Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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Watering the Bull

by Gary Wunder

At the podium Gary Wunder shakes hands with Deborah Kent Stein. Intro by Laura Bostick: Our next speaker is Gary Wunder. He is the father of four children and he has one grandson. He lives in Columbia, Missouri, and serves as editor of the Braille Monitor. Gary previously worked as a computer programmer/analyst with the University of Missouri Hospitals and Clinics, where Gary was the winner of the Chancellor's Staff Recognition Award, one of four awards presented to a staff of more than five thousand. Here's Gary Wunder.

Thank you very much. Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here.

I've speculated a lot about why I'm one of the lucky 30 percent. They tell us that 70 percent of blind people are unemployed. Seven out of ten don't have jobs, and three out of ten do have jobs. A lot of the three out of ten who do have jobs are said to be underemployed. Why is it that I have a job? I don't think I'm underemployed. My job challenges me quite a lot. What part of having a job is skill, what part is attitude, and what part of it is just plain good luck? What part of my success is what I did, and what part is what was given to me in terms of native intelligence, motivation, and even appearance?

I think a lot of it comes from expectations. In terms of expectations, my parents were unequivocal about some things. One of them was "You will not be lazy. You will do what work you can do. You don't have to do the work that we do, you don't have to do work the way we do it, but you will figure it out. You have a brain, you have a functioning body, and that means that you're going to work. You're going to grow up to be a responsible man. We don't know how you'll do it, but you're going to do it." They told me, "Money is valuable, precisely because it is in short supply. If you want something, make money and save up for what you want. And just so you know a little about the world of work, we're going to give you some work while you're here at home."

My first assignment was to go out in the yard and pick up trash. My grandmother was there when my dad gave me that assignment, and she laughed. She said, "How the heck is he going to go out and find paper in the yard?"

My dad said, "I don't care if he finds the paper in the yard or not. He can carry the trash bag. His brothers can find the trash and put it in there, and he's big enough, he can carry a good lot of it." So my first job was cleaning up the yard.

After a while my father said, "They tell me that you're having a little trouble with cleaning up the yard because of finding the paper, so I'll give you something that may be more of a fit with your skills. You can clean the pigpen." (We lived on a farm.)

Cleaning the pigpen is no great job, whether you're blind or sighted. My father figured that the advantage of cleaning the pigpen was that it was a limited, well-defined area, and I could check my work by using my nose.

My father then decided I did so well cleaning the pigpen that I could water the horse. I thought that was a great thing! Then he got the idea that I could water the bull. I tell you, watering a bull is a lot different from watering horses! You walk up to the bull carrying a twenty-gallon thermos. You may know that water weighs 8.2 pounds per gallon, and when you put twenty gallons in there--well, I was staggering around, trying to get the water thermos up over the fence so I could dump it in the trough. The bull, he was thirsty, so he came snorting toward me, and eighteen of those gallons ended up on my side of the fence! [Laughter]

I've had lots of jobs in my life, some of them pretty good and some of them not so good. One of my first jobs was cleaning bricks. My father bought an old school building and tore it down. He wanted to get some of the money back, so he told me that I had to clean the bricks. That meant whacking on each brick with a little knifelike thing. If you whacked with the right amount of strength, you would knock off the stuff that had attached that brick to the building. If you hit it too many times, you would break the brick, so you had to hit it just right. If you broke the brick, something that could be sold for twenty cents was then worth nothing and had to be hauled away.

I used to put up hay. That was a great job! You had to run along the side of the truck, find the bale without tripping over it, pick up the bale, and throw it up onto the truck. That sounds like an easy thing, but if you throw the bale too close to the front of the truck, you hit the hay that's already up there, and it bounces off. If you throw it once the truck has gone past, you have to pick it up and throw it again, and that's not a good thing.

The first job my dad didn't provide for me was in a sheltered workshop. I had two jobs there. I had a job putting bolts on washers, and I had a job putting pens together. In one way I thought they were great jobs, because I was at home and I had no living expenses. Any money I made I could spend on ham radio equipment. But that work also taught me that a manufacturing job is one where, if you want to preserve your sanity, you figure out a good daydream. You get that daydream to take you through the morning. Then you eat lunch, and you figure out whether that daydream will take you through the afternoon or whether you've got to come up with another one. I realized there's no such thing as bad work, but if I could get better work I was going to get it.

I decided to get a college degree. I got a degree in electronics technology, thanks to our state and federal programs of rehabilitation. After I got out of college I was rewarded for that college training. I went directly into journalism, which means that I put advertising inserts into newspapers. You know, the fliers that Walmart and Kmart slide into your newspaper--that's what I did for a living for a while. The hardest part about that job was that they couldn't care less if you showed up or not. Nothing happened if you didn't come in. They had the attitude, "You probably won't come next time, but we'll pay you anyway."

After that I got a job selling integrated circuits at a retail sales place. Then I had a job for a guy who said, "We're going to turn this business into a fantastic mail-order business. You write me a catalogue."

I wrote him the catalogue. I gave him the catalogue and I said, "When are we going to send it out?"

He said, "There's no way we can send this out!"

I said, "The work isn't good?"

"The work is fine!" he said. "You did exactly what I told you to do! But if we send this out, we'll be overwhelmed with thousands of orders. We're not ready."

I went off and did a phone interview with a guy who wanted me to sell insurance. He was so up on me! He said, "I very seldom get people who interview so well. I think you're going to be great at this job. Come over and we'll shake hands on it and sign the papers."

I said, "What buses run near where you are?"

He said, "Oh no no--if I were you, I'd just drive." [Laughter]

I said, "I don't drive."

He said, "Well, why not?"

I said, "Is driving required for the job?"

He said, "No, but why not?"

I said, "Because they don't let blind people drive."

He said, "I'll get back to you after I talk to my supervisor." It turned out that there was no job.

That made me decide that I needed a lot more training so I could be a lot better than other people at whatever job I applied for. I went to a computer training school for about ten months to supplement my degree in electronics technology, and I got an internship. That internship turned into a job.

How did that happen? The real question the guy had was not, "Can this guy program computers?" He knew I had trained to do that. He wanted to know if this guy he was going to have as an intern could get to and from the bathroom independently. If I could do that, he was probably prepared to give me a job. If I needed nanny care, he probably wasn't prepared to hire me.

That guy signed me up for my first programming job at five dollars and eighty-three cents an hour. I was contracted the day before Halloween in 1978 at $12,134 a year. I put the contract on the refrigerator; I was really proud of it. When I left the university thirty years later, I was earning $62,000 a year, which was a great thing.

I want to conclude by saying that sometimes you can't do what you want, so you start out by doing what you can. The big job won't be where you start. It's what you get when you prove yourself again and again to the person who's going to pay you. Blind or sighted, work is walking uphill every day. It's not one heroic journey, like John Wayne takes in the movies. He shoots the bad guy, and forever his reputation is made.

The expectations you have will determine whether your child lives on SSI or grows up to pay taxes. Is he the child with an unfortunate handicap or, as Michael J. Fox describes himself in his first book after getting Parkinson's, will he be Lucky Man? The way your child comes to think about himself or herself will largely be determined by what you encourage, by the people you bring into your child's life, and by the expectations you have. Being nice can be fatal. You can be nice sometimes, but you've got to be firm, too.

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