Future Reflections Convention Issue 2013
by Anil Lewis
Introduction by Carlton Walker: Anil Lewis hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and computer information systems as well as a master's degree in public administration with emphasis on policy analysis and program evaluation from Georgia State University. He has worked as a technology instructor, job help specialist, and client assistance program counselor advocate. He has received many distinguished awards, including being named as Outstanding Alumnus of GSU and the 2003 GSU Torchbearer of Peace. Anil says that his proudest accomplishment, however, is being a father to his son, Amari, who was born in 1997. Dedicated to using his abilities to help eliminate discrimination toward the blind and others with disabilities, he was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind in 2003 and currently serves as NFB's director of advocacy and policy.
I want to talk to you about several things today, but all are under the umbrella of No Limits. As Carlton said, currently I am director of advocacy and policy for the National Federation of the Blind. My primary responsibility right now is to shepherd legislation to help repeal the discriminatory legal provision that allows employers to apply for special wage certificates from the Department of Labor that permit them to pay people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. Right now there are actually people with disabilities getting paid one penny per hour! The law is still on the books. Talk about No Limits!
I want to talk to you about three things: be blessed, be loving, and be active. First let's talk about being blessed. I'm a Christian from the Southern Baptist tradition. I lost my sight when I was twenty-five, and my life changed. I don't know if you realize this, but people with disabilities aren't always welcomed in the right way in faith communities. Sometimes we become the good works that people want to do. They want to save us from our disabilities. I wrote a blog called "Compassion and Discrimination," about the fair wages issue and society's perception of people with disabilities. It's interesting that this Southern Baptist boy got a blog posted on Jewish Weekly; it goes to show you that, regardless of what faith or tradition you follow, there are the same barriers and the same opportunities for success.
Recently I had the opportunity to give a presentation to a group in Columbus, Ohio. They put me up on the pulpit and said, "Now, you're going to give us the Word." I said, "But I'm not ordained!" I did some research beforehand, and I found two Biblical passages--if you don't mind, I'd like to share them with you. The first one is Exodus 4:11. To paraphrase it, God is talking to Moses, and Moses talks about how he is slow of speech. God says, "Who do you think made you? You and all the other people with disabilities--the deaf, the blind?" I find solace in that, knowing that God made us. God made me who I am, and I'm charged with the responsibility of living my life so that I warrant the blessings that I have received.
The other verse I found is from the New Testament, John 9:3. Basically, it comes from a conversation Jesus had with his disciples. They came across a blind guy, and the disciples said, "Jesus, who sinned, so that this man was born blind?" I love the answer, and I hope you'll love the answer, too. Jesus said, "Neither did this man sin, nor did his mother or father, but that the works of God should be manifest in him." That's what I choose to do--I choose to make manifest the glory of God in the life that I live. We all have a role to play, and disability doesn't prevent us from fulfilling our responsibilities.
Understand, I'm not trying to convert you guys! But I do want you to believe in something greater than yourself, because that's the only way we can get through the day sometimes. There's only so much that's in our control. If you don't come from a strong faith tradition, if you have apprehensions about believing as I believe, I still want you to believe in something greater than yourself. At a minimum, have the faith that we can do more together than you can alone.
A very dear friend of mine, Mark Riccobono, is the executive director of the Jernigan Institute. A guy walked up to him somewhere and said to him, "If only I could heal you! Oh, I wish I was Jesus!" What do you say to that, right? Mark turned to him and said, "Don't we all?" [Laughter.]
Another thing I want to say is, love your children. People say, "That's easy! I love my children." But I want you to love them in a way that's more of a tough love. That's a little more difficult as a parent. As Carlton said, my greatest joy is my son, Amari, who's in this room somewhere. He's also my greatest challenge. I want to teach him in a way that makes him independent. I would do that whether he was sighted or blind. He's a sighted child. If he had been born blind, I would have been very suited as a parent, because I have had personal experiences that my mother didn't have when she raised the blind children she had. That's right—both my older brother and my older sister are blind. My mother didn't have any experience raising a blind child, but she knew how to raise kids! She knew all the things she needed to teach us, because she grew up in that hard world.
As a child I was diagnosed educationally mentally retarded. That term isn't politically correct today--it's called intellectual disability. But back then the word was retarded, and I had to deal with those labels and the stereotypes associated with them. My mom could have acquiesced early on and let that label define who I was. But she told the school, "If you're going to label my son educationally mentally retarded, then you have to provide services." She did a great job advocating for me, all because she knew that I had capacity. She was not afraid of my disability. She knew me. She interacted with me every day, and she knew that I could learn, regardless of what they told her. Because of her efforts, I went from being in a special education class to being placed in the gifted class.
Labels don't really mean anything. People say, "You were just misdiagnosed." Maybe I was--but maybe, just maybe there were people in my circle who taught me ways that I could learn so that I could overcome my disability. [Applause] I own all the labels that were put on me, because I want to stand here and say that we can overcome anything.
My father passed away when I was six years old, and I never really knew him. My mother raised all four of us alone. My mother loved us; she loved us all. I know people always say you're supposed to love all your children the same. Well, I was her favorite. My brother and sisters each thought they were her favorite, too. [Laughter.]
My mom had a natural ability to be a parent. We were raised in the country. My mom taught us to shuck corn, pick peas, and slop hogs. I'm not a chauvinist or anything--but we were taught that everything outside the house, the men did; and everything inside the house, the women did. Mom taught us all to be responsible for the things that we could do.
We finally moved to the city, to what we called the Projects. We went from one apartment to another, each one better than the last, and finally we moved into a house. I cut the grass, pruned the trees, washed the windows, and cleaned the gutters.
Mom knew how to be the parent of sighted children, as I say, but she didn't know how to teach blind kids. Unfortunately, she didn't know the Federation. My brother went blind much earlier than I did. Because she didn't know how to teach him, she believed the professionals she met. I'm not condemning professionals! I recognize that there are good ones and there are bad ones. I don't mean bad as in mean or evil--I mean there are just some who aren't as competent and qualified as they should be in order to tell parents how to raise their blind children. My mother listened to some of these individuals. This was right around the time when mainstreaming was starting to get more and more blind students out of the schools for the blind and into regular classes. I believe in my heart that the more quality education venues we can create for blind kids, the better. Whether it be in schools for the blind or mainstream programs, we need to make sure that our kids are taught.
Unfortunately, my mom didn't know that blind kids could be taught. She also bought into the fact that my brother still had some functional vision. Rather than teaching him skills of blindness, the professionals taught him to use the little vision he had. I have no problem with that, but if you don't complement the use of functional vision with serious alternative skills of blindness, you handicap a child beyond belief. For my brother it was all about sight, all about making sure he could see, and trying to look normal. Now, we strive for normality in the Federation, meaning that blind people can participate in society as full members. It's not so much that we are normal, because the reality is that we are different. A sighted guy can read with his eyes; I'm here reading with my fingers. I'm still normal, but I'm reading in a different way. A sighted person walks in the environment, looking around as he goes. I use a long white cane. I get where I want to go; I'm normal, but I get around in a different way.
They didn't teach those things to my mom. They taught my mom that my brother should use his sight. Had she known the Federation, this is what would have happened. She would have learned that she needed to teach him to do things, the normal things that people do, in different ways. This is something that is very important.
Parents of sighted children are constantly saying, "Don't touch that! Don't touch that!" Well, if our blind kids don't touch it, they don't experience it! My mother would have known to tell my brother to touch things. She would have said, "Look at this. Look at it with your hands!" Sure, he could see it, but he would have seen more details by touching it.
I hear you guys thinking, "It looks bad in society if we have our kids going around touching things." Let me teach you a technique. When you go through a museum or someplace, and you see something that you think would be helpful for your child to touch, if there's a little bitty velvet rope, that's to keep the sighted people away. [Laughter.] It means that you, as the parent of a blind child, go under that velvet rope and let your child touch things. And if somebody looks at you funny, like "What are you doing?" you look at the person with your head slightly tilted, and you look down beneath them, and you roll your eyes up like, "What's your problem?" [Laughter.]
You have to provide opportunities for your child to experience the environment. We have to create our own counterculture. We have to make it so that people will understand that we want to experience our environment.
My brother was an extremely adept athlete. Before he lost his sight, he won all sorts of ribbons and trophies in swimming and track and wrestling. If my mother had known the Federation, she would have known that he needed to learn to use the long white cane. He could see well enough to walk around, but he did a lot of bumping into things. Rather than walking all humped over, looking down at his feet, he could have walked with his head held high.
If my mom had known the Federation, she would have known that it was okay for my brother to learn Braille. He could see well enough to read print if he put the book right up to his face. I remember when he finally went to college, he had big large-print books and big magnifying glasses. He had so much light, he could have lit that book on fire! [Laughter.] Sometimes I read to him. I wish I had known the Federation, too.
If my mother had known the Federation, she would have known that Braille, cane travel, and the use of access technology were essential in order for my brother to live a productive life. She didn't know. Because she didn't know, because my brother didn't learn those skills of blindness, he ended up in one of those institutions I spoke of earlier, where they pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. There is no value, no dignity, no benefit tangible or intangible, in someone working every day for a penny per hour! Because of that, my brother gave up.
I don't want to let another person end up in that situation. I refuse to let any more people have the experience that my brother had. That's why I'm here. Let this not be the end, but the beginning of our interaction. I don't want any of your kids to fall into that chasm. It's much harder to pull them out than it is to keep them from falling in.
Love your kids with tough love. When I get your kids alone, they say, "What do you want us to do?" I say, "I want you to grow up. I want you to have fun. I want you to go to college. I want you to learn. I want you to do all the things everybody tells you to do--be responsible! And I want you to do some things that nobody else will tell you to do--I want you to party, I want you to drink, I want you to go to clubs. I want you to be out there with your sighted friends, because that's how you develop relationships." I want our kids to have those relationships, because they're going to be running the world someday. They'll only be able to do that effectively if they have friends. I'm telling you this up front--I'm going to take your kids and turn them into social deviants! [Laughter.] I want them to get out there so people say, "Wow! That blind kid is pretty cool!"
Be active in the Federation. We provide a tremendous resource for you. We provide reality checks for your children so they don't grow up thinking they're amazing when really they're not. And when they really are amazing, we want them to know they are. We're a family.
I love you guys. I can say that without hesitation to each and every one of you in this room, whether I know you or not. I love you because you are here and you're willing to make a difference. I love you like you're family. And with family comes responsibility. Part of your responsibility is to be active in the Federation. We can give to you, we can help you in your life. We're investing in you so that you can give back, not only to us in this organization, but to the next parent out there who has a blind child, the next parent who needs to know the truth that you're learning right now. The NOPBC, the Student Division, and the rest of us are all part of one big organization. We all share one philosophy—that it's respectable to be blind.
There's one mission in the Federation--to change what it means to be blind. There's one movement that is going to change the lives of your children, and that's the National Federation of the Blind. Recognize that you're part of the whole. You're part of the family. Because of that, I commit to you by saying, "I pledge to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind." Thank you for your time.