by Norman Gardner
From the Editor: Reaching a mature and healthy acceptance of our blindness bears some resemblance to peeling an onion. We strip away one layer of misunderstanding, anger, or frustration with ourselves or others only to find that there is yet another shell to be stripped off. Each time we discover and shed a bit of this unhealthiness, we become stronger and better able to cope with injustice and discrimination and more effective as advocates for other blind people.
Norm Gardner is an experienced Federation leader. He has served on the NFB Board of Directors. He has been a state president and has served for years on affiliate boards and national committees. In short, he is a seasoned Federationist. In the following story he relates an experience that taught him how much he still has to learn in achieving personal independence as a blind person. His insights can help us all to understand ourselves better and encourage us to explore our own hearts and minds in search of greater degrees of freedom. This is what he says:
In his speech entitled, "The Nature of Independence," Dr. Kenneth Jernigan explains that, when a blind person goes from a state of dependence to true independence, he often passes through a stage of what he terms "rebellious independence." The following experience taught me in a rather poignant way that I have been stuck in rebellious independence for many years, much to the detriment and anguish of those around me. All the while I thought I had made great strides toward true independence.
I will never forget what a life-changing experience it was at the age of thirty-one to meet the NFB. I had just moved to Boise, Idaho, to take my first teaching job at Boise State University. Within a few weeks I met Jan Omvig (later Jan Gawith), Ray and Mary Ellen Halverson, and Frank Smith, who introduced me to the National Federation of the Blind and the liberating truth about blindness. I will always be grateful to them for sharing the gift of the Federation with me. Unfortunately, as the following experience will show, I made it only part way to true independence. I got stuck in rebellious independence.
Recently a person from my church came to my home and asked me if I would be willing to speak in an upcoming meeting on blindness and what it is like to be handicapped. I told him that some of what I would say might not be what was expected. I told him I had experienced outright discrimination many times in my life. Much of this discrimination came from people who were well intentioned but who acted on the basis of false ideas about blindness.
I told him about graduating from high school with good grades and being awarded a scholarship and being invited to enter the honors program at the university I wanted to attend. Within a week of my arrival at the university two things happened which I have come to resent very much. First the scholarship was taken away from me, and second I was called into the director's office and told that I would not be allowed to take any honors classes after all. He explained that he was thinking only of my greatest good. He said that he did not want to put undue pressure on me while I was at college. He made reference to the many books that had to be read in college and in essence told me that I could not do it.
I also related several other experiences in which I have felt humiliated and frustrated because of the way I was treated as a blind person. I told him about the blatant discrimination I experienced when I applied for employment at Mountain States Telephone Company. The year was 1970. The interviews I had seemed very promising, but they refused to hire me. The reason they gave was simple: their personnel manual stated that no blind person could be hired at that company. I was left feeling helpless and hopeless.
I also told my friend from church how I had felt when a man tried to drag me across the street when he saw me standing on the corner. He thought something terrible would happen if he did not help me cross the street. Actually I had been waiting for a bus on that corner. I felt angry and abused when he grabbed my arm and tried to pull me across the street.
After I told him these and similar experiences, my friend from church said that he was even more certain that he wanted me to talk in that meeting. He said that this was exactly what he wanted people to hear.
Over the next two days something very strange happened. I became unusually irritable and critical of my wife and my two daughters still living at home. It got worse and worse. On the evening of the second day I went grocery shopping with my wife Maggie. For some crazy reason I just kept picking at her. I complained about what she was putting into the grocery cart; I criticized the route she was taking through the store; and I complained about how long it was taking to do the shopping. I knew I was behaving like a jerk, but something just kept compelling me to lash out at someone. My behavior was altogether despicable.
On the way home from the store the guilt I had been feeling got the better of me, and I asked if we might just pull into a side street or parking lot and sit and talk for a while in the car. We did.
I told Maggie I recognized what a jerk I had been and that I could not understand why I was behaving that way. It was then that she helped me see the problem. She pointed out that I had begun to behave that way soon after our friend from church had left our home. She suggested that perhaps my behavior was linked to my bringing up so many unpleasant experiences from the past. She suggested this might have caused me to feel all the old resentment and repressed anger associated with those experiences. Perhaps now I was allowing that anger to affect my behavior. It was like a bolt of lightning. That was exactly it!
I still feel ashamed at the way I reacted on that occasion and the way I have reacted on other occasions when I have allowed those feelings of pain and frustration to control my actions. I realize now that I have been stuck in rebellious independence. I have resolved to do everything necessary to get out of that rut and move on to true independence. I was delighted with Dr. Jernigan's banquet address at our 1997 National Convention entitled, "The Day After Civil Rights." It helped me to know that he had also experienced a little of that rebellious independence. That speech gave me hope that I might be able someday to achieve true independence and deal appropriately with the misunderstandings and outright discriminations of society. I am still struggling to get out of rebellious independence. Perhaps others have also been stuck where I have been without realizing it.
In another speech Dr. Jernigan said that, in order to be truly independent and successful, a blind person needs three things. First he must come to believe deep down in his soul that he can compete on terms of equality with his sighted peers. Second he must learn the skills of blindness. And third he must come to understand the negative attitudes about blindness held by members of the public. When people demonstrate their negative and false notions about blindness, the blind person cannot allow it to upset him unduly or to affect the way he views himself.
It was this third point that I had not fully understood. I had come to understand and recognize the false and misleading ideas held by the public. I had come to recognize that those false ideas about blindness resulted in the unreasonable and discriminatory treatment we have suffered at the hands of the public. The part I had missed was that, in order to be successful, we must come to the point where we do not allow that mistreatment or discrimination to affect our behavior negatively or to undermine our self-esteem or self-concept. I now understand that my worth as a human being does not depend on the way I am treated as a blind person. True independence has more to do with our attitudes about the public's misconceptions than it does about the existence of those misconceptions. We can be truly independent while still subject to the misunderstandings, mistreatment, and discriminations of an unenlightened public.
Our struggle for first-class citizenship is not over yet. We will still encounter discrimination and misunderstanding. We will, however, be more effective in educating the public concerning the truth about blindness if we do not get angry when we are misunderstood or mistreated because of our blindness. We must not get stuck in rebellious independence.