by Barbara Pierce
From the Editor: the article which follows was originally printed in December of 1990. It beautifully illustrates how often those of us who are blind are encouraged by our families to be givers, but how difficult it is to give in a world which expects little giving from us, and sometimes frustrates us when we try to be more than passive spectators. Here is what Barbara has to say:
My parents always made a conscientious, though all too often futile, effort to teach my brother and me that the Christmas season was a time for reflection, for reassessment, and for gratitude, not only for the blessings we had received, but also for the opportunities to give. We understood about joy, after December 25, at least, but gratitude smacked unpleasantly of thank-you notes and visits to old ladies, where lively children were expected to sit still, answer silly questions, endure being patted on the head, and refrain from swinging their legs or squabbling.
My adult understanding of this holiday season is far nearer to that of my parents than to my own youthful views. And, if I am honest, I must admit that I have not been noticeably more successful in conveying this more meditative approach to the holidays to my children. I remember the year that each family member drew the name of another every week leading up to Christmas and then tried secretly to do kind things for that person every day. We placed a cradle in front of the fireplace and added one piece of hay for each good deed. The children loved the idea and even tried to remember to be thoughtful, but I'm afraid that the Christ Child did not have a luxuriously soft bed of hay by Christmas Eve.
The fact remains that both the Jewish and Christian faiths encourage us at this season of the year to reflect upon the blessings we have been given and the uses we have chosen to make of them. My trip to Jamaica this past fall and the deprivation I saw there have been a poignant reminder to me of just how much progress Americans in general and the blind in particular have made. Despite the great distance we still have to travel to achieve true equality, all of us have much for which to be grateful.
But I have been thinking recently of how lucky we are to be able to give. For much of the history of blind people, no one in society was particularly interested in anything we had to offer. Preoccupied with what we could not do—or what they thought we could not do— members of the community taunted or ignored or practiced charity upon us. Today, however, thanks to Braille, good travel skills, and increased technology, but most of all, thanks to the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, blind people in increasing numbers are demonstrating to society that we do have many things of value to offer to our communities.
All this is important, and it is necessary that we take stock of such progress and be grateful for it. But we must also recognize how lucky we are to be able to help other blind people. How empty of satisfaction life would be, how distressing our encounters with one another if we had no encouragement, expertise, or support to offer to those who are coming to terms with blindness for the first time. The fact that we do possess a gift that is infinitely valuable to people who are desperate for even a little hope, dignity, and self-respect is a great blessing. Being a part of the National Federation of the Blind enables each of us to help other people every day. Each time we staff an information table in the rain, take part in a fundraising project, or work to get our literature placed in libraries, we are offering the philosophy that rescues lives to people who need to know about it. Somehow it is all too easy to forget about this aspect of the work we do week in and week out.
These were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read the following letter. It just appeared in the mail at the National Center for the Blind one day this fall. Each of us stands a little taller because of it. Here it is. Happy holidays to each of you.
Dear Mr. Jernigan,
I recently lost enough vision in my one remaining eye to be considered legally blind. This all started last December. My goal was to return to work this September. I was, however, worried about my ability and needed some advice. The people at the Lighthouse advised me to get "legal status" with the state. I set up an interview with one of their counselors. To my amazement the counselor told me to "quit work." He told me "I was a smart young man." As a shop teacher I would be placing myself in danger of losing the rest of my sight, going blind. I would be placing my students at risk. I would be doing a disservice to my family.
I was bewildered. I was forty years old and on my way to applying for SSDI. At the Social Security office I was told about social welfare. That evening I came home and told my wife the news. I should quit work, retrain to become a counselor, go back to school; she must find work, and keeping the house seemed iffy.
I called my uncle that night. He went blind due to a chemical accident when his kids were small. He told me that newly blinded people are likely to accept anything that people tell them. He said, "Don't believe any of that crap!" He got the same treatment. He told me to call the NFB. He told me the "OF" in National Federation of the Blind was very important. They are blind people helping each other. There is a difference.
The woman I spoke to in the Baltimore office was great. She told me how to get in touch with a member of the Federation in my state, and ten minutes later I was talking with him. In a few minutes more we were on a conference telephone call with a Federationist in another state who works in one of the Federation centers and knows about what the blind can do with machinery and shop work. We spoke about shop and my skills as a shop teacher. It gave me a new perspective and showed me possibilities.
Later that morning I called the state agency for the blind. I asked my counselor if he could legally stop me from working. He said no. I told him I would be returning to work. He told me again how foolish I was. He told me I'd be back when I saw things his way.
I tell you, I pray to God each day to watch over me. I also pray to be smart. I teach safety first. I maintain discipline. I ask for help with heavy things which have to be moved. In this way I provide for my family. I do the work I'm qualified for. I maintain my independence.
I know that I have a long way to go. I'm joining the NFB, and I am learning.
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.
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: