Every year in early February Federationists gather in their hundreds in Washington, D.C., to meet with their elected representatives about the issues of most pressing concern to blind citizens. This gathering provides the opportunity as well for divisions and committees to get together for specialized seminars and meetings. As usual, the first official meeting of the 1999 Washington Seminar itself was the 5:00 p.m. briefing on Sunday, January 31. The meeting was standing-room only again this year as President Maurer discussed recent events and Jim Gashel and Kristen Cox discussed legislative details. Pictured above are the first several rows of the audience and those seated at the head table.
Why Am I a Federationist?
Each year, usually on the last Saturday of January, the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) conducts a daylong seminar for students in conjunction with the National Federation of the Blind's Washington Seminar. This year was no exception. On Friday, January 29, high school and college students poured into Washington from across the country. The party that evening was great. The division finally resigned itself to the inevitable and admitted that the party was now just too big to fit into a hotel suite, so it was moved to a public room where the group had enough space to spread out and mingle.
Saturday morning Michael Baillif, an NABS Past President and now a tax attorney with Davis, Polk, and Wardwell, delivered the keynote address, which was a highly unusual exercise. Michael undertook to deliver a thoughtful speech entirely in words of one syllable.
The seminar was filled with excellent presentations, but one of the best was a panel presentation comprised of three students. Angela Howard is currently a Womens Studies Major at Guilford College in North Carolina. Mariyam Cementwala is on leave from the University of California at Berkeley and is a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Eddie Bell is a graduate student at Louisiana Tech. Their stories were deeply personal and moving. This is what they said:
A line from Lucille Clifton's poem "Listen":
We have always loved each other, children,
All ways; pass it on.
As a child I was loved as a daughter, as a student, and as a friend; but I was never loved as a blind person. I learned at a very early age that blindness was not a lovable characteristic. People told me over and over again how lucky I was that I had at least some vision--I wasn't completely blind. My parents repeatedly asked me if I could read that street sign or this newspaper. It seemed of absolute importance that I could. My teachers emphasized that I didn't have to use Braille or a cane, that I could get by without using the things that blind people found necessary. Through all these interactions I came to understand that it was not respectable to be blind--that blindness meant inferiority. I spent a great deal of time pretending that I could see. But deep down inside I knew that I was blind, and I had no hope of ever leading a happy life.
But the blind have our own consciousness which, though we have been organized since 1940, stretches back to the heart of every blind person whose life chances were diminished by negative attitudes. Our history encompasses every blind person who ever dared to imagine that one day things would be better for the blind. Since 1940 our consciousness has taken the form of the organized blind movement, and we have demanded that in all ways blind people be given the respect and opportunities afforded to every first-class citizen.
I had my first taste of organized love at the age of thirteen when I attended the first children's program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The staff at the Center offered me Federation love when they taught me Braille, showing me that I could read at competitive speed without headaches or embarrassment. They offered me Federation love when they put a long white cane in my hand and forced me to use it so that I could experience freedom of travel. And they offered me this love when they challenged me to face the important questions: Why are you ashamed to use alternative techniques when you know that they are more efficient? Why don't you think it is respectable to be blind? In all these ways they offered me the deepest of human love. They recognized that I was an individual, capable of freedom and dignity. This was a gift that I had never before received, and I accepted it gratefully.
I was overjoyed to learn the good news that blindness did not have to mean tragedy, dependency, or shame; and I was excited to spread the good news to the folks at home. I learned very quickly, however, that some are slower to accept good news than others. My family still spoke of the ways in which my life would be limited by my blindness. I began using a cane everywhere I went, and many of my friends were uncomfortable with this. One day I asked a friend if she wanted to go to the movies with me that night. "I don't know," she said. "Are you going to bring that?" She was pointing at my cane.
I spent a year in South Carolina when my father was on sabbatical. For part of that time I attended class with other blind students. Every day, when it was time for lunch, the teacher would line us up according to how much sight we had. The students would hold hands, and those with more sight would lead the others to the cafeteria. I would have none of this. I'd already tasted freedom and dignity, and I wasn't about to go back. So every day the students would hold hands and walk to the cafeteria, and I would walk by myself with my cane.
Back in Louisiana my teachers insisted that I use the CCTV instead of Braille. Concerned by my new radical philosophy, they asked another teacher who was herself visually handicapped to explain to me that I needed to accept that there were certain things I just couldn't do. They weren't talking about driving a car. They were talking about carrying my own tray in the cafeteria, managing the crowd in the junior high hallways, and competing on terms of equality with my sighted peers. These teachers eventually adopted a more positive philosophy about blindness, but nevertheless I learned a valuable lesson from my experiences. I learned that I needed a family of other believers. I learned that I needed a constant reminder that the organized blind have always loved me, have always believed in my capabilities. I learned that I needed the National Federation of the Blind.
I'm a Federationist for two reasons. First of all, I need the Federation. I have called on you many times during my years as a college student. When I wanted to take part in a three-day excursion into the wilderness, everyone else told me I was crazy. You told me that, though I might be crazy for wanting to do it, I wasn't crazy for believing that I could. I've turned to you for answers to logistical questions: what is the best way to go about hiring readers? How did you handle your lab science courses? But, most important, I've turned to you for those much-needed reminders that there are others in the world who believe that blind people can truly live lives of full participation. You have often reminded me that you too are chipping away at negative attitudes and that someday the wall will fall.
I'm a Federationist because I need the Federation, but I am also a Federationist because the Federation needs me. The Federation needs each and every one of us. This movement, which has been growing in strength and number since 1940, will not survive on its own. It is up to us to continue to carry the torch of freedom and dignity.
Last week as a friend and I were walking home from the swimming pool, I tripped on a flight of stairs and did not walk, but flew my way to the bottom. We laughed for at least five minutes, and then she asked me, "Why weren't you using your cane?" I realized in that moment that I had made a Federationist out of her. A non-Federationist would never have laughed at a poor blind person who fell down the stairs. A non-Federationist would have apologized profusely for not warning me of the obstacle ahead of time. But my friend did what any good Federationist would have done in that moment--she made fun of me.
This is how we are going to make life better for blind people. It's by changing the attitudes of everyone we come in contact with. Sometimes we'll do it in little ways, and sometimes we'll do it in big. But we must continue to do it. We owe it to ourselves, to those who came before us, and to those who come after us to continue and always contribute to this movement. This means using our energies and love to strengthen the bonds among us. This means to work on our attitudes in our own daily lives. This means to offer to others the gift of Federation love, which we have so graciously been given. This means to pass it on.
Why am I a Federationist? I joined because it seemed to be the right thing to do. I'll begin by talking about Kantian ethics, which is based on the premise that you do everything based on a motive, and if the motive is right, then the deed is right. When I joined the Federation, I did not follow Kantian ethics because--I suppose it is time for me to confess--like several of you--maybe many in this room--I joined the Federation for what I now think of as all the wrong reasons. But I stayed around for all the right ones, so the deed is right, but maybe the motive was wrong.
Let me tell you how I got involved. I was a scholarship winner in 1997 at the New Orleans Convention. So of course there was the money. I got involved for the money. At the New Orleans convention I met many charming, handsome people, men--yes they were men. Nathanael [Wales] also got it right--the chocoholics' bar. I discovered that place on my last night. Otherwise I would have been a regular there--they would have had to save a seat for me, maybe a bedroom. As I say, I joined the Federation for all the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right ones.
What attracted me to the Federation was the fact that I saw people who were comfortable with who they were, who were humble, and in their own way amazing, but they were amazing not because they were blind. I came to the Federation because I made many friends, and they say that your friends are your chosen family. One friend asked me to come to the California state convention in 1997. So I went hesitantly, trepidatiously, thinking, well, all right, so I'll go to the state convention, but really what's in it for me? (At some level aren't we all here because we all think: Why am I here; what's in it for me?) There were a state scholarship, interesting people, food, and the glamour of the Federation. After all, you get to travel places and do things.
It was fun to meet new students, and it was also kind of scary because I came from what I would describe as the gray zone, where you live in the dimness of night and the half light of day. What is that? People say to you, "You can still see some." But you realize that you really can't. So you go about your life pretending in the little things. You see, I had great goals; I still do. I'm a political science major at Berkeley and an Arabic minor, and I want to go into middle eastern relations. Those are great goals, but there are so many little things in life that I was overlooking. In high school I was a very two-dimensional person. People saw me as two-dimensional--they saw me as smart and they saw me as that girl who couldn't see well, who was half blind. The Federation was the first place where I learned that I was really blind and that it was okay to be blind.
I lived in this world of the light and the half light--I could see during the day and not at night. It was a very strange and crazy situation because retinitis pigmentosa can be strange. How do you conduct yourself when you can see part of the time and not the rest? I was afraid of the little things like going to dark restaurants. When I go to a restaurant, I must have a chocolate milk shake, and, of course, I love the fact that these chocolate milk shakes come in huge glasses, but then you have a steel pitcher which is filled with another chocolate milk shake, but you have to pour that pitcher into the glass. And it's dark, so how do you do it without a spill? Well, the Federation was really the first place that I asked. I asked a friend, "How do you do it, and you are totally blind?"
My friend said, "Well you just kind of feel." My friends have taught me many things. They taught me how to be a good traveler. I used to use a short cane, and I thought it was the best thing on earth. I remember last year, when I had my first Washington Seminar, Maria Morais said to me, "Mariyam, how can you walk with that cane!" In a subtle way the Federation changed me into a person I didn't know I had the potential to become. Now I use a long white cane and am in the process of learning Braille and building my speed at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The Federation got me involved in training and gave me the desire to learn blindness skills. That was important.
But those are changes which mark a greater change in my personality. Before I met the Federation, I said that I could do things. But actually doing things and doing them independently is very rewarding. Without the Federation I would never have gone alone across the country on a train trip to Vermont, which is sort of in the middle of nowhere, to learn Arabic for nine weeks in a very intense and rigorous summer program. I had to bite the bullet because I didn't have all the blindness skills, so my grades definitely suffered a bit. But because I had the confidence actually to pursue something, I realized that things can be done, that blind people really can live independent, competent lives. People in the Federation showed me how to live just by being who they were, being physicists and chemists--when I thought blind people could never do science--by traveling to Paris alone on a whim because they felt like it. That was the really exciting part about being in the Federation.
Leaders in the Federation teach us many things, and some leaders in society do too. A good leader teaches you how to respect him or her. But a great leader teaches you how to respect yourself. I will close by saying this: all of us go through times in life when we are in the doldrums. For me it wasn't even about blindness; it was just about finding out who I was and where I was going and about realizing that life isn't about just getting by but about setting higher expectations for myself. I didn't know what to expect and where to go and what to do and who to go to.
People in the Federation did something remarkable for me, whether they were friends, staff at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, or people I had just met. When I was going through the doldrums, they saw in me the potential to be a leader and to give. By giving me time, advice, support, and instruction, they taught me that in big ways and small I can give too. They also taught me by helping me to understand what a remarkable experience it is to receive the gift of friendship and support and to give these to somebody else. For these things I am eternally grateful.
In March of 1997 I spoke to a group of fifty blind high school students. I asked a friend what I could say to these kids. They were students at the California School for the Blind or came from other schools in California. But either they didn't quite know that they were blind or they weren't sure what to do about it. My friend said "Mariyam, they really aren't going to remember what you say; all they are going to remember is that somebody who was blind and who was also confident came to talk to them. They will remember that she told them that things were okay and that she was doing fine. Their conclusion will be that they can do fine too." In a small way that is what my Federation friends have taught me about the Federation. They have taught me how to give, and I encourage you to do the same because it is deeply rewarding.
Back to my beginning point about Kantian ethics. You see, I joined the NFB for all the wrong reasons, but I'm here today at my second Washington Seminar for all the right ones. I think what I've received is the spirit of the Federation. Dr. Maurer put it well. He said, "Mariyam, the money will come and go, but it's the spirit that started this organization, and it's the spirit that's going to keep it alive." That's why I'm here; that's why I am a Federationist.
What is life? Does it simply mean having breath in your body and a strong heartbeat? Well, maybe, but to most of us it means a great deal more. It means learning, experiencing, loving, and finding a purpose in our existence. We all have life, but we don't all have the same opportunity truly to live.
I grew up as a pretty normal sighted child. My family lived in a poor section of Albuquerque, where my father worked in construction and my mother was a homemaker. My siblings and I did not have many material possessions, but we had a strong, loving, happy family. Life was pretty good until I reached age fifteen. In 1990 my father passed away after a long bout with cancer. Within a year my family was evicted from the low-income housing which had been our home. After some disagreements with my mother, I moved in with my brother, and our family kind of split apart. It was about this time that life started to seem discouraging and unpleasant. I began going through the motions of school and work but not really enjoying life. I started skipping school, partying, and generally going down the wrong path.
Then, in 1992, I was shot in a drive-by shooting, which resulted in total blindness. Knowing nothing about blindness except the negative stereotypes and misconceptions, I was in total despair. After leaving the hospital, I returned to my brother's house and waited to die. It was at this time that I stopped living altogether and simply continued existing. In 1993 my sister and nephew were in a horrible car accident, and I also lost several friends to street violence.
Not knowing what else to do, my mother began researching available services that might help me adjust to blindness. Fortunately she found the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. I attended the training center, where I spent seven months learning cane travel, Braille, and the necessary skills of blindness. More important, however, I found the National Federation of the Blind. Please understand me: I didn't run to this organization with open arms. I was skeptical and did everything I could to avoid becoming involved. I had never belonged to other organizations and saw no reason to begin with a group of blind people. Nevertheless, I attended my first National Convention in 1993, but the importance of the National Federation of the Blind did not strike me until I began attending college and obtained my first job.
I had no desire to return to college, but constant support and encouragement from friends in the National Federation of the Blind finally convinced me to give it a try. Beginning college forced me to start facing life again and finding purpose for my existence. Working for the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 1994 offered me my first opportunity to give back some of the skills, knowledge, and confidence I had gained. My early successes made clear to me that none of it would have been possible without the National Federation of the Blind.
Let me speak for a moment about vision. When we think of vision, most of us think of eyesight. What I am thinking about requires a much broader definition. I am talking about a vision of life, specifically, that which the NFB has helped me to regain. When I was a child, I had dreams of joining the military, raising a family, and acquiring money and status. In the early 1990's, however, I lost this vision and focused only on my blindness and limitations. Not only had I lost my eyesight, but I had abandoned my dreams and hopes for the future.
Slowly but surely I have regained my vision. My eyes are as blind today as they were six years ago, but I now have the vision that I had truly missed. This vision began returning only after I became active in the NFB--attending state and National Conventions, making new friends, succeeding in college, and gaining stability in my personal life. These have been the tools that have assisted me in rebuilding my hopes and dreams for the future. Because we are blind, we often spend too much time focusing on eyesight and convincing others that we are capable of normality. But by investing my time in the efforts of the NFB and focusing on my own plans, I have begun to regain the vision I was missing. Like many blind people I thought that only eyesight could improve my life. I now know that persistence and a wise investment in the National Federation of the Blind can give you more vision than any doctor or rehabilitation plan.
So what is a Federationist, and why am I one? I believe that a Federationist is someone who has devoted his or her life to the organization. I do not mean devotion simply because someone else said it was a good idea but because of witnessing firsthand its importance. In fact, many Federationists will tell you that they cannot conceive what their lives would have been like without the NFB, and I believe them.
Those of us who call ourselves Federationists with pride have found a niche in this organization and a common purpose that we believe is worth working toward. There is no secret initiation, no key to becoming a Federationist. Most of us have the capacity to be Federationists even if we don't know it yet. Everyone who seeks happiness, success, and a place where we fit and know we belong can find a home in the NFB.
Why am I a Federationist? Words are inadequate. I can say that the NFB has truly given me my life back and an even better one than I thought existed. You may be thinking, "But you're still blind. How can you think such a thing?" I can say it because I now have something much more important than eyesight; I have insight into my own potential and an accurate vision of the life that I am already acquiring. This realization has motivated me to dedicate my life to the work of the National Federation of the Blind and makes me proud to call myself a Federationist.