by James Gashel
From the Editor: This is how this story was originally introduced in the Kernel Book Celebrate: James Gashel lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. He has been a leader in the National Federation of the Blind for more than three decades and in that time has seen marked progress in the way blind people are perceived by members of the general public, and his story is one that relates that advancement. Here is what he has to say:
I have been blind all my life, and I grew up in Iowa where Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was my teacher on matters dealing with blindness and life in general. He taught us that it is respectable to be blind. This is the most important lesson I ever learned.
Knowing that blindness is respectable leads to self-confidence. I still see blind people holding back on trying things they could do if they only had the confidence to try. More than loss of eyesight, this is the real problem of blindness. Dr. Jernigan taught us this too.
During the time I was in college in Iowa and starting to think about such things, I knew blind people who were told they couldn't take certain classes or be hired for certain jobs, for example as teachers. I knew this was wrong, and this is why I joined the National Federation of the Blind.
I learned that a form of discrimination occurs when blind people are denied jobs or other opportunities based on misconceptions. Not all denials are discrimination, such as refusing to issue a blind person a driver's license. Denials based on incorrect facts or false reasoning are discrimination, but are almost never mean-spirited as we sometimes think of with racial or ethnic prejudice. Still, even if kindness is the reason, blind people do face discrimination in the form of exclusion from opportunities.
In the National Federation of the Blind we share stories with one another about the successes we have and the barriers we still face. This is how I first learned that blind people were being excluded from jury service. I knew that blind people were working as lawyers, so I couldn't figure out why we couldn't serve on juries.
Who would think that the legal system would discriminate against blind people? None of this seemed right, and it wasn't right. I wondered what would happen if I was called to serve. On whom can you count for justice when the law enforcer has already made up his mind against you?
Many years went by, and I was never called for jury duty. Then it happened. I now live in Baltimore, Maryland, where the circuit court has a "one trial or one day" rule. This results in being called for jury duty as often as once a year and certainly within two years, but many more people are called than actually serve on a jury.
The first time I was called the day was uneventful, but the second time was different. My summons number was 14, so if a judge needed a jury, I was certain to be in the group called for screening. In fact, this is exactly what happened as soon as we had received the general "pep-talk" about the importance of jury service.
The announcement made by a court official instructed anyone with a number between 1 and 100 to report to one of the courtrooms in the building across the street. Using a long white cane, which I do, no one could miss that I am blind, but nobody mentioned it either. So, off to the courtroom I went where the judge told us the procedures and started asking questions to select the jury.
This was a civil dispute. The plaintiff was an older gentleman, and the defendant was a young man in his early 20’s. These two had been involved in a traffic accident, and the issue was over who caused it and who would pay.
According to the instructions we were supposed to stand up if we had to answer "no" to any of the questions. I kept my seat since I had no reason to give a "no" answer. Then the judge started calling numbers, and what do you know, number 14 was the very first one called.
When I rose, white cane in hand, the judge told me to take the first chair in the jury box. Actually, I had no idea where the jury box was, let alone the first chair, but I walked confidently toward the bench to an area where I assumed the jury would have to be seated to view the attorneys, the witnesses, and the judge.
With two rows of chairs there, it turned out that I was right. I proceeded to the first chair at the end closest to the judge in the front row, figuring that this was the one intended for me. This view was confirmed too when the judge called the next juror's number as I confidently took my seat.
Finally we were all seated, and the trial commenced. At noon we took a break, and a court employee escorted all of the jurors to a room where we were told to reassemble after lunch, after which we were dismissed for lunch on our own. I'm not sure when we were told that the juror in the first chair is the foreman, but I remember feeling a great sense of responsibility as I left the courthouse for lunch. Here I was, the foreman of a jury at the Circuit Court in Baltimore.
Some time after 1:00 p.m., when everyone was back, the trial resumed. We listened to testimony for the next two and a half hours, nothing like the O. J. Simpson trial that lasted several months. Anyway, the judge started to read instructions to us at about 3:30 p.m., and we filed back to the jury room to deliberate. It was close to 4:00 p.m.
The judge's instructions included three or four questions that we were specifically directed to answer. I wrote these questions down on a Braille device I use, and read my Braille notes to direct the jury. The crux of the case was who caused the accident? Did the older gentlemen fail to see the car driven by the younger man before he pulled out, or was the younger driver speeding out-of-control as the older gentleman alleged?
All of the sympathies were with the plaintiff (the older gentleman) who had been seriously injured in the accident, but my responsibility was to lead the jury to evaluate the proof. With four years of intercollegiate debating and subsequent work as a high school forensics coach, I was probably the best-qualified person in the room to explain the burden of proof to the others. Emotions were running high as we argued the merits of each side, but no one mentioned that I am blind and cannot drive a car. If they had, I would have argued that this would leave me free from preconceptions that drivers might have in evaluating the facts of this case. Knowing about evaluation of evidence and burden of proof were more important in that setting than knowing about driving, so no one challenged me on that point.
Anyway, when all was said and done, the jury reached a unanimous vote that the plaintiff had not established the defendant's fault. I directed another juror to complete the printed form for the judge, and we returned to announce the verdict. The day was almost over. It was now my responsibility to speak for the jury to confirm the decision, which I did. At that point we received the judge's thanks, and the trial was over.
As I left the courthouse it struck me, blindness had not come up all day. I had gone to the bar of justice and been treated as a first-class citizen. There was no need to argue or persuade anyone that as a blind person I could still judge the facts of a traffic accident. No one seemed to doubt my ability. The message of the National Federation of the Blind is really getting through. Here's the proof: there was no discrimination at the courthouse.