Future Reflections Convention Report 2012
by Parnell Diggs
Introduction by Laura Bostick: Parnell Diggs was among the initial generation of Braille-reading students to enter first grade in the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 1975, and the president of the United States had just signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which we now know as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parnell was born blind due to detached retinas. Public school officials in Charlotte did not want to admit him into the classroom with sighted children, but they had no choice if the school system was to qualify for federal funding. Further complicating the matter was the fact that Bill and Nancy Diggs refused to accept the limitations for their son that society normally placed on blind children. [Applause]
Years later, in 1989, Parnell Diggs met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and Donald Capps, two great leaders who dedicated their lives to their blind brothers and sisters. Jernigan and Capps shared a message of promise and achievement for the blind and talked about how the blind could accomplish more through collective action. Parnell Diggs embraced their reasoning. He realized that full integration of the blind into society would be his life's work. He came to know that complete social acceptance of the blind lies where training and opportunity meet.
I want to talk with you for a few moments about my perspective on life in the mainstream. When I was born, my parents were young and scared. They realized that I was blind when I was about four months old. My grandmother noticed something about my eyes that didn't look normal. I was taken to various ophthalmologists, and they determined that I had some degree of vision loss. My parents were not aware of the NFB. They knew a guy from their home town who was blind. He didn't use a cane. He shuffled around, and people in that small town knew to watch out for him. My mother tells me he created a bad image for them. They decided their son wasn't going to be like that guy, shuffling around from place to place.
My parents set out to teach me to be what they thought of as normal. They insisted that I clean my room and make the bed. When I went outside to play, they were fairly open-minded about the things that I could do. They didn't overprotect me by any means. I learned to ride a bike and run around playing freeze tag. I got my share of bumps and bruises just like any other child.
Yet from time to time I did things that sighted children maybe didn't do very much. I ran into things now and then and got knots on my head.
Ironically, by teaching me the ordinary things I needed to know as a kid, my parents somehow thought they were making me less blind. They didn't have a very good view of what life could be like for a blind person. When I got older and met some successful blind people, I realized that blind people are just like everybody else. They can run and play when they're kids and have careers when they get older. They can get married, make house payments, and support a family. They can do all the things we expect people to do in this great country.
When I was growing up, I realized it was pretty easy for me to skate by, not opening a book in class. I met with a resource teacher for an hour a day of Braille instruction. But when I was in class with my sighted peers, the teachers would let me skate by if I wanted to. Blind kids are like sighted kids in that respect. They'll do as little as you allow them to do.
By and large, people do not expect very much from a blind person. When I graduated from law school, the governor happened to be in attendance. His daughter-in-law was in my graduating class, so he was there. At that time the law school I attended was the only one in the state of South Carolina. Anyone who wanted to go into a leadership position in the community went to the South Carolina School of Law.
By the time of the graduation ceremony, I was carrying a cane and reading Braille. I'd been involved in the National Federation of the Blind for about five years. I went up the stairs and was crossing the platform, when the dean reached out and grabbed my arm. I thought maybe I had been going the wrong way. When somebody grabs your arm, you wonder what's up. It turned out that the dean wanted to present me to the audience because the school was proud of the fact that they had graduated a blind guy. The governor stood up, shook my hand, and congratulated me on a job well done. (He didn't offer me a job, though.)
I worked briefly for the South Carolina Commission for the Blind as a rehabilitation counselor. I did that for two years after I finished law school because I couldn't find work as a lawyer. I had the chance to talk with young blind people about the things they could be. I don't recall ever telling any blind person, "I don't think your vocational goal is realistic." We would write a plan of employment in accordance with what the client wanted to do.
When I graduated from law school, my dad was a partner in a law firm called McCutcheon, Mumford and Diggs. I wasn't able to get a job there. My dad wanted to hire me, but he was outvoted. His partners didn't think I would bring much to the firm. They figured the law school had seats set aside for certain people, which must explain how I went through the program. Eventually my dad opened his own office, and he invited me and Chris Danielsen, another blind guy, to work there. I learned the ropes from him for a few years and then opened my own law office. I became Mr. Diggs instead of just the boss's son.
If you don't take anything else from what I have told you, remember this. If you're a young blind person, when you get to the end of your time in school, do something. Don't shy away from your career goals, but if a job in your field doesn't jump out at you, do something else. Have a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. Do something productive, and opportunities will come. Don't wake up one morning and realize that you're forty-five and living on SSI. If you're a parent or teacher, make sure that the people who look up to you understand that they should do something with their lives.