American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2019 FEATURE
by Ronza Othman
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 62, Number 1, January 2019
From the Editor: Ronza Othman is an attorney with the US Health and Human Services Administration. She manages the discrimination program at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Recently she was elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. This article is based on a speech that she gave at the 2018 National Federation of the Blind of Maryland convention.
"I am blind." Those words are three of the most liberating words in the English language. But for many of us, they are some of the scariest words in the English language as well. Some of us need to hear them hundreds of times before we realize those words apply to us. Some of us might literally fall in a hole, and we still won't realize the words apply to us. But thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, those words are liberating—an anthem of freedom that pierces the anxiety and frustration of trying to do things the sighted way when you have little or no sight.
I'd like to tell you a little about myself, if I may. I was one of those who was slow to accept my blindness, and I was slower to use the words. I always thought I was unique. My family immigrated to the United States from Palestine just days before I was born. I spoke almost no English when I started school, and I was the sixth of seven kids. My family is loud and funny, and each and every one of us is a Type-A personality—except me (ha!). My mom figured out when I was a toddler that I had "vision issues." Like most parents she took me from doctor to doctor seeking a diagnosis, a reason, and a fix.
In the Middle East and many other parts of the world, cultural and political norms often cause families of the blind to hide a family member’s disabilities, and sometimes actually to hide family members themselves. The word blind has very negative connotations. Resources don't exist, or if they do they are inadequate. Fortunately, a lot has changed in the last quarter century in much of the world. But for most refugees and immigrants, who are already trying so hard to blend in and be unnoticed in American society, having a child with a disability such as blindness is an additional challenge. Having said that though, the Middle Eastern culture used to hide its blind people; my mother rebelled against that notion from Day One. So my unwillingness to use the word blind, though perhaps it had some societal cause, was in no way perpetuated by my mother or my immediate family.
English was my second language, and I was notoriously bad at it. I kept trying to add English endings to Arabic words, which, as a little kid, just sounded bizarre. You'll still hear my accent come out when I'm tired, sad, or angry. Anyway, I went to kindergarten at my local public school, where I have fond memories of playing with blocks. That is all I remember about mainstream kindergarten.
I remember a test—I was five, so I also remember really wanting the juice box they promised me if I finished the test. They showed me three pictures: an umbrella, an apple, and a house. I knew the words in Arabic, but I didn't know them in English. I told the juice box people what items were in the pictures, but I did it in the wrong language—no one but me spoke Arabic. And off I went to a resource school for the blind—oh, and I got to repeat kindergarten, too. And to add insult to injury, the juice box wasn't even that good!
The resource school taught me to read, write, and speak English first. But they wouldn't teach me more than rudimentary Braille or cane travel, because I "had enough vision to get by without them." They gave me large print books, and I believe that is when my need for a chiropractor began. A six-year-old shouldn't be carrying such heavy books! I was mainstreamed into the "regular" classrooms within a few months of getting there, which made me wonder even at age six why I had to commute ninety minutes each way every day just to do what I would have done at my neighborhood school. I did ask that question—in English, I was precocious—but I never got a satisfactory answer.
I remember a particular time when I got behind my regular class in reading, and I worked out that my classmates were using context clues from the pictures in the book to learn words. Large print books in my day looked like over-sized coloring books, and for a blind kid, all I saw were a bunch of wavy lines—rather disorienting. I asked my "vision teacher" if someone could color in my book like the other kids did so I could have usable pictures, too. I'm sure that was the most fun task a vision aide probably ever had, coloring my first-grade reader. I have fond memories of "See Frog Jump" as a result.
I went back to my neighborhood school after second grade and attended a religious parochial school for junior high and high school. I got occasional visits from my vision itinerant, but mostly those were excuses to skip a math quiz or visit Taco Bell. It took me longer than most to finish my homework, and I slept very little in high school in order to keep up with the required reading. Oh, and I was a total nerd, complete with the public aid glasses—you know them, the ones that are huge plastic frames with bifocals. My mother insisted I wear them on a string so I didn't lose them. I didn't go out alone at night, and I only went if I absolutely trusted the person whom I was with. I realize now that the people I was with were giving me nonvisual cues, but it was clear to everyone but me that I was blind.
All this time, when people asked me—and mind you they absolutely had to ask, I never volunteered or self-identified—I would say I was visually impaired.
When I went to college, I began figuring out that something was different about me. I realized I was the only one working so hard to complete assignments. I got a job on campus that I really liked, but I wasn't brought back after freshman year because I was "too slow in reading documents." I realized Scantron Test Sheets were everywhere (they are the devil!), and my absolute loathing for them was disproportionate from that of my fellow classmates. I fell in a hole—literally. Walking one night I jumped out of the way of a speeding car and ended up in a construction ditch. I hadn't even known it was there. Had I used blindness techniques or mobility skills, I'd have known of its existence before I fell in it. I broke my ankle and two ribs. But I insisted to anyone who would listen that I fell because of a speeding car, not because I "couldn't see well." My vernacular was changing.
I applied for scholarships with the National Federation of the Blind, and I wish so fervently that someone had contacted me for more than the annual interview. My college experience would have been so different, and I might have avoided that hole. I finally did receive a state scholarship in Illinois when I was a first-year law student. That state convention was my first exposure to adults who were blind and who were fine with their blindness. In fact, they were thriving.
I showed up at the convention fully planning to take the scholarship money and run—law school is expensive and really intense! But when I got to the hotel, I saw about a hundred blind people who were laughing, talking, walking, navigating the hotel and parking lot on their own, and doing what many of us think of as basic things. But for me, this was all new. I thought I was doing great as a "low vision" person, but surrounded by people who had much less usable vision than I did, I felt like I was missing something fundamental.
At that convention I met people like Patti Chang, Debbie Stein, Fred Schroeder, and Ryan Strunk. Fred Schroeder kept calling me "Runza," and it took me three days to figure out he was teasing me by calling me the name of his favorite Nebraska sandwich. Then he talked to me about my own as well as cultural misconceptions about blindness. This was the beginning of a lifelong conversation the two of us have been having about blindness and NFB philosophy.
Ryan Strunk kept asking me annoying questions such as, "But how do you read?" and "How do you travel?" I got defensive, because my answers didn't satisfy him . . . or, I realized, me. Later I thought long and hard about his questions and viewed them as a challenge to learn how to work smarter, not harder—and that meant learning blindness skills.
Patti Chang showed me that lawyering could be done as a blind person quite competently, which was something I was very anxious about. She took me under her wing (whether I liked it or not) and brought me into her family. Patti gave me one of my first jobs as a law clerk, and she worked me as hard as every sighted employee she had—I think she worked me harder! She taught me through words and actions what blind people could do in their lives, what blind lawyers could do, what I could do.
Debbie Stein gave me the gift of literacy. She, too, grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go. I tried to take the money and run, but Patti and Debbie wouldn't allow it, and Debbie taught me to read Braille.
I've been fortunate to meet thousands of Federationists since that state convention, and I've learned a great deal from so many of them. One Federationist, Nathanael Wales, put a long white cane in my hand for the first time and taught me how to use it. I had to lose a bet to do it, but some of us are slow learners! Federationists taught me cooking techniques. Federationists showed me that independent air travel is not only possible but easy. Federationists helped give me the confidence to move, alone, across the country to Maryland. They showed me what technology is out there. A Federationist, Joanne Wilson, helped me get my first federal job.
Melissa Riccobono was the first friend I made when I moved to Maryland a decade ago. I learned from Melissa to be myself, that it is okay to make mistakes, and never to stop learning. The incomparable Sharon Maneki has influenced my life in so many ways. I've learned that I am capable of so much more than I thought I was. I learned that no one's brain can store as much information as Sharon's, but I like the challenge of trying to mine that brain. Sharon is also one of the funniest people I've ever known, but her humor is so unexpected that it takes you a minute to realize she made a joke. I'm so grateful for her faith in me as a leader, and I'm more grateful than I can ever express for her friendship and for her love.
These incredible Federationists and others helped shape me into the person I am. They taught me self-confidence, and they taught me that the word blind is not negative but freeing. I hope to share the gift they've given to me with those who come after me. They showed me that, with the proper skills and attitude, the future is ours. Because of them, because of you, my fellow Federationists, I can say with pride and confidence, "My name is Ronza Othman, and I am blind."