by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: This presentation was made on April 5, 2011, at the statewide staff meeting of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Bob Deaton, the assistant director of the agency, heard a version of these remarks at the 2010 national convention and thought agency staff would benefit from hearing them. They still seem relevant, so here they are:
I want to begin by thanking Bob Deaton for asking me to come. It's flattering when someone says he wants to hear you speak, and this is all the more exciting when he's already heard a version of it once and apparently likes it enough that he wants his colleagues to hear it as well. I don't often give the same speech twice. For starters, I question how many people want to hear me speak the first time, and frankly I get bored with speeches I try to do more than once.
When I was invited to speak to the rehab people last summer at the national convention, I was elated. I've never taken a single class in the field, and, unlike many who have been asked to address that conference, I have no certification demonstrating expertise. What I was given then, and what you are giving me today, is a wonderful chance to say thank you for something I value more than anything except the life given me by God and the love and support I get from my family and the parents who raised me. This is how much rehab has given to me, and only someone completely oblivious to the blessings he has been given could be anything but honored by the chance to express this gratitude.
As a customer who has benefited immensely from the rehabilitation system, I have learned a great deal about the good things America can bring to her citizens when she decides they are deserving and worth the investment. Unfortunately I've also learned how the granting of some money, a title, and a little bit of power can turn some very angry and bitter people, who believe they are generally underappreciated anyway, into real abusers of the students they are supposed to serve.
I should preface my remarks about rehab by saying that I have experienced it in only one state, Missouri. Some of you know that Missouri has a pretty bad reputation in certain quarters of the National Federation of the Blind because of its decision to block the distribution of our free literature to its clients, simply because the ACB, which has no similar information, claims that the agency's giving out our material amounts to proselytizing.
Putting all of this aside for a moment, over the last twenty to thirty years we have pressured the Missouri agency into sending people almost anywhere they want to go for an education and buying them any kind of equipment they need in order to be successful. I know this is not true in all states, but, if anything, my state goes overboard to say yes when asked to provide an education and the blindness-related equipment to make it happen.
When I came to the rehab system in the early 1970s, the general orientation was that we were spending tax money and therefore were handling a very limited resource for which agency officials were reluctant to risk their necks. Seldom were services just offered; if you needed something, you had better be prepared to argue for it. In many cases the argument had to go well beyond making a coherent case to your counselor. Getting what you wanted required that you engage in meetings with higher-ups, formal appeals, fair hearings, and the enlistment of an advocacy organization to help you. Over the years, with changes in the law and repeated beatings which we have administered to the agency, Rehabilitation Services for the Blind in Missouri has done an about-face. There is trust where once there was suspicion. We call the agency director our friend, and he welcomes the opportunity to visit with us as a reprieve from his administrative duties and a chance to mix with the people he really is working to serve. Mark Laird would rather be a counselor or a job specialist, but he is too competent for his superiors to let him stay there, so he finds himself at the helm.
Contrary to the practices of the past, the orientation of our Missouri agency is to give people what they want when they want it, with little regard for whether or not they are really ready to handle the rigors of the educational experience using the blindness skills they possess. If I could change the direction of rehabilitation and have a say in the way decisions get made, I would opt for a system which would almost never say no but which would much more frequently say “Yes, but after….” and then require and provide the blindness services necessary to ensure that a student’s performance is based on his or her ability and not some deficit in the skills of blindness.
Dr. Jernigan used to tell us that everybody has the right to fail, but there's a tremendous difference between having the right to fail and being set up to fail when an agency abandons its responsibility to help a client determine whether or not he or she is really ready to face the challenge of technical training or college. It is my observation that far too many students fail in their attempts because, when they say they don't have time to learn the skills of blindness, we acquiesce and send them into an environment where they are ill-equipped to cope. If you know that a client is unable to write you a literate letter requesting service, why in the world would you send him to a college or university which will presume a minimal level of competence even in its beginning English composition classes? If you have someone who clearly cannot travel from point A to point B in an area which should be familiar to her, how can you expect that she will succeed on a university campus where students routinely have to travel a quarter of a mile or more between classes in less than ten minutes? Some failures provide tremendous learning experiences, but some forever close doors. You won't be a clinical psychologist, a veterinarian, or a psychiatrist if after thirty hours of classes you are forced to withdraw from school. Why not condition vocational training on the completion of an intro to writing class and on a bit of O & M training? For some clients the key is a stay at a quality rehabilitation center, and we shouldn't be reluctant to say so and to put some teeth into what we say. I suppose the system that seems to say yes at every opportunity is better than the one that once took every opportunity to say no, but I think there is a wiser in-between course that would serve everyone involved better.
If you've managed to stay with me so far, then you've heard the worst I have to say about your profession. When I look at my own rehabilitation experience, I have to say that rehab ranks right up there with the National Library Service in proving that some government programs can and do work, that good things can happen when we decide collectively to invest in our fellow human beings, and that there is something magical in the contract we create when blind people and the rehabilitation system enter into an agreement which says, “I believe in you enough to invest a significant amount of money and time, trusting that in turn you will make this investment worthwhile by living the full and rich life desired by all Americans.”
I like to tell the story of rehabilitation at its best, for my own political view is that we spend far too much time kicking government and being sarcastic and degrading when we speak of programs that should belong to us. Too often we also fail to say good things about genuinely dedicated people who make their living by really trying to do good and changing lives for the better.
I understand that we in the Federation take our fair share of shots at the rehabilitation system, but I believe we do so for constructive purposes that not only serve to focus public attention on the shortcomings of the system, but also highlight how we can make it better. It may also be that the rehabilitation system sometimes serves as a convenient whipping boy: a group of agencies powerful enough to do good or cause harm, but not so powerful or high up in the government that they can simply ignore what we say and go on about their business.
I began by saying that my dealings with the rehabilitation system revealed to me the best and the worst in people. The best came through when a rehabilitation counselor assured me that I could indeed live alone, manage my own grooming and house cleaning, label my food, and learn to cook it. This was good news for a boy whose grandmother had told him that he was very smart but that the Welfare would still have to come in each day to make sure that he had brushed his teeth and washed his face.
I can't tell you how liberating it was when I started carrying around a writing pen rather than a signature stamp and a bulky and leaky ink pad because somebody in rehab said I could learn to write my name and taught me to do it. I don't have the best signature in the world, but it's good enough for most of the card companies in the country, and the utility companies never reject my checks.
On the not-so-positive side of my experience with rehab was the raw exercise of power which became clear to me as a high school senior when I received a letter saying I must attend a summer orientation program in Columbia, Missouri, some hundred-fifty miles from where I lived. My plan for the summer between high school and college was to go to the Seeing Eye to get a dog, for which I'd waited more than a year and a half. I was an early registrant, scheduled to attend in July of 1973, but the letter I received in May declared that the summer orientation program was mandatory. Being young, determined, and rather full of myself in the belief that I could persuade anybody to do anything I wanted, I set up a meeting with the district supervisor for the Kansas City office to discuss this letter and my summer plans.
When my mother and I entered the building, we were ushered into an office where the district supervisor pointed us to chairs, went behind his desk, reclined in his own swivel chair, put his feet up on his desk, and said, "Well, young man, let's hear it."
I went through a well-rehearsed speech about how I came to find out about guide dogs, how I already had summer plans to go and get one of these magical creatures, and how I was certain that this form letter, while well meant, could not have been written with the intention of changing my long-held dream to go to Morristown.
At the end of my presentation the district supervisor removed his feet from his desk, sat straight up in his chair, looked directly at me, and said, "Young man, you say you want to get a dog. Now why you would want to get one of those things is beyond me, for, if you can travel with a cane, I think it would be nothing but a nuisance in your life. Let me tell you a thing or two about your magical creatures. Dogs stink. Dogs shed. Dogs make messes you have to clean up or other people have to walk around. Dogs make other people uncomfortable. Few people will offer you rides in their cars. You'd be better off without a dog, but the real issue is that our agency has sent you a letter saying you're going to an orientation program in Columbia. Now, young sir, if your parents have the means to pay for your college tuition, your books, and your housing, then you're free to do whatever you wish with your summer. But, if you intend to attend college under the auspices of the Bureau for the Blind, you will be in Columbia from early June through the beginning of August. Go home; talk it over with your parents; the decision is up to you.”
When my mother and I left that meeting, I was humiliated. I had never heard the word “auspices,” but it was perfectly clear to me that I had not won the day. What bothered me more than that the decision hadn't gone my way was the arrogance and tone of the meeting. This man was not friendly. He was not courteous. My mother was ashamed and almost in tears. Never in her thirty-eight years had she been treated so dismissively by a person she was inclined to respect because of his position. Neither of us came away feeling that the man who had just spoken with us respected us or felt we had anything of consequence to say.
By disposition my mother was mild compared with my father. My dad didn't take guff from anyone, and, truth be told, he felt it his right to administer guff in whatever portion he pleased. So, with my confidence rising as we drove home, I thought about the anger which would be provoked in this strong giant of a man, my father, and, though I was saddened by the fact that I couldn't sell the idea of my summer plan on my own, I rather looked forward to the confrontation I was sure was to come. What I really looked forward to was the spectacular butt-kicking that would occur when District Supervisor Cordle met Mr. John Wunder. That would be a day one cocky state employee would remember.
When Dad got home after a twelve-hour workday, my mother and I barely gave him time to eat before we began talking about our visit to the rehab agency. His reaction was one I didn't expect. He let a bit of time go by, absorbing what we said in silence, and then, in a subdued tone, he said, "Son, I understand that what you went through today wasn't what you expected. The man you talked with should have treated you better, whether or not he agreed with what you had to say. Now I know you're ready for me to go down there and set things right, but son, the truth of the matter is that the state of Missouri is offering you something that I just can't give you. If that man says you have to go to a program and wait on getting your dog so you can get a college education, then that's what you have to do. Sometimes you have to play by other people's rules. I was in the army and the merchant marines. I got busted twice for trying to play by my own rules, so, believe me, I know. If you don't like that man's rules or the way he treated you, you go through school, get yourself a college education, and then see what you can do to fight with that man when he no longer has the upper hand."
That day changed my life forever. I was a reader of the Braille Monitor in 1973, and, to tell you the truth, I found it very entertaining but not very credible. So protected was I that I just couldn't believe the events chronicled there really happened to blind people. Either the people who were discriminated against were people who couldn't argue their way out of a paper bag, or the Federation was just making a lot of noise about nothing so they could raise a little money. But, when I learned that someone could shut me down with a word and treat me as if I were some kind of a fool whose opinion was worth far less than his time, I went back and reread those old magazines, and this time it was easy for me to substitute Gary Wunder as the main character in many of the stories.
Some of you who are still awake might be saying to yourself, I see a contradiction in what he's saying. He starts by arguing that the rehabilitation agency too often says yes, when the proper response should be first to require a bit of extra training to increase the chance of success. Now he's telling us that he became a committed member of the Federation, precisely because somebody made him take that extra training.
I readily concede the point, noting that my failure to get my way was far less difficult to swallow than was the way I was told no and to get about my business. You see, I did have skill deficits which the summer program helped me identify and begin to address. My original plan, almost laughable now, was to go off and get my dog (something I still think was a good idea), and then go back to the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where I would go to school during the day, go home to live with my grandmother at night, and visit with my parents every weekend.
When I got to Columbia, Missouri, a town which I now modestly claim to be the hub of the universe, I decided that Grandma's house was no place to spend the evening, and going home for the weekend was something I should try to work in once every four or six weeks, whether I could really spare the time or not. This fantastic city actually allowed me to walk from my dormitory to my bank, to restaurants, and to the local record store, which managed to get more than its fair share of my monthly SSI and maintenance checks. When I moved from the small town of Cleveland, Missouri, which at the time boasted a population of two-hundred and sixteen, the only place I could walk was the post office. Well, in fairness there was the gas station, but back then gas stations were really just gas stations and not the convenience stores we see today.
Being able to walk from place to place brought another change in my life, and it was probably the real reason I didn't want to go home to Grandma. When you live in a little town like Cleveland, the only way you can take a gal out on a date is to pick her up from her house and deliver her home again. Being blind made that impossible without a chauffeur or a chaperone, and on my family's budget it would have been a chaperone, my mother, and that was not, let me repeat, not cool. When you live in a town like Columbia and can walk everywhere you need to go, suddenly transportation isn't a barrier to dating, and, if you're Gary Wunder, you soon realize that girls are not repulsed by you, and, believe it or not, some of them even want to spend time with you. I will admit here to becoming a bit carried away with the romance part of things that summer. Once I even decided to live really on the edge and scheduled three dates in one night. If you start early and finish late and if you're willing to lie shamelessly to girls one and two about your crushing study schedule, it can be done. Yes, I was a jerk and I loved it!
Before I close today I want to thank you for something else. I looked for the words to say this when I gave my speech in July but couldn't find them. Maybe, thanks to David Foster Wallace, I have them today. I want to thank you for making my life difficult. When I was in high school, I thought I knew a lot about the world. I knew about people of different races who said they were treated unfairly and who rioted and burned cities to show their displeasure; I knew about women who demanded equality with men, when everybody in my small universe knew women had the world by the tail; I knew about patriotic people who went to war and those others of the same age who had the opportunity to go to college and wasted their time in public demonstrations and destroying the campuses we built for their education. I knew about the odd people who were confused about their sexual identity and the sex of those they should love. I knew about the dissatisfied of the world and wondered why they made so much noise. Then you people decided I should go away to the big university and meet some of these weird and different human beings. Slowly you made me confront and eventually question many of the things I had known to be true. I was forced to read books by people I had never credited with a reasonable point of view. Not only did I have to read their books, but I had to demonstrate an understanding of what they said. Dr. King preached nonviolence. Malcolm X was more than a radical spouting hate and leading demonstrations. Gloria Steinem had a reason for her anger and, horror of horrors, she was articulate. I still love one of the quotes attributed to her: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." She popularized that statement, but it was first coined by Irina Dunn, a spirited Australian who served for a time in the senate of her country.
Thanks for robbing me of the superiority I was convinced belonged to me in the same way kings believed they were the superiors of others, by divine right. Thanks for seeing that I was paired with a black man when it came time in my class on electricity to wire a house and for revealing that his was a kinder, gentler soul than the soul of his partner. He was also better at figuring out the power required to run our house and what circuit breakers to use in which parts. Thanks for introducing me to women whose mothers did the same jobs as men and made two-thirds of what they did. Thanks for shattering my image of the ill-tempered easterner by seeing that I hired a gal from the Bronx to work with me in computer science classes. She never once lost her temper when having to read lines of code over and over again or when she had to help me retype those old punch cards we used before there were computer terminals. "You can learn this, Hon," was her constant refrain as she gently encouraged me to try again. Oh, she was also the first person who tried to teach me to dance, and I'll never forget the warmth and tenderness of that embrace. We can sing about country girls if that's what sells records, but wow—what a woman this city girl was, and no, it never went further than the dance.
Mostly I thank you for putting me in touch with people who were less interested in telling me what to think than in showing me how to think; people who were less interested in my opinions than in how I came to them; people who cared less about whether I shared their view than they did how I had come to mine and whether those views could stand the light of day; the constraints and rules dictated by reason; and fair consideration for the feelings, wants, and needs of others. You made me look into the soul of the young man who functioned too much from default behavior and not nearly enough from a thoughtful and compassionate point of view. David Foster Wallace expresses this far better than I can, but you believers in the normality of blind people made me join a wider universe and helped to show me that I was not the center of it, the keeper of the keys to all wisdom, and the superior human being I thought I was because I was male, white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian, and from the Midwest. You put me in an environment where I had no choice but to consider points of view as something other than strange or bizarre or foolish or weird or perverted. My church taught me to recite the Golden Rule; your giving me exposure to a world far different from the one I had known taught me something about how to practice it.
Some people claim that college robs people of their values and turns conservatives into liberals. I disagree. College didn't convert a conservative into a liberal. It made me confront beliefs I thought so elemental and self-evident that they needed no defense. The college experience helped me become a man who tends to believe that “conservative” and “liberal” are labels that only hint at the complicated beliefs we employ. I am leery of the people who believe all the answers can be found in experiences of the past and equally leery of those who believe all good comes from collective action or a changed human nature which has advanced as a result of evolution.My time is nearly exhausted, and so too is my audience, I'm sure. I want to thank you for the good you do, for your ability to take people who would otherwise sit at home and endure the passing of time and help them make something of that time. I want to thank you for being representatives of a government program that brings credit to the idea of a state-federal relationship that works to help her people become all that their drive and talent will let them be. Thank you for enduring the jokes about the government bureaucrats as you quietly go above and beyond the forty-hour week to change people's lives. Last but not least, let me thank you personally for what you have done for me. You took a kid who knew his family's work ethic demanded he make something of himself, and you gave him the means actually to do it. What more could any American ask, and what greater gift could any group of professionals give to America's citizens? You folks really shine, and I am blessed because you've given me that same opportunity.