by Gary Wunder
In many items that pass my desk are two assertions that I let go unchallenged as though they must be taken as articles of faith.
The assertions are usually found in these statements: As blind people we have to work harder than and perhaps even twice as hard as our sighted colleagues to get things done. Parallel with this is the assertion that in order to get the same grade or do the same job as our sighted colleagues, we have to be twice as good. I hear these arguments from blind people in almost every walk of life, from the student trying to earn a grade to the employee or businessperson trying to earn a check. I’ve never felt comfortable letting these pass unchallenged, but neither have I felt up to questioning the assertions directly, especially since I’ve taken comfort in espousing them myself from time to time.
So let me start with the person I know best or at least the person I try to present to the world. Until late in high school I’m not sure I worked harder than anyone to get the grades I got, and they weren’t anything to brag about. It took a long time for me to realize that school had something to do with whether I was going to be able to earn a living. Until that realization, I took seriously only those parts of the curriculum I found fun or thought to be relevant. I did not take seriously many of the things I was asked to work on if I found them hard or if I judged them, in my ever so worldly mind, to be irrelevant. Even wising up in my last year or so of high school could not salvage my class rank, which was twenty-second in the class of forty-three.
Was my difficulty caused by blindness? Perhaps a little. It would’ve been nice to have my textbook for algebra in Braille. The same would’ve been helpful in Spanish. Perhaps the assistance with readers extended to me in college would have been helpful in high school. But most certainly I would’ve done better had I been mature enough to realize that the people who came before me probably knew more about life and what it took to be successful than I did. Most certainly I would’ve done better had I not been so arrogant as to think that the words relevant and irrelevant were the most important in the English language and that I was capable of deciding what would and would not be important in my future. Sometimes I was called lazy, but I think it was more a case of not being able to connect the dots and to see how my work at the time would result in future opportunities. Is it acceptable for a good Braille reader to claim he has sometimes had trouble connecting the dots?
In addition to studying electronics technology, I took advanced work in computer science and got an entry-level job that soon turned into promotions until I became a senior programmer analyst and a project manager. At the end of that career, I was making more than five times my starting salary, and let me say that I will always remember my first contract saying I would be paid the princely sum of $12,134 a year. I posted that contract on the refrigerator and probably should’ve laminated it, but soon I was making more, and I became accustomed to promotions and merit raises and not just cost-of-living increases. But let me return to the assertion that to do my job required that I be twice as good and work twice as hard as everyone else. I’m proud of the work I did, the work ethic I brought, and the way I was able to contribute to our team. But, I was not the best programmer on the staff. Some were better at looking at older programs and instantly seeing what they were intended to do and why they weren’t doing it. Some were better at coming up with completely different ideas about how to tackle a problem and in so doing either making the code easier to understand or making it more efficient when run by the computer.
In my work career, sometimes I was on top. There were times when suggestions I made changed the whole design of the system for the better. One innovation I brought to an existing process ended up saving us two thousand dollars a week in computer processing time. But I did not work twice as hard, nor was I the best programmer on our staff.
Was blindness sometimes a problem? You bet it was. Did I sometimes work extra hours to make my screen reader read things that were obvious to other people just by looking? You bet. Did I have to look for buried keystrokes and sometimes write my own scripts so that I could do what others easily did with the mouse? You bet. But there were people with whom I worked who got more done than I did, people who stayed later into the night than I did, people who were more dedicated to being number one at their jobs than I was. I desperately wanted to do right by my employer, to know that I earned my money, but I wanted other things as well. I wanted time for my family. I wanted time for our Federation. I wanted time for recreation, exercise, and the sense that there was balance in my life and not all just serious work.
Today as the editor of the Braille Monitor, I know I am not the most qualified editor this publication has ever had. Jacobus tenBroek preceded me in this job, and my educational accomplishments are nothing compared with his. Perry Sundquist put out a wonderful magazine. Hazel tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and Barbara Pierce all had strengths I don’t have. How would this magazine be today if Daniel Frye had remained its editor? We can’t know, but it is clear to me that mine is not the best mind ever to be put to the task of generating this publication. I’m not trying to be modest—I like the mind I have and the work I do, but my mind tells me that perspective is important and that each of us should know our strengths and our weaknesses.
So how hard is my job compared with what it would be were I sighted? Who can really say? Would I have problems with screen-reading software? I may never have heard of it. Would I have a cheaper way to read and write while on the road? Probably so. But would my job be easier or my work product superior? Do I spend twice as long as a sighted person would on our magazine? I don’t think so. Would it be twice as good if a person with sight did the editing? Again, I don’t believe so.
Why, you may ask, does the answer to the question of extra effort and clearly being superior to the other person matter? If it is true, we should say it. But if it is not, there are good reasons to avoid saying it. Interestingly, what is spawned from the belief that everything we do takes more energy, creativity, effort, and psychological toughness is precisely the thing that makes some people in society believe as they do about us. We get angry when we are patronized, when people tell us we are inspiring, or when they say that if they had to live our lives, they just couldn’t do it. But perhaps our proclamations that our lives are harder is likely a contributor to these perceptions. Did we generate the belief among sighted people that we work twice as hard and that life is harder for us, or did we buy this notion from the very public we are trying to inform about the authentic experience of blindness?
I often wonder how we can assert that we work harder or twice as hard than other people when we have not walked in their shoes. I know a woman with food allergies that are so severe that she spends at least five minutes whenever we go to a restaurant figuring out whether there is anything she can eat and how she can communicate her order. I know a man who is a deep thinker, appreciates the subtlety and complexity of many things, but finds it difficult to communicate these in a way that is direct, easily understandable, and in a timeframe that will keep the focus of those who are impatient or perhaps have a short attention span. How well do I really understand the burdens that people carry when they live in poverty and get an education that doesn’t begin to compare with what they will need to succeed? Is my life really harder than the person who lives with chronic depression or frequent migraine headaches? Is my life or our lives more difficult than the lives of single mothers caught between the demand that they raise their children with solid values and the demand that they be absent from the home in order to earn a living and not be a burden to the state?
As if it wasn’t obvious, this is a tickler for those of you with opinions that should find their way into the Braille Monitor, whether they affirm what I am suggesting or whether they soundly refute it. One of the things we suggest to the world is that we have something worth listening to: the truth about blindness, or, perhaps more modestly, some truths about blindness that work for us. We should use these pages to help establish some of those truths, to understand their subtleties, the way they play out differently for others, and the way we all come to work together to benefit one another.