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The Braille Monitor–March, 2001 Edition

 

Asking for Help and Taking Responsibility

 by Noel Nightingale

Noel Nightingale
Noel Nightingale

From the Editor: Maybe one can do a truly good deed with pity as the motivating impulse, but my experience is that usually the recipient pays out of all proportion for the kindness rendered. How can we who are frequently faced with the temptation of accepting undeserved or unnecessary benefits because others feel sorry for us keep our integrity and demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are competent? These are the issues that Noel Nightingale wrestles with in the following article. Noel is President of the NFB of Washington and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. This is what she says:

 

My husband Jim and I have a friend whom I will call Gemini. He is from the Republic of Congo, Africa (formerly Zaire). He came to this country on a student visa. However, after he had attended college for a year, his country was taken over by a group of rebels. His father was a highly placed diplomat in the former government and had to flee the country for his life. No longer receiving financial assistance from his family in Africa, Gemini had no money to pay for school. He dropped out but stayed in the country anyway. Since he was no longer a student, his visa was not valid. He became an illegal alien.

Gemini is a Christian and began staying rent-free in the homes of people in his congregation. He would stay in one place for a few months; then another Christian would take him in. Various church members have been working with him to help him find ways to earn money and to straighten out his immigration status. They also work with him to integrate him into social circles and meet people his own age.

Jim met Gemini when Gemini was about twenty years old and two years after he had dropped out of college. Gemini is a charming person with a sympathetic problem. He does not want to return to his country, which is in turmoil, because he believes that he would be drafted or, more likely, killed (because of his father's association with the ousted government). He has lost contact with his parents and siblings in Africa. Although he recently began communicating with a sister who lives in France, she does not have the resources to help him.

Jim and I agreed to take Gemini in for two months. We set a strict time frame for his stay and spoke with him about getting his immigration status legalized by applying for political asylum. We found an attorney willing to work with him pro bono and encouraged him to make a plan for his life. But at the end of two months Gemini had not made any progress in resolving his immigration status. Although he would always nod his head in agreement, he did not follow through on any of our suggestions for steps he might take. He did not work the entire time he lived with us, and he also did not help around our home. He never offered to wash the dishes, take the garbage out, vacuum the floor, scoop the cats' litter box, or any other tasks he watched us do every day.

Two years later (and four years after he had dropped out of school), Gemini has not resolved his immigration status. In fact, he has waited so long to address it that he has probably lost any chance of obtaining political asylum. We occasionally see him. He always accepts our offers to take him out to lunch or dinner. He earns some money by tutoring children in French but lives rent-free in a church member's home. The church member is in her eighties, and her daughter is so fed up with his free-loading that she called Jim to get him to eject Gemini from her mother's home (which Jim did not and could not do).

"Accept all the help that is offered." That was the advice I frequently received as the key to surviving the first few demanding months after I gave birth to my daughter last year. That is also the precept that Gemini unconsciously lives by. It is also the advice blind people repeatedly receive. However, unlike parents of a newborn, whose helplessness is relative and temporary, blind people receive such advice throughout their lives. I have noticed a pattern: if taken regularly, accepting this advice, and thus always accepting the offered or available help, will have adverse (if unintended) consequences.

The advice to accept all help offered is not advice ordinarily given in our society. Our culture teaches us that we must be independent and not rely on others. We no longer come together to build our neighbors' barns. Our neighbors build their own barns or pay to have it done. Contrary to our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture, I can think of numerous situations in my daily life in which I am encouraged by others to let them do things for me because I am blind--things I am capable of doing myself.

Every day I am invited to let someone help me cross the street and urged to let someone direct me to my destination. I am encouraged to let someone else open the wine bottle and told to let others pour the wine. I have been asked to accept handouts solely because I am blind. The expectation that I need more help than my sighted peers is pervasive, and it affects me. Sometimes, out of laziness, I accept that help, knowing perfectly well that I don't really need it. Then I feel terrible. I feel marginalized and begin to doubt whether I really could have done it.

Although at times it may not seem like it, many specialized systems are in place in our society to help us. These include health and welfare, education, rehabilitation, independent-living, tax-relief programs, Social Security and other income supports, specialized transportation, various subsidies, reasonable accommodations at work and in public places, and many more. Much of the time these systems hand us things without teaching us or enabling us to do for ourselves in the future.

Many who become beneficiaries of those systems become experts in squeezing everything they can out of the systems. When I managed injured workers' claims for the state Department of Labor and Industries, we had a saying that people who were off work for a long period of time frequently changed professions from worker to claimant. Although they do not start out that way, they eventually become professionals at claiming things: claiming time-loss compensation benefits for being off work from their injury, vocational rehabilitation benefits for not being able to resume their former line of work due to their injuries, permanent partial disability benefits for not being able to recover fully from their injuries, pension benefits for not being able to perform any kind of work as a consequence of their injuries, and so on. They spend part of each day sitting on the sofa, picking up the telephone, and calling the claims managers to demand things.

This is a phenomenon not peculiar to blind people, but because we have so many programs designed to help us and so many good people want to help us, it clearly does happen to us. Something about these systems encourages many of us to wring every little bit of benefit or entitlement out of them.

To avoid becoming a claimant, we must determine when we need to ask for help from systems or people and when we should take responsibility for our own lives. The general rule of thumb, I think, is first to be honest with yourself about whether you really need the help or whether you could do it yourself. If the answer is that you do need the help, determine how you could obtain that help in a way that will allow you to do for yourself in the future. I have not always avoided being a claimant myself, but I can give two examples in which I did for myself instead of asking for others to do for me and am glad I did so.

First, when I attended law school, I decided not to become a client of our state vocational rehabilitation program. I could have become a client and persuaded the agency to pay for law school. Instead I took out student loans and paid for the education myself. I figured that the loans were as available to me as they were to my sighted classmates, and I had enough confidence in my employment prospects to believe that I would be able to pay the loans back. However, after law school, when I decided to obtain training in the skills of blindness, I became a vocational rehabilitation client so that the agency could pay for my training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. This program cost a lot of money for which loans were not available and which would help me maintain my independence and do for myself in the future.

Second, when I obtained my first legal job as a summer associate in a large law firm, I knew that I would need a reader to do my work efficiently. Since I was being paid a lot of money, I decided to pay for my part-time reader out of my wages. In this way I showed my law firm that I really wanted the job and that I was willing to sacrifice for it. At the same time I told my law firm that, were they to offer me a permanent position, I would need a full-time reader, paid for by the firm. But, in what was essentially a training period during which I was not making any money for the firm, I paid for the accommodation. I now work for that law firm and know that my willingness to pay for my reader made a favorable impression. In contrast, one summer associate submitted his dry cleaning bill to the firm for reimbursement because he had spilled on himself while at a work-related lunch (paid for by the firm). He did not receive an offer for permanent employment.

When we do for ourselves instead of relying on others, we gain the experience and learn from the doing. We also gain confidence in our abilities, which continues to build each time we take on a new challenge. But if we consistently accept the assistance of others, we fall into a trap of not acquiring the experiences upon which our self–esteem and confidence build. That is the trap that Gemini has fallen into. Never having to do for himself, his life has become a series of acquired handouts instead of acquired skills. He is not living up to his potential, and thus his life is mediocre. Unfortunately, I have also observed this pattern with many blind people. Constantly relying on the help of others, they never learn that they can do for themselves. If they were forced to do the thing independently, they would learn that they can be creative and adventurous in problem solving, and in doing so they would acquire skills that would allow them to flourish and live up to their potential.

An inverse correlation exists between how much help we accept and how satisfying our lives are. The good news is that the kind of help the National Federation of the Blind offers is the kind that blind people and parents of blind children can use to build normal, productive lives. We teach people how to do for themselves: how to live independently and how to pursue their goals.

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