by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a strong Federationist who lives in Hawaii. He spends a lot of time thinking about blindness and how to make the most of his life. His work also leads him to think about how to help others do the same. In this article he wrestles with how we get others to see that we are contributors and how to convince ourselves that indeed we have something to offer. Here is what he says:
I am not sure how I learned it, but I remember entering the college application process with a clear understanding that minority status was a positive indicator of application success. Diversity is a popular thing today, and I was once happy to ride any ticket that could take me where I wanted to go. Perhaps it was a matter of my own uncertainty about how and where I would gain opportunities; perhaps I felt as if I needed to be able to depend on some kind of credential that would not change, be taken away from me, nor be invalidated.
At that point in my life I had met many blind people, but not a single one of them were, at the time, what I would call a good blind role model. If I had found the National Federation of the Blind before my college search process, I would have done many things differently. Since I did not, I did not consider myself to be much of a contributor besides by showing up places and being blind. How often is a decision made in the public name of diversity but the unspoken spirit of charity? I still had enough dignity that I did not want to show up at a university where my only real business in being there came from a diversity ticket. As time went on and I met the National Federation of the Blind through affiliate-level scholarship programs, student divisions, and eventually national events, my confidence grew, and I began to strive for the things which were previously beyond illusionary limits. I began to realize that I really did have something to contribute, a process which has only accelerated as I have ventured further into my participation in the organization.
A person's college years are usually a period of intensive exploration and identity development, as I think they should be. This was true for me, too, both through the organized blind movement and through the other cultural communities to which I belong. By the time I was deciding what to study in graduate school, my cultural identity and resulting worldview was very much informing the type of work I sought to do. This is probably true for anyone at any point in life, but I know that mine had recently undergone substantial development at this point. I was more aware of it, and the impact was something I have come more and more to understand.
After college I applied for a few international scholarship programs that would have given me the opportunity to study abroad in Europe, broadening my horizons and preparing me for doctoral study. As part of the selection process for one of these prestigious international scholarship programs, a candidate may participate in a panel interview. In my essay I had attempted to outline the experiences that had influenced my desire to attend my proposed academic programs and what I expected to do afterward to contribute to the world with my new skill sets and expanded worldview. One of my interviewers, rather than asking a question, told me that in my essay it appeared that I was just talking about blindness to show them that I had a diversity card to play. She said that I didn't make it meaningful and probably should have left it out. I was genuinely hurt. I was quite sure that she made no effort to read my essay because I had spent hundreds of words explaining it. She may have only skimmed my essay and then allowed her own attitudes about blindness and minorities to preempt her opportunity to absorb any of what I had written.
I tried to explain how my experience as a blind person guided my active participation in government affairs and experiences as a native person of North America nurtured my passion for environmental preservation, but I was talking to a wall. I didn't get that scholarship, but I think I learned a few things from the experience. People do filter us, often with a default expectation that we are attempting to use our diversity qualifiers to gain an extra leg up with the generosity shown to underprivileged populations. Maybe we are attempting to appear more valiant for overcoming something difficult. If we do embrace society's rhetoric about how blindness is inherently difficult, it contradicts the message communicating our capacity to contribute for as long as we are blind. If our goal is to selfishly shut the door behind us as we secure an opportunity for ourselves, by all means we should take every opportunity to encourage the public to think of us as unique for functioning competently while blind. We have the opportunity to make ourselves look good while reinforcing negative stereotypes.
On the other hand, if we want to prop that door open behind us as we pass through, we must spend the time and energy to change the rhetoric. We must help society see the blind experience as normal so that our accomplishments are appreciated for their true worth, rather than artificially elevated due to the circumstance of blindness. This increases initial expectations but ultimately provides more opportunities than that diversity ticket would.
Often when I hear someone say that they are giving someone an opportunity, it is sold as an act of generosity rather than an expectation to get something from them. If people lower the bar to give us an opportunity as a matter of charity, then they are failing to put proper focus on our ability to contribute meaningfully. We want employers and other groups to take us with the intention of milking us for all we are worth. This is how we advance. This is how we develop and grow. If people have low expectations for our growth and development, then they are limiting us. If they expect us to show up and add our blindness as a diversity component to their group or organization, then we are not compelled to become any greater than we already are. There certainly have been blind people who have taken jobs where expectations were low, who worked hard and excelled, and who raised the expectations for themselves and other blind people. In the world we hope to shape, though, we who are blind will not have to do this anymore because of our work to raise expectations. Since blind people are a true cross-section of society, there are inevitably going to be some blind people out there who will be perfectly happy to stagnate; however, most of us do not just want to float like an amoeba; we want to make change in the world. Some blind people will be happy just to have any job; they might have been the same were they sighted, but they also could be doing it because it is all that they have learned to expect of themselves. If society teaches blind people to relegate themselves to a position of mediocrity, then that person has untapped potential. Stephen Jay Gould is famous for saying, "I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."
Leaders in an organization sometimes try to convince people that their contributions are meaningful in order to keep them happy and keep them around, but this can be harmful if we are not really capturing the full benefit of their capacity to contribute. I have many times heard the lines about how my contributions were meaningful when I was hardly doing anything at all. In those situations, I have understood full well that these leaders were not interested at all in the actual contributions that I wanted to make. Sometimes I believe this has been related to my blindness and their low expectations of me. Sometimes it has been a result of a desire to keep relative newcomers at arm's length. In either case, it is not a welcoming feeling, and it does not help any of us grow.
One day in the spring of 2017 as the end of the workday was approaching, Shannon Cantan, a friend, coworker, and fellow Federationist stopped by my office. He told me that after work he was going to a get-together for young people involved in politics, and he invited me to join him. I had never thought about myself as someone involved in politics, but I knew that I loved working on advocacy and policy issues through the National Federation of the Blind. I had already dabbled in other advocacy and policy arenas outside the Federation, so I figured I might fit in just enough to belong in a setting like that. I decided to give it a shot and maybe make a new friend or two.
The way the bus schedules worked, we got there about an hour before the event. Since it was at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, we spent some time exploring the campus, but then we sat down in the meeting room to be the first ones to greet everybody else. A guy came into the room and introduced himself, and we could tell that he was planning to set up the food. He started to ask, "Can you guys . . ." and then he trailed off, noticing that we were blind, saying, "Oh," with the sound of recognition that we would not be able to help. Shannon and I were of the same mind, and we knew exactly what cue he had given us. We both jumped up and told him we could do whatever he needed. We followed him around a few corners, up and down a few staircases, and out to his car, which was about a quarter-mile away. We started to figure out who would carry which food item back into the meeting room. One of the items that needed carrying was one of those giant cylindrical Gatorade coolers with a drink dispenser valve, like what football players dump on a winning Super Bowl coach. I wondered what this guy's plan had been because I really couldn't picture him carrying it all that way, but thankfully Shannon is a big guy and was able to carry the dispenser back to the meeting room with one arm while using his cane in the other. It was obvious to all observers that the ability to carry it had nothing to do with eyesight.
We set up for the event, and we showed that we could contribute. Since that day, he and I both have been making tons of friends in that network, and people react to us like we really have something to contribute. Today, when I go into the state capitol, the legislators and their staff often greet me by name, and I am often called upon to contribute on topics reaching beyond disability. Maybe one day we will come upon a scientific discovery that all intelligence and potential to make meaningful contributions is housed in the visual cortex. Until that unlikely day arrives, I hope that blind people will continue to contribute everywhere that we go.The National Federation of the Blind works to ensure that society does not miss out on the meaningful contributions that blind people can make. Our approach frequently includes raising the expectations of blind people because low expectations create obstacles which make it more difficult for the broader society to benefit from our contributions. If we have full and equal access to the mainstream channels of society, then mainstream society has full and equal access to our contributions. Like anybody else, we want our communities to consider us contributors.