by Jim Marks
From the Editor: In cleaning up her computer, Barbara Pierce came across a post Jim Marks made on one of our listservs. While the issue being debated at that time was audible traffic signals, we have moved far beyond that specific discussion. Nevertheless, what Jim talks about is quite relevant today. When we have discovered something important about how to function as blind people, how do we go about sharing it? Must we be a stellar example of how that technique is used before we can tell others about it? How do we communicate the liberation that mastering a new technique can bring without making others feel as though we are criticizing them because they don’t know it or cannot use it as effectively as we do? If we learn of someone preparing to move to a nursing home because he believes that he can no longer cook, clean, and take care of himself, I believe we have an obligation to explain how we do such things. On the other hand, if we are talking to a diabetic who has lost most of the feeling in her hands, it is ridiculous for us to suggest to her that the answer to many of her life’s problems can be found in becoming a proficient user of Braille.
Most would probably agree that the two examples I’ve offered are extreme, so what about something less obvious? If I read an email post from a person who complains that a restaurant brought him a sixteen-ounce steak without cutting it and that he was required to send it back, do I have an obligation to tell him that, other significant disabilities notwithstanding, blind people can learn to cut their meat and that the cutting of meat by someone other than the person who is about to eat it is usually reserved for small children? If I say this to him politely, is it okay for him to label me as one of those bossy NFB members who is always trying to make blind people behave in their own, limited, circumscribed way? When is it appropriate to suggest that a blind person has an obligation to learn to be independent, and when is it okay to accept differences in behavior and pass them off with the statement “different strokes for different folks?” The answer isn’t easy to ascertain, but the question is terribly important. Whether I am perceived as offering hope or criticism has something to do with the way I package and send my message and something to do with the mindset of the receiver who hears it. I can’t control the latter, but I certainly can control the former. Here is what Jim has to say about offering hope without offending and creating hostility:
My initial experience with blindness had nothing to do with the NFB. At age eighteen I discovered I had an eye disease which would eventually cause me to go blind. At twenty-five the doctors told me I was legally blind and that there was nothing else they could do for me.
I grew up on a Montana ranch, the oldest of nine children. School and sports were easy for me. I still sometimes joke that at eighteen I thought the earth shook beneath my feet as I walked. Blindness took me by surprise. At first I hated it, thinking blindness to be a tragedy beyond measure. I internalized all the worst stereotypes, going through all the stages of victimhood: shame, using the victimhood to victimize others, and anger. Then, in part because life taught me I was still the same person blind or sighted, I realized my main barrier wasn't in blindness itself. Rather, nearly all the barriers I faced were of my own creation through what I thought blindness meant. Once I realized that all I had to do was to reject the stereotypes and to redefine blindness in ordinary ways, life got a lot better.
All this happened, as I said, without the Federation. Montana didn't have a very strong affiliate. I knew no other blind people who could act as role models and mentors. This eventually changed as I met more and more blind people who set their own agendas and lived life with dignity and respect. I got involved in the general disability movement through a center for independent living. It was okay and taught me a lot about advocacy and making things happen. But CILs really aren't designed for the blind. Working within the independent living movement left me wanting something more, something that made sense for a blind person. Later, I became aware that the independent living stuff paid most attention to the accessible environment. While access is nice and vital, it isn't the answer for the blind. We've got to learn how to be blind, a lifelong process which involves positive attitudes, well-designed training, and plenty of opportunities to practice the art of being blind.
Then something happened to me which made a huge difference in my life. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic hired me to demonstrate an electronic text-reading system at the 1993 convention of the NFB. I was amazed, as many are, by the feeling one gets from being around so many able blind folk. But that isn't what got me the most. Kenneth Jernigan's speech, "The Nature of Independence," hooked me for a lifetime. Now, it wasn't a matter of being taken in by a charismatic leader. Jernigan uttered the very same stuff I believed in, and it took me by surprise. I came to the NFB with the prejudice of one who thought that Federationists were blind superhero types who preached long and who condemned anyone who didn't walk the Federation walk or talk the Federation talk. So you could imagine my surprise when I heard what I believed in, and it was coming out of Jernigan's mouth. The convention crowd loved it; I loved it; And I've been hanging around ever since.
The reason I have gone into so much personal detail is that I want you to understand better where I'm coming from in order to respond to your post as well as I can. You said the Federation must refrain from putting people down and move towards empowering people. I agree. But I disagree that the Federation beats people up who can't do the things we know to be possible. Many people make the mistake of feeding a supposed split between the less and more able blind. Listservs don't help, for they lean towards misunderstanding far more often than understanding. The Federation I know and love consists of the positive influence you speak of. Sure, some folks may be harsh in their administration of NFB philosophy, but intelligent people look beyond that to figure out what is at the heart of our movement. Thus I urge you not to get hung up on what may appear to be a black-and-white grasp of what it means to be blind and act on what you know works for you and others. At the same time keep an open mind to the lessons the Federation offers. Things that seem harsh at first blush later reveal themselves as kindness.
Of course people apply Federation philosophy differently in their lives. As I said, I do not consider myself an NFB superman. I am learning all the time from a network of dear friends who share the same mission. For instance, my Braille skills leave a lot to be desired. Part of that stems from two separate accidents as a teenager--one in football and the other in a motorcycle wreck, which apparently destroyed the feeling in my right hand. I use Braille daily, but I won’t ever be able to read it nearly as fast as most others. At the same time, I am a fierce advocate for Braille, especially when it comes to children. That's because it's about literacy, the ticket to a life of self-determination and contribution. The point is that, although I don't live out the model perfectly, the NFB gives something to aim at and the framework from which I can effectively press for goals that positively affect blind people's lives.
I agree that blind people face the same problems any pedestrians do, and audible traffic signals are not "the" answer in a world increasingly favoring the automobile. And I agree very much that there may be creative solutions to the problems faced by pedestrians. My main concern about what you said regarding the different strokes thing is that your words bolstered the idea that the solution to the pedestrian problem may be environmental rather than personal. In my opinion the access movement threatens the blind far more than any pedestrian problem ever could. We should not abandon the concepts of believing in the abilities of the blind and the daily application of the alternative techniques of blindness. I fear that the access movement will result in a backslide in which we start to blame blindness itself for our problems rather than acting out the Federation themes of can-do attitudes and personal responsibility. When I hear people crying out for more audible traffic signals or other environmental changes, it makes me afraid for those who come behind us. Somehow we've got to redouble our resolve to define blindness in our own terms.
Many fellow blind people hold the worst notions of blindness. We cannot afford these to set the stage for all of us. That's why the NFB challenges those who reach for something external rather than internal. I want to see action on the part of those who get offended when personal responsibility is raised. No one wants to feel that he or she doesn't measure up. It's a lousy feeling. But it's even more lousy to ignore what we know lies within the realm of possibilities. I believe the Federation should push and push hard on our agenda. This doesn't mean we have to be jerks in the process. We do want to open our arms and provide the support it takes to make a difference in people's lives. No matter what we do, some will choose to reject our understanding of what it means to be blind. This saddens me but doesn't deter me from pressing the Federation agenda. Our dreams say that we want a better world for ourselves, for others in similar situations, and for those who come after us. Reality means that we win some, and we lose some, but being a Federationist means we never give up the dream and never give up sharing it with those who can benefit.