From the Editor: To find information that will be interesting and relevant to our readers, I read a lot, including some of what is discussed on our listservs. Occasionally I comment on these lists when I think it will help.
Recently a middle school student emailed the question to one of our lists that all of us have to ask ourselves: why are some people involved in organizations of the blind and others not? What appears below are some thoughts on the subject; many articulate why they have chosen to join; one explains why she chooses not to be a part of any organization and questions the need for them. In the hope that this exchange will stimulate thought, discussion, some new members, and an affirmation to those of us who are already members, here, with limited editing, is the email exchange:
From: Chris Nusbaum
Subject: Why is it important to join an organization of the blind?
As I have become more and more active in the blind community and have met blind people, I notice that a lot of them are not affiliated with any organization of the blind. Some say they are put off by the political arguments between the NFB and ACB; some say they don't want to be tied to one organization; some say they don't agree with either organization's philosophy and don't want to identify themselves with either.
I try to explain to them the value of the Federation in my life and how joining an organization of the blind connects people with a diverse network of resources who can help answer almost any question they would have related to blindness. I also try to explain that, if they have any problems, being a part of an organization would help them with their advocacy efforts; the more people you have advocating, the more effective the advocacy is. But they still don't want to be affiliated with an organization.
So I want to get your thoughts on these questions: Why do you think it is important to be a member of an organization of the blind? Of what benefit or value is an organization to its members and to blind people at large? Some people have said to me, "Sighted people don't have any organizations dedicated to their concerns as sighted people; why should I join an organization dedicated to blindness?"
Still others have said, "Don't you Federationists want to be equal with sighted people? If so, then why do blind people need to be organized by joining some organization exclusively of the blind?"
These are some interesting questions; what would your responses be to such people? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.
Here is a response from a person who sees no value in joining and rejects the concept of the blind community. Since she is not a member, she will remain anonymous.
Hi. Well I for one am one of those who don't want to join either organization. I am on both NFB and ACB listservs to gain perspective about what both organizations are doing and their thoughts on important issues. If I have a question, I would probably write to the appropriate listservs pertaining to my question. Admittedly I usually don't start threads, because I am a very private person and don't particularly like broadcasting things over the Internet. I respond to threads from time to time when I feel the issue is important enough, as is the case here.
Now I don't know you personally, but here's what I think: have you ever been asked to convert to a religion when you were perfectly comfortable with the one you believe in? By constantly asking people to join an organization for the blind, you're doing much the same thing. How do you know these people are unhappy with the way they're living now? If it's more a question of whether or not they've heard of such groups, one need only do a Google search for organizations for the blind, and I'm sure the NFB and ACB websites will pop up. I'm a firm believer in informed choice. If someone wants to join either organization, they will find the info, whether it's coming to someone such as yourself, or looking it up on the Internet. But no one likes to be put in a corner.
As for staying on top of things that go on in the blind community--and I use that term loosely because it truly disgusts me that such a term exists at all—again it's as simple as following a few discussion lists. Some don't like for their inboxes to be flooded, and, that's understandable, but you can go into digest mode or access the list archives through the respective sites. Let's not forget, also, wonderful resources such as the Fred's Head blog which is run by APH, or the Internet Phonebook of Blindness Resources. Information is really only a few seconds away in this day and age; if people don't want to subscribe to a set of beliefs or deal with any political BS, let them be.
One more brief point, and then I promise I'll stop. Speaking to other blind people is not quite the same thing. For this I think it's great that there are resources like NFB-link and the AFB Career Connect. There's nothing quite like finding out you're not alone in the world; it's empowering, particularly for people who have recently lost their vision, to be able to speak to someone face to face or over the phone who understands what they're going through and can give them advice, support, and encouragement along the way. I attended a rehab center last year (non-NFB-affiliated), and, because I've been blind since birth, many of the clients, some much older than myself, came to me for advice, or simply watched or asked, depending on the level of remaining vision they still had, how I did things naturally, such as walking with a cane. It was a win-win situation: they felt more at ease about losing their vision because they saw I was coping just fine, and I felt good knowing I had helped people without even really trying or meaning to.
From: Bridgit Pollpeter
Chris, you pose very interesting and valid questions. Most of us have met people who are blind and adopt an attitude like the people you describe. There are many reasons why people do and do not join an organization, but we must look at what the purpose of these organizations is.
First, sighted people do develop, promote, and advocate for many issues. Most of these groups have a blend of people with plenty of diversity, but many ethnic and racial groups have organizations dedicated to serving minorities and the issues and causes important to them. As a type 1 diabetic I've been involved in diabetic groups advocating for better care, encouraging research, and providing education; I did this when I was sighted. There are other health-related groups doing similar work, and the list goes on and on. We often fail to see the other perspective especially with blindness. People focus on this, forgetting many organizations exist doing similar work. The Federation is not unique in being an advocacy group promoting causes and initiatives.
The initial goals of the Federation were to promote independence, work towards changing attitudes, and serving as a political platform for blind causes led by those with the experience of being blind. First and foremost, a group like the NFB is dedicated to political activism and advocacy. Despite the growing number of divisions within the Federation catering to various interests, the priority has always been to promote and advocate the ideas and causes important to Federation members.
Having opportunities to network is essential to the growth and success of the Federation because we need each generation to adopt healthy, positive mindsets about blindness. The social aspect, however, is secondary to the political element. Not everyone joins to be politically active. In my experience a majority of people join the Federation purely for social reasons, though many eventually come to understand the importance of having an active voice advocating for equal rights and fair treatment of the blind. So we stand up and demand equality.
That we have a chance to network and ask questions of those with experience is a benefit to joining the Federation. You have a support system backing you, ready to help in any way. We've heard a lot about law students denied bar exams in an accessible format of their choosing. The Federation has stepped in to take legal action, assisting those law students and others to come. The couple in Missouri whose newborn was taken by the state's children's services unit a couple of years ago for no reason other than that both parents are blind is another example….
Many of us benefit from alternative techniques, techniques which far too many refuse to learn or use regularly. In my experience, and having once been a person with partial vision, often the alternative skills truly do make one more efficient than using one’s partial vision, and this is why the Federation seems, at times, to be against sight, but it's actually the contrary. If you're being independent, living your life, not caving into stereotypes and negative attitudes, the Federation supports this way of life. It expects us to grow and challenge ourselves as our peers challenge us. This is one of the huge differences I see between the NFB and other organizations of the blind; we're not expected to stay where we are; we're urged to move forward, carving a path before us, challenging ourselves to strive to reach new heights.
So why am I a Federationist? Because I'm not content to sit idly by, letting others make decisions for me. I don’t feel entitled to services, legislation, and technology that I have had no say in, and to which I have made no contribution in changing for the better. I don't want to watch a chef cook; I want to roll my sleeves up and get my hands in the mix. Networking with fellow blind people and learning what we are all doing is great, but I want to effect change, and I want to be a part of that change. It's not about isolating ourselves from society and forming an elite group made up of people who are blind; it's in fact about encouraging and fostering integration. We are people with dreams, desires, and interests; that we are blind is but one attribute of our being. I wasn't always blind, and, when I lost my sight, I didn't change who I am. My interests and goals are the same; I now just accomplish certain things with different methods and tools.
We all have to decide what we believe in and why. I believe it's important to analyze and question beliefs and ideas in order truly to digest them. Only then can we form decisions based on our own ideas and opinions rather than any thoughts and opinions thrust on us, whether unwillingly or not. I think we all need to understand that the Federation's priority is advocacy and education; when we know this, it is easier to explain the Federation and its purpose.
From: Sean Whalen
I don't think anybody is trying to force beliefs on people, and I really don't see what is "creepy" about the question or topic. I think it is each individual's prerogative to join any organization that represents his or her interest, or none at all. It seems pretty clear to me, though, that the lives of all blind individuals have been demonstrably improved by the existence of the NFB, which, of course, wouldn't exist without joiners.
Belonging to an organization does not mean that one endorses everything that organization does, nor does it mean that an individual has a particular set of beliefs. It simply means that one sees enough benefit in the organization and its work to decide to support it. I don't agree with the NFB on everything, nor do I agree with the Democratic Party on everything. Nonetheless I count myself as a member of both. If somebody thinks that dictates my thoughts and beliefs, they would be wrong. My thoughts and beliefs dictate which organizations I choose to join, support, and work for.
As for the ridiculous notion that sighted folks don't have organizations, they surely do. They have organizations for virtually every interest under the sun. Trade groups, unions, interest groups allied with political and public policy issues of all stripes exist to unify the voices of folks with common interests. That is the way our system of government, and indeed the world in general, works. Refusal to join with others who have similar interests is acceptance of having no voice on issues that affect you. That is, by the way, completely fine. Some folks don't have any interests pressing enough to give up their time, money, and resources to attempt to influence outcomes, but their lack of interest in doing so doesn't somehow equate to the moral high ground. Of course there is no National Association of the Sighted, but this reflects the fact that the vast majority of people are sighted. There is no issue around which to rally. You had better bet that, if half the population were sighted and the other half blind, and if the interests of the sighted and blind clashed in any meaningful way, the sighted and blind alike would have organizations allowing them to speak with one voice on issues of import.
In addition to being a vehicle for collective action, the NFB is an extended network of support. It is extremely valuable to have folks to consult with when faced with an issue related to blindness. It keeps each of us from having to reinvent the wheel each time something new comes up for us. This of course is not a model at all unique to the blind. Analogous networks exist for people in certain trades, with particular diseases, or with similar interests and hobbies. Nearly anywhere you find a diffuse and relatively small group of people in similar circumstances or in need of similar information, you will find an attempt at a support network like that which we enjoy in the NFB.
So, lest anybody buy into the line that says those who join the NFB or any other organization are mindless automatons without their own beliefs, opinions, and convictions, please remember that organizing to share information and influence events in the world is in no way unique to the blind. If people don't want to join anything, and blind people in particular don't want to join NFB or ACB, that is 100 percent all right. But let's not accept the misguided notion that their refusal to do so is rooted in some moral superiority, rugged individualism, or strength of conviction. The refusal to be a joiner simply indicates that a person has other things going on in his or her life which are more important. Again, A-OK, but never doubt the value of the work done by the organized blind movement. Even those who have never given a thought to involving themselves are presumably grateful when social services doesn't take their babies, they have the opportunity to attain meaningful employment, and their rights to travel and participate in society are protected.
From: David Evans
It is important to be a part of an organization because it is usually organizations that get things accomplished in this world. It goes like this. There is a game going on, and in every game you have four components: two sides on the field that push back and forth to win their point and advance the game toward a goal and referees that enforce the rules of the game, award points and penalties, and make calls about the conduct of the game. The fourth part, which is also the biggest part, is the spectators in the stands who watch the game, root for the two sides, and most often benefit from the outcome of the game on the field, but take little part in winning it. The people in the stands often wish that they could stimulate their side to win but can only shout encouragement or discouragement from their safe seats in the stands. They have very little to do with the outcome of the game and only watch the toil of the players on the field. They sometimes get upset at a call by the referees or a bad play by one of the team members, but they can only express their opinions, positive or negative, from a safe distance.
The people on the field are the heroes and the villains. The players on the field make the play or get their noses bloodied. In life there is always the possibility that one of the spectators in the stands can come down and put on a helmet and get in the game on one side or the other and begin making a difference in the game's outcome. If the game is Tug-of-War and the sides are evenly split, the game may be a tie or take a long time for one side or the other to prevail. If, on the other hand, half of the people in the stands come down and take up the rope on only one side or the other, the contest is going to be over very quickly. Games are won or lost by the players on the field, not the people sitting safely in the stands.
In this game of life getting involved in an organization can help to make our lives better. There is an old saying, "Many hands make light work."
As the Florida Lotto puts it, "You have to play to win."
I have seen us advance the goals of our organization since 1987, and I know that I am in a better place because of it. As my generation use to say in the 1960s, "If you aren't part of the solution, then you are part of the problem." In which group are you going to be: the people who sit on the fence and in the stands or the people who compete for the gold ring?
From: Gary Wunder
Please understand that what I am about to write is my opinion and not some official position of the Federation. I will try to avoid offering other disclaimers such as "in my opinion," or "it is my belief." I want to be firm in stating what I believe but humble enough to acknowledge that it does not represent any particular wisdom or any claim to be the one true way.
I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind because I believe that collective action is required if blind people are to continue to enjoy the programs and services we now have and to further the goal of integration we all seek, in which we gain jobs, play active parts in our communities, and are no longer limited by artificial barriers not imposed by blindness but by the reaction to it by blind and sighted people alike. As an individual I have a responsibility to think about my options and opportunities and to decide whether or not to pursue or shy away from them; in other words, I have choices to make. But individually I do not always have the creativity, the expertise, and the power to make those choices real and achievable.
Right now blind people are engaged in a battle to determine whether we have a right to demand that computerized technology, with all its power and promise, be harnessed to help us as it helps others, or whether, because we are a small population, this same computer technology will be used to exclude us. The outcome of this struggle is as important as my ability to compete at a job, my ability to enjoy entertainment at home, my ability to check in at airports and check out at supermarkets, and even my ability to live at home independently. Take away my independent access to home appliances--my ability to set the temperature on my oven, regulate the temperature in my house, and operate the controls on my washer and dryer, and soon I will require the services of a personal care attendant or be forced to live in a nursing home because I will be unable to take care of my most basic needs. Even the option of a home care attendant or a nursing home may depend on whether or not I can afford them.
My job as one human being is to educate myself; my more difficult job is to embrace the education of society to the potential technology brings and to the problems it can create if not properly managed. Individually I must be an informed voice, but only collectively do I have a voice capable of reaching the nation and the world. Individually I do not know how to bring about the changes in design and engineering that make things talk, produce Braille, or provide a way for me to navigate using touch or voice; collectively I can be a part of giving scholarships to young people, some of whom will dedicate their professional careers to learning about such things and being a part of developing technology that includes me and others who are blind.
Individually I do not know how to craft laws to help us, but collectively I can help to nurture and employ the expertise of those who do. Individually I do not know how to execute a successful lawsuit on behalf of me and others who suffer from technological discrimination; collectively I can be a part of hiring that help and articulating to the legal system the goals and aspirations of blind people who are committed to the progress we have enjoyed and to reject categorically the idea of once again being consigned to idleness and inactivity. It is argued that sighted people do not unite as a group, and that, if blind people truly want equality, we must turn away from the reliance on a group and the expectation that other blind people will join with us. Because of their numbers and a society which will quite reasonably be oriented to them, sighted people have no need to unite on the basis of sight. They do, however, unite for other reasons. Wealthy people unite with others to see that policies do not encourage and support the taking of their wealth. Those less wealthy unite for a whole host of reasons when individually their voices are not sufficient to start a national discussion about the things they need. Doctors, as educated and prestigious as they are, unite when it comes to representing their interests and, for that matter, the health interests of the American people. Farmers form organizations to try to increase their prices and protect against what they see as overly burdensome regulation. Many from all walks of life unite to protect the environment by reminding us that some of the things we want for enhancing our creature comforts come at a cost that may jeopardize the well-being of the earth for our children and our children's children.
The concept of organizing for collective action, to amplify the voice, to share the load, and to bring disparate groups with talent and expertise to serve a cause is not unique to the blind, nor is it unique to America. It is the longing of people everywhere to better themselves and the realization that not every good that needs doing can be accomplished by one human being, no matter how strong her determination or skill or drive. It is the understanding that true independence often involves the more complicated concept of interdependence and that learning to work together does not detract one bit from our individuality, our ability to make choices, and our ability to influence the world.
I want a piece of the American dream. That means more than Supplemental Security Income because I am deemed too disabled to work. That means more than food stamps and subsidized housing because I am considered so impoverished that only through a government program can I eat and have shelter from the elements. I want the right to information, and that means more than a book of fiction in which I live my life through the words and stories of others. I have benefited from and support each of these programs and do not write to throw stones. Forces in the world conspire to keep me in this place, a place of continual dependence. It is not a harsh place with physical bars but a place built by a compassionate America trying to do good for people they perceive as having a significant need. It is not a jail; neither is it a zoo; but it is a cage, albeit one with radios and televisions and devices to produce music on demand. It is a place where we may play but not a place where we may grow. Programs intended to provide us with a staircase to upward mobility have too often become the means for lifelong support. The tragedy is that life is so much less than it could be for us who are blind and for our country that gets so much less from good minds and overflowing hearts who long to find a way to contribute meaningfully.
The alternative path requires more training, more perseverance, and perhaps even more good luck. The process is rehabilitation, and by rehabilitation I mean much more than accepting the help to go from high school to training school or college. For me rehabilitation means entering into a contract, a sacred pledge to make good on the goodwill and the investment of taxpaying Americans by turning education and equipment into productive work. It is more than accepting as a matter of course this government program for the blind that can sometimes be little more than a transition from education to more education to lifelong dependence. At its best, rehabilitation is the power of people to help people, the way a society helps some of its members move from needing a meal to earning a meal. It can, at its best, be an example of government truly serving and at its worst an example of raising expectations only to crush them. We, the blind people who organize and work in the Federation, help determine which it will be.
Several months ago I watched a Republican primary where a candidate was asked what should be done about an uninsured twenty-nine-year-old man lying in a hospital following a motorcycle crash. Should he be allowed to die was the timidly advanced question, and, before the candidate could answer, a disturbingly loud minority in that audience began to clap. The America I see is no longer in a place where she believes she can extend benefits to those who do not pay for them. If this is true for something as basic as medical care, how long will it be before we see America questioning whether there is money to support her disabled citizens who have been offered rehabilitation services but who continue to remain on the public dole? How many people must succeed in the rehabilitation process to convince an ever more skeptical and belt-tightening America that this magical contract between blind people and the rest of America's citizens should continue? Partly that answer depends on us, how well we make the case for what we need, and how much we publicize the wonderful things that happen when rehabilitation works. Partly it depends on how well we make the case to other blind people for moving beyond our comfort zone and actively addressing those areas in which we are weak or scared or paralyzed by our inexperience with the world.
I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind because I realize it has been an important part in helping me live a bit of the American dream. I am a part because I want to pay it forward and to share the blessings I've been given with others. I know that, as important as a positive mental attitude and philosophy are, they are little more than words if there isn't some kind of active effort to transform them into actions. Wanting to feed the starving is more than wanting--it is doing something to advance that cause--donating money, growing food, building roads, and buying vehicles. None of this is accomplished by remaining on the sidelines and being an observer, even if an informed one; it is accomplished by a resolution to do something and then by following through on that resolution.
The Federation, for all the pride I take in her, is not a luxury liner capable of being guided and run by a few, on which many may ride in comfort. Instead my Federation is a canoe, a craft that can carry a few passengers but needs every person who can to be at the oars pushing us along, steering us in the direction we want to go, and helping us avoid the obstacles that would break our frail craft if not maneuvered with skill, intelligence, and the support of God and a public who want the best for us. Blind Americans, just like sighted Americans, can make the choice whether or not to be involved, but the choice they make has consequences for all of us. The more people we have who are active rowers of our canoe, the more each of us who row have time to do other things and the more likely we are to succeed.
Our mission is a noble one that argues for our own independence and for the continued prosperity of our nation. I believe it is so important that we dare not sit on the sidelines. I have spent enough of my life being told to observe and wait. When I have a choice, I will choose participation, service, and the knowledge that, come what may, I have tried. This is why I am a part of the Federation. This is why I unashamedly ask others to be a part of it too. I don't want to whine or preach. I want to be grateful for what I have, to repay those who have helped to make what I have possible, and to pay it forward for those who want the same kind of future I want. I ask for the energy that others can bring in charting this course and then helping us travel it.
One of the great satisfactions in life is having the opportunity to assist others. Consider making a gift to the National Federation of the Blind to continue turning our dreams into reality. A gift to the NFB is not merely a donation to an organization; it provides resources that will directly ensure a brighter future for all blind people.
Seize the Future
The National Federation of the Blind has special giving opportunities that will benefit the giver as well as the NFB. Of course the largest benefit to the donor is the satisfaction of knowing that the gift is leaving a legacy of opportunity. However, gifts may be structured to provide more:
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Your gift makes you a partner in the NFB dream. For further information or assistance, contact the NFB planned giving officer.