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Protecting the Rights of Blind Individuals in the United States

by Dan Goldstein

Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, November 2008

Dan Goldstein, Esq.From the Editor: Dan Goldstein, an attorney with the Baltimore firm of Brown, Goldstein and Levy, has long served as legal counsel to the National Federation of the Blind. In this article, based on an address he delivered at the 2008 NFB national convention in Dallas, he examines the state of the civil rights movements of the blind and other minorities in the United States. When he completed his remarks at the convention, the audience spontaneously broke into several choruses of "We Shall Overcome."

I grew up two hundred miles south of here, in Austin, Texas. I have very fond memories of Austin, but when Dr. Maurer said that he wanted me to talk today about the state of the disability rights movement compared to the state and the history of the other civil rights movements, it brought to mind an unhappy memory from Austin: Miss Pruitt.

In the fall of 1964 Miss Pruitt was my high school civics teacher. Miss Pruitt complained more than once during the semester, with considerable resentment, that African American men had gotten the right to vote more than fifty years before women did. She thought it was a great injustice that her rights were recognized later. Mind you, in 1964 the right of African Americans to vote in parts of Texas was more theoretical than real anyway. But Miss Pruitt, nonetheless, felt slighted.

I knew that what Miss Pruitt was saying was racist and offensive and wrong, and I wasn't shy about getting sent to detention for my smart mouth. In fact I still owe McCallan High School four hundred hours. I could never articulate my response to Miss Pruitt in a way that satisfied me.

Jump ahead four years to the summer of 1968. I'm in Washington, volunteering for the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, planning the Poor People's March. (I had, by the way, the important job of figuring out how many Port-a-Potties were needed and where they should be placed along the march route.) A new phrase was going around that summer, "women's liberation movement," or "women's lib." In preparing to talk to you today, it occurred to me that maybe it was just new to me, so I checked on the Internet. It turns out that the February 1968 issue of the magazine Ramparts was in fact the first time that the phrase "women's liberation movement" was used in print, so it was new at that time.

Starting that summer and going forward the next few years, I sat in on many arguments where veterans of the civil rights movement were saying that this women's rights movement was a distraction and would take away resources and supporters from the fight for racial justice. That didn't sit right with me either. The reverse of Miss Pruitt was just as wrong as Miss Pruitt. And, although I was slow to understand all of the things that the women were talking about, I could understand that this approach, too, was wrong. But I still didn't quite have the right way to articulate it.

Ten years ago I read an extraordinary book, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. The book describes how, in the 1840s, Garrison was getting criticized heavily by his fellow abolitionists for allowing women like the Grimke sisters to address mixed audiences and to advocate, not only for abolition, but for the right of women to vote. Some of his critics said that people who might support abolition but not women's rights would be lost. And, in any event, for women to address such concerns in public was an activity foreign to their sex. Garrison's response to these critics was always the same: "It's all one issue; it's all the same issue."

So, Ms. Pruitt, wherever you are, it's all one issue, ma'am. We're not free, any of us, until all of us are free--all of us! Whether the discrimination is based on stereotypes, bigotry, or anything else other than one's own merit, we all deserve to be free of it.

It is worth remembering that, after all, these categories don't exist in mutually exclusive ways. There are blind African American women in this room. A victory or a loss on any one of three fronts is a victory or a loss for each. The problem is, if you are a member of more than one minority, you have to win three out of three to be a winner; two out of three won't cut it. That's why we all have to be together.

Now I'm not proposing we all join hands and start singing "We Are Family." There are critical differences among the civil rights movements. I know there are people in this room who are uncomfortable and even angry that I might suggest that we have common cause with people who are disabled by mental illness or developmental delays, that we have common cause with people who are excluded because of their sexual orientation; but a bad decision on deaf rights hurts us. And a bad decision on race rights or any other rights hurts us. We've seen and we should remember from the past that, when there has been fighting and suspicion among different groups, the folks who get hurt are the people who were already the victims of discrimination. Growing up in Austin, I watched Latino and African American communities battle each other for who was more deserving of the table scraps when they should have united to insist on having seats at the dinner table.

What we have in common, despite all our differences, is that the majority regards us as outside the norm, as people who can be denied equal opportunity, people who can be excluded. In Nazi Germany being a gypsy or a gay person or having a disability was every bit as much a ticket to the crematorium as being a Jew. In 1934 between three hundred thousand and four hundred thousand mentally and physically handicapped Germans were forcibly sterilized. In 1939 the Nazis adopted a secret plan to euthanize the disabled. As people became aware of this, protest grew, so the program was supposed to have ended in 1941. Nonetheless, people with disabilities continued to be killed by Nazi doctors by starvation, poisoning, or lethal injection. Homosexuals not only suffered the same fate, but in the camps they had to wear pink triangles and were beaten and tortured by fellow inmates who shared the Nazis' hatred of gay people. So, as far as I'm concerned, though I rarely encounter anti-Semitism in the United States, as a Jew I'm not safe till everybody's safe. As each discriminated-against minority makes strides, it has educated and prepared the general public and the judges to be receptive and to understand the arguments of the next group.

So where are we? What are the signs for progress? A significant milestone in any civil rights movement is the establishment of legal protections and enforcement of those protections by the courts. By itself legal protection is not enough. For example, in the wake of the Civil War, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, guaranteeing rights to equal treatment under the law, equal rights in contract. By 1868 the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution had been enacted. But eight years later, in 1876, to guarantee the election of Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden, the federal government ended Reconstruction and withdrew its support for immigration, and things were bad for a very long time. So just having the laws on the books doesn't do it.

But in 1909 the NAACP was founded, and in 1940 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was established. With a national group poised for collective action, the combination of laws, court cases, and mass demonstrations created meaningful, sudden, and dramatic changes, even though it didn't conclude the battle.

Consider how fast change can come. In the spring of 1962 I was in the eighth grade, and I worked as a page in the Texas Senate. If you went down to the basement of the Texas Capitol--and most of us would have no reason to do it if we weren't going to fix the boiler--but if you went down to the basement of the Texas Capitol, you would find--and this is the word I'm assigned, not my word--you would find the "colored bathrooms" and the "colored water fountain." In front of the Capitol stretches beautiful Congress Avenue. The lunch counter at the Rexall Drug Store on Congress Avenue was segregated, as were the two movie theaters on Congress Avenue. Not far away was the campus of the University of Texas. The few African American students admitted to UT were housed in old World War II housing miles from campus with no public transportation. When I left for college in the fall of 1965, only three years later, none of those horrors was still true.

Statutes are an expression of the national consensus, even if they are just aspirational when they are passed. Statutes make equal access a right and are not dependent on the whims of the majority. When statutes are coupled with a national organization (can anybody think of one?) with the resources to bring cases to enforce the laws and with leaders who are prepared to take action to focus the attention of the nation, rapid change can occur.

There is another, harder piece, though, and that's the question of social integration. Social integration is the key to the speed with which we get our rights and our ability to hold them. Consider this. After women won the right to vote in the United States in 1920, there was little national debate over women's rights for nearly fifty years. In 1964 Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That's the act that forbids discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex. It was not until the next year, though, that the National Organization for Women was founded. Gender discrimination was not addressed as a result of a national consumer organization supporting the law. How did the women get included? Southern legislators, in an attempt to kill the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provisions, added sex in an attempt to make the law look ridiculous. When the law went into effect on July 2, 1965, a reporter asked Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., the first EEOC chairman, "What about sex?" "I'm all for it," he answered. The Wall Street Journal speculated that now the Playboy Club would have to hire shapeless, knobby-kneed male bunnies to serve drinks to stunned businessmen. The New Republic urged the EEOC not to take seriously a mischievous joke perpetrated on the floor of the House of Representatives by seven Congressmen, while the New York Times suggested that Congress might just as well try to abolish sex as sex discrimination. The first staff director of the EEOC said, "There are some people on this commission who think that no man should be required to have a male secretary, and I'm one of them."

Well, that was not so long ago, 1964. But although the battles for equal pay and appropriate working conditions and equal rights and hiring and promotion are far from over, I suggest to you that the barriers in this area have fallen with unprecedented speed. I think there are both social and economic reasons for this. First, women are more than half the population. Second, there is intense social integration. Men in this country have wives and daughters or other significant social interactions with women. Thus there is an intense personal interest by many men in the equality of women in the workplace. Moreover, given that the economy increasingly demands two-earner households, men have a strong economic incentive to see that their spouses can maximize their economic contribution.

When you look at employment numbers, though, the disability rights movement, especially for the blind, is much further from equality than those who have been discriminated against on the basis of race or gender. I once had the nerve (and the person was very gracious about it) to ask somebody in this room whether he'd encountered more significant discrimination because he was black or because he was blind. He said, "Well, I've been black longer than I've been blind, but I think I've encountered more discrimination because I'm blind."

Another way to look at the question of social integration is that, in the early stages of each rights movement, members who succeed are considered to be exceptional or amazing by a majority that utterly lacks awareness of the condescension inherent in this reaction. I no longer leave a meeting with a black or female professional and hear a white male say to me, "Isn't he (or she) amazing?" But I'll know we're closer to the Promised Land when I can go through an entire year of meetings with Dr. Maurer and sighted persons from outside the NFB and not hear once after the meeting, "Isn't he amazing?" He is, by the way, but not the way they mean it!

So we have the statutes and we have the court cases and we're beginning to break down the barriers. Progress in social integration is slow because so many employable blind people are unemployed and therefore not meeting sighted people in the workplace, maybe partly because blindness is a low-incidence disability. But I think there's also a lack of progress because of fear. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow a different color than I am today; and, unless I go through a whole bunch of painful operations, I'm always going to be a male. But I may someday lose my sight or use a wheelchair. While that should make me more empathic about disability rights, for many still, the sight of a blind person or the sight of a wheelchair user disturbs their state of denial. It reminds them that their status can change, and they really wish that disabled people would be invisible.

In this connection I talked to my partner Andy Levy, whom some of you may know. Andy's a wheelchair user. I said, "Andy, do you think that wheelchair users are more integrated in society than blind persons?" He said, "Well, there's an easy scientific test. Go to a series of restaurants, half the time with somebody in a wheelchair and half the time with a blind person. Bring a decibel meter. That way you can measure, when does the waitress say more loudly, 'What would he like?' to you when you're with a blind person or when you're with a wheelchair user? That'll tell you who's more integrated."

I've been working with the NFB for more than twenty years. We have some statutes in place, but they're not adequate to the task, and they may never be. We have court cases, we have made real progress, and we will continue to do so. But by themselves the statutes and cases will never be enough. The great battlefield today, our Brown v. Board of Education, is that we live in the information age, and the blind are not given equal access to information. Without that we will not have meaningful employment, we will not have social integration, and we will not have equality of opportunity. That is the great battle that ten years or so ago Dr. Maurer asked me to help with. We are further ahead than we were ten years ago, but I will not pretend that it's time to pat ourselves on the back, and the speed with which technology develops makes it hard not to fall behind. We have tools that we have only begun to use to make the case that discrimination is bad business. We need to use Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to make sure that companies selling hardware and software to the federal government have to make their products accessible or lose business. We have to use the damage provisions of state antidiscrimination laws, like those in California, so that businesses know that discrimination costs money. If you discriminate you'll take a hit to your pocketbook. When a company believes that its existence in cyberspace immunizes it from the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet it provides services to schools and universities, then we'll sue the schools and universities under the Rehab Act. We'll let the businesses know that, if they want to discriminate, we can destroy their business. At the same time we must make the positive economic case in access to information and employment that money spent for accessibility is money well spent.

Most of all we must help each other in our battles without regard to our religion, gender, race, sexual preference, or disability. Ms. Pruitt, it's all the same issue. "And deep in my heart, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday."

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