The Braille MonitorMarch, 2001 Edition
by Barbara Walker
From the Editor: At the quadrennial meeting of the World Blind Union just completed in Melbourne, Australia, one of the speakers on Tuesday, November 21, was our own Barbara Walker, Chairman of the newly created Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Past President of the NFB of Nebraska. She was charged with talking about creating jobs--not an easy assignment when one's audience is drawn from countries around the world with widely differing problems and fundamental opportunities. Barbara rose to the challenge with her usual warmth, thoughtfulness, and insight. This is what she said:
The minister in my church recently told a story about a boy and his mother walking in their flower garden. The child, gazing at the splendor all around and leaning to drink in the fragrance of the flower nearest him, asked, "Mommy, how does God make flowers?"
Before she could decide what to answer, he exclaimed, tearing open a bud, "Oh, I know! God makes them from the inside out!"
The lad had discovered, not only the truth about flowers, but also the key to all creation and creativity--that it comes from within. So what does this mean for us as blind people trying to become employed? Why is it, for instance, that in my country, while unemployment figures for the general public are at an all-time low, the blind still face a 70 percent unemployment rate? I believe one reason is the way we view ourselves and our position in the world, both individually and collectively. An incident from the recent past in Nebraska is instructive.
On April 10 of this year Governor Mike Johanns signed into law a bill creating the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired to be controlled by a Board of Commissioners answerable directly to the Governor. All five Commissioners appointed to the Board are blind. I, the designee of the National Federation of the Blind, was elected Chairman at our first meeting in August. We also decided that day to focus on specific aspects of the agency at each of our next meetings in order to educate ourselves in preparation for setting policies. We chose to begin with the Orientation and Training Center in Lincoln, including a tour, to which we would invite Governor Johanns.
When word came that the Governor would be available for a tour and a few words of greeting on September 22, the Center was a-buzz with holiday-style excitement. The day before the scheduled event, however, the Executive Director received a call saying that the Governor would be unable to join us. When she called me with the news, we divided the list of media personnel we had invited, to let them know of the change and to encourage them to come anyway. As I completed my portion of the list, I felt troubled but passed it off as the result of disappointment. The next day, much to our surprise, the Governor's plans once again included the tour and greeting we had arranged. By then, as I discovered the full effect of our previous night's decision, I was reminded of how deeply ingrained attitudes can be. Office staff and Center students, who had intended to dress up, changed their minds when the Governor changed his plans. Precision timing and strict adherence to schedule had given way to a more relaxed approach.
Once the Governor was again part of the picture, behavior thought fitting for a dignitary was resumed. Everything went off splendidly, including coverage by one of the TV stations. But, when the time came for me to give the Chairman's report, I too switched gears. My intention to talk about discussions with officials about budgets, salaries, evaluations, and the like was upstaged at that point by the need to redirect our perspective. The gist of what I said is this:
Something happened in the past twenty-four hours which has caused me to refocus my report. Yesterday in the late afternoon we received word that Governor Johanns would be unable to come today. I regret what I, as leader of this Board, helped to spearhead. Some of us, myself included, felt obligated to let the media we had called know that, although we were still going to be having the Commission Board Meeting and tour, the Governor wasn't coming. I realize now that we should not have changed anything. We behaved as if we were putting on a show for Governor Johanns rather than fulfilling a vital function--to educate both the Commission Board and the Governor about a key element of the Commission's purpose. We internally became small, unimportant people doing a little, insignificant thing. In truth, we were offering Governor Johanns the opportunity to celebrate with us something that his signature sanctioned but which we, the blind, brought into being. It has belonged from inception to fruition to us. Each of us, regardless of where we live in the world, has a direct stake in the success of this venture.
There are those who have said that, since we can't make everyone understand what blindness is really all about, our task is hopeless. I'm reminded of the child walking along the beach and throwing starfish back into the water. Someone tells him he's wasting his time. He can't ever save all those starfish stranded on the sand. Undaunted, tossing another in, he replies, "But I made a difference to that one." And that's what we're doing here. We need to remember that we're important and that what we're doing matters.
As blind people we're told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we're neither valuable nor whole. I don't believe that and haven't for years. But old perspectives die hard: I allowed myself to succumb to the grip of unworthiness and insignificance again, and I took you with me. We mustn't allow ourselves to do that. If we're to take our place as equals in this world, we must see ourselves as important and deserving of respect. If we don't, no one else will either.
That's what I said, and I meant it. But how can we, in the face of discrimination and low expectations, convince ourselves and others of our respectability? Again we look to the boy with the bud and remember that it comes from within. And as we're changing our own outlook, like the child with the starfish, we can mentor others--one at a time. There are also trailblazers--not only those who are blind, but also those whose experiences in some ways parallel ours--from whom we can learn. In my country African-Americans are such a group.
When the previously mentioned bill was being debated in our Legislature, there were no blind people within the body to speak on our behalf. But there was one African-American legislator, Ernie Chambers, who was able, from personal experience, to articulate the perspective of the marginalized. When the Unicameral was considering placing a sunset clause on the bill--that is, limiting the scope of the Commission's life to a specified time frame, after which it would die, unless it met specific criteria--he said, in part: "When you have a group who've had to struggle for so many years to even get a bill in this position before us, to be told now, after all of that struggle, `Well, yes, we think that you ought to regulate a Commission that is going to look after your interests, but we don't trust you. So we're going to let you move forward, but we're going to keep you on a short leash.' I don't think that's appropriate. And I don't think, when an operation of this kind is just starting out, that they should be under the pressure of feeling that they're going to have to satisfy a group of politicians in order to maintain themselves in existence. . . .
"Mr. President, members of the Legislature, I cannot thunder like the old prophet who said it, but he said, `Oh, that my head were water and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for my people.' Were I blind, that's what I would be saying. . . . `Hit me again, and I'll get up. I know I'm flat on my belly. I know society sees me as something strange. I cannot see them avert their eyes, but I sense their uncomfortableness . . . when I come around. So, in order to get you to give me a chance to not creep and crawl on all fours when I also have two feet like you, . . . I'll tell you what. I am so desirous of getting out of this creeping position, so desirous of standing on my feet like a human being--I will let you put an additional stone on me to give me that chance.
"So put a sunset on it. It's insulting; it's demeaning; but we've always been left on the outside. If the only way we have a chance to approach the door and have a possibility of entering it, hit me again, hit me again, harder, harder, but don't take away the chance.' . . .
"We ought to give these people a chance. And it should not always be, `We're giving you a chance, but'; `You're as good as I am, except'; `I think you're worthy of this, however.' Every condition that we impose, every qualification that we add, if we were to examine them, we see that each one diminishes the personhood and value of these individuals as human beings. . . . It's not too much to let the blind lead the sighted when we're dealing with the issues that relate to the blind."
I'm glad to say that, due in part to Senator Chambers's compelling insight, our Commission bill passed with no sunset clause. I hope the structure we have put into place will allow us more freedom and a chance to raise our employment rate in Nebraska. But it isn't altogether the structure or even the existence of an agency that will make the difference. The difference will come, as the bud-holding boy discovered, from within, and, as the starfish-saving boy realized, one at a time. As it happens, I found myself in the position of looking for work this year. Because of the death of my husband eleven years ago, I am a single parent. Our two children are now teen-agers. Since I want to be home as much as possible when the one still in high school is there, I wanted a job with flexible hours. In the course of my search I found it advisable to request a piece of technology with a Braille display. And I ran into the very thing Senator Chambers talked about when defending our bill. "We think you're worthy of it, however. . . ." The question put to me was something like, "Doesn't your computer with speech output work pretty well for you?"
My initial reaction was a mixture of anger at once again being expected to settle for getting by rather than being encouraged to excel and embarrassment at possibly being considered ungrateful for what I had. I was once again about to be left behind.
Had I not had the bud of creative belief within me, the organized blind finding me on the sand and tossing me back into the water, and Senator Chambers speaking to the reality of minorities in our world, I would not have had either the opportunity or the perspective to respond as I did.
Even with all of that going for me, it took me a long time to reply. When I did, I said that I thought speech would probably work equally well for blind and sighted people alike. Their suggesting that I settle for speech access only when Braille was available felt the way my expecting them to use speech rather than the print on a monitor screen might feel to them. Braille was my reading and writing medium of choice, just as print was theirs, and I thought that fact should be considered.
I got the machine with the Braille display and am using it now. I believe the reason is expressed well in the poem "The Winds of Fate," by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life;
'Tis the set of the soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
But how do we as blind people learn to set our souls and set sail--that is, how do we gain confidence enough to seek to be productive? I believe that one way is to encourage one another, not just with words, but with actions. One blind person who brought this approach to life was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was, among other things, Past President of the North America-Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union. I feel privileged to have both personally known and directly learned from him.
I remember standing in rapt attention by his desk at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore listening to the prototype of the original NEWSLINEŽ for the Blind, a digital- voice newspaper-delivery system that he pioneered. In the moment of silence that followed, I wondered what he was thinking. Then he, who had often made disparaging remarks in my presence about how unintelligible synthetic speech was to him, said that he thought we could improve upon the quality and clarity of the voice adding that, in any case, it would be worth getting used to it in order to read the papers and to make them available to blind people everywhere.
He was, as always, changing what it meant to be blind from the inside out and asking--no, insisting--that we the blind need not settle for getting the news second-hand and on someone else's time any longer. His enthusiasm was contagious; and soon the first real NEWSLINE was born, with USA Today as its initial publication.
As the service spread from Baltimore to other cities and states and as the number of national and local papers increased, I longed for it to come to Nebraska. But when I was tempted to complain about the wheels of progress constantly bogging down, I recalled a question Dr. Jernigan asked me the first time I met him, when I was complaining about how ineffective blind people in Nebraska seemed to be in comparison with those in Iowa, where he was at that time both President of the National Federation of the Blind and Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. The question he asked me was this: "And what are you doing about it?"
Recognizing that I had just downgraded my fellow blind people who, instead of complaining, were doing what they could to improve their lot and mine, I vowed not to make that mistake again. I have, instead, chosen to follow his lead--spreading the word that we the blind, with the proper training and opportunity, can do the average job in the average place of business as well as our sighted peers, and doing my best to dispel myths and misconceptions about blindness which, if we let them, can hold us hostage.
His words and his presence awakened something in me that gave me courage to try harder to find ways to participate more fully in life. But along with that came the realization that, if I were to be honest with others and myself, I must be willing to question behavior either in them or in me which would stifle growth. This, for me, is the hardest part of accepting equality and high expectations. I don't like making waves.
But, if we are to create for ourselves a climate of hope and genuine progress, we must be willing not only to believe that it is respectable to be blind but also to live our lives in such a way that others will come to believe it too. We need to internalize the understanding that, as someone once said, "Life is not the candle or the wick; it is the burning." And once we have received that spark of insight, we must pass it on to others so that, as our individual earthly candles are used up, those we have touched will carry on and create an ever-widening circle of confident and competent blind people.
Does this approach work? I believe it does. And so does the Governor of Nebraska. He put it this way at our meeting in September: "I think one of the roles of Nebraska state government--probably government in general--is to make sure that we create the climate for individuals to achieve their maximum potential. . . . I must admit, when I looked at the . . . Commission bill, one of the things I wanted to figure out [was], would it help? . . . It's always a question of priorities. But I decided that the Commission was a priority. Now having said that, I will applaud you for being willing not only to educate me about the need for that, but to educate State Senators. These things do not happen accidentally. They happen because people get engaged in the process and make the case that it's important. . . . My hope is that [this] will create a . . . new . . . relationship between the blind community and the State of Nebraska, [and] a new generation of people who are achieving their maximum potential. Because, after all, that is what this is all about."
It is indeed--and not just in Nebraska, but throughout the world. If we use well the creativity that is within us and work with each other to make a positive difference, one person at a time, we can sail toward a productive future with our souls set, come what may, on the goals of security, equality, and opportunity for blind people. Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, has often reminded us that no one else can do this for us. We must do it for ourselves. And we will. For we are no longer the passive recipients of yesterday's charity. We are the active architects of tomorrow's promise.