, I assumed that I needed it. Whether a blind person asks for help or not is a matter to be decided by the blind person. Asking for an escort is one of the decisions to be made by a blind person traveling from place to place. That some blind people now decide not to make this choice is an indication that our expectations for ourselves have changed.

I remember the incident that started the transformation—at least for me. A number of us were having a discussion about air travel with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the second great president of the National Federation of the Blind. Most of us had been students in the orientation program Dr. Jernigan was then directing in Iowa. We were talking about how blind people get through airports. Some of us maintained the opinion (I was part of this group) that blind people needed escorts; others believed that moving through airports could be approached in much the same way as traveling through city streets—taking cane or dog in hand, the blind traveler seeks out landmarks, asks for directions from individuals along the way, and puts one foot in front of the other. We devised an experiment. During our next excursion through an airport, some of us asked to be escorted by airline personnel, and some of us stepped out on our own. The non-escort group arrived at the departure gate ahead of those who had sought assistance from the airline. This surprised me. I wondered, how did you manage to get this done faster than I did when I had assistance and you did not? One incident does not create a pattern, but it does offer food for thought.

Although our expectations have expanded through the decades, our objectives are clear and unaltered; we expect equality for the blind with all that this implies. Exactly how much more potential exists within blind people depends on our ambition and our imagination. Some would regard this as a frightening thought, but we do not. We do not avoid a challenge; challenge is requisite to progress. The power to decide belongs to us, and we glory in the possibilities we intend to bring into being.

Are blind people as smart as sighted people? A goodly number of articles have been written about a goodly number of studies which purport to shed light on this question. In the July 2004 issue of the Review of Optometry, published by Jobson Publishing, LLC, an article appeared entitled, “Does Cataract Surgery Restore Intelligence?” It says:

The intelligence level of the average adult decreases with age. The same is true of visual function, which also decreases as we get older. A review of published literature shows vision impairment corresponds with cognitive deterioration and aging. So German researchers set out to see whether a link between the two existed. Specifically, does restricted vision at least partially explain age-related reduction of intelligence?

The article continues:

The researchers conducted a controlled, longitudinal study among five groups of senior citizens who have cataracts. The participants were divided into two categories, those who would undergo cataract surgery and those who would not. Intelligence testing prior to surgical intervention showed that cataract patients achieved lower than “normal” levels of mental efficiency when compared with the average population.

But a few weeks after IOL [intraocular lens] implantation, these patients showed statistically significant increases in tested intelligence levels, while the control group showed no change. The researchers concluded that surgical removal of cataracts may have a considerable effect on the patient’s (sic) I.Q.”

There you have it. A scientific study has examined the facts. The restoration of vision increases intelligence. The deterioration of vision does the opposite. In the process of becoming blind, human beings also increase in stupidity. Have you noticed your intellect decreasing? But of course, if it is decreasing, you wouldn’t notice.

What a ridiculous bunch of nonsense! How could such a study have been performed? I do not know what testing methodology was employed to reach the astonishing conclusion that those who lose their vision also lose their brains. However, the testers in this so-called scientific study have a great deal to learn, and we intend to do the teaching. Our long-term longitudinal study, based upon the experiences of tens of thousands of blind people, demonstrates conclusively that blindness does not equal lack of intelligence. We say to these so-called scientists, “Meet us on the field of debate. Match your intelligence against ours. Let us devise the study to determine the intellectual prowess of the participants, and we have no doubt of the outcome. Your conclusions are false. However, we have a suggestion for you. When you try again, perhaps you should seek insight about testing blind people from those who have the knowledge to teach you—perhaps you should talk to the blind. If you do, you may get closer to the truth.”

A report dated July 19, 2006, from the Nation, a newspaper published in Bangkok, Thailand, gives an account of an incident involving a blind passenger seeking to fly from Thailand to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The passenger involved was a blind person who was refused transportation because he was unaccompanied. Airline officials said that, because they were operating a low-cost service, they did not have personnel to care for the blind passenger. Monthian Buntan, president of the Thailand Association of the Blind, protested the action of the air carrier, declaring that the refusal to accept this passenger was discriminatory. Despite the arguments, the blind passenger was forced to take a different airline.

This report of discriminatory treatment of a blind air traveler (even though it happened less than a year ago) may seem remote. The incident occurred in Thailand, half a world away. The concept of civil rights for the blind has been discussed and pursued in the United States for well over half a century, but in many other nations it is less well known. Monthian Buntan is a very strong advocate for the rights of blind people and is himself blind. However, although he and the other members of the Thailand Association of the Blind have staged public protests to protect the rights of blind people, self-organization of the blind in his country is comparatively recent. Furthermore, a report from so far away might suggest that the blind person in question had little training in the specialized skills and techniques used by the blind or perhaps only limited experience with travel.

The matter is put into perspective when we contemplate the individual who was denied access to air travel. His name is Fred Schroeder. Perhaps a better-trained blind traveler can be found in the world, but Dr. Schroeder possesses a master’s degree in teaching the skills of travel to the blind as well as a doctorate in educational administration. He has directed the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and has served as the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the federal agency responsible for all rehabilitation in the United States. He has traveled independently all over the world. Fred Schroeder was rejected by an air carrier for only one reason—pure, unadulterated, despicable discrimination based on blindness. It happened in a foreign country, where the writ of American jurisprudence does not run. However, it happened in our world, and it must stop.

Most of the time we in the National Federation of the Blind pursue legislation to protect the rights of the blind in our own country. However, within the past few years we have been participating in the drafting of an International Convention at the United Nations to protect the rights of blind people in all countries. Ironically enough, the person designated to serve as our representative in these negotiations is Dr. Fredric Schroeder. Discrimination does not stop at our borders, and we are seeking partners throughout the world to ensure that legal protection does not either. The voice of the blind will be heard throughout the world, and we will be doing the speaking.

At one time the American Foundation for the Blind, a private agency based in New York, proclaimed that it served as the clearinghouse for information about blindness to the professionals and to the government. Publications produced by the American Foundation for the Blind sought to set the tone and establish the agenda for programming throughout the United States and in some cases throughout the world. However, the Foundation did not work in partnership with the organized blind. As a result, the American Foundation for the Blind became known for distributing such sterling volumes as A Step-by-Step Guide to Personal Management for Blind Persons, a document which included such items as step-by-step directions for taking a sponge bath or brushing teeth.

After an excoriating review of this step-by-step guide by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, then president of the National Federation of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind has become more careful in its writings. Although it still does not cooperate very much with the organized blind movement, the American Foundation for the Blind has sometimes joined with us in conducting research projects or developing joint statements of principle, and sometimes personnel within the Foundation have been very warm in their admiration for some of the work of the National Federation of the Blind. Nevertheless, its president, Mr. Carl Augusto, who appeared on the program at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind a couple of years ago, refused to answer questions put to him by members and leaders of the organized blind movement. This refusal to respond has meant that our capacity to work with the American Foundation for the Blind is diminished.

One of the purposes of the National Federation of the Blind is to serve as a watchdog over agencies for the blind. With the Federation’s willingness to review and criticize documents published about blindness and programs established to serve the blind, the arrogance and conceit that were once common in programming for the blind have diminished. However, the dehumanizing phrase and the belittling assumption can still be found.

The Jewish Guild for the Blind, a private agency located in New York City that has occasionally considered working in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, distributes a sixteen-page booklet entitled “The Sighted Guide Technique: An instructional guide for sighted people when assisting a person who is blind or visually impaired.” The text contained in this booklet demonstrates that any partnership considered with the organized blind movement has never developed to any substantial degree.

The service mark used by the Jewish Guild for the Blind to produce this book is “SightCare.” Though it may have been unintended, the opinion of the Jewish Guild for the Blind is readily discernible from this service mark. Blind people need care, and sight is required to provide it. Although blind people may not be completely helpless, they do not have the capacity for independence of action that the sighted take for granted. This is the implication of the text in the booklet, and SightCare is a most appropriate epithet to be used to express the tone and purpose of the publication.

Keep in mind that the blind, the intended beneficiaries of this booklet of helpful suggestions, are not addressed directly at all. The helpful suggestions in this booklet are directed toward the sighted caregivers who will interpret this advice for the benefit of the blind.

Contained in this brief little book are instructions about how sighted people should make contact with a blind person, offer an arm to help lead a blind person, take the proper body position in assisting a blind person, take the proper steps to seat a blind person, help a blind person get through doorways and other narrow spaces, assist a blind person in proceeding up or down stairs, help a blind person get into and ride inside automobiles, and be of help to a blind person traveling indoors. One of the noteworthy observations that can be made in contemplating this list of activities is what has been omitted. The sighted person is not expected to help the blind client find a job, locate the nearest casino, or identify a suitably interesting person of the opposite sex. In other words, the potential possibilities offered by the Jewish Guild to blind people are limited and dull. Consider the item concerning assistance to the blind in using a chair. This is what the book says. Listen to these instructions from the experts; you may need them so that you can help a sighted person learn to help you to sit down.

Guide the visually impaired person until her knees touch the front of the chair. Describe the chair, and place the person’s free hand on the chair’s arms or the seat. Alert the person if the chair is positioned against a wall, so she will not hit her head as she sits down.

The person will feel the arms or seat of the chair, turn around and sit. Stabilize the chair with your free hand so it will not slide backward when the person sits. In all cases maintain contact with the visually impaired person until she is seated.

I interrupt to ask, can you imagine what dire consequences might occur if contact with the visually impaired person were broken? The blind person might bump into the chair without the guidance of the SightCare-giver, perish the thought, or, she might be so delighted at being away from her keeper that she would hightail it out of the room, seeking more congenial companionship. The SightCare-giver would be left all alone with nobody to boss. Psychological injury might occur. The heightened imaginary feeling of superiority might crumble away, leaving the SightCare-giver with no purpose.

As you reflect on the passage of instruction about being seated in a chair, imagine what might actually be helpful. In unfamiliar surroundings it is nice to know if an empty chair is nearby. However, for somebody else to assume that we have to be maneuvered into it until our legs are touching the seat and that we need somebody else to steady the thing while our posteriors approach the appointed place is to assume a measure of superiority and condescension which cannot be borne. But there is more. The Jewish Guild wants sighted people to know how to help us get into an automobile. The directives in this complex maneuver may not be as difficult as certain yoga postures or as complicated as some acrobatic moves, but getting into a car, according to the Jewish Guild, is not the simple process you might have thought. This is what the Guild says:

Open the automobile door. Stand behind the visually impaired person and place one of her hands on top of the door to show which way it opens, and the other hand on the roof to provide a sense of the height of the vehicle.

The visually impaired person will turn toward you so that her back is toward the door opening. She will then sit down on the car seat and bring her legs into the car. Hold one of your hands along the roofline to protect her from bumping her head, and offer your other arm to assist the person as she sits.

Pull the seat belt out of the retractor and hand it to the person. Ask if she would like assistance in finding and securing the buckle. Always confirm that the seat belt is properly secured. Alert the person when you are going to close the door. Check that she is safely inside the vehicle, then shut and lock the door.

These are statements from the guide distributed by the Jewish Guild. I ask you, is it always necessary to lock the blind person inside the car? Do the SightCare workers have child locks on their doors to prevent the blind person from escaping before the sighted person decides it is time to get out? Maybe the names of these locks should be changed—maybe they should now be known as “blind locks.” Without these locks maybe the blind person would get away. Is it permitted to let the SightCare-giver ask the blind person if she wants to be locked inside, or is the locking procedure mandatory?

They are talking about you and me. I have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles (sometimes with a sighted guide and sometimes without one); I have guided thousands of blind people and been guided by many. I have ridden in hundreds of automobiles (some of them my own, but most belonging to other people). I cannot imagine why anybody would believe that such advice is necessary.

We are not willing to be victims of somebody else’s condescension; we are not willing to be patronized by those who believe that they should take charge of our lives; we are not willing for this attitude to be imposed upon any of us. Is there any wonder that the organized blind sometimes feel a sense of betrayal when seeking to interact with agencies for the blind?

If this book had been drafted by a high school student for a term paper, perhaps it would be forgivable, although most high school students with any sense would know better. However, the people at the Jewish Guild for the Blind purport to be experts. They say that they know what they’re doing. Consequently, all of the damage, all of the hurt, all of the sorrow, all of the failed hope, and all of the missed opportunity created by the degrading and demeaning language of this book is chargeable to them.

However, their tactics will not work. The imbecility of what they have done will backfire on them. We the blind will insist that our talent be recognized, and we will bring reform to the thought processes of those who live in a bygone era. We want service providers who will work with us as partners, but we are not willing to sell our souls in the process. No agency can run our lives, for we will not let them. We will decide what our future will be, and there is no force on earth that can prevent it. Hear us, and believe!

The Rehabilitation Services Administration, the federal agency in the Department of Education charged with managing federal appropriations for rehabilitation, has a budget of just under three billion dollars, a substantial portion of which is designated for rehabilitation services for blind clients. Because this agency has statutory responsibility for providing rehabilitation to the blind and because properly conducted rehabilitation can have such dramatic results and because the track record of the National Federation of the Blind in devising successful rehabilitation programs for the blind is the most productive in the United States if not in the world, it might be anticipated that officials of this agency and senior policy makers within the Department of Education would want to work with us to give greater emphasis to this vital service. We begin with the assumption that those responsible for rehabilitation want blind people to receive a good education, want blind people to become successfully employed, want blind people to know the excitement of hope, and want their programs to be effective. However, the assumption of competence within the Rehabilitation Services Administration and the Department of Education may be unwarranted.

In October of 2005, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions conducted a hearing on the Randolph-Sheppard program, which is located within the Rehabilitation Services Administration to assist blind vendors in obtaining vending opportunities on federal property. A report circulated about the program prior to the hearing contained massive misstatements of fact. For some time officials operating sheltered workshops for the severely handicapped have been trying to take lucrative contracts away from blind vendors and to diminish the priority for the blind contained within the Randolph-Sheppard Act. This priority protects the right of blind vendors to operate vending facilities on federal property. Assistant Secretary of Education John Hager was invited to participate in the Senate hearing. He declined to appear; he declined to suggest that anybody else appear; and he took no steps to seek to protect the priority for blind vendors contained within the law even though the Department of Education has the responsibility for supervising this program.

The 2007 fiscal year budget for the Rehabilitation Services Administration is approximately 2.8 billion dollars. The law requires that a cost-of-living increase be included in the budget each year. Senior officials of the Department of Education have proposed that the budget for rehabilitation in 2008 not include this cost-of-living increase despite the statutory provisions requiring it.

In negotiations with the Department of Defense and the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, the Department of Education agreed to set a standard for granting food service contracts to blind vendors in military installations which is so restrictive that it jeopardizes the opportunity for the blind to participate in vending operations in these federal locations despite the legal priority contained within the Randolph-Sheppard Act. The Department of Education officials failed to consult with groups affected by these negotiations before reaching an agreement, and comments from department personnel strongly suggest that those conducting the negotiations did not consult with experts within the department itself and did not understand the agreement they made. When asked directly, department officials declined to reveal which people negotiated the agreement.

The Rehabilitation Services Administration has had regional offices throughout the United States for more than half a century. Officials in the Department of Education said they were unnecessary and closed them. In the process of closing these offices, Education Department officials cut the staff of RSA by approximately 40 percent. This is how they showed support for the rehabilitation programs in the United States. They said it would be cheaper to operate the program without these offices and without this staff. It might be pointed out that the cheapest program possible would be no program at all. Of course, the cost in terms of human potential and in terms of dollars wasted in support of those who might be working would be enormous. Properly conducted, rehabilitation always pays for itself. As we in the National Federation of the Blind have often said, those who work do not receive support from public funds and do pay taxes. Despite all of the evidence showing that well-run rehabilitation more than pays its way, Department of Education officials have cut the staff, closed the offices, and proposed to cut the budget.

Officials at the policy-making level of the Department of Education have not come to this convention. Although it would be tempting to criticize these officials for failing to interact with the largest organization of blind people in the nation, this failure to appear is more than simply an indication of lack of judgment—it is an admission that these public officials don’t know what they’re doing and that they don’t have the ability or guts to talk about why they’re not doing it. They admitted as much in October of 2005 when they failed to come to the Senate hearing about programs for the blind. They admitted it when they cut the staff and closed the offices. They admitted it when they accepted a proposal that would diminish the right of blind people to work in vending facilities on military bases. They don’t even know how to talk to us. Are they evil or incompetent? As Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founding president of the National Federation of the Blind, put it, “Is well-intentioned folly better or worse than knavery?”

If officials in the Department of Education will not hear us, others will have to be told, and we will set forth the facts. We are not prepared to have government officials diminish our lives because they lack the capacity to comprehend the future that can and must be ours. We would like to support the programs of rehabilitation within the Department of Education because the potential exists within them for such substantial contribution to the independence of the blind, but the hand of partnership has been refused. Consequently, we must take the argument into another arena. We will carry our message to the public; we will march in the streets; we will fight with our bare hands if we must to ensure that the rights we have fought so hard to secure are not misinterpreted, ignored, or reversed. We know our minds, and we will follow them. Hear us, and believe!

When I think of the work we do in the National Federation of the Blind and when I think about our interaction with programs intended to support blind people, I reflect that what we are doing has an impact upon the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals—each life distinctive, made up of the hopes, fears, and aspirations that flow from the heart. Not long ago I received a letter which said, “My name is __, and I am thirteen years old. I would like to be a mechanic when I grow up, and I would like to take mechanic courses when I get to high school (I’m in seventh grade now). I like to work with small engines and tools. I have a problem, though; my mom and my Braille teacher don’t think a blind person can be a mechanic. Do you have any ideas on how I could convince them that I am serious and that blind people can be mechanics? My grandmother says that I have lots of time to decide what I want to be and that I may change my mind a lot before I’m grown. But I would really like to take mechanic courses in high school. Also, could you give me any tips on how to organize my tools and such? Thank you.”

This is the dream expressed in a letter of a blind boy who, in a few short years, hopes to have an occupation and hopes to earn a living with it. Will the rehabilitation system know that his ambition can be achieved? Will the Department of Education know?

Of course, on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, I responded with encouragement. Dozens of blind people have been mechanics—some of them with extraordinary skill. With the new technologies used in automobiles, the tools are more complex than they were in the past, and many of them are built with electronic visual displays. Nevertheless, with imagination and faith we can help this blind boy to reach his dreams. We can, that is, if we are willing to share our imagination and experience with him; if we are willing to join him in bringing understanding to others; if we are willing to have as much faith in his intellect, fortitude, and drive as we have in our own.

Such dreams do not come into being by happenstance; they must be nurtured and cherished and supported. We must be prepared to fight for them. If the rehabilitation counselors or the teachers or the personnel in the automobile repair shops want to know if a blind person can be a mechanic, the answer is an unequivocal, resounding “yes!” We will do what we can to help this blind boy, and we feel certain that he will succeed.

The nature of exploration is seeking to comprehend the unknown, which presupposes risk. The quality or extent of the risk cannot be evaluated until it has been confronted. Sometimes we will demand of ourselves more than we currently know how to deliver, and sometimes the risk we face will be more than we know how to manage—this is the nature of exploration.

Sometimes the assumptions we make about the capacity we have will be mistaken. However, we will learn from our errors as well as from our successes, and we will incorporate our knowledge into the next set of explorations. Blunders always hurt—even if only a little. But those who fail to make them are sufficiently insulated from the rough and tumble of adventure that they never discover the ways of altering the pattern of understanding. Consequently, we must maintain a healthy respect for risk when we explore, but regardless of how we do it, we must explore.

Furthermore, we must avoid the errors that we urge others not to make. We must not believe that we know all of the answers to the questions that are raised—we must be open to new ideas—we must be ready to examine new methods of thought. We must be able to change our behavior when our minds tell us that what we have previously believed is better understood in a new way. We must not become obnoxious know-it-alls unwilling to engage in discussion and reflection. And above all we must have faith in ourselves and in each other.

Some will be daunted or dismayed by the prospects for our future. They will observe that the technology does not exist today to give us equal access to information; that the officials of governmental programs established to serve the blind do not comprehend the laws that have been adopted to create opportunity for us and do not believe in our abilities to be successful; that the administrators of agencies for the blind sometimes belittle us and tell the members of the public that we have almost no capacity for independence; that the scientists think that our mental capacity diminishes with our loss of sight; and that airline officials tell us we cannot fly unaccompanied on airplanes because we are unable to care for ourselves. However, our experience has shown us that we can attain an education, work in most jobs, fight to secure passage of legislation to protect us, expand the range of information available to us, create programs to serve our needs, devise technology of use to us, and speak with dignity and assurance to an ever-widening audience about the ability we possess. Those who explore take the risks, set the boundaries, determine the program of tomorrow—and we are the explorers.

We do not know what the possibilities are for us, for we have not explored all of the elements that constitute the pattern of what we are and what we will become. However, we know more about the pattern than anybody else, and we have decided to explore it all, to reach as far as anybody can, to dream as much as anybody will, and to build in a way that will bring into being possibilities for us beyond anything that has ever previously been imagined. What are the limits, and where will we stop? Nobody can say. Perhaps the limits expand along with our knowledge, our imagination, and our courage.

What we have decided to do is change forever the prospects for the blind of this generation and those that come after us. The hundreds of thousands of blind people who have planned and labored and believed in our potential in the generations preceding us stand with us at this banquet tonight. We want nothing less than the full integration of the blind into society on the basis of equality with the sighted and the complete recognition of the talent we have. And we will never stop until the recognition has come and the equality is ours.

Our goals will demand the best that we have in imagination and resources and judgment and effort. But whatever the costs, we will pay them; whatever the requirements, we will meet them; whatever the challenges, we will reach beyond them. The future belongs to us, and it will respond. We are the National Federation of the Blind, exploring tomorrow with unquenchable fire. Join me, and we will make it all come true!

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