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The Braille Monitor – December, 2000 Edition


Citizenship and Irony at the Top of the World

by Jane Lansaw

A group stand together in front of a photo of the World Trade Center.
Back row left to right: Ruby Ryles.
Nicholas Schmittroth, Roland Allen,
Eddie Bell, and Gerry White; front row:
Priscilla Ching, Jane Lansaw,
and Summara Shakeel at the
World Trade Center

From the Editor: Jane Lansaw is a longtime Federationist and a graduate student at Louisiana Tech University, where she is learning to teach cane travel. She is also a thoughtful and responsible citizen as you will see in the following story:

During the first week of June, 2000, the graduate students in the Orientation and Mobility Program at Louisiana Tech University took a trip to New York City. It was a wonderful training opportunity and a fantastic adventure. We traveled on subways and practiced our technique through crowds almost as thick as those we had found at Mardi Gras earlier in the year. We even caught a Broadway show--all work and no play makes Jack a dull travel teacher. It was a thrilling event and wasn't marred in the least by the few occasions on which we had to reassert our status as first-class citizens.

Because most of us in the O and M program are blind, we are accustomed to dealing with so-called helpful people who want to break the rules on our behalf. We firmly stood our ground as we cued up in a two-block-long line to buy tickets for the play. Several times security guards approached us with the good news that we didn't have to wait in line; we could move right up to the front because we were disabled. At first we put them off with the excuse that we had friends coming, and we wanted to make sure they could find us. Eventually the stragglers caught up with us, and we had to stand on ethics when the security guard came around again.

The Louisiana Center for the Blind is an integral part of our master's program. This includes a healthy dose of Federation philosophy and free discussion about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. We thought we were about as well prepared for this event as anyone could have been, but, more important, we had each other for support. Once, when a guard had wandered away, we joked about whether we would have the fortitude to stand up to their pressure if the cool breezes winding their way through the streets of New York City were replaced with the oppressive heat and humidity we had left behind in Ruston. The general consensus was, "Sure we could," but we were glad that we didn't have to put it to the test.

Because these experiences were so few and far between, a testament to sixty years of changing what it means to be blind, we were caught completely off guard by the staff of the World Trade Center. Typical tourists, we didn't know a hot tourist spot from a lesser one. None of us had ever been in the twin towers before, and we didn't know about the fee to go to the observation deck, the security check, or the crowd at the elevators so dense it would make the people around the elevators at National Convention look like a small gathering on the street corner.

It was quiet around the cashiers' desks with only a handful of people milling around. A security guard came out front to say he would escort us directly to the top if we would just wait a moment. We waited. There were eight of us--not an imposing group by our standards, but this place didn't seem very busy. Maybe this service was normal for groups. Then one of the guards goofed and let slip the truth: a group of disabled people wanted to go up top. That set off our mental alarms, and we clustered together to discuss the situation. We were getting special treatment, but what right or responsibility were we being told to avoid? As it turned out, there were a fee and a security check. We coaxed the amount of the fee out of the guard and discovered the cashier. I had thought it was a security station because I hadn't heard a cash register.

The man was going to walk us past security, but at the mention of security, we knew what to expect. Washington seminar and countless airports had prepared us for this drill. Security is security is security. We listened for the tell-tale conveyer belt, put our purses and back packs on it, and found the gate with our canes. Just as at airports, our cane tips didn't set off the alarm. We trooped after the guard to the elevator and went up. Once we were out of the guard's hearing, we made jokes about the lax security. If you want to bomb the trade center, just walk in with a white cane, and they will welcome you with open arms. There was a bit of irony in this. In 1993 the World Trade Center had been bombed, but at the moment I had forgotten one important detail about that event.

As we made our way through the gift shops and other features of the observation levels, we noticed that it wasn't quiet and peaceful at all. The other visitors didn't have their own security escort as they came up. We discovered that we had used a freight elevator. Everyone else was using a crowded bank of elevators, which took them to another level, where they transferred to a different bank to get all the way down. When we were ready to leave, we made sure to cue up for this uncomfortable bit of citizenship as well.

When we returned to Ruston, we discovered that we had been the topic of discussion at seminar earlier in the week. The graduate students go to seminar with the center students when we are in town. The group talked about getting something you don't deserve: when, how, and why to turn down such offers of charity and what you might lose by accepting them. We talked about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and how Dr. Jernigan used to tell us that we need to pitch in and do the distasteful duties of life if we want the right to be in on it when the goodies are passed around.

After the lessons we learned had been discussed, the topic again turned to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The thing which I had forgotten about that event was brought back to my attention. I don't remember if it was a graduate student, a center student, or a staff member who said it, but as soon as the words were out, a little piece of irony clicked into place. In a federal penitentiary outside my home town of Springfield, Missouri, sits a blind man. His crime? He masterminded the bombing of the World Trade Center. When will they ever learn?

Society too loses something when it offers undeserved privileges to people it believes inferior. The general public loses the chance to experience the distinctiveness that we can add to society. Each minority has something to add--to contribute to the mosaic of life. With the mixture we all become stronger. By refusing to acknowledge us as their equals, by refusing to acknowledge that we are only a cross section of themselves, those members of society who believe we need special treatment are missing out as much as we are when we accept their charity. Because of this charity these people expect us all to be the same. They cannot tell the good guys from the bad guys in the blind minority.

If that man in Springfield ever gets out of jail and if he should return to the scene of his crime, would the security guards be rightfully suspicious because of his past behavior, or would they see only a blind man? A shiver goes up my spine as I imagine someone saying, "Oh no, Sir. There's no need for you to go through security."

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