One frequent topic of discussion in the National Federation of the Blind is why we joined, when we joined, and those things that pushed us towards and away from the organization. Very often we find ourselves trying to tell one unified story but, like most things in life, the reason for making significant decisions in our lives often is a culmination of events and maybe even an epiphany or two along the way.
If I really think hard about it, I believe there are at least three reasons why I joined and became an active member of the Federation, and let me emphasize that there is a tremendous difference between joining and being active, though one is necessary before the other. First and foremost I believe that I joined the National Federation of the Blind because I was loved into it. I met with a member or two of the Federation, not knowing that they were affiliated with any kind of organization of the blind. In fact I don't think I knew that there were organizations of the blind, only organizations for the blind. It never occurred to me that there was any particular reason why blind people should unite for common action. The concept of an organization of the blind was not just something I was unaware of or neutral about; I actually thought the idea was stupid, a reflection of the admonition I got from my elementary resource room teacher that too closely associating with blind people would lead to isolation from those who could see, and the goal, after all, was to make our way in sighted society.
The only information I wanted from the blind people who turned out to be associated with the Federation was what it was like to own and use a guide dog. At age fifteen I thought that all dogs that did guiding for the blind were Seeing Eye dogs, and although the blind people I met with set me straight on the fact that the Seeing Eye was the name of the school, both had their dogs from the Seeing Eye, so it seemed to make little difference to me.
After getting all the information I could about how to work, groom, and feed a guide dog, I was ready to get off the phone until more questions popped into my mind, but my new friends were not so anxious to leave the line. They seemed to like it when I told them stories about me, and, to my great gratification, they remembered those stories and would ask follow-up questions in subsequent conversations. In turn I slowly gave up my selfish pursuit of information just for me, and I found that these people had a lot worth knowing about them. One man ran an office supply business — imagine that, a blind guy in his own business. Another man was in law school, a career I had been steered away from because doing legal work took a lot of research, the material to be researched was in print, and blind people could not see or independently read print.
At some point I realized that not only did I like the people with whom I was talking, but I admired them. Because they showed me love and attention, it felt good and right to do the same thing. Eventually I started to take seriously the issues that seemed to mean so much to them: discrimination in employment, unequal opportunity in education, discrimination in housing and transportation, abuse by government agencies whose job it was to serve the blind, the need for advocates when blind people went for financial assistance through Social Security or the Missouri blind pension. At first I was convinced that I would never need help in any of these areas, but I was certainly willing to help them. Later I learned that any blind person out in the world would face these issues, and I came to take seriously the work of the National Federation of the Blind, not just to make my friends happy with me but to make the world a better place for blind people who deserved justice, mercy, and an equal chance. In the bargain I got myself not a new family but a companion family, and I thank God for these people every day.
So as important as the philosophy, policy, and the programs that spring from them are in my Federation life, at least one of the three reasons I am a Federationist is that I was loved into it, and how can anyone do better than love?
Gary is the former president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri and shared this story as part of our #WhyImAFederationist campaign. This story originally appeared on the NFB of MO Facebook page.