by Gary Wunder
Adrienne Asch was my friend. Because I believe in life after this one, I do not just say she was my friend, but that she is my friend and will always be so. I clearly remember the first time we met because I earned myself a lecture. Adrienne had asked Federationists to complete some kind of survey. When I heard her introduce herself at an elevator, I introduced myself and proudly said, “I completed your survey.”
“No, you didn’t complete my survey,” she said. “I know the names of all those who took the time to complete it, and you didn’t.” Well, that elevator certainly seemed confining, and I was glad when I reached my floor. The truth is that, as I thought about it, I clearly remembered being asked to do the survey, but less clearly did I remember completing it or returning it. I concluded she was right, looked her up, asked if having my participation would still be helpful, and promised to be more careful about completing such requests. “It’s too late for the survey,” she said, “But I’d be glad to talk with you.” Figuring that our friendship was already off on the wrong foot and fearing that I’d probably mess up again, I nevertheless agreed that we’d visit, and that visit led to our becoming fast friends.
One of the benefits of belonging to the National Federation of the Blind is coming to know many accomplished people who find time in their busy lives to help in our work and who make it their own. How often do we find the very successful turning a deaf ear when asked to help others who are blind: their musical careers will not allow them to participate; their business consumes too much of their time to allow for volunteer participation; they have done it all on their own and have no more in common with other blind people than they have with those who visit the dentist who cleans their teeth.
While maintaining a schedule every bit as rigorous and demanding as any musician or business person, Adrienne Asch found time for us. She did not regularly attend chapter meetings and seldom made it to state conventions. Nevertheless, her participation was to represent us in places where only she could go: conferences of scientists, philosophers, and bioethicists concerned with matters of life and death, quality of life, and determining when a newly formed being had rights that should be protected by the state.
One thing I admired about Adrienne was how deeply she believed in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind and how determined she was to live it. She was quick to admit that mobility was a challenge, even in places as familiar as the National Center for the Blind, which she visited at least twice each year. This did not dampen her resolve to go anywhere she needed to go, and to do so independently. When her job required her to go to Europe or Africa, go she did. When it required her to go to unknown hotels and travel on unfamiliar public transit systems, she did. When she found that the academic work that she needed to do required her to read material that had yet to be transcribed, she hired people to scan it, used her Kurzweil product to convert it into a computer-readable document, and transferred it to her Braille display. The materials she had to digest to discuss biology, genetics, philosophy, and the law competently were voluminous, but she appreciated the blessing of being busy and was glad to be so engaged. For her a challenge and a barrier were not at all the same, and her forthright and honest way of acknowledging her challenges and then conquering them should be a lesson to us all.
Adrienne thought and wrote about things we often consider too uncomfortable to think much about, and she tried to do so in a way that did not reflect only one religious perspective or cultural belief. Her positions could not be easily stated in a sentence. If a woman wanted a child, Adrienne supported her right to choose, but she believed that a choice to keep or abort a disabled child should be based on good information about what living with that disability was actually likely to be. What she believed helped to shape the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act, sponsored by Edward Kennedy and Sam Brownback. This legislation, adopted into law in 2008, said that a choice to abort based on disability should be made only after good information about life with that disability had been provided to the soon-to-be parents. Regulations implementing this legislation have yet to be created, but the challenge given to doctors, genetic counselors, and those of us who have disabilities is enormously important. Adrienne pleaded with us to decide how we would play a part in shaping how the public comes to feel about people with disabilities, explaining to them that we have lives well worth living and affirming through our words and actions that we have something positive to contribute to the world.This passionate belief in the ability of all human beings to bring something to the world is what I most admire about the life of my dear friend and what causes me to look harder every day to find the contributions others can bring into my life and the life of the human family. The thing I most treasure is that she allowed me to share in her life, valued my intellect enough to care about my opinions, and trusted me enough to talk with me about things that really mattered to her—the state of our world, the state of our organization, and the state of her personal life, with all of its joys and sorrows. This was the privilege of knowing the soul who lived in the body of Adrienne Asch and who will continue to live in all of us who heard her message; who felt her love; and who, because of her, will dare to expose the better angels of our natures.