by Angela Howard, Secretary, National Association of Blind Students
Most of us are sure of our commitment to the National Federation of the Blind, and to our smaller community of Federation students. For most of us, Federationism is such an integral part of the way we think and the way we act that we do not question its importance in our lives. We know it, and we live it everyday. However, it is good to remind ourselves of just how much this community means to our own success and happiness, and how much it can mean in the lives of other blind people.
During my first two years of college, another blind person inhabited our classrooms and hallways. We shall call him "Tony." I spoke with Tony on several occasions. and invited him several times to NFB conventions and seminars. His answer was always, "No." I asked him if was involved in any organizations of or for the blind. He told me, "I have been to an NFB meeting, but find that stuff not worth my time." I did not push him further, and our paths rarely crossed after that.
Now, I have observed Tony on several occasions, and others have made comments reaffirming my observations. Tony was not the poster child for independence and positive philosophy. He was not a confident cane user and expected to have a sighted person's arm available, even when that method of travel was not convenient for either him or the sighted person. He did not want to use Braille, relying instead on a combination of CCTV and pure memory to take class notes. Tony had also been the victim of blatant discrimination by the school's choir teacher who refused to let him into the class because of his blindness. He acquiesced to the teacher's prejudice without protest. Yet, Tony insisted that he did not need the Federation. What are we to make of it?
Those of us who are blind are not likely to find a community outside of the NFB that will have high expectations of us. Sometimes communities will blatantly try to exclude us from participation. But more often, they will expect that we will simply assume a marginal role in activities. If we accept traditional attitudes about blindness, we will claim that things are as good as they can get, that the problem is blindness itself and not bad attitudes or even blatant discrimination. If we believe that blindness means incompetence and inferiority, we will probably want to avoid using tools such as Braille or the cane that are symbols of our condition. And if we believe that blind people are inferior, we might be hesitant or ashamed to be associated with others who are blind.
Some of us are lucky enough to meet a blind person or a group of blind people who introduce to us a new philosophy about blindness, a philosophy which says that blindness does not mean inferiority. Some of us adopt this philosophy as our own. We begin to expect more of ourselves than has been expected of us by parents, teachers, and others. We come to understand the importance of using tools such as Braille and the cane in gaining the independence that we now believe we can achieve. And we begin to expect more from others, that they will accept us as fully participating members of our communities.
When our expectations are raised, we begin to understand the extent to which our confidence is diminished by the negative attitudes of others. We come to realize that we need a community of people who share the same commitment to higher expectations and beliefs in the capacities of blind people. Many of us talk about needing a shot in the arm of good philosophy, a boost in confidence which we can only get at Federation meetings. When our confidence is raised and our negative attitudes about blindness reduced, we will not be ashamed to associate with other blind people. On the contrary, we will take great joy in participating in a self-directed movement to collectively improve our own lives.
Should we treat Tony with contempt? No, we should only pity him. It is true that we could use his help in making life better for all blind people. But we can do Tony's work for him. We will continue to make opportunities better for Tony, whether he recognizes it or not. But only Tony can recognize his own internalized negative attitudes. Only Tony can shed his own shame of blindness. There are many Tonys in the world, blind people who benefit from our hard labor and refuse to acknowledge us or work with us. This means that each of us will have to do a little more work. But we are the fortunate ones. We will have higher expectations of ourselves and will live up to them. We will expect more from the sighted and they will eventually live up to it. We will experience the deep love and joy of being a part of the Federation.
We know why the Federation is important to us. We live the philosophy everyday, challenging ourselves, the public, and other blind people, to do better. Let Tony's story remind us of our commitment to one another. And let his story remind us of the great deal of work left for us to do.
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