Braille Monitor                                              July 2014

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Blindness and Social Change: What Is My Duty?

by Everette Bacon

From the Editor: Everette Bacon is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, a lover of the written word, and a man who can use it to add his significant reflections to what we know about being blind. The NFB of Utah has been selling a flash card filled with Federation speeches and other documents, and this library is what Everette credits for providing him the material he discusses in this article. Here is what he has to say:

Everette BaconLet me first say that, if you have not acquired an NFB Library Card, you are truly missing out! I would like Dr. Norm Gardner to stand up and be recognized publicly for putting together one of the most important and educational collections of materials and publications about blindness and the NFB ever made! Thank you, Norm.

I have been studying Dr. Jacobus tenBroek as of late and have really come to appreciate his teachings and how relevant they are in today’s society. His most significant works were written and presented over sixty years ago, but, when I examine myself and reflect on where blind people in Utah are today, his writings are pertinent in so many ways.

All of you here today have assembled because you either recognize that you are blind or have low vision, or you are a sighted person who is married to or related to a blind person, or your profession involves the blind and low vision. I include the term “low vision” because there are people in this room who do not yet recognize themselves as blind. And why would they? According to Webster’s Dictionary the word blind has several meanings. 1) Sightless, 2) lacking discernment, unable or unwilling to understand or judge as blind to faults, 3) made without reason or discrimination as a blind choice, 4) apart from intelligent direction or control as blind chance, 5) insensible as a blind stupor hence drunk, 6) made without knowledge or guidance or judgment as a blind purchase. After reading those definitions, I think I’ve come to find that many of us are blind in a multitude of ways. All kidding aside, it is certainly understandable after hearing the definition that one might decide that he would prefer not to be called blind.

Many of you know that I grew up in a small Baptist church and that my grandfather was the preacher of that church for over thirty years. He is gone now, but I still think of him fondly, and, when he was in the pulpit, he enjoyed and encouraged the congregation to interact with him whenever he would make a point of conviction. Many church members might say the word “Amen” after such a point. I hope you might do the same after I make the next statement: it is indeed respectable to be blind! (This is the point where you people say “Amen.”)

At this convention you will see and hear from a lawyer, a chemist, a chaplain, a bronze medalist, a dancer, a professor, a coordinator, a director, a counselor, a military leader, a policy and legislative analyst, a mother and father, a student, an intern, and on and on and on! And every single one of them is blind. The fact that we are blind does not mean that we lack judgment or we lack balance or we lack common sense or we lack the ability to reason or any other ignorant comparison to which our disability label is attached.

Is it our responsibility or duty to help continue this movement of changing what it means to be blind? Yes, it is our duty. I ask you, if we are not willing to organize and advocate for ourselves, then who will?

I grew up with hereditary blindness. My great-grandmother was blind and ran a vending stand at the Oklahoma federal courthouse. She used a guide dog for all of her adult life. She raised and maintained chickens, and she was proud to state that she outlived six husbands! She had a brother who was also blind, whom I never met. He had a blind son (my great uncle) who is a farmer in Oklahoma. My grandmother who was blind was a USO volunteer in Oklahoma; she met my grandfather while he was serving in the Navy during World War II. They were married just two weeks after meeting each other. After he finished his military service, he went to seminary and was ordained as a Baptist minister. My grandmother understood her role and willingly became the matriarch of every church he pastored throughout his career. She was always considered the most beautiful woman in the church. She dressed with style and grace, and her hair and makeup were always perfect. She was a true Texan debutant! They gave birth to two daughters who were both blind. My mother had more vision than my aunt when they were younger, but they both eventually went completely blind. My aunt graduated from the University of California and became a rehabilitation professional. She has worked in both vocational rehabilitation and independent living. In California she ran a center that helped disabled people find affordable housing. She was recognized by Governor Jerry Brown for the success of this organization. My mother worked with my aunt part-time, and she also was a proud homemaker. My aunt had a daughter who is blind, and my mom gave birth to me. My cousin is also a mother of two blind daughters.

I tell you my family history in blindness because I am not ashamed of where and who I come from. Blindness is such a part of my existence that I really do not think I could ever understand what life would be without it. Unfortunately, I did not grow up with the NFB. My family certainly knew about organizations of the blind, but they rarely ever got involved. I was never told that I could not be successful as a blind person, but I was told that I would have to settle for a certain kind of career, and I was never told to accept my impending blindness. I was taught to hold on to my decreasing vision for as long as I could. For this reason I never learned Braille as a kid or young adult, I never used a cane, and alternative techniques were reserved to figuring out how to see it with my limited vision. The first person in my life who made me understand and comprehend that I was going to become completely blind and that I better start planning and accepting it was my wife Angela. She is a medical professional who just so happened to be working with a geneticist that was studying my family history, and she realized that my family and I were in denial about me. She was the one who lit the fire from within me to go and find out more. In many ways she led me to the NFB, and I thank her for that. If I could have found the NFB when I was a child or as an impressionable teenager, I wonder how different I would be today? My family did not realize or understand the important work of the NFB. They never learned how the NFB was working to change the social definition of blindness.

That is the difference between what our children and young people have now. They have what many of us did not growing up. They have you. They have someone who knows what you know. They have someone who can light the fire from within them. As blind people we must continue this important work. We must continue to advocate and organize. It is our duty to change the social stigma attached to being blind. We must be the ones to light the fire from within those who don’t know they have the fire now.

If there is anything that I hope the NFB has taught you, it is that you have ability—the ability to be whatever you want to be without settling for something less. You have the ability to do whatever you want to do without being worried that you are not equipped to do it. What I know the NFB has given each of you is the spark…the flicker…the flame. The NFB lit your fire, baby!

I guess I should ask if any of you are old enough to remember The Doors. I’m not sure if I’m sad or just old—but can you believe there are people walking around today that have no idea who The Doors are? Well, I am going to wildly misquote them and use the lyrics of arguably their best known song to inspire you to do for someone else what the NFB has done for you:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now—we can only lose
And our cause will become a funeral pyre
Come on baby, light someone’s fire!
Come on baby, light someone’s fire!
Try to set the world on fire!!!

Okay—maybe the words of Jim Morrison and Robby Krieger may not be classy enough for some—but it all boils down to the same thing. We need to be inspired, and we need to inspire others. That is the whole reason we are at this conference. We are here to be inspired—but this conference is a failure if we do not then go out and inspire others. We need our fires lit, and we need to light the fires of others. Come on baby, light some fires.

I want to leave you with a quote from Cesar Chavez, a civil rights activist: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Come and be active in your local chapter meetings, help strengthen a division. Join this movement—for we are the blind, and our social change will not be stopped!

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