Braille Monitor                                                    November 2008

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Breaking the Mold:
The Power of the Unpredictable

by Marc Maurer

From the Editor: The afternoon of Tuesday, August 19, 2008, NFB President Marc Maurer delivered the keynote address at the opening session of the quadrennial meeting of the World Blind Union in Geneva, Switzerland. Here is the text of his remarks:

The scientist Stephen Hawking tells us that scientific systems fall into two categories—the predictable and the chaotic. No matter how complex the system may be, if the outcome is determinable in advance, this system is closed, predictable, and repetitive. If the outcome is not determinable in advance, the scientific name is chaos.

In the not too distant past, those things that might be expected of blind people were almost entirely predictable and repetitive—known before they occurred. However, some of us have broken the old system, and we intend to break it further. Some of us intend to embrace chaos—to create results that have never been imagined until we put our minds and our hearts to the effort. The name that I have for these intrepid individuals is “the organized blind movement.”

The history of blind people is largely unrecorded, but that which has been written has two elements. Prior to the time that the blind began to write their own history, a few blind people were recorded as possessing inspiring characteristics of courage, perception, and endurance. Some of these blind people were said to have extraordinary extrasensory powers, but the blind as a group had no history.

One of the books about phenomenal blind people is entitled, From Homer to Helen Keller. Homer was the Greek poet who composed The Iliad and The Odyssey. He was blind. Helen Keller was the deaf-blind woman from the United States who learned to speak and to write despite her disabilities. The best-known documentary about her life is the movie The Miracle Worker. That Helen Keller learned to speak and to write is regarded as a miracle. Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s tutor, created the miracle. The remarkable story of Helen Keller is remarkable not because of her capacity, according to the movie, but because of the extraordinary ability of Annie Sullivan, who is the miracle worker.

Let it be said that I am glad Helen Keller did the things she did. I am sorry that her accomplishments were belittled in the movie and that her success was attributed, not to her ability, but to the extraordinary sagacity of Annie Sullivan. However, the assertion that the story of success is not attributable to the deaf-blind person but to her miracle-working teacher is consistent with the myth of incapacity that has been a part of the history that has bedeviled the lives of the blind.

Sighted people begin with the belief that they could not perform competently if they were to lose their vision, and they write history to reflect this belief. Successful blind people must have extraordinary powers, they think, because the blind are incompetent. Any blind person who manages to exhibit success is, according to this formulation, magic or miraculous. This is the legacy of The Miracle Worker.

In 1999 the National Federation of the Blind in the United States contemplated the construction of a new building that would house programs of research and education for the blind. In this new building we planned to conduct research and education based upon the experiences of blind people. Most of the research about blindness has been conceived and directed by sighted people, and much of it has had no basis in the experiences of blind people.

The difference between much of the research about blindness conducted in the past and that which we intend to conduct is that we would incorporate within it the individual daily experiences of blind people. In the course of discussing the impact of a research and training facility operated for the blind and by the blind, I talked about the need to ensure that the blind have access to information, to programs and activities of society, to training programs that teach the specialized techniques used by the blind, and to virtually all places of employment and almost every job. In making my presentation about this need, I indicated that a new method of thought is an essential element for programs of research and training for the blind. This element is the need to take account of the talent possessed by the blind, the alternative methods that blind people use to gain and use information, and the daily experiences that blind people have. Among other things I said that, if a new technology were needed to assist the blind in getting at information, we would build it.

Working with Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist, we now have assisted in the development of the KNFB Reader Mobile, the cell phone that reads. Taking information that exists in one form and changing it to another is a vital part of the future for all human beings in society. Today we take a printed page and make it audible. Within a very few days we will be taking the language of a printed page and making it auditory in another language. Automatic translation from one language to another is now possible because we who are blind needed to transform a written pattern into an auditory one. Ray Kurzweil’s inventive genius began with the recognition of our need to change one pattern of information to another—the printed page to a spoken page. The same pattern of basic information can be transformed in multiple ways—from print to speech and from print to speech in more than one language. The reading machine benefits reading-disabled people—the blind, the dyslexic, and those who find it difficult to read for other reasons. The translation software will benefit hundreds of millions.

Despite all of the evidence that blind people possess ability, the capacity of the blind has routinely been written off. Decades ago, when I was studying law, I found myself one evening in a class on American tax law. The portable talking calculator had just been invented, and I had one of them to use for tax calculations. I decided to show it to my professor. I thought he might find it of interest since it was the newest breakthrough in technology for the blind.

As I placed the talking calculator on the professor’s desk after the class had been dismissed and then performed a calculation, he said in an offhand way, “That’s interesting.” Then he added, “By the way, what are you doing in this class?” I was startled by the question. I had imagined that students sign up for classes to learn about the subject matter being taught. I recognize that taxation is not a course of study that would stimulate everybody, but I have always thought that the management of money is a useful thing to know. Consequently, when the professor asked the question, it took me by surprise. However, he did not let me answer. He said, almost without a pause, “Oh, some of this will be useful in your divorce cases.”

In the vernacular in the United States, it was a put-down. The professor did not expect me to be able to handle more than the rudimentary elements of the taxation course. He did not expect me to be an expert in the subject he was teaching. He did not expect me to be able to handle complex legal matters. He assumed that the noncomplicated, routine portions of the law would be all that I could do. This comment is one of the elements that caused me to concentrate on advocacy and civil rights. It made me believe that I should challenge the assumptions of those in society who think that the blind have little ability and less will. It helped me decide that I should fight back.

Another time, many years ago, a group of my blind friends and I tried to enter a restaurant in a small town in Middle America. The owner of the restaurant refused entrance to us saying, “I don’t want all those blind people in here; what will the rest of my customers think?” I was a much younger man in those days, and I had not been schooled in the thought process of advocacy. I did not take immediate action, and I have always regretted my passivity. However, I participated in a demonstration later, and I changed my method of thought. I decided that I would not tolerate discrimination on the basis of blindness, and I learned about the laws of the United States and about the methods of changing those laws. I have been heavily involved in creating legal principles prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability for many decades, and I have been supporting challenges in court to discriminatory action for more than thirty-five years.

The laws in the United States to protect the rights of blind people are better than they have ever been, but they are not adequate to meet the need. They do not assure access to educational materials, they do not protect the right of the blind to the use of technology that others take for granted, they do not assure equal opportunity to use educational testing facilities and systems, and they permit educational testers to flag test results if they are taken in nonvisual ways. In many instances manufacturers of devices may knowingly produce them in inaccessible ways. Universities do not provide equal access to education, and the computers used in elementary schools are unusable by blind students. Fewer than 10 percent of blind children are being taught Braille in my country, and automobiles are being manufactured that are so quiet that the blind cannot hear them. Near misses and collisions have occurred, and the manufacturers have been very slow to take our complaints seriously.

If blind people have ability, and I believe they do, this implies that we also possess power. Untrained, unfocused, undirected power has little practical use. However, the beginning of power is the recognition by blind people that this characteristic is ours.

In 1985 airline companies in the United States were following a set of practices that became anathema to the blind. Blind people were having their canes forcibly removed from them. They were being assigned seats in various parts of the plane (including the exit row) and then being ordered to move either without explanation or in the name of safety. Only a limited number of blind people were permitted to board a specific aircraft—sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes four. Maybe airline officials thought that too many blind people on a single airplane would be infectious to the other passengers. Blind people were ordered to sit on blankets because some people thought we could not control our bowels. When blind people objected to these belittling treatments, they were either thrown off the plane or arrested. We filed discrimination complaints, but much of the time they were ineffective.

We asked the Congress of the United States to introduce legislation to protect the rights of the blind in air travel, and eventually the Air Carrier Access Act was adopted. However, some of the provisions that we believed were necessary to protect the rights of blind travelers were eliminated at the last minute. I led a demonstration of several hundred blind people in the Capitol outside the Senate chamber to demand that the rights of blind people be recognized. Before we were finished, fifty-eight members of the Senate had voted with us.

When one of our members was thrown off a plane at National Airport in Washington, D.C., we put together a public demonstration seeking to board the aircraft and take the seat that our member had been assigned, whether the airline liked it or not. We were almost aboard the plane when airline personnel locked us out. So we put a picket line around the airline’s customer service check-in desks. Our protest was also mounted in other airports around the United States. The attempt to board the plane and our picket line at National Airport were carried on nationwide television. The airlines agreed not to have us arrested, and discrimination in most aspects of air travel was prohibited by law.

Can blind people be farmers, factory workers, lawyers, teachers, business executives, warehouse workers, college professors, scientists, political activists, or shoemakers? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Can blind people be medical doctors, or, if we build the right type of technology, can the blind fly planes or drive automobiles? I have met a number of blind doctors, and I have faith that they perform in the medical profession with skill and effectiveness. Would I hire a blind doctor? Indeed I would. I would hire the doctor who possessed the ability to understand and treat whatever medical condition was then to be addressed.

Not long ago a blind woman with several college degrees, one of them in biology, sought to enter nursing school. The school told her that she was prohibited from applying because no blind person could safely perform the duties of a nurse. The nursing school said this despite the reality that a number of blind nurses are working in the medical profession today. The school said this without giving the blind applicant the opportunity to demonstrate her ability or show officials in the school the techniques she intended to use to perform the essential tasks of nursing. The school said this without making any inquiries within the medical profession about the performance of blind medical professionals. We in the National Federation of the Blind fought the discriminatory rejection of this applicant’s request to become a participant in the nursing class. The student in question was admitted to the nursing school, where she successfully performed during the first year of class work assigned to her.

Although some blind people have performed some of the tasks in driving a car and flying a plane (I myself have done both), the technology has not been perfected to permit blind people without assistance to operate these vehicles. However, we believe that the basic form of the technology to do both things has been invented. Object avoidance systems are currently installed in robots. Pattern recognition systems have been built into the guidance equipment in the most modern aircraft. Global positioning technology is now accurate to within a few feet. If all of this technology were built into an automobile, it could be used to travel safely using an operator with no vision at all. All that remains to be done is to develop the interface that can be used by blind people and to modify the legislation that exists to permit the blind to use it. In my opinion the second part of this challenge is bigger than the first. Compared with the fear of permitting a blind person to slip behind the wheel, building the technology to permit the blind person to drive the car will be simple.

The beginning of the possession of power is the assertion that it belongs to us. I want us to have power. Furthermore, in my own country I face challenges that cannot be solved within the borders of my own nation. I need the cooperation and the power of others around the world to bring equality to the blind of the United States, and I believe that those of us in the United States can help bring equality to the blind of the world. I want cars on our streets that are safe for us. I want technology that all of us can use. I want educational programs that acknowledge our talent. I want laws that recognize the value that we have and uphold our right to participate fully in all of the activities in the communities in which we live. I want support for the value of blind people in the infrastructure of every nation. This means recognition that we deserve top-quality education and the best rehabilitation training that can be devised.

We cannot take advantage of these educational programs unless we have a minimum amount of support to ensure that we have the means to live. It is hard to learn when you are hungry.

The standards for manufacture of products are becoming global; the regulatory systems that determine access to information are also becoming global. If we are to accept the role of powerful people, we must gain this status from each other. First, we dream about making the world that will include all of us and will be more productive for us and for others than it has ever been. Then we demand that others share this dream. Power takes many forms. Sometimes it is financial; sometimes it is political; and sometimes it possesses other characteristics. However, one element is vital to the acquisition of power: the blind must behave in ways that are spectacularly different from those that other people predict. We will assert our right to positions of authority. We will assert our right to equal access to information and programs that use it; we will assert our right to be paid for the talent we possess; we will assert our right to use that talent and to be incorporated fully into all aspects of daily life.

This will create misunderstanding and annoyance. Many will believe that we should stay in our places, accept the gifts (however meager) that others offer, and remain the unseen, unwanted burden that they have always regarded us to be. But this is not the role for us. Despite the unpredictability of the behavior here described, despite the uncertainty it will create, despite the upheaval inherent within an altered pattern of living, we will demand our equal place. With the increase in this unpredictability comes chaos, but also inherent within unpredictability is the value of individual freedom and the joy of creation.

This, Mr. President and members of the World Blind Union, is what I recommend. Not peace but activism, not acceptance but an insistence on our right to full participation, not isolation and custody but freedom.

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