Donald Porterfield was elected to the National Federation of the Blind’s Board of Directors in July of 2022. He was born in 1959 to James and Doris Porterfield. He has three siblings: an older sister, an older brother, and his twin. His blindness is caused by diabetes and did not manifest itself until he was forty-eight years old.
Donald says that he was a medium to good student, but his school experience was significantly enhanced by his participation as an athlete. “I was lucky to be good at sports, and that bought me some friends, but given that I am an introvert, the thing that I feel most fortunate about is that I am a twin and was born with my best childhood friend.”
The onset of Donald’s blindness occurred in the same year his father died, so he and his family had two crises to deal with in the same year. For some, their adjustment to Donald’s blindness was a slow process, while some adjusted quicker. Some saw that it was not their responsibility to take care of Donald, but that sense of obligation they felt didn’t last long when it became clear that Donald was doing his own cooking, laundry, and had no trouble with his personal hygiene. This he could boast even before any training in the skills of blindness.
From as early as he can remember, Donald wanted to be a prosecutor, but it took him some time to get to a place where he could go to law school. He spent the first twenty-three years of his working career in the golf resort and hospitality industry. For much of that time he was an executive, and many years of his tenure with the company saw him as vice president of food and beverage operations. This was not an easy job for him because unquestionably he is an introvert and had to learn how to be gregarious and outgoing. He laughs that his twin brother can walk into a supermarket and walk out knowing one hundred people, but this was not how Donald experienced life. Learning to be outgoing has been a challenge. “My former manager and mentor was somewhat bombastic and always put me into a position where I had to improve my stage presence. At times he certainly made me uncomfortable, but this paid off not only in my career as a manager but would reveal itself as beneficial in the other twists and turns that would come to make up my life.”
It was in the second week of his second year in law school that Donald, at age forty-eight, began experiencing real vision problems. He had noticed a slight decrease in vision over time, and this he attributed to age. But on that fatal day, he found that he simply could not focus on any of the work before him. Figuring that he was fatigued, he went to take a nap. After the nap his vision seemed normal again, but when he went back to school on the following Monday, the focus problems returned, so off to an ophthalmologist he went. The diagnosis was retinopathy, a result of his diabetes, and much of the next two years found him going to doctors once a week and trying different surgeries, all while managing his studies in law school. “When I found that my reading speed dropped from four hundred words a minute to sixty words a minute, I was afraid, but I soon realized that either I had to pack it in and leave or figure it out and keep moving toward my dream. I chose the latter and along the journey found out I was an auditory learner. Ultimately, I graduated with my law degree. After graduation we had to try one more surgery. The surgeon thought he could restore most of my vision if he peeled off the scar tissue that had accumulated, but he tried and he was wrong. The result is that now I can still see light and certain shapes, but I can no longer perceive the difference between most colors.”
Donald graduated from law school at age fifty and moved back To Arizona. “I knew that if I was going to be a competent lawyer and blind man, I needed blindness training”. He first learned about the National Federation of the Blind while in Training at Saavi Services for the Blind from the person who would become his wife and now the primary partner in everything he does. He did his homework and concluded that he liked the grassroots civil rights organization that he found in the National Federation of the Blind. “I grew up as a black kid in the 60s, so I understood discrimination and was experiencing the same things as a blind person. Not only did I get disparate treatment, but I was also being patronized and not very subtly ways told that I was incapable. I realized I had the spirit of a Federationist without being a member, and in the Federation was where I wanted to be.” So off he went to a chapter meeting and later on that year to a national convention where he took his first ride with a blind driver as President Riccobono chauffeured him around the hotel parking lot. He was hooked.
After gaining the Skills, tools, and competency through training, Donald fulfilled his lifelong professional dream by becoming a deputy county attorney, serving as a prosecutor for Pima County, Arizona. When he was going through law school, many of his colleagues mistakenly believed that he wanted to be a defense attorney, but he believes the role of a prosecutor is that of a “minister of justice.” Being a prosecutor is more than just prosecuting people who commit crimes; it is about making sure everyone connected to the criminal justice system is treated fairly and receives justice.
Donald’s first significant job in the Federation was serving as the legislative director for the Arizona affiliate. His tenure has witnessed the passage of the statute that protects the rights of blind parents, and he is equally happy about the pieces of legislation that he and his affiliate members have kept from becoming law. Many of these attempts have involved increasing regulations on guide dogs and their users, and all of these have been successfully turned back.
When asked what asset he thought to be the most significant of those he brings to the Federation, he said, “I can easily talk to policymakers about blind equality, and I love doing it. We have many members who don’t have that comfort level, and because I am an introvert, I understand their unwillingness and perhaps inability to speak out. Given my background, I’ve learned to work around my innate inability, and I think this makes me a stronger advocate. … Hamilton is one of my favorite plays. In Hamilton they ask the question “who will tell your story.” That same question has been asked of us. Only we can tell our story because we are the only ones living an authentic life as a blind person.”
“I used to have to work at getting into the character of being an advocate, a describer of life as I and others live it, but I now realize I am not playing another character; I am simply being me. I like educating the public about the positive truths about blind people. I was faced with so many misconceptions when I was ready to take the bar examination and was searching for a job that any chance to minimize these for others is one I enthusiastically embrace.”
Given that a major goal of his life is to live one that is full, balanced, and enjoyable, his activities go well beyond his professional work and organizational commitment. He and Amy love to travel and to embrace the new experiences it offers. He loves jazz and they spend a lot of time listening to this art form and going to concerts. He also loves to read and often he and Amy find themselves sharing a book and the pleasant conversations that accompany the reading.
“I love my wife Amy, and everything I do, I do with her. We are passionate about civil rights for the blind, and we often say our family is in the civil rights business. I love how fortunate we are that we can travel this path together.”