by Anil Lewis
From the Editor: On Thursday morning, July 5, Anil Lewis, director of strategic communications of the National Federation of the Blind, made the following presentation:
I want to go back to 1989. That’s when I lost my sight, due to retinitis pigmentosa. It could have been one of those moments that changed my life in a way that reduced me to less than a man, but I want to talk to you a little about this transition and what I did that I am apologizing for.
When I lost my sight in 1989, I went to a community rehabilitation facility in Atlanta. I had the privilege of talking to the blindness professionals who met last Saturday, so, if you want to know the ins and outs of that experience, talk to them. But it was a lightning-fast three-month program of blindness rehabilitation training in which I got to a rapid speed of thirty-three words per minute in Braille, became a proficient route traveler, and learned to cook my Marie Calendar chicken pot pie in a microwave oven. The frustration was that with this degree of proficiency I was labeled superior. I was super blind. Everyone was praising how wonderful I was, to the point where they actually gave me a job teaching Braille and computer skills. I wasn’t the best, and the people I taught didn’t get the best, but I did try my best with what I had.
In that program I ended up becoming the job placement person. We had an extended employment program in the back. For those of you who don’t recognize this term, it’s a sheltered workshop. We had people doing mail order and piece-rate assembly, and we were paying them per hour. We were judging their productivity based on their ability to get letters inside an envelope or to wrap metal mesh and secure it with a rubber band. I’m sorry, but I didn’t know any better. That’s the only excuse I have to offer. But in that capacity I helped a young man named Vincent. He was a young guy whom the school system failed. Great attitude, really street savvy, but he wanted to change his life, so I worked with him. He became our client; this is unfortunately how I saw him. I decided maybe I could get him a job working in a recycling plant. I went through the phone book and called all these recycling agencies. I found one that was interested. I went in and talked with them. They were interested in hiring. I took Vincent there. He worked that one day. Then he came back to me and said, “I don’t like that job. I want another job.” I was mad at him. I was really upset with Vincent, but I really should have been upset with me because I tried putting Vincent in a position when he had no blindness skills and no work skills at all. So I apologize to Vincent.
Eventually I was exposed to the philosophy of the Federation. You guys have heard the story: Jim Gashel taught me a lot about Social Security work incentives, etc. I learned about the Business Enterprise Program, Randolph-Sheppard. With that I changed my whole paradigm. I went from looking at my clients as clients to looking at them as students who wanted careers. In doing that, I met a gentleman named Harold who worked in our extended employment program. He expressed interest in working in the Business Enterprise Program, so I worked him through the program. When he got his first stand, we were all excited. I taught him mobility back and forth to work, doing route travel, trailing the sides of the MARTA Station, positioning him, angling him, not really giving him any blindness skills because I had no blindness skills. But he was successful in the BEP program. He now had a career. He wasn’t a client, and I wasn’t trying to secure him a job in a recycling plant.
As I learned more about the NFB’s philosophy, my placement rates increased exponentially because I underwent a paradigm shift. I began to look at these people as equals. I was no longer superior. I looked at them as individuals with potential, not as clients. Because of that I was able to help them enter careers. I am thankful to the Federation for that growth, but I still needed a lot of progress in doing job placement, acknowledging that people need a career. I was helpful in getting blind people jobs at the Wachovia call center. We ended up with maybe twenty-two or twenty-three blind people there. It’s interesting because such an effort sinks or swims on the experience of the first person hired. Luckily Vivian set a good example, so Wachovia then said give us some more of those blind people. I gave them more blind people. It was really beautiful because many of them started at the call center, but they ended up working in different departments in the bank. They worked in the fraud section; they worked in the sales section. That was a win-win. But again they were limited because I didn’t allow them to learn the blindness skills that would have enabled them to do customer service with the best of them. The blind workers had better productivity rates than some of the sighted people in their jobs, but they had no blindness skills.
Eventually I got tired of working at that rehabilitation facility. I wanted something bigger, wanted the opportunity to have a greater impact. Randstad Staffing Services offered me a job as the manager of the disability employment initiative during the Olympic Games. I thought, this is going to be awesome. I have the keys to the candy store. These are all the jobs. We have an Olympic contract. I’m going to put some people to work, and I did. We probably placed 500 people with disabilities through that initiative. Here again, they had no real skills, but they had jobs. Unfortunately, those jobs lasted only as long as the Olympics. I apologize.
I went to work for the Client Assistance Program after Randstad Staffing Services, and I said, “Well, now I really have to work on making sure people get skills. The way to do that is to work with the VR agencies. I will make sure that VR clients get services to get the skills they need.” I thought it was going to be easy. It was not. Georgia is kind of entrenched in a custodialistic value system, which made it very difficult to move the agenda forward to empower people with disabilities to get the skills they needed.
The big paradigm shift for me, the opportunity that really let me capitalize on my skills and my passion to work with people came about when I became the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia. I gained access to similarly committed colleagues, a resource network in the national office, and a mentoring relationship with Dr. Marc Maurer. I was infused with the ability and the desire to be an entrepreneur. I don’t mean an entrepreneur going out to make money by starting my own business. Entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do. They put in at least an 80-hour work week. They don’t get very much sleep, but it doesn’t bother them because they are passionate about what they do. I lived, slept, ate, and drank Federationism and loved every minute of it. Some members of our national office staff have that same committed passion. There are members of this audience: affiliate presidents, chapter presidents, division presidents, and board members--you guys stand up. All the leaders, presidents, division presidents, and board members, that’s a significant number in the room. I just want to say thank you for your commitment and passion. Thank you for working with me toward fulfilling the mission of the National Federation of the Blind. Please be seated, but recognize that you leave this convention with a challenge of being an entrepreneur.
As the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia president, I was able to put together a lot of revenue-generating programs--a mentoring program through a contract with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, and our NFB-NEWSLINE® service was funded through our relationship with the Public Service Commission. That allowed us to open up offices in Georgia, and maybe that’s the paradigm shift that we as an organization need to make, because in some instances we are victims of our success. Leaders in this organization are truly passionate and committed, but others could be extremely good organization leaders, but, because we were so successful creating even greater employment opportunities, we ended up with people who don’t have the time to dedicate to the organization. But, if we were able to make it more revenue generating, maybe we could bring some people with specific expertise back to the table. So I need you to work on being entrepreneurs.
I have benefitted from this organization in real ways. I love each of you. I do consider this my Federation family. I have been the beneficiary of lots of praise from many of you, and I have been the recipient of constructive criticism, and I thank you for that. I have been the recipient of some not-so-helpful criticism, but I thank you for that too, because it all goes to make me a better person. I think that I benefit by giving it right back to you. It’s that mutual benefit, that mutual support, that love in this organization that makes us grow. [Applause]
So I want to take a quick minute to thank Jim Omvig for having confidence in me and working with me and talking with me. I want to thank Kareem Dale for acknowledging the fact that I had some potential. I definitely want to thank Dr. Marc Maurer for working with me, for making me the person I am today. As an aside, I participated in the mentoring program with the BISM youth program. During one of the training sessions Amy Phelps asked, “Who in your life has been your mentor?” I got to thinking back. Those who know me know that I had a really interesting life growing up. I said to myself, okay, who were my mentors? I could remember teachers who worked to help me. I could think of family members who really worked, but nobody after that really had an impact. I rapidly surveyed my life, and I realized that my most influential mentor has been Dr. Marc Maurer. People are no doubt thinking that I am just trying to ingratiate myself with my boss but I’m not. Several times in my life I could have just given up. When I was dealing with the custody battle for my son, when I was dealing with my blindness and the death of my mother, I was grateful that I had Dr. Maurer to reach out to. Thank you, Dr. Maurer, for being that mentor, that rock, that support for me. These are the people whom I am thanking specifically.
On July 12, because of my ability to recognize that disabled people have more desire to have careers than to be clients, because of the work you have done to help me become more of an entrepreneur, I’ll be sworn in as a member of the AbilityOne Commission, the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind and Severely Disabled. [Applause] I’ll be working with members of the committee to make sure that the JWOD Program really flourishes and grows into something that is beneficial, that creates careers for people.
I’m going to be candid with you. I do understand, and I’m not fooling myself into thinking that it’s going to be an easy duty. Some people don’t want me there because I am a Federationist. As a matter of fact, I have been told that I can’t go to meetings espousing the positions of the Federation. It could potentially be criminal. The beauty is that they are my positions as well. They cannot tell me I can’t go to a meeting and express the positions that I hold. They will benefit from my input whether they like it or not. [Applause] So, I’m going to take my entrepreneurial spirit to the AbilityOne Commission, and we’re going to create real opportunities that never existed before. We’re going to turn this program into something even better than the participants recognize that it can be.
I talked to you a little about the clients I helped, and here at the open forum I am apologizing. I don’t really feel bad about what I did because, as I explained in the rehab professionals meeting, I offered them a degree of independence that they otherwise would not have received. The people who worked at Wachovia, the gentleman who ended up working as a Randolph-Sheppard vendor, and all the hundreds of other people I worked with, I provided them a degree of independence that they would otherwise not have had. They were able to earn a good income. But the reality is that I am apologetic because I have been a beneficiary of training at the Louisiana Center in 2009. As a result I recognize that skills are very important. So, although I assisted my clients to gain greater independence, I denied them their freedom. That is what I apologize for. We in the Federation know that, given the proper training and opportunity, blind people can aspire to anything they can dream. [Applause]
With this, I make the commitment to you today that there will be no more Vincents in my life. There will be no more Harolds in my life. The people whose lives I touch will receive my focus on the fact that they need to be whole people receiving the skills they need, the support they need to reach their potential.
Finally, I put this challenge out there. In acknowledgement of my failure to those people in my past, I’m giving employers out there currently employing people with disabilities at subminimum wages and in sheltered workshops a pass because maybe they haven’t heard the word from the Federation. Maybe they don’t know that people with disabilities have capacity, but we are going to shout that truth and make it ring throughout this country so no one can deny it. Once you have heard the word, we’ll hold you accountable and will put your feet to the fire. And, if you will not turn your way of operating around, supporting the capacity of your workers, then we will see that you burn in hell. [Applause] Thank you. Thank you for your time and attention. [Applause]