American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2023      FEATURE

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Thinking about My Dad

by Kevan Worley

Kevan WorleyFrom the Editor: At the 2023 Convention of the NFB of Illinois (NFBI), Kevan Worley of Colorado served as the national representative. In this capacity he addressed the convention banquet. NFBI First Vice President Denise Avant gave the following introduction:

Denise Avant: Kevan Worley is known and loved by Federationists all across the country. He started out in Illinois, attending the Illinois School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He now lives in Colorado, where he is a successful businessman. He has been in the Federation for over forty years. Here is one of the nicest people I know, Kevan Worley of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado.

Kevan Worley: I've been thinking about the things I'd like to share with you tonight, and I decided I want to talk about my dad. My dad was a great American. I was talking earlier tonight to a young woman who served in the military, and her son was in the Chicago BELL® Academy last summer. She and her husband both were in the military at Fort Bliss and other places. I can identify as an Army brat. I was an Army brat myself. My dad was a sergeant in the Army. So I thought, why not talk about my dad? My dad was a great guy. He died in 2011.

What does this have to do with blindness? Whether you go blind later in life or develop low vision in the middle of life or you're blind or have low vision early in your life, we all have our stories. We all have stories about how we're impacted by our families. We often talk about the low expectations we experience. In my view it's not just the low expectations that mess us up—it's the mixed expectations and the mixed messages we get.

When he was four my father was adopted from an orphanage in South Bend, Indiana. There were eight kids in his family, as far as we know. This was in the early 1930s. The family that adopted him, the Worleys, couldn't take eight kids; they could take two. In those days things were different; it was the Great Depression. We think my father's birth family was going north from Arkansas to work in the plants or heading west toward Oklahoma. We only know for sure that there were eight kids, and the family could not care for eight children, so they dropped the children in an orphanage in South Bend, Indiana. Thanks to my Grandma and Grandpa Worley, my dad and his sister Shirley were adopted from the orphanage. (How would you like to be called Shirley Worley?) So my dad came from very humble roots.

In 1956, when he was twenty, my dad married my mother. They met at a Christian Bible school in Indiana. Dad, of course, joined the Army. I say "of course" because in those days if you were poor, the Army was one way you could get an opportunity. In the late 1950s there was no war. Korea was over, and Vietnam was only in its very, very early stages. Back in 1956 nobody even knew where Indochina was! So, Dad joined the Army, and he got transferred to Germany. It was only eleven years after World War II, and Europe was still in recovery. There were still bombed-out buildings. There was still destruction. The Marshall Plan was still in effect.

So my mother gets pregnant with me, and she gives birth in a little hospital in Germany. My parents were green. They were salt-of-the-earth people from a small town in Indiana. My mother had trouble with the delivery. My poor mother was eighteen hours delivering me. The inexperienced Army doctors didn't know what to do, so I was delivered with forceps, and my head was crushed. Dad told me later that it didn't look like I was going to live. He said, "Son, your head looked like somebody had taken a baseball bat to you!" That's how bad it was—and yet I'm still here!

Wise Advice

My parents had never known a blind person. They didn't even think about blindness. They worried about whether I was going to have brain damage. They worried about whether I would have delays. And I did have delays. Finally, after a long time, when I was about fifteen months old, they noticed that my eyes had very little movement. They noticed that I was not light reactive.

When they got back to the United States, my grandparents said, "Let's take Kevan to the famous Mayo Clinic." I still have some very early memories of my grandma and grandpa driving me in a Studebaker to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. I was eighteen months old, but I still have some very vague, wispy memories of that trip.

The great doctors at the Mayo Clinic were smarter than a lot of the doctors today. After looking at my eyes, they said to my parents, "All we can say is that he's going to be blind. We don't think he's going to have brain damage, but he's going to be blind. He's going to be totally blind. Quit searching for a cure. Just get him a good education."

I can tell you that they said that, because fifty years later I went back to the Mayo Clinic. My health was a little down. They have something at the Mayo Clinic called the Business Executive Program. You can go when you're fifty or sixty or whatever, and you can pay a ton of money, and they'll do a whole work-up on you. I was there for four days, and they did all kinds of tests. They asked me, "Have you ever been to the Mayo Clinic before?" I said, "Well, not really. Just when I was two, but that was fifty years ago."

Now, this branch of the Mayo Clinic was in Phoenix, Arizona. The one I went to when I was two was in Rochester, Minnesota. But fifteen minutes later they came back and said, "We've got your records from when you were two years old."

I couldn't believe it! That means they had to take my records from paper to microfiche to microfilm—but they thought it was necessary, they were so good and organized, and they love their data! They had that record, and they had a letter from the clinic to my father's commanding officer, a letter to the colonel. It said, "Sergeant Worley's son is blind. He's going to be totally blind. Please do what you can, Sir, to station Sergeant Worley in a place where they will have a school for the blind. He needs an education. He doesn't need medical attention."

Doctors and theologians like to heal us. But these doctors said, "He's going to be blind." For my dad and mom, this was overwhelming! I would like to say that they set high expectations for me all the time. I'd like to say they got that take-that-hill attitude Dad had as a sergeant in the Army and that attitude from the Mayo Clinic, and that everything was copasetic and a piece of cake. And yet, as I said earlier, it's not just the low expectations that we have to deal with—it's the mixed expectations and the mixed messages.

High Expectations

My dad loved me and wanted me to succeed just like he did. I can prove it. When I was five years old we were stationed back in Frankfurt, Germany. We lived on the fourth floor of one of those Army blockhouses, one of those postwar buildings that were built for soldiers. We were on the fourth floor, and the higher ranks were on the first, second, and third floors.

One day my dad said to me, "Take out the trash." I have a vivid memory of this! He handed me a paper bag. It was full. There were tin cans in that paper bag. I walked down those stairs, and I'm sure I dropped some of those tin cans. I'm sure I didn't give it much thought. I threw the trash in the dumpster and went back upstairs.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the door, and some high-ranking officer, some major or something, said, "Sergeant Worley!" I knew I was in big trouble! "Sergeant Worley!" he said. "I hear you're letting your son take down the trash."

My dad said, "Yes, sir, he's got to take the trash down."

The officer said, "He dropped some tin cans down there. We don't want him taking the trash down anymore."

And I clearly remember this, my dad said, "Well, he's got to learn to take out the trash just like every other kid. If he drops a tin can down there, he'll go find it and pick it up." That was my dad's take-that-hill attitude. That's the way he was. My dad had high expectations, right?

A year later I wanted to learn to ride a bicycle. I could see just a teeny bit—I had what our friend Mary Grunwald here calls "recreational vision." I could see a teeny, teeny bit, and I could follow the fence with my one good eye. Dad would let me ride a bicycle out there.

Well, one time I ran into a car—and of course it belonged to the same major! And my dad defended me! He said, "I'm sorry, but he has to learn to do things." Again, he had high expectations. I had to learn to do what everybody else did.

Mixed Messages

Now I'm eleven years old. We're living in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. It's hot in Fort Huachuca, Arizona! And my dad said to me and my brother Paul, who's a year and a half younger than I am, that we had to go pull weeds in the back yard.

So we're out there pulling weeds. Well, it was hot! I'm sweating, and it's hard work, and I kind of start lingering. I'm not really doing my bit. I'm lazing off. My brother figures, if my older brother's lazing off, I'm going to laze off, too.

Then I heard my dad: "Paul Arthur Worley! What are you doing? Why aren't you pulling those weeds?"

My brother said, "Kevan's not doing his share, either."

I distinctly heard my dad—and I hear him today—he said, "He's blind! He can't keep up with you, he's blind! Just get to work!"

I thought, my dad believes in me, right? I thought he had high expectations for me. I thought he believed I could do what everyone else could do. But now he was selling me short. It really disturbed me.

That's what we deal with often. It's not that all expectations are low. It's that they're inconsistent. You don't know what society expects of you. On one hand you're a hero for walking across a residential street when you're twelve. On the other hand you can't join the Boy Scouts. Which is it? Am I a hero or not?

My dad loved me, and my dad was a great guy. He was my hero. This was just one incident, but it buried itself in my psyche.

There were many other “incidents,” incidents of high expectations and incidents of low expectations.

The Case for Intersectionality

A year later I went to the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. I thought about it the other day, because it was Indigenous People's Day. I hated the Arizona School for the Blind! I had been at the Illinois Braille and Sight Saving Institute, as they called it in those days (it never saved anybody's sight, as far as I know), but then my dad got transferred to Fort Huachuca, so I was sent to the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind.

Bless my dad, he knew how much I hated that school! He'd drive every weekend, seventy miles, to pick me up and take me home. That meant on Friday night he had to drive seventy miles to pick me up and seventy miles to take me home. Then he had to do the same thing on Sunday to take me back to school and drive home after he dropped me off. This was in 1968. Back then you didn't just get in the car and go! My dad spent every weekend driving all those miles back and forth because he knew how much I hated that school.

This isn't so much about blindness, but it is about intersectionality, and the way we all need to work together to change the world. When I was at the Arizona School for the Blind there were Hopi Indians and Apache Indians among the students. They were not allowed to speak their languages. I understood that in school they had to speak English, doing their reading and writing and 'ritmetic. But after school they were not allowed to speak their languages, either. The house parents would hit their knuckles with a ruler if they spoke their native languages. So this is not about blindness, but it's a side note that matters to me.

My dad earned a silver star. He did four tours in Vietnam. When I think of the people who went to Afghanistan and Iraq, when I think about all the people who serve our country, I think about my dad, and I decided to share a bit about him tonight. I've never done it before.

My dad would go to all of my wrestling meets, no matter where we were. He would find some way to get to my wrestling meets. I remember my sophomore year in high school, I was wrestling in Indianapolis. This was in 1972. Now, my dad was from the Old South. His family came from Arkansas and Indiana. I was wrestling for the finals of a National Council for the Blind, and I was wrestling a Black kid. There were folks there who did not want the Black kid to win. They put pressure on me as a fifteen-year-old, telling me, "You've got to beat this [N-word]." My dad came up to me and said, "Don't feel pressure. Who wins is who's going to win."

Well, I lost bad! That kid kicked my butt! I think he pinned me in fifty-one seconds! I hated to lose, but I also felt kind of gleeful that the Black kid beat me. I walked away feeling like, "Haha, you white bigots!"

It all works together in so many ways. Discrimination and prejudice are discrimination and prejudice. My dad knew that, even though he came from a very rural, oppressed background. He challenged me—mostly, but not always. We have to be careful of those mixed messages!

Messages that Empower

How does this relate to the National Federation of the Blind? The National Federation of the Blind impacted my life in many ways, the same as my dad did. But in the Federation the messages were always positive, always upbeat, always empowering.

Late in my dad's life he got involved in the National Federation of the Blind. He went to eleven national conventions before he passed away. He fell in love with the National Federation of the Blind as a sighted father. He began to recognize that some of the things he and Mom did when they raised me were right on target, absolutely great. But he also began to recognize that some of the things they did they wouldn't have done for the next child. I know they learned that, because my wife Bridget and I had an opportunity, through the National Federation of the Blind, to adopt a blind child.

Some of you know Nijat. He was eleven, and he came to the United States for eye surgery. The eye surgery didn't work. He was going to be pretty nearly totally blind, with just a teeny bit of that recreational vision. I found out about him when I was doing some work for NFB Past President Dr. Marc Maurer in New York. Carl Jacobsen, who was president of the New York affiliate, came to me and said, "We have a blind kid we don't know what to do with." I said, "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" Carl said, "They want to send him back."

So I went to Bridget, and I said, "Hey, they want me to adopt a blind kid." She said, "What? We're done with kids!" I said, "Well, I don't think we are."

We were able to talk to Nijat’s parents in Azerbaijan. He was raised mostly in an Armenian refugee camp. We were able to adopt him, and he was the apple of my eye. He was my buddy. We raised him in what we call the boot camp for the blind. We didn't have many mixed messages and mixed expectations around our house!

I remember one time we lost him. When he was sixteen he got upset with me about something, and I said, "You can just get out of the car and walk home then."

It was about 28 degrees out, and he got out of the car and slammed the door. I said, "Come on, Bridget, let's go." So we went home and left him out there.

After about an hour he wasn't home, and we thought we better go look for him. And we couldn't find him! David Maurer, who was working for me at the time, went out and cruised around, and he found him.

Nijat was a wonderful kid to raise. Once he learned English, he always said, "I vant to be lawyer." About three years ago he graduated from Creighton Law School. I'm pretty proud of him!

I want to say a couple of things about Dad here. Dad learned his lesson. He really took Nijat under his wing. He spent so much time mentoring him, taking him fishing and hunting, showing him all kinds of things he would never have shown to me.

My dad, as a sighted guy, helped start the National Association of Blind Veterans, a division of ours. In 2005 people were starting the division. Mom and Dad had started going to national conventions—they loved national conventions! Dad said, "I'd like to make a grant to help start this division." I said, "A grant? We ate mayonnaise sandwiches growing up. I don't think we're giving grants." But he gave them a thousand dollars to help start the division. I was very proud of Dad for doing that.

It has been observed that "visionaries are those who stand on the platform of railroads that have not yet been built." I think about that when I think about our founder, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. I think about where we were in 1940, and with Dr. Jernigan where we were in the 1960s. With all the poverty that blind people faced, with all the exclusion, I think, how did they know that if they started working diligently, raising a dime here and a dime there, how did they think we could get to where we are today? They couldn't have imagined AI and all those things, but as founders they knew that with people like my dad, non-blind allies, and with the people in this room, we would ultimately continue to grow and organize a movement that would change the world for blind people. And would change the world for others as well.

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