by Michael Colbrunn
From the Editor: Michael Colbrunn is a member of the Riverbend Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. I find his story very moving, and I hope you do as well:
“Live the life you want.” This message permeates the NFB, but I wondered if this applied to me. That sounds good, but I asked myself, Are they for real? Is this possible? Are they nuts? These questions stayed with me as I considered getting involved with the National Federation of the Blind.
I had many questions and uncertainties about living the life I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but I did not quite know how to get there. In this essay, I hope to give you some insight into my journey before the NFB; my present-day experience with the NFB; and, more importantly, my future as a Federationist.
The First Nations people of Canada have an expression: “The longest journey a man will ever take is from his head to his heart, and back again.” Now, besides this being a really cool thing to say at dinner parties, it resonates with me. I have had a journey, my fellow Federationists, as have most of you. I would like to think if it were not for bad luck, I would not have any luck at all, and if there is ten miles of bad road, I’ve walked it. Let me start from the beginning—not the beginning, beginning, but rather when I was nine years old. I was diagnosed with juvenal macular degeneration before it was cool. Back then (late 1970s), 504 or “reasonable accommodations” may have been on the books, but they never made it to me in Fargo, North Dakota. Maybe not having paved roads had something to do with that. What about assistive technology, you may ask? Not so much. Let’s just say I fell into the “Mike-has-a-lot-of-potential-he-needs-to-apply-himself” category. My first crack at self-advocacy was as a nine-year-old and did not go so well. Safe to say, I was misunderstood. Through much trial, tribulation, hard times, and humiliation—great material for a future essay contest—and with the help of electives, I somehow managed to graduate from high school. I think. I still have dreams that make me think otherwise.
What’s a blind kid with no nonvision skills, no assistive technology, who barely graduated, to do next? You got it: I went to college. Do not get me wrong; I loved college! Well, everything but the going to class, homework-research, and exams part of it. Ultimately, it did not end well—unless you count college debt, a lot of tomfoolery, and a few useless college credits “ending well.” Although I did not have a whole lot to show for myself up to this point, I did have belief in myself. Through it all, I knew I had the chops to make something of myself. I was resilient, confident, and willing to work hard. That can-do attitude resulted in me getting a job—actually a whole bunch of jobs—bad jobs, low-paying jobs, the kinds of jobs no one else wanted. Since I was too proud to return to my high-school job at McDonald’s, I parlayed that work experience into becoming a dishwasher, busboy, ditch-digger—you get the picture. After a few years of this, the work finally paid off. I became the supervisor/assistant manager in charge of all the people who had the crappiest job in a hotel. Eventually I did land some pretty fantastic jobs and did start to make it into a career in the hospitality industry. Problem was, I still had not obtained any nonvision skills or learned how to use assistive technology, and this was becoming a problem. At every job I hit a ceiling, and I eventually started running out of options. My old tricks and techniques were not working anymore.
In the mid-to-late nineties, I did stumble onto State Services for the Blind. Ah ha! I thought. This is the break I have been waiting for. Not so much. My experience was not the greatest, and there are lots of reasons as to why I was not successful. I will certainly shoulder some of the blame, because here was my second attempt at self-advocacy. Not having gained any skills or insight into how to handle my vision loss, I continued on. Around this time I discovered that I might qualify for SSDI and eventually did. This was a blessing and a curse. I just sort of remained stagnant for several years career-wise. I found a job that I was good at, and they seemed to appreciate me, so I stuck around way too long, under-valuing my talents and skills.
Fast forward several years where I meet the Randolph-Sheppard Act and acknowledge to myself that this could be interesting. In 2015, I became a licensed blind vendor in the Business Enterprise Program of Minnesota. This was a proud time for me because I had never lost faith in myself, remained confident, and maintained my resiliency. I had manufactured this opportunity where I could use my work ethic and experience and apply it to self-employment. I said to myself “What do I have to lose,” and I was right. The Randolph-Sheppard Act started the trajectory of my journey to achieve the life that I wanted, taking me from my head and showing me the direction to my heart. Becoming a blind vendor brought with it experiences that solidified that the path I was on was going to be a fulfilling pursuit.
One year into being a Randolph-Sheppard blind vendor, I received an opportunity to attend a National Association of Blind Merchants [NABM] “Emerging Leaders Conference” in Nashville, Tennessee, in September 2016. Folks, when I say this changed my life, I mean it changed my life. I was surrounded by smart, successful, engaging businesspeople, and they were all blind.
That conference room in Nashville is where I was born again—again. During a session about philosophy of blindness with Joanne Wilson, I opened up to the group and admitted that I did not have one. I was not living as a blind person. I was living as a person who was doing their best to deal with vision loss; in my mind, there is a difference. During that session, I asked the group if I could even call myself blind. They reassured me I most certainly could. On that day, an eight-hundred-pound boulder was lifted off my shoulders, and I, for the first time in my life, was proud to say I was blind!
I returned home with a new enthusiasm and pep in my step that I had never had the likes of. I became very involved in the Randolph-Sheppard Act or, more importantly, the NABM. With the patience and mentorship of NABM President Nicky Gacos, Second Vice President Ed Birmingham, and the many more that recognized something in me, I am proud to say I am a national board member of the NABM—a position I take very seriously. In addition, I currently serve on the Minnesota BEP management committee as the chairperson, and I am currently the vice chair of the SRCB (State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind) of Minnesota. I am also proud to say I am a member of the NFB of NFBMN. What I am embarrassed to admit, however, is why it took me until 2019 to join.
The NABM and the NFB have provided me the opportunity to advocate, amongst so many things. If you recall from earlier in the essay, my first couple of attempts at advocacy had not gone so well. But not anymore. Some of my most rewarding actions as a Federationist have been when I have had the opportunity to sit down with lawmakers while attending the Washington Seminar and NABM DC Fly-Ins in the nation’s capital, informing and educating them on issues that affect us as blind people. I truly felt like I was making a difference. The NFB has also given me heroes, people I can believe in. I am proud to say that, besides my children, all my heroes are blind. The NFB and NABM have given me resources to fuel a desire of mine that had always been unfulfilled: my desire to learn. I have returned to university studies after a thirty-year semester off. My goal is to achieve a lifetime goal of mine, a goal that I had all but given up on years ago, to obtain a bachelor’s degree (my self-advocating is still in question regarding this one).
In these words, you have had a glimpse into some of my life. You learned a little about me before the NFB, and I have brought you up to speed on my current situation. Now it is time to talk about maybe the most important leg of my journey: the future. In my journey, I have gone from my head to my heart, and I have pretty much set up camp there. The NFB has prepared me for the final leg of my journey and that is back to my head. I don’t know what the future holds for me. I barely have a business due to COVID; my vision is changing seemingly every day—and not for the better. I have entered a world of academia where sometimes I feel like the donkey at the pony show; but I still believe in myself. I am still that nine-year-old child who is optimistic through it all. What is different now is that the journey I make back to my head will not be done alone. I have the Federation, I have finally obtained some nonvision skills, I am not at war with myself over vision loss, and I now have a blindness philosophy, and that will provide additional material for another essay contest or perhaps another article in the Braille Monitor. I have hope and trust. I have all of you! Thank you, National Federation of the Blind. I do believe I can live the life I want. Oh yeah—those useless college credits I mentioned? Not so useless after all. Seems I was given forty-six transferable credits toward my degree. And to answer my original questions about the NFB: Are they for real? Is this possible? Are they nuts?
Yes. Yes. And some of us.