Future Reflections Convention Report 2010
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by Rick Fox
Introduction by Carol Castellano: Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to tell our personal stories. I appreciate Rick Fox's willingness to speak to us on this topic today. He brings a word of caution and a very meaningful message.
I grew up over forty years ago, well before many of you were born. I wonder if this speech is even necessary. Have kids evolved to the point where they won't take the path of least resistance if they can get away with it? Have we done our work in the Federation so well that pity toward blind people has disappeared, and low expectations about our capabilities have faded from the public mind? I'm afraid not. Perhaps my words will help some of you counteract experiences similar to mine in the lives of your blind children and help them avoid the painful consequences I had to survive.
As a child I was blessed with a loving, encouraging family whose expectations for me were no different from those for my sighted siblings. My father went to law school with a blind man who later became a judge in New York, so he knew a positive blind role model. We all have memories of pithy sayings by those who raised us. My father's saying for me was, "You must learn to do things yourself because there will come a time when your parents won't be around to do them for you."
My Braille instruction in my neighborhood public school began early and occurred often. I was in the top reading group from March of my first-grade year onward. I don't remember ever being without a Braille book when I really needed it. My cane travel instruction also began early. My training sessions were rigorous and my mobility instructors told me many times that I would be able to go wherever I wanted.
Nevertheless, consistent forces and influences in my early years conveyed messages of shame, incompetence, and inferiority due to my blindness. These messages were strong enough and consistent enough to impair the growth of my character, hamper my acquisition of vital skills, and blow a gaping hole in my self-confidence as I reached adulthood.
All of us remember the nervous and hopeful excitement with which we approached the first day of school each September. Would we be in class with our friends? Would the teachers be nice? strict? fair? I secretly asked myself an additional question by seventh grade: How much would my teachers let me get away with on account of my blindness? Here are some reasons why.
In fourth grade a teacher pulled me and another kid apart when some playful wrestling during recess turned into a serious fight. The other kid caught hell. I was sent gently back to my class. My fear of catching it from my parents for getting into trouble in school overpowered my disgust at this pitying and unjust outcome.
In fifth grade six of us were slated to get zeroes for the day in PE because we had forgotten our gym clothes. I slipped into the teacher's office at the end of the period and asked him not to tell my older brother what had happened. My brother would doubtless spread the news at home. I guess the combination of my quivering chin and my blindness was too much for the teacher. My zero was erased while the others were allowed to stand.
From sixth grade on, a minority of my teachers silently conspired with me to give me grades I did not deserve. They knew it and I knew it, though we never spoke about it. My sixth-grade teacher tested me orally at times while the rest of my classmates took written quizzes in their seats. I usually did pretty well, but if not, the teacher all but told me the answers with hints and tone of voice. During the first week of school in eighth grade, my math teacher asked me how I proposed to take his test, which he handed to me in print. "No problem," I said. "I'll do it with a reader at home." [Laughter.] The system worked fine until I was out sick for a couple of days and missed a key concept. Too embarrassed to ask for extra help, I found a buddy, an A student, who agreed to fill out all subsequent math tests for me. My math teacher had to be aware that something like that was going on. Though I failed all properly proctored tests such as finals and midterms, and though I couldn't participate effectively in class, I ended up with a C at the close of each marking period. My math buddy stayed with me until the end of my pathetic math career and was always there to lend a helping hand. All of my math teachers were similarly cooperative.
By the time I approached high school graduation, I had been taught two diametrically opposed philosophies of blindness and two contradictory ways to think about myself. Those two philosophies would compete for supremacy inside me for years. The positive philosophy said I would go on to college, where I would get ready for a job, a family, a home, and all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. When my parents and most teachers expected high standards of achievement and behavior from me and held me accountable for falling short of those standards, they were telling me they had faith in my ability to function effectively as an adult and live a full and happy life. When I succeeded, my self-confidence got a boost. Their faith in me helped me sustain a belief in myself.
The negative philosophy said that blindness would prevent me from reaching my potential in all areas of life. When some teachers gave me grades I did not earn, when they did not hold me accountable for bad behavior, they were telling me loud and clear that my blindness prevented me from meeting their usual standards. They were saying that I wouldn't be able to cut it in the real world as an adult. Whenever that lesson was taught, it eroded my self-confidence, to say nothing of the skills I was supposed to be learning. It took a big chunk out of my faith in myself.
In college my self-doubts often overwhelmed my self-confidence and sense of adventure, resulting in a paralyzing depression. What makes you think you can succeed here or anywhere else? the negative voice would sneer. Whenever the going got tough, somebody was always there to give you the right answer, to erase your zero, to do your test for you. You're a fake, a phony, a fraud! Your idea that you can compete effectively as a blind person is a sham, so don't even try.
The road to recovery from depression is often circuitous. The NFB was prominent in mine. Who would be more qualified to help me sort out my feelings about blindness than other blind people with similar experiences and a tested, successful philosophy? When my self-confidence was at its lowest and I was about to give up, the NFB's insistent message of optimism, high spirits, high standards, and love of one another helped me hold on and keep going. I finally learned that forgiveness of myself and others is the best way to be free from the shackles of the past in order to live in the present and concentrate my energies and hopes on the future.
I worked for IBM for twenty years as a sales representative, as a technical support person, and as a programmer. For the past twelve years I have been part of an access technology company. For four years I was president of the Connecticut affiliate of the NFB, a high point for me and a great test of my positive philosophy of blindness.My parents never knew about those actions of mine back in school. It never would have occurred to them that some teachers would behave as they did. Please guard your children's futures by knowing what kind of work they're doing and how they're doing it. Are their teachers holding them to the same standards as the rest of the class? This is no different from your responsibilities toward your sighted children. The temptation to take advantage of the low expectations of others is great, and the opportunities are all too plentiful. Thank you for listening, and my best wishes for the success and happiness of your precious children.
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