Truth, Freedom, and Community Activism

By Angela Howard, Secretary, National Association of Blind Students

Editor's Note: The following speech was delivered by Angela Howard at the annual meeting of the National Association of Blind Students, held as part of the 1998 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.

A wise woman once said, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes." Last semester I received Guilford College's Hazel Steinfeld award given each year to three students who have demonstrated a commitment to peace and justice issues. Receiving this award forced me to take some time to reflect on what it means to truly be committed to creating a better world.

Do you consider yourself an activist? You should. All of us in the National Federation of the Blind are activists. An activist is one who believes in a truth that the rest of society has not yet come to understand and who works in partnership with others to offer this truth to the world. We in the National Federation of the Blind know the truth about blindness. We know that the problems facing the blind are not due to lack of sight, but to negative attitudes and misconceptions about blindness. We know that, given proper training and equal opportunity, blind people can compete on equal terms with our sighted peers. And we know that, though blindness may be a nuisance, it does not have to be the major factor that determines where we go or what we do.

But we in the National Federation of the Blind are not activists simply because we believe in a truth. We are activists because we have formed a community that is committed to this truth. We are a community who doesn't just speak the truth about blindness, but lives the truth every day. We are a community who continues to work to understand our truth in new and exciting ways. And we are a community who is committed to giving others the opportunity to explore the truth for themselves.

I learned how to be an activist in the National Federation of the Blind. It is this organization which taught me how to hold on to my beliefs, even when those around me do not share them. It is this organization which taught me how to know when it is time to take the lead and when it is time to lick the envelopes. And it is this organization which continues to teach me many lessons about the importance of community.

In order to be effective activists, we must commit ourselves both to our communities at home and to this community of believers, the National Federation of the Blind. We cannot change negative attitudes by simply speaking the truth about blindness. We must be living examples of our philosophy. If we are going to insist that blind students can compete on equal terms with our sighted peers, then we must be doing the competing. The beauty of knowing our truth about blindness is that we can never know it completely.

We all have areas in our lives where we could improve our philosophy and our beliefs in ourselves as blind people. Over my Spring Break, I worked at a homeless shelter. The shelter had this dishwashing machine that was enormous. At first, I completely avoided the dishwasher because I did not think I could handle it. After a while though, I summoned the courage to deal with the machine and found that running it wasn't difficult at all. Later, I was ashamed that I had ever doubted my capabilities. We will all face doubt, but we cannot let this doubt keep us from actively participating in our communities.

It is true, however, that the public has not yet come to understand the truth about blindness, and we will each face many obstacles on the road to full participation in society. This is why it is vital that we maintain an indestructible support system for one another. I did not attend this year's Washington Seminar. This is a mistake I hope I will never have to make again. I realized just how much I need a regular dose of Federation philosophy. We each have our own talents to bring to this community, and we need the support, the love, and the collective wisdom of those in our NFB family as well.

As you return home and continue to commit to your communities at school and to the National Federation of the Blind, keep the words of the wise woman in mind. We in the National Federation of the Blind believe in the truth about blindness, and we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

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