by Harold Wilson
From the Editor: Harold Wilson is the vice president of the National Association of Blind Merchants and the manager of PTO Concessions at the US Patent and Trade Office. He attended the 2015 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri and prepared these remarks:
Long long ago in a faraway land there once was a sighted boy who lived with his sighted parents and three brothers. He had many chores to do, as did every member of his family, and in this way the work that needed done was shared by all. Then one day he became sick and needed to go to the doctor to figure out what was causing him to lose his sight. The doctor said his loss of sight was because of a brain tumor. The tumor was removed, but his sight did not return, and he was declared legally blind.
After he returned home from the hospital, his family, friends, and loved ones were grateful he was alive. The boy was also thankful, and, though he couldn't see, this caused some excitement and for a time made him the center of attention. This he liked. He did not have to do the chores he once had done, and at first he thought this was great, until he realized that his brothers no longer treated him as an equal. He no longer filled an important role by taking on the responsibilities that once made him a fully contributing family member.
Finally, six years later, he was told about the Louisiana Center for the Blind. It was a training center that claimed it would help him with all of the blindness skills he would need to live a normal life. When he decided to go, it was one of the best decisions he ever made—a decision that would change him forever.
At the center the blind and sighted instructors had more confidence in him than he had in himself. Nine months after beginning the program, when he graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind with his new attitude and blindness skills, he was ready to conquer the world. He began studying at Louisiana Tech University, majoring in elementary education. After completing all of his lower division requirements, he was ready for the upper classes that focused specifically on teaching elementary students. When he began these higher-level classes, he received a directive to report to the dean of education. The dean informed him that, since he was blind, there was no doubt that he was going to have more difficulty in his classes and in his later work. The dean told him to go home for the weekend and write down all the problems he was likely to face in his classes and in working as a teacher. He was also to write out just how he would deal with those problems given that he was blind. Though the dean didn't say it directly, he was telling the blind student to choose a more suitable profession and trying to make it seem as though the student had come to this decision on his own.
Now the young man realized that the dean was trying to help, but he had also been told many times that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Before his training, the young man might have seen the dean's signals as a stop sign and felt that he had no choice but to abandon his dream. If he did what the dean suggested and spent his time concentrating on all the possible problems and pitfalls he might encounter, it is likely he would have given up on his dream of becoming a teacher, but he knew that blindness would not stop him and that he held inside him the strength and the resourcefulness to see this through. When he needed an answer he could not summon using his experience and brains, he knew where he could go for the answer.
So it was that, on the following Monday, the young man came to the dean's office bolstered by the knowledge that he had the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana and the rest of the Federation around the country behind him. He told the dean that it was not right for him to expect that he have all the answers to the problems he might face as a teacher or to suggest that he consider another profession just because the dean had never seen a person without sight teach in a public classroom. The young man said he was prepared to face the problems that being an upper-level student and student teacher would pose and that he knew he would have a real selling job to do when it came time to look for employment. With firmness and respect he told the dean that no one should decide whether or not a blind person could teach simply based on blindness.
After the dean was convinced that the young would-be teacher and the National Federation of the Blind would not tolerate arbitrary decisions about who could or could not be a teacher, he dropped his demand for a list of problems and solutions the student might face and stopped trying to persuade him to find another field. This did not lessen the skepticism of other professors who continued to challenge him with misconceptions about blindness and the bleak future he would have should he try teaching as a career. One argued that, because the blind student used a human reader for his texts and to transcribe his work, "Every time I grade your paper, I feel like I am grading the work of your reader." Another was more positive but said, "I feel like you can teach, but just in a one-on-one situation.” A teacher asked to supervise the blind student in student teaching said, "I have too many young students in my classroom; I do not need another one to have to watch."
By now I suppose you know that the student in this little presentation was me. I sometimes talk about this in the third person because it is hard to believe that these things actually happened to me. Okay, now that we know the blind character in this story, let's get back to it. I invited my professors to take a tour of the Louisiana Center for the Blind to let them see what the training center was all about. My hope was that it would modify their attitudes about blind people and particularly about me and my ability to be a teacher. I'm not sure whether or not it helped, but, on schedule, I graduated with my elementary education degree.
Once I was done with school, I needed to find a job. Even though I live in Ruston, Louisiana, where the Louisiana Center for the Blind is located, I could not find a teaching job. After a summer full of interviews, I started to look in neighboring cities. In the last week of August I spoke with a principal who was looking for a vision teacher. I interviewed for the job teaching blind students. The principal said, "I believe you will be perfect for this job." This would be my first real full-time job: a great opportunity for me as a blind person, a great opportunity for the blind students I would teach, a great opportunity for the sighted teachers I would work with, and a great opportunity for the principal who hired me—a person who, unbeknownst to me, had RP, was in the process of going blind, and needed the affirmation that she too could function without sight. What a wonderful relationship developed there: she was my mentor as I learned about teaching, and I was her mentor as she learned about being blind.
The National Federation of the Blind offered me the blindness skills and the opportunity to educate others about blindness. I owe a great deal to the organization and do my best to pay it back each day. Abraham Lincoln once said, "My father taught me how to work, but he did not teach me how to like it." Now I don't mean to compare myself to that great man, but Harold Wilson says, "My father taught me how to work, but the National Federation of the Blind taught me how to like it and convinced me I could do it as well as any other man. I try to live up to their belief in me and do my best to give to others that which has been so generously given to me.”
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