From the Editor: James Brown was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind at its 2014 Convention in Orlando. He also serves as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee. Here is what will appear in “Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind” when it is next published:
James Brown was born in 1974. "I sometimes wished I had brothers and sisters, but, being an only child, I just went out and got me some. I’ve always been good at making friends, so being an only child didn’t mean I was a lonely child.”
Brown started school with a vision problem but was not declared legally blind until the age of nine. No one really appreciated how difficult it was for him to read print, but reading would send him home at the end of the day with frequent headaches and migraines. “Vision simply wasn't talked about at my house, even though my mother suffered significant vision loss while pregnant with me.” Brown says that she continued to drive on a limited basis, and never did she acknowledge that he might have trouble with his sight. He was always told to “look over there,” or “read that,” so "blindness" was the secret word never spoken.
It is not surprising that Braille was never suggested or offered to Brown. He began his education at Lighthouse Christian, a private school he attended through the seventh grade. His need for large-print books that the private school didn't have eventually pushed him to go to public school for two years. As his vision continued to decline, Brown transferred to the Tennessee School for the Blind to finish his high school education. He was never encouraged to learn Braille, and, when he asked about it at the school for the blind, he was told that it would be inappropriate for him because he would end up reading it with his eyes. Interestingly, Brown went to school with Kareem Dale, a former official in the Obama Administration. Dale and Brown were the same age and had about the same amount of vision. Dale also asked for Braille and was granted it. Brown believes this is because Dale's grandparents were actively involved in their grandson’s education and a part of the IEP process, while Brown’s parents were not very involved. Both young men lost their remaining vision about a year after graduating from high school; Dale had a way to read—Brown did not.
Brown found his time at the private school challenging, the years in public school less so, and his time at the school for the blind did not begin to challenge or stimulate him academically. When asked about his strengths in school, Brown says, "I was never exceptional at anything—maybe some of that was because I was trying to act sighted when I just didn't have the vision—but, while I wasn't outstanding in anything, I was fortunate to be good in just about everything. I didn't really take school as seriously as I should have, and I was not an honor roll student until college."
Given these experiences, how did Brown decide to pursue a higher education? "Neither of my parents had a college education, and they really regarded it as something that only the exceptional could do or expect. Eventually I came to see that any real advancement for me meant schooling, and that meant going to college,” Brown said.
After high school Brown says he was ready for a little bit of life without school, so he worked at Custom Craft Cabinets. But after two-and-a-half years of sanding, wood planing, and attaching knobs, he realized the job would not pay enough to support him and his growing family. At this point he was a married man, having taken Crystal as his wife, and at that time they had one child, Christopher, who was born in 1994. They would also have another child, Joshua, who was born in 1996. "I was making about $9 an hour, and, although $9 meant more than it does now, it was clear to me that I could not raise a family on that kind of money. I figured out that the only way I was going to move up was by going to college, but, before I could do that, I had to learn some skills—how to use a computer, do word processing, and take advantage of the internet. My grades in college were good, but I had trouble with math. I was always good at it when I could see a little. Having no way to write down the problems, I could do only what I could keep in my head, and college algebra produced the only D on a transcript that was otherwise composed of A's.
“My original goal was to attend law school, so I majored in political science. Before I graduated and applied to any of them, my cousin, who was then in law school, told me I better be prepared to go for a year or a year and a half without seeing much of my wife or my child. I decided that was not acceptable, given that I was newly married and had a young child, and that, if law school was to be something I did, it would have to come later."
Given his change in career goals, Brown graduated from college and began applying for every job he could. The job he landed was as a transportation tech for the Tennessee Highway Department. He has since been promoted and now serves as a transportation specialist planner 3.
In his job Brown conducts road safety audits. This involves analyzing safety data (the number of fatal crashes that occur on a given segment of highway) to determine their cause. If the analysis concludes that corrective action can be taken to eliminate or reduce the problem that contributes to the crashes, Brown must then determine how to fund the repairs. “If you look at the data and you see that most crashes happen when the road is wet, the corrective action is to add a high-friction surface to that part of the road. If you see a road which is well-traveled during the day but the majority of the fatal crashes happen at night, you then have to assume that night and the lack of light are playing a part in the fatalities. The answers are all there in the data, and my job is to figure them out.”
Brown came to know about the National Federation of the Blind when he won a scholarship in 2007, but winning didn't mean that he immediately became active in the organization. He relates that one of his first reactions when arriving at the convention in Atlanta was to observe to himself that "God didn't make three thousand blind people to be together. There were all these canes and dogs and people heading toward one another." At the same time he was thinking all of this, he couldn't help being impressed by all that the blind people who came to the convention were doing. At the bar where he sat, there was a lawyer sitting to his left, a television producer on his right, and next to him a scientist who was working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. All were blind. But, no matter how impressed he was by the national convention and the leaders he met, the weight of home life, work, and his participation in a graduate program meant that it took him more than a year to connect with the Federation. “Because of problems going on in Tennessee at the time, I wasn’t really too impressed with becoming a part, but the Affiliate Action Team kept me involved and kept showing me that what was happening nationally could and should be happening in my state. Going to the Washington Seminar was one of the ways they kept me involved, and the first one I attended in 2009 happened to involve our work with the quiet cars—the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act—something I felt I knew a little about.”
When Brown earned a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, he decided he had more time for outside activities, and what he saw in the National Federation of the Blind helped to convince him that the work of the organization was worth his time and talent. “I liked what I saw in these people—they didn’t hide from blindness, weren’t ashamed to be blind or to say the word. The thing I appreciated most was that many of those I met walked the talk—they were real.”
Brown became the president of the Tennessee affiliate in March of 2012 and was elected to the national board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind on July 5, 2014. "I was extremely honored to have been elected, and I'll do my best to honor the trust that has been placed in me.”
When asked what he sees as the most important challenge facing the Federation, Brown says: "I think our most immediate challenge is to recruit young people and to train them to be leaders. Young people respect those who are older, but they also want people their own age. We have to let them know that the Federation is just as important for their generation as it was to those who created it and to those of us who work to sustain it. It takes work, persistence, and targeting our efforts, but we will persuade young people in the same way we were persuaded. They will become invested and committed, and all blind people will be the better for our ongoing work. I am proud to be a part of this organization and to see to this transition."