Editors' Note: The following two articles express the observations and opinions of two NABS members on general blindness-related topics.
by Joe Orozco
Editors' Introduction: How many times have we found ourselves wishing Congress would pass a law to make things better? The truth is that too many of our discomforts are blamed on laws which have not been passed or that are not properly enforced. In this article, Joe Orozco walks us through the responsibilities laid upon our representatives and the obligations we have to confront ourselves. He recently graduated from Texas State University with a degree in public administration. He is currently devoting a year of service to AmeriCorps in Washington, D.C. Joe is a NABS board member and served as president of TABS from 2004-2006.
A politician died the other day. Upon arriving at the pearly gates, Peter informed him that he was in a good mood and would allow the politician to examine both Heaven and Hell and choose which place he would rather spend all eternity. The politician descended to Hell and was greeted by the most festive of occasions: great music, exquisite food and excellent wine. The politician wondered how anyone could refuse such a blissful atmosphere, but, to be fair, he rose to Heaven and found a pleasant calm the likes of which he had never experienced. Yet the dreamy state of euphoria was not enough to satisfy the man's desires. He chose Hell and returned to discover a depressing wasteland. Shocked, the politician looked about the frigid desert and demanded to know what had become of his paradise.
Swaggering up to meet him, the Devil tipped his hat and grinned as he coolly
explained: "Yesterday we campaigned. Today, you voted."
This past February marked my fourth year with the Federation. I joined in October of 2001, but it would take Washington Seminar to show me what the movement was really all about. The experience provided a panoramic view of the organization's positions and the individuals responsible for its overall success.
I was impressed and have remained an active member ever since, yet at the time my prime reason for attending the seminar was a keen interest in politics and a desire to visit the offices where so many of our policies are negotiated. Several visits to the Hill and many phone calls later, I began to conceptualize more fully the depth of our government's bureaucracy. While my introductory humor may reek of cynicism, I would opine that the gentle slam on politics might do well to teach us a hard lesson about the reality surrounding our own environment.
While creative innovation has opened doors to opportunities once thought impossible, it has also inspired bouts of agitation when things do not go as one would wish. Each year technology expands in an attempt to level the playing field for blind consumers. With a few keystrokes, it is now possible to determine one's global location. Sitting in a lecture hall, one can now take notes on a portable device whose functionality is mostly equal to that of the machine producing the PowerPoints. Electronic texts have flooded the Internet, and the hand-held reader can now reveal the ingredients of a can of soup. With so much progress, it only makes sense to assume that general public attitudes have kept up with the times, and when we encounter the occasional exception, there is typically a law to which one can point to show the utter abuse of justice. Legislation, like technology, has the advantage of facilitating equality, but it all too often runs the risk of creating unhealthy dependency.
One of the most misunderstood laws is the very same law to which many alleged victims turn when they feel their rights have been violated. The Americans with Disabilities Act is justifiably celebrated as the law that delivered the disabled community from discrimination in public establishments; however, the protection under the law is perceived to be so encompassing that at times, the size of the violation does not matter as long as the ADA is there to rely upon. Some of the more popular myths include: requiring restaurants to provide Braille menus, expecting businesses to spend superfluous amounts to make facilities accessible, providing for the right to always be accompanied by a dog guide and granting distinguished consideration to disabled job applicants. Servers are more than capable of reading a restaurant's selections. Only reasonable accommodations are expected of a public venue. Filthy dogs or dogs which are otherwise misbehaving do not have to be welcomed into a public building, and a blind applicant must meet the general requirements of a position like everyone else. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon to hear of cases where success is believed to be staunched on account of a law not being followed, so to what extent should we place our faith in legislation?
Laws are passed to correct a wrong but cannot be expected to change mentalities. Racism cannot be expected to vanish as a result of the Civil Rights Act. Conversely, legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Help America Vote Act cannot be expected to protect us completely against the obstacles that are likely to punctuate our experiences. For every effort made to facilitate accommodations in college campuses, there will always be a stubborn disability services coordinator who thinks he or she knows more than the disabled student who is supposed to receive assistance. Education in general will always involve faculty, administrators and specialists who operate in accordance with the curriculum in which they were trained to believe. Discrimination in the workplace is illegal and will no doubt occur more often than we would like, and unfortunately, rolling out the legal carpet may only succeed at further degrading the employee's future with the company as well as the prospects for later applicants.
Meanwhile, the government cannot be expected to bend at our every whim. One need only look to the results of the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act, one which would have required publishers to send educational material to a central repository to be reproduced in an accessible format. We wanted publisher compliance to be mandatory. However, in the reauthorization of IDEA, compliance was left voluntary. Similarly, in its recent Lockhart decision, the Supreme Court ruled that repayment of student loans outstanding by more than ten years could be deducted from social security benefits. Regardless of how the decision is viewed, the proof remains that laws are as likely to protect blind individuals as they are of holding them up to certain responsibilities.
Grim though the lesson may appear, it serves to remind us of a few basic principles. First, putting the political process into perspective may serve to reinforce the need for education. By this, I mean the need for us to educate others. Chances are that outside of the people we strive to educate every February in Washington, the average American will not be aware of the laws and regulations that protect the equality of the blind. Giving way to hasty accusations and explosive tantrums when laws are broken will not help the situation and will most certainly not change the offender's initial understanding. Whatever else may hold true, we are the minority and must work harder to give a positive representation.
Second, it is safe to assume that no amount of education will improve the opinions of certain parties; there is no reason why any student should permit the breadth of personal achievements to be dictated by isolated pessimism. Success should never be entrusted to a single factor anyway, and we should never gamble our aspirations on opinions that are not entirely our own. Next, there was a time when no laws existed to ensure the success of blind students making their way through high school, and the idea of college was laughable. Not so far back in history students wrote with a slate and stylus, or they did not write at all. If they could not so much as write, how could they argue for better employment opportunities? Despite these challenges, Dr. tenBroek beat the odds, learned and taught at prestigious universities and went on to set the groundwork for the organization we see today. Hence, we are left to surmise that while our efforts in D.C. may one day yield legislation as beneficial as the type already established, far too many advances have been made outside of Congress to lull us into feeling as though our individual progress is somehow inhibited by negligence of existing laws or lack of laws yet to be written.
In short, politics sometimes deserves the shudder with which it is often met.
Congress moves very slowly. We may need to fight long and hard for our representatives
to acknowledge our concerns. In the meantime, we should learn to be self-sufficient,
to pick our battles strategically, to maximize our available technology and
remember the fundamental methods that set the basis for the inventions we currently
use. No one could properly argue that faith in our government is a wasted prayer,
but no major player in history ever paused to consider how a lack of legislative
protection could stop him or her from making an impact on future generations.
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