Future Reflections Special Issue on Advocacy
by Deborah Kent Stein
In 1971 I graduated with a master's degree in social work and began to look for a job. My résumé seemed to make a good impression, and I was called in for numerous interviews. However, as soon as my prospective employers found out that I am blind, everything changed. At a large city hospital I was told, "You should look for work at a smaller agency where it will be easier for you to manage." At a small child guidance clinic I heard, "You should apply to one of the big hospitals where they have a lot of programs and can meet your special needs." One social work director patted my shoulder and said sweetly, "I know there's a niche for you somewhere, dear, but I'm afraid it isn't with us." Another stated bluntly, "I'll tell you right now that because of your handicap I'm not going to hire you."
After months of frustration, I called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I explained that I was encountering employment discrimination due to my blindness, and I asked if the ACLU could help me.
The answer was no. If the issue were race, religion, gender, or ethnicity, the ACLU could invoke the laws of the land. But few existing laws protected blind people, or people with any sort of disability, from discrimination in any form. "If you want our help," said the official on the phone, "you'll have to change the law."
Eventually I found a job on my own. I was working on New York's Lower East Side when I joined the Metropolitan Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (a forerunner of today's New York City Chapter). A group of chapter members had drafted an amendment to the state's human rights act that would grant protection to people with disabilities. I remembered my discussion with the ACLU and threw myself into the campaign. When the New York Human Rights Act was amended to include disability in 1973, I knew we had helped change the way blind people would be viewed and treated. It was my first experience with legislative action, my first taste of the power of collective advocacy.
In 1966 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, founding president of the National Federation of the Blind, published a groundbreaking essay called "The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled in the Law of Torts." He demonstrated that people with disabilities are hampered from participating fully in society by overt and covert discrimination that impinges upon every aspect of life. Dr. tenBroek showed that such discrimination violates the rights of American citizens as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Forty years ago in New York I learned firsthand that the NFB can be highly effective in its work to ensure the right to live in the world for blind people in the United States.
The world has undergone tremendous changes since I searched for my first job forty years ago. Today a host of local, state, and federal laws protect the rights of people with disabilities. However, laws must be interpreted and enforced in order to be effective. New laws must be crafted and enacted to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. The need for action arises again and again.
The Federation continues to advocate for blind people today, as it has since its founding in 1940. It works to pass laws that open opportunities for blind people of all ages. By educating the public and invoking the law when needed, Federationists advocate to gain blind students the chance to learn Braille and other crucial blindness skills, and they fight discrimination in the workplace and the community. Furthermore, the NFB instills blind people with a belief in their right to participate as equals in every aspect of life, and it supports their efforts to advocate for themselves.
Articles in this special issue of Future Reflections examine advocacy from many perspectives. Attorney Dan Goldstein reflects on the rights of blind people within the context of other civil rights movements, and NOPBC President Carlton Cook Walker explains how the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) helps ensure that blind children receive a meaningful education. Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway, Terri O'Neill, and other parents describe their efforts to advocate for their blind children. Carol Castellano shows that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be used to ensure that blind students receive the same education as students who are sighted. Haben Girma writes about self advocacy as a college student and shows that it's even worth fighting for the choice to eat chocolate cake.
For those of us who are blind, the ability to self-advocate is an essential life skill. Likewise, it is crucial for parents and teachers to advocate on behalf of their blind children or students. Through the Federation we can gain critical skills and experience in advocacy. We can learn, we can draw strength, and we can pass it forward.