The Power of Belonging

An Address Delivered by
at the Banquet of the Annual Convention
of the National Federation of the Blind
Orlando, Florida
July 6, 2013

One misunderstanding about the nature of power is that this commodity is finite, limited in quantity, and shared only by the fortunate few. To get power, it is (according to some) necessary to seize it from the hands of others.

An example of this form of thinking may be observed by contemplating the seats in Congress. There are only 535 of them. Anybody who wants to exercise power from one of these seats must compete with others to get it—often seizing the opportunity from somebody else who already has it. From this form of thought comes the concept that a society consists of people who are constantly at war with one another to get for themselves the limited resources that will never be adequate for all.

In 1851, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer said:

Pervading all nature we may see at work a stern discipline, which is a little cruel that it may be very kind. That state of universal warfare maintained throughout the lower creation, to the great perplexity of many worthy people, is at bottom the most merciful provision which the circumstances admit of. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many "in shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all its efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artisan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

It must be conceded that Spencer spoke his mind without trying to sugarcoat the message. I suspect that he would apply some of his terms to members of the National Federation of the Blind—the incapable, the weak, the low-spirited, the debilitated, the victims. As misleading and as annoying as these characterizations may be, they are a distraction from a more important observation. Spencer misunderstood at least one aspect of the fundamental nature of power itself and the character of the people who possess it. His assertion that power is limited is not only false but also an invitation for tyrannical misapplication of power by the uninformed, if not the deliberate manipulation of power against disadvantaged individuals by insidious scoundrels. These scoundrels gain economic, political, or personal advantages from a putative position of benevolent superiority. Our benevolent superiors (self-appointed, self-governing, self-important, self-willed) have determined that a wage structure in our country that offers to pay us less than the federally-guaranteed minimum wage available to everybody else has been established for our own good. They plan to maintain this structure because in their superior, benevolent wisdom they tell us that they know better than we do what our lives should be and what compensation is fair for us to get for the labor they extract from us. They tell us that our lives have been improved through this system of government-authorized discrimination, while they collect their six- and seven-figure compensation packages.

Such arguments from our benevolent superiors remind me of a statement made by Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He said:

I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

So said Abraham Lincoln almost 150 years ago, and I believe the principles he espoused should work equally well today. Those managers who want to pay wages to workers that are below the federally-guaranteed minimum should receive compensation similar to that which they pay the workers. If this kind of wage structure is good for blind workers, is it not equally good for management? Let us not keep all of the good for ourselves; let us share it with them.

However, Herbert Spencer and the managers of workshops who exploit the blind have misunderstood the nature of power itself. If power is not always a finite, limited commodity, if it can be expanded by ingenuity and industry, if its limits are imposed only by the breadth of human imagination and the determination to put that imagination to work, power itself is expandable; and it becomes available to those who seek to know it.

Inventive individuals in our own time have established companies that create technology which manages information. Some of these companies have become enormously popular and fabulously wealthy. Those who constructed them have dramatic amounts of economic power and sometimes a substantial portion of political power as well. Some of these entrepreneurs undoubtedly possess greater power than some elected officials. They took their power from nobody. The ingenuity and energy they put to work expanded the sum of the power available within our society.

In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:

People are the common denominator of progress. So . . . no improvement is possible with unimproved people, and advance is certain when people are liberated and educated.

How many people can be improved, and to what degree? Galbraith does not say, but he offers the mechanism for advancement with two concepts, liberty and education. Through reflection upon such thoughts and observation of the activities of others, it seems evident to me that freedom creates power. My freedom, properly exercised, adds to yours—and yours to mine. Furthermore, we develop our own freedom partly through personal choice and partly through imitation of others who exemplify the characteristics that signify freedom. In developing our own freedom, we simultaneously instill in ourselves an added measure of power.  

We in the National Federation of the Blind have long ago expressed the aspiration that we may participate fully in our society on terms of equality with others and that misunderstanding has kept us from doing so. We have felt that we are on the edge of society attempting to gain full participation. But this is only part of the pattern. Those who have created the systems of exclusion have erected barriers to our participation that make it virtually impossible or impractical for us to invite them to be fully a part of the society in which we live. We have not easily been able to gain access to the power that they possess, but they have not been able to gain access to the power that we possess. Often they do not know it exists. They have not understood that our equal participation enhances the fullness of their lives.

One element of the misunderstanding about blindness is that we live in a sighted society. Although many sighted people live in our society, it is more accurate to say that the society in which we live belongs to all of us, and we belong to it. Because we belong in this society, we expect to be welcomed within it. Because others belong to this society, we expect to welcome them. We do not accept exclusion from any element of our culture. We belong within the political, economic, legal, educational, and scientific arenas. We belong in all elements of our society of every kind and description. We have helped to make it what it is, and it belongs to us. We cannot be (and we will not be) extracted from it. We give this society richness, depth, and a level of experience and understanding that cannot be had without us. Some may try to shoulder us aside into low-grade, shabby lives, but this is not enough. We own our freedom; we have power; and we know what to do with it. Our society belongs to us; we will not be shut out; we belong!

A persistent rumor exists that blind people are fundamentally different from sighted people, less capable than sighted people, and affected by blindness in ways beyond just the inability to see. This assertion of incapacity is bolstered by some blind people who want to use the characteristics of blindness that they perceive in themselves to shock, amuse, or excuse bizarre behavior.

On May 18, 2012, This American Life, a program distributed by Public Radio International, featured a presentation by Ryan Knighton, a blind author living in Canada. Knighton declared that the experience of being blind places a blind person in “a completely different physical reality.” In an extensive segment, lasting more than fourteen minutes, Knighton described his experiences—among them being in unfamiliar hotel rooms.

Here is some of what was said. Note the use of slightly salacious language to attempt to make the description humorous:

And so I walk into the room and I find the bed. And then to the left of the bed, I feel along and I find this nightstand, which is where I expect the phone to be. And so I feel up the nightstand and there's no phone. Fine.

So I reach across the bed to the other side and find the other nightstand. And I feel that one up, and there's no phone. . . .

And so I turn to where I think there might be a table, and poof! There's a coffee table. So I grope this coffee table for a while and there's no phone on it. . . .

So I'm left to my last blind guy resort, which is I go back to the beginning. Back to the bed and I find the wall. And I start Marcel Marceauing the walls. I'm wiping them up and down.

And I round the fourth corner and I get to the bathroom, and I go past the bathroom and there's nothing. And I feel behind me again and the bed is back behind me again. So I've circled this room . . . .

So I circle the room two more times this way, wiping it down. And I check the coffee table again. I check the desk again. And I just figure, forget it. I'll just go to bed and try again tomorrow. . . .

[I interrupt Knighton’s description to tell you that the report indicates that the next morning, Knighton is awakened by the sound of a ringing telephone.]

And the phone [Knighton continues] is on a coffee table. Now I know I felt that thing up to an illicit degree. I mauled that coffee table, and there was nothing on that table last night.

And so I answer the phone and it's my wife. And she says, why didn't you call me last night? And I said, well there was no phone. But there is now. . . .

And so we talk. And then I hang up the phone and I go to get back into bed, and there's now a wall there. . . .

And I'm totally disoriented at this point. Like it's funny and it's also sort of terrifying. Because I know the bed was there, and now there's a wall.

And I keep touching the wall, thinking maybe this time it'll go away. And I go to the left, and there's another wall now. And I'm a grown man and I'm lost in a hotel room. . . .

This is part of the description of the experience of a blind man carried on This American Life, and I wonder is this an accurate portrayal of the American life that you experience? Do your beds turn into walls?  Do you keep touching the walls hoping they’ll go away?

An occasional disorientation in a strange location is part of life. Most people (maybe all people) have experienced disorientation. Even Mark Twain wrote about it—being disoriented in a hotel room—in his book A Tramp Abroad. However, Knighton’s description is nothing short of bizarre, and he attributes it to his blindness. This American Life put the description on the air. Knighton, of course, may have whatever opinions suit his convenience, but for a major media outlet to portray his opinions as reality when they are based in something quite different is the height of irresponsibility.

Why is this man’s story worth reporting? Why do millions need to know that a blind man in a hotel room could not find the phone? Why is this depiction of incapacity worth wasting one minute of anybody’s time? Do the officials who put this program together want to make fun of the blind? Is making fun of blind people good journalism?  Can respect for blind Americans exist when bigotry is permitted to masquerade as journalism?

However, Knighton and his so-called friends who work for the media are not the only ones who portray the blind. We have a very personal interest in publicity about us, and we will tell the story as it truly is. We are a part of this society, and we expect to be welcomed within it, not made the butt of somebody else’s so-called humor.

Very few blind journalists work for Public Radio International. Maybe we should demand that we get an equal opportunity to write the stories, host the programs, and report the reality as we know it to be. Blind people do face problems, and they should be reported. Have the officials at This American Life taken note of the books we cannot read because they’re presented in an inaccessible format? Have they noticed the two-class system that guarantees minimum wage for some yet leaves us out? Have they any idea that many of the problems faced by the blind are part of a classical struggle for equal rights and equal opportunity? We deserve respect, but we also deserve more than that—we deserve equal time. Public Radio International must stop its practice of excluding us. We must be welcomed as part of the journalism community. We are not there yet, but we are coming. We own our freedom; we have power; and we know what to do with it. Our society belongs to us; we will not be shut out; we belong!

Another argument that occurs frequently about what happens to people who become blind is that the abilities we possess are enhanced by blindness. Among these can be found assertions that blind people hear better, exercise the sense of smell more acutely, and appreciate the world more effectively by touch than sighted people do. Perhaps we should advance the argument that blind people are more effective as wine tasters than the sighted. It is fair to say that some blind people have become quite adept in this arena.

These arguments can become complex because blind people often do hear or feel what others miss.  However, I suspect that the evidence will show that the added abilities in hearing or touch are attributable to training and practice rather than enhanced capacity. However, it may be that practice offers enhancement in sensitivity.

The capacity to hear or sense objects in the path of a blind person has been called “facial vision.” A blind person can “feel” an object in space by appreciating its approach through pressure exerted upon the skin of the face.

Is it possible to hear space? Undoubtedly. A person who steps into a closet knows by the sound that it is small. The sound of a cathedral is noticeably and dramatically different. I have observed blind people walking down the street identifying parking meters and light poles as they pass them without ever touching these objects. I have done some of this myself. For me this takes quite a bit of concentration, and it is often unreliable. A cane in my hand tells me of objects in my path with much more certainty than the alteration in sound pattern or the change in air pressure. However, all three methods of identifying objects are effective to some degree, and other methods for doing so may exist.

It comes as no surprise to me that a recent study conducted at the University of Southampton and the University of Cyprus concluded that blind people can sometimes identify the distance to objects through echolocation. What did come as a surprise to me is that reports about this in the press carried statements that suggest that the National Federation of the Blind opposes research in this arena. We do not oppose competent research about blind people. We do oppose incompetent assertions about alterations in our being based upon false assumptions. Can I as a totally blind person hear the difference between a wall and an open door? Much of the time I can. When I am seeking to find my coffee cup, can I hear where it is on the table or which direction the handle is pointing? I have never been able to establish sufficient capacity to hear my cup. I am not saying that no blind person can manage this feat, but I am saying that it is outside my experience. I am also saying that additional research competently conducted in alternative methods of knowing the world in which we live is an advantage. 

Furthermore, much of the foolishness that masquerades as science about the blind occurs because sighted people without experience imagine what blindness entails and design research without ever including the personal experience of blind people. Research about the blind is best performed with blind people helping to design and conduct it. However, competent research would necessarily require a certain standard of excellence. Picking only one blind person (say, for example, a blind guy who makes his living by telling others about how terrified he was in a hotel room because the bed had suddenly disappeared) will not do.

In August 2012 the online magazine of the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery, EyeWorld, published an article entitled “Ophthalmology's bright future . . . No kidding.” [This is the actual title of the article, including the “no kidding” part. I have not been editorializing.] The article describes a conference of medical professionals that focused upon regeneration of sight. To indicate the importance of the topic under discussion, the author of the article included a definition of absolute blindness. He said:

Absolute blindness—what J. Lawton Smith once referred to as not being able to see an atomic flash in a coal mine—is not a disability. Absolute blindness is life in the eternal darkness of death . . .  

This definition gives the flavor of the report in this ophthalmological journal. However, in addition to comparing blindness to death, the author provides additional detail about just how debilitating blindness is. He tells us:

The demands of life, both primitive and modern, necessitate that vision keeps us informed, safe, productive, reproductive, and alive.

According to this author, writing from a scientific perspective less than a year ago, we who are blind are not informed, safe, productive, or even, in any meaningful sense, alive. He even claims to know that something in our blindness has inhibited our reproductive faculty. I believe there is adequate medical evidence to disprove the claims here presented. It seems fair to say that this doctor has permitted prejudice to become a part of his thought process about blindness. In ophthalmology there are virtually no blind people. We must find a way to become an element of the medical profession in which eye diseases are studied and treated. It is not only in other areas of scientific endeavor where we belong. Those of us who find the subject of greatest interest must also be welcomed as part of the field of ophthalmology. Our participation will add to the perspective of the profession. This, too, is a segment of society where we belong. 

One observation from this author is accurate and worthwhile. Blindness [he tells us] is a topic best entrusted to the National Federation of the Blind.

A book entitled Recent Advances in Reliability and Quality in Design, published in 2008, contains Chapter 22, “Quality in Design: User-oriented Design of Public Toilets for Visually Impaired People.” In the book it is revealed that thoughts about the need for special design in public toilets for the visually impaired were generated at the 2005 World Toilet Summit held in Belfast. The World Toilet Summit is an event conducted by the World Toilet Organization, a nonprofit established in 2001 with its headquarters in Singapore. It may have been thought that an entire chapter of a book on design would be adequate to address completely the topic of publicly-available toilets for the blind. However, we now learn of a project in design from Hong Kong Polytechnic University entitled “BrailleWise aircraft toilet.” A news organization called PhysOrg, owned by Omicron Technologies of Great Britain, distributed a description of the project along with the report that the design for aircraft toilets for the blind has already won awards in China, Germany, and the United States.

What’s wrong with the toilets we have on airplanes now? What design features will offer improvement? The report from Physorg tells us. The professor who led the design team says:

Using the toilet in public places is not that straight-forward for the visually impaired. Finding their way around in unfamiliar territory is a big challenge for them. That's why they would usually avoid using public toilets by not eating and drinking. But it is not healthy.

The press release associated with the professor’s argument tells us:

With good bearings, one can move around freely and independently with greater confidence without relying on a guide.

A guide in an airplane bathroom, what a concept. The design of BrailleWise, this new product, consists of tactile markings that offer raised lines at a waist-high position in the bathroom. The person seeking information permits the fingers to travel along the raised line to locate arrows that point to the toilet, the sink, or the flushing mechanism. Apparently Braille is incorporated in the design to tell what each indicated item is. I admit that I like Braille a great deal, and I am pleased to have it incorporated into the design of anything. But I find it hard to fathom why a professor would believe that locating the toilet in an airplane bathroom is hard. The toilet takes up most of the space. The flushing mechanism is installed in different locations from one design to another. If a standard location for it were selected, it would be simpler to find, but even this feature has not escaped my notice so far.

Adding Braille signage to a publicly-used space is a valuable addition. Telling the airlines, the public, engineers in a school of design, and the World Toilet Organization that blind people cannot manage to get around in an airplane bathroom is not. Perhaps the designers of new technology should undertake to solve problems that we actually have, not the ones they believe we have or think they would have if they were blind.

On March 18, 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article on the Internet entitled “When It Comes to Hiring, Blind Workers Face Bias.” The article reported that a study conducted by NIB (formerly National Industries for the Blind) asked four hundred human resources and hiring managers about hiring practices and opinions regarding blind employees. Although the title of the article suggested that bias exists against blind employees, much of the article restated the opinions of these human resource and hiring managers. It said in part:

When it comes to hiring blind employees, many employers remain skeptical.

Bosses often assume blind workers cost more and produce less . . . They also believe blind workers are more prone to workplace accidents and less reliable than other workers. . . .

Such is part of the language from this Wall Street Journal article, and although the stated purpose is to demonstrate bias, if the assertions of these hiring managers are correct (and nowhere in the article is a systematic refutation of such statements), the article leaves a different impression. Few jobs can be done by blind employees, says the article. Accommodations are expensive and very often required, somebody is essential to assist the blind person to do the work, blind workers are more accident-prone and more difficult to supervise, and besides they’re not as productive or as reliable as their sighted colleagues, and they have a higher absentee rate. What sensible hiring manager would want one? The Journal did urge people to believe that insurance rates are not automatically increased by hiring blind people and that sometimes blind workers are more loyal than their counterparts. The article also contains a statement by NIB’s president asserting that very few jobs exist that cannot be performed by a blind employee.

If an employer with no (or even very limited) experience with blind employees reads this article, I suspect that the response will not be outrage at prejudice and false statement but a sympathetic understanding of the unfortunate hiring managers who are faced with the challenge of dealing with a class of people who they believe cannot perform the work that the companies are trying to get done.  Is it reasonable to suppose that four hundred hiring managers are wrong? This impression comes from an article intended to show unfairness and bias.

The president of NIB said the findings were a “terrible surprise.” But NIB permits the agencies that get contracts through NIB to pay their workers less than the federal minimum wage. This continues to be done even though NIB has adopted a policy that urges support for payment of at least the federal minimum wage. The 70 percent unemployment rate often associated with blind employees in the United States may not be attributed to only one factor, but prejudice against blind workers practiced within entities that serve the blind is certainly one element that contributes to the dramatic rate of unemployment for blind people.

In the United States we have a legal system that presumes a person is innocent of crime unless proven guilty. Our civil structure is somewhat more complex, but it presumes that all who seek retribution before the courts are treated in the same way and that a court will order money to be paid or action to be taken if those before the court can prove they deserve it. In using this system, our laws and judges have not always abided by these legal principles. The possession of a single characteristic has sometimes permitted prejudicial classification of individuals. Race classification is probably the most notorious example, but prejudice based upon gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and disability have been sufficiently widespread that they are addressed in the laws of the nation. It is a violation of the law today to classify a human being for certain purposes based upon blindness without additional information. The laws that have existed in many states declaring that no blind person may serve on a jury may be challenged because the possession of this single characteristic is insufficient to establish the unsuitability of a person for jury service.

In the case of employment, the principles of the law for covered entities declare that an employee may not be denied employment on the basis of disability (including blindness) if that person appears to possess characteristics indicating that the person has the bona fide occupational qualifications to do the work. Even if the person does possess these qualifications, if the employer can demonstrate that permitting that person to work would create a safety threat to that person or to others in the workplace, the employer may deny employment. However, possession of the qualifications to do the work is sufficient to require the potential employer to demonstrate by evidence that the danger exists. The assertion of danger alone is not enough. There must be evidence showing that something really is dangerous, not just a claim that somebody is worried that it could be. Well over 90 percent of employment cases brought on behalf of disabled workers are lost. Consequently, any lawyer who brings an employment case faces an enormous challenge. The statistics are sufficiently dismal that very few lawyers bring the cases.

In 2011, the National Federation of the Blind brought a case of discrimination on behalf of a blind employee, Frank Hohn, who had been fired by his employer, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways, because they said he was blind, and his blindness created a danger in the workplace. Scott LaBarre, a blind lawyer from Colorado who is a leader of the National Federation of the Blind, did the legal work. After a trial that lasted seven days, the case was lost. In the court of appeals, the case was lost once again.

The evidence in the case showed that Frank Hohn had been working for Burlington Northern doing machinist repairs on locomotives for seven years. He had an excellent safety record on the job. He did his work well and in a timely manner. However, although the trial court refused to admit this piece of evidence, Frank Hohn did disagree with a supervisor about safety. The safety he had in mind was that involving a locomotive upon which he had worked. He thought it was unsafe to be used in commerce, and he said so. He was ordered to put the locomotive into service, and when he filed a complaint about this order, the company discovered that he was blind and fired him.

No evidence came out at trial that his safety record was poor, that he had been injured on the job, that anybody else had been injured on the job because of him, or that his performance had created the likelihood of injury on the job. However, three doctors who had never observed this employee doing his work testified that it is unsafe for a blind person to do it, and the jury believed the doctors. When it came to the court of appeals, the judge who wrote the opinion said, “A reasonable jury could find that Hohn’s vision impairments precluded him not only from performing the essential functions safely, but from performing them at all.” Blindness alone can be cited, according to this court, as a valid challenge to employment—at least employment working to repair locomotives.

It is fair to presume that the judges who heard this case know relatively little about repairing locomotives, less about blindness, and nothing at all about how blind people repair locomotives. The same is undoubtedly true of the jury. The members of the jury know about doctors, and much of the time they trust them. However, although the doctors know something about diseases of the eye, they know nothing about blindness and the talents of blind people. This is not their area of knowledge and expertise. The conduct of the judge at trial was prejudicial and reprehensible. The judge should have excluded the testimony of the doctors. They did not observe Frank Hohn, and they had no basis for testifying about his work. They are not experts who can offer qualified opinions about employment of the blind. Their expertise is in some other area. Admission of their testimony was prejudicial and not in accordance with an accurate interpretation of the law. The judge should have known this and should have taken action to prevent the error. The judges in the court of appeals should also have known this and reversed the decision of the lower court. The conclusion is inescapable—the decision in the trial court rested not on evidence but on prejudice.

If this prejudicial standard of practice is followed, all the employers need to do to win their cases is hire a few of the white coats, and they know they have a fair chance with the jury. All that counsel for the plaintiff needs to do is change the prejudicial thinking in the minds of the judge, the jury, and the witnesses for the defense based upon thousands of years of misunderstanding. The challenge is an enormous one, but it must be accepted. Lawyers hate to lose. We in the National Federation of the Blind hate to lose. Employees who have a livelihood at stake hate to lose. But we are not prepared to give up without a fight. We must find a method to bring this prejudice clearly to the public mind and to the minds of judges who decide the cases we bring. If we determine that we will never challenge the discrimination, it will continue unabated. If we let the judges exercise their prejudices without challenge, they will continue to have them. A case involving a blind employee is, for many judges, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If we refuse to increase this number for the judges, they will never come to have the depth of experience that gives them adequate background to make decisions without prejudice.

We must get the judicial branch of government to know that we exist, that we have rights under the law, and that we have talent that demands to be expressed. The Law School Admissions Council has tried to keep us out of law school, but we are in the process of defeating this prejudice. Precious few of us have ever been called to sit on the bench in court, but this must change.  Sometimes we will lose even when we should not, but we cannot let fear of loss prevent us from joining battle. We must accept the challenge to defeat the prejudices that lie buried deep in the minds of the judges. Beyond all of this, some of us must become judges ourselves because this also is a part of the society where we belong.

Not all cases involving employment and disability are lost. A case in Iowa was brought against Henry’s Turkey Service by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for thirty-two disabled workers. The evidence at trial showed that the employees were held in a dormitory owned by the employer, that they were picked up by the employer’s vehicle each day and transported to the workplace, that they were returned to the barracks each night, that they were prevented from determining to live anywhere except in the employer’s barracks, that at least one of them was handcuffed to his bed at night, that they were disciplined by being required for no purpose to carry heavy weights, that they were required to march around a pole while being kicked and beaten by their supervisor, and that they were paid an average of 41 cents an hour. The testimony indicated that the abuse and neglect of these disabled workers and others lasted for four decades. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can only claim damages for a period of two years.

On May 1, 2013, a verdict was returned for these employees awarding them $240 million. At the time the verdict was announced, news reports indicated that it is the largest verdict on behalf of disabled workers ever granted. However, the government has reported that it is able to seek enforcement of this judgment for only $1.6 million, less than 1 percent of the jury verdict.

The response of members of Congress to this outrageous case has been to draft a provision incorporated within a proposed reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act to specify how rehabilitation agencies must proceed when they are placing individuals in subminimum wage employment. Some members of Congress think that adding additional government regulations will protect workers from the subminimum wage abuse. Senator Tom Harkin (who is himself from the state of Iowa, and who has knowledge of the facts in this case) has refused to support a proposal to eliminate subminimum wage authorization from American law. Senator Harkin favors the approach that we should take things slowly and that we should add additional governmental regulation that might be used to protect workers from exploitation. However, the Department of Labor had known about the abuses in the Iowa case for fifteen years and had cited Henry’s Turkey Service for violations of fair wage provisions. No fines were imposed; no penalties assessed; no orders to alter conditions for the workers were presented. The Department of Labor was apparently unable to change this abuse.

Our response to the plan of members of Congress to add subminimum wage provisions to the Rehabilitation Act is a very forceful demand that additional legal authorization for subminimum wages not be permitted and that the current authorization in law be removed. What we say to the shop managers, to the Department of Labor, and to the members of Congress is stop the exploitation, stop the exploitation now, stop the exploitation 100 percent of the time in 100 percent of the jobs! Beyond that, create penalties for those who persist in seeking to pay subminimum wages. It is worthy of note that the Constitution of the United States was amended in 1865 to declare that involuntary servitude may not be tolerated in the United States.   

Power is not a limited commodity, or if it is, the limit is a long way off. Knowledge and liberty combined with energy increase it. One element of this knowledge is the realization that we possess power, and that we can get more of it. We belong in our society, and it belongs to us. Part of this belonging demands that the power within our society, at least in part, also belongs to us. We must claim our property. We must take control over what is ours. We must resist those who want us to accept their formulation that low-grade, shabby lives are good enough for us.

This American Life does not believe in our power and declares that we are befuddled fools suitable for the amusement of others. But we reject this warped perspective. The Wall Street Journal, even when it is trying to help, does not believe we have power. It records statistics that challenge our capacity to be productive in the workplace. However, our productive capacity is prodigious, and we can demonstrate it. Burlington Northern denies that we have power and diminishes its productive workforce through prejudice even though we have demonstrated capacity in the machine shop. Then, there are the toilet designers and the ophthalmologists. They, too, cannot imagine our capacity to exercise power. The ophthalmologists are not sure that we are even alive.

If the civil rights struggle to bring equality of opportunity to the blind and otherwise disabled were not as exciting as it is, the summation of these presentations would be downright disheartening. However, the laws to protect our interests are better than they have ever been even though much remains to be accomplished. These laws improve when we exercise power to make them improve. The number of foolish presentations about us by the press is smaller than was true in past decades, and we are regularly challenging those who assert that we are inferior. The educational opportunities for us are greater today than in former times, and the amount of information we can obtain is expanding at an astonishing rate. We have taken a hand in developing the tools that cause this expansion to occur. Misunderstanding about us and denial of opportunity remain elements of our lives, but the countervailing currents which bring genuine understanding and goodwill are also increasingly evident.

The misunderstandings about what we are signal a direction for us to take, and they create a challenge that we willingly accept. We belong within our society even though many members of it have not yet recognized that we belong. We also belong to each other—to our families and to the members of our Federation. This belonging adds to our strength and increases our power. Our talent, our power, is within our hands, and our tomorrows do not belong to the ill-informed. Rather, they belong to us. Gaining the recognition that must be ours will require all that is best within us, but we have the strength we need. With the determination inherent in our power, nothing can stop us. We own our freedom. We will achieve equality; we will win our independence. Our plans have been developed; our decisions have been made; our declarations have been proclaimed. We have the power, and we will make the joy of our future come true!