Braille Monitor                  October 2021

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Personal Reflections on Freedom

by Maurice Peret

Maurice PeretFrom the Editor: Maurice Peret is a talented, conscientious Federationist. He is what I would consider a deep thinker. He and people like him have caused me a lot of difficulty in my life. When I left home as a senior in high school, I knew there was a lot I needed to learn academically, but I thought myself very experienced in the ways of the world. I knew who the good people were and to stick with them. I knew who the bad people were, and I prayed for the wisdom and good sense to stay away from them. My values were strong, but too often the things I thought I believed depended on categorizing people I did not know and making judgments about circumstances in which I’d never found myself. I made judgments about people of different religions, races, sexual orientation, and cultures, seldom to their advantage. I didn’t really understand why black people marched, the words of my father echoing through my head: if they really are so poor that they need all of this help, why aren’t they out working? I listened without outrage when the commentator Paul Harvey suggested that the nuclear weapon had been given to the United States, for without it how could we hope to combat the hordes of Asia? When I heard about a prison riot, it never once crossed my mind that any imprisoned person should have a single right in the world, for hadn’t he or she already forfeited any rights by whatever they did that got them there?

So then people much like Maurice came along and introduced me to subjects such as sociology and honors history. It isn’t so much what they said in their lectures but in the books they demanded I read. Suddenly Malcolm X was transformed in my mind from a senseless, militant radical to someone who had something to say. Did I have to agree with all of it? I didn’t. Did I have to agree that he made compelling arguments and that they could not be dismissed as irrational or products of a lesser mind? I most certainly did. And who was this Martin Luther King, disrupting traffic and blocking bridges? Well, when studied in his own words and the words of his contemporaries, it was almost unbelievable to me that he was actually criticized for his demands that the activities in which he would be involved must be peaceful and that the human race must be convinced by persuasion, not force. These were not the interpretations of King that came from my home or its location in the world, and taking in this new information was both an intellectual and a moral struggle. What was it that I didn’t understand, and would I ever?

I thought that perhaps leaving college and entering into a professional career might make the world a little easier to understand. Years alive and wisdom seemed to be closely associated, so certainly easier times were to come. But to tell you the truth, they haven’t, and I am still challenged by what it means to be someone other than me, to judge without judging those who have grown up in different environments and have had significantly different opportunities from my own. I will never know firsthand the experience of trying to incorporate blindness and blackness, blindness and being a Muslim, blindness and having a significant disability that is both visible and changes the need I have for meaningful service and meaningfully respectful treatment in our country. The Federation constantly challenges me in trying to establish a bar that is high enough to cause people to jump but not so high that it causes them to fatally trip or, less dramatically, to conclude they will never jump again.

I hope that you will give serious consideration to what Maurice has written, and perhaps, unlike me, you will not be surprised by the burden that falls upon us as adults to actively work at thinking, understanding, and opening our hearts to people and to situations we would’ve easily dismissed. Here is what Maurice has to say:

I intend to examine the weighty, at times elusive, and fluid concept of freedom in general socio-political as well as on personal terms and to show the way in which it applies directly to us as an organization. Often, following one of our annual National Federation of the Blind conventions, it takes me a while to fully digest and absorb the impact. Ever since this most recently held event, however, I have been considering some of the lessons from the 2021 convention in the context of the broader discussion about freedom. In his banquet address entitled Reflection, Revolution, and Race: A Growing Understanding within the Organized Blind Movement, President Mark Riccobono quoted the young Black poet, Amanda Gorman:

"When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished."

To the extent that our “nation” refers to the people collectively, I wholeheartedly concur. However, we often view “nation” as a self-contained entity, with defined boundaries as in a box or as a set of institutions. Institutions that have outlived their usefulness or moral justification are broken and cast aside and replaced with institutions that are more progressive. The example comes to mind of the period known as radical reconstruction in the Southern United States that triumphantly followed the war that ended institutionalized chattel slavery.

President Riccobono revealed the sometimes-complicated history of the organized blind movement in the context of contentious matters confronted in our nation, particularly as they related to race. I was filled with a sense of pride at the determined and conscious efforts of blind African Americans in the South who initiated and defended their bid to become integrated into the National Federation of the Blind as full and equal members. As our President pointed out, this took many years of determined hard work and advocacy.

In recent years we have also learned from others of our sisters and brothers who bring their intersectional traits to the broader discussion in our movement, and we are consciously richer because of it. We have become even more acutely aware of our socially defined group identities and the characteristics assigned to them, unfortunately sometimes by those who do not share a particular identity and even sometimes by those who do. These assigned characteristics can be harmful and evolve instead into caricatures laden with misconceptions and societal misunderstandings about a group who shares that identity. The “conversation,” as it is sometimes referred to therefore, comes neither easily nor comfortably. We take our cues from the broader discussion in society led by recognized or self-appointed spokespersons who represent various schools of thought. When something emerges from the depths, it is observed as if for the first time. For the rising sentient being, the process of “emerging” has been long and painstaking.

As much as freedom seems to be a universally coveted value, there is wide disparity about how freedom is defined. The question comes to mind as to where freedom fits into what has been dubbed the social contract. Strict libertarians and conservatives decry the limitations on constitutionally protected liberties on a spectrum that ranges from government intrusion into our personal lives to contemporary issues regarding mandated masking and vaccination requirements amidst a pandemic. The thinking goes something like this: “I should be unencumbered in my 2nd amendment right to own and carry whatever firearm I choose, practice my 1st amendment religious expression in whatever fashion and in whatever public or private space I want, and engage in or refuse whatever medical or recreational intervention that affects my body, so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others.”

Civil libertarians, on the other hand, balance the common good against personal freedoms and can sometimes bring judgmental language to the table that further fuels misguided conversation that fails to lead us to a reasoned and productive conversation.

Of course, there are any number of rules that regulate our individual and social existence. We all, for the most part, agree that it is prudent to stop at a red light or stop sign. Western Judeo-Christian society generally accepts essential elements of the Biblical commandments:

10 "But the seventh day is the Sabbath…" "In it thou shalt not do any work,"
12 "Honour thy father and thy mother…"
13 "Thou shalt not kill…"
15 "Thou shalt not steal…"
16 "Thou shalt not bear false witness…"
17 "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house…"

Deuteronomy 4:13

Upon these principles was constructed a common law legal system to enforce these western societal values.

Our democratic republic has eternally struggled with minority rights in the context of majority rule, and our Federation was no exception as eloquently illustrated in President Riccobono’s memorable banquet address. Glaring disparities in our society perniciously restrict individual freedoms of movement, shelter, and employment largely based upon demographic factors such as race, age, nationality, citizenship or resident status, gender identity, and visible or invisible disabilities.

These competing philosophies were poignantly displayed during the rigorous debate over resolution 2021-02 sponsored by Lou Ann Blake, director of research programs for the NFB and passed by the convention regarding Suppression of the Rights of Voters. The contention seemed to focus around barriers imposed upon voters that include requirements of state-issued voter identification and additional medical verification documentation for voters with disabilities. In her address to the convention, Eve Hill, partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, said, “ Blind people are at the heart of the civil rights struggle for voting equality. Blind people have faced and continue to face massive barriers to voting. Blind people face inaccessible or burdensome registration requirements, and they face inaccessible election websites that prevent them from getting information on elections and candidates. Blind people face transportation and other barriers to even getting to the polls. So the lack of convenient polling places keeps blind people from voting.”

Terms like voter suppression, voter ID, voter fraud, and ballot equity appear to be highly volatile political triggers. As members of society as a whole, those of us in the NFB also carry deeply held views on issues such as these. Fifty-six years after passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, we as blind people continue to struggle for fairness and equality at the polls.

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mandated a Federal minimum wage for all workers, with notable exceptions. Created as an incentive for nonprofit agencies ostensibly to provide training and employment opportunities for employees with severe disabilities, a 14-C voucher system was established to exempt certain of these agencies from compensating their workers equal to otherwise able-bodied workers, sometimes even within the same work setting. The concept of freedom is still invoked today to defend this archaic and grossly unfair system of super-exploitation. Ironically, it is argued that without (14-C) provided opportunities, workers with disabilities would have nowhere else to go to exercise their individual freedom to fulfill their need to be productive and find personal satisfaction in performing an honest day’s work with a paycheck, however meager that may be. Anil Lewis, NFB executive director of blindness initiatives, testified in a joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections and the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services. [https://edlabor.house.gov/imo/media/doc/LewisAnilTestimony072121.pdf]

One of the purposes of this hearing was to discuss the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (H.R. 2373), which would phase out subminimum wages over a five-year period. Seventy-three years and counting, and 14C remains the law of the land.

In 1979, Milton Friedman claimed that we should remove “restrictions on our freedom” by government to fully realize the ideal of freedom (Friedman, 1979, 61). Karl Marx, by contrast, asserted that the concept of freedom couldn’t be achieved through isolated man’s calculation of his interests, but gained through the community where everyone has the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions. In comparison with classical economists’ concept of freedom, consisting in the maximal absence of restraints on the individuals’ choices for increase of their interests (well summarized by Friedman’s concept of freedom), Marx’s concept of freedom lies in individuals’ collective use of rationality or reason that can develop their concrete social relations as a proper sphere of realization of human freedom. [https://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2004/Kim.pdf] In other words, while we are all unique and separate individuals, we do not exist on our own islands but must adhere to levels of social regulation and enforcement.

A class-conscious view of our history reveals the power of the people to effect and even enforce societal change. The last century bore witness to two tectonic people’s movements that shook the world, the Russian revolution of 1917, and the opening of Socialism in the Americas with the 1959 Cuban revolution. Our Federation was born in the context of massive and often tumultuous labor battles in the United States that established the Counsel of Industrial Organizations, which fueled the women’s rights, anti-war, and the civil rights movement that crushed Jim Crow segregation and other restrictions on individual liberty. These powerful examples endure as evidence of what is possible when we consciously commit our collective energy, time, and resources to effect the change we want to see.

I have oft of late seen the noun “adult” used as a verb as in “adulting,” I imagine this to mean engaging in practices leading up to or otherwise reserved for mature adults. Growing up was like a corridor with rooms that spiraled upward, opening to new and exciting freedoms: a first venture away from home, an independent walk to the school bus stop, the first monetary allowance, getting one’s driver’s license, securing a first job, etc. With each of these newly discovered liberties came another set of rules and restrictions that could even lead to the freedom being taken away. Also with these freedoms came choices, each with their own layers of consequences, positive, negative, or neutral.

We all place value on the decisions we make, often on a hierarchy that can lead to rationalizations. Ah, what the heck? It is just one cookie, after all. As we learn to live in the world, we also recognize the impact of the choices we make upon others around us and our friends, family, loved ones, peers, colleagues, and community. We are uniquely equipped as a species with voices that can be used to express our needs or our indignity when those needs are not met or when our freedoms are treaded upon. A functional element of “adulting,” therefore, seems to involve strengthening one’s ability to make decisions and live with the results of them.

Our organization is also amidst refining what it truly means to be a member of the NFB. Increasingly we urge that newcomers to our movement learn to internalize who and what we are and that our individual conduct and behavior matters greatly and affects the very function of our organization. We learn that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future and that every day we raise the expectations of blind people because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. We come to believe that we can live the life we want; blindness is not what holds us back. We also learn to recognize our privilege and responsibility to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind, to support the programs and policies of the Federation, and to abide by its constitution. Federation leaders developed and continue to refine a code of conduct designed to protect the rights and freedoms of every member, regardless of identity or intersectionality.

Since our inception in 1940, the NFB has tried to integrate blind people into all aspects of society and to change public perceptions that our participation and contributions are somehow of less value or worth. Through the power of collective action, we learn what freedoms are afforded us as members in good standing to influence the policies and decisions that affect the nation’s blind. To the uninitiated, this can seem like a very daunting weight to carry. All of us came to the Federation at varying stages of our blindness journey. I, like many others who joined the Federation, became involved and motivated by what I could gain from the organization. I grew in the Federation based upon what was asked of me and which transformed my sense of self-worth and value as a blind person. This was, of course, at odds with the message that rang loud and clear through a thousand points of well-intentioned backhanded acts of kindness that set a lower standard for me because of my blindness.

As a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I have come to understand and take seriously the responsibilities I feel for building the organization through mentoring and helping others when I can. This, to me, is what it practically means to be part of a powerful vehicle for collective action. By learning together and developing our leadership capabilities, we come to understand the fullness of our power and worth in our society. We learn that anything is possible and that we are not expected to accomplish great things entirely on our own. Our Federation stands uniquely strong and decisive in the world in our demonstrated ability to improve the lives of blind people everywhere. We can scarcely afford a pause to consider our accomplishments lest it distract us from the ongoing challenges we continue to confront in an ever-evolving economy and culture.

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