Braille Monitor                                                                    October 2006


Greater Expectations: Some Thoughts on Engaging the Wider World

by Geerat J. Vermeij

Geerat J. Vermeij

From the Editor: In the summer of 1988 Dr. Jernigan and I engaged in a serious discussion lasting many weeks about whether or not I should leave my job as the assistant director of the Oberlin College alumni office to become associate editor of the Braille Monitor. It is pretty obvious what the outcome of that discussion was, but during the course of the debate the result was far from clear. I had worked closely with hundreds, perhaps thousands of Oberlin College students and alumni, organizing conferences, internships, workshops, meetings, and reunions. I was active in the governing body of the administrative and professional staff of the college, and I frequently presented at meetings of the professional organization in my field. In addition, from time to time I was the staff organizer of alumni tours to London and supervised the design and creation of projects as diverse as a commemorative plate and a photo album of distinguished alumni. In short, I had daily opportunities to demonstrate to a large and diverse section of the brightest and most successful members of American society that blindness might be an interesting footnote to my life and work, but it certainly did not limit my capacity to do a complex and demanding job.

I believed passionately that we in the blindness community will never make significant progress in our climb up the stairs to equality until thousands of us across the country stride forth, demanding an equal share of responsibility in the life and work of our communities. Dr. Jernigan agreed whole-heartedly with this view. The problem was that he badly needed someone to edit the magazine, and he had been looking for that person for ten years without finding anyone who could meet the various requirements of the job. He believed that I could, and eventually my commitment to the National Federation of the Blind and to him led me to leave alumni relations and take up magazine editing. Looking back over eighteen years of this work and forward to the challenge of finding and training my replacement, I believe that I made the right decision, but I still struggle with the problem presented by competing goods that should face every competent blind person: whether to dedicate one's life to passing on to other blind people one's positive skills and attitudes or break new ground in the larger community, forcing the public to recognize that blind people really can compete effectively.

Clearly some of us must choose one path and some the other or the Federation will fail in its mission to change what it means to be blind. But I believe that each of us must struggle personally with this problem and honestly seek the best individual solution, not the easiest one. We who ultimately choose work in the blindness field must come to it in the clear knowledge that we are not hiding from the larger world, and those who engage in lives and work that have little to do with blindness issues must be certain that they are not seeking to ignore part of their personal identity and their responsibility to make things better for the generations of blind people who follow us. These are the important issues addressed in the following article.

Geerat Vermeij is Distinguished Professor of Geology at the University of California at Davis. The issues he raises and discusses are of profound importance to us all, and I believe that individually and collectively we must take up Dr. Vermeij's challenge. This is what he says:

In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens tells the story of Pip, a poor boy who, thanks to an anonymous gift, is given the opportunity to become a gentleman and thus to enter respectable society. In their rigidly class-based Victorian world, Pip and his benefactor provide a hopeful metaphor of upward mobility and social integration.

One of the great benefits of a liberal democracy is the realization of the ideal of full integration. Groups that in the past were excluded from meaningful economic and political participation in society are increasingly joining the ranks of the majority. In part through the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind, most blind people have firmly committed themselves in principle to this ideal. Not only has the Federation excelled in promoting a positive view of blindness and in developing techniques and programs to stimulate employment and social acceptance, but it effectively trains future leaders, an activity essential to the organization's continuing vigor. Its scholarship programs, seminars, conventions, training centers, publications, institutes, and support for technical innovation all play key roles in this endeavor. Throughout, there is an emphasis on helping others, on giving back, and on advocating and spreading Federation philosophy to the blind as well as to the public at large.

These efforts are indisputably valuable and commendable, but it is worth asking if we can do more to propel blind people toward employment in fields unrelated to the affairs of the blind or the disabled. This seemingly innocent question raises some troubling issues. It is my impression as an outside observer of the blindness field that many blind people, notably including students, feel more encouraged and more appreciated when they choose careers in the helping professions than when they elect to follow other paths. The stark reality is that, if a person's primary energies are directed toward work outside the blindness sphere, there will be less time and effort devoted to the tasks of activism, advocacy, and engagement with the issues of blindness. In the extreme case effective would-be leaders of the blind might be steered away from primary roles in rehabilitation, education, and the civil-rights work of the blind. With an increased emphasis on pursuits in other directions, the Federation and other organizations working with or on behalf of the blind might experience a reduction in the supply of vigorous future leaders and perhaps imperil their long-term survival. Even if this alarmist scenario is exaggerated, some reflection about how we promote both engagement with other fields and continued direct service to our own community of interest is in order.

It is in my view in the best long-term interest of the blind and of society as a whole for more encouragement to be given to those who seek professions in which blindness is not front and center. We must, of course, continue to train people for leadership roles in the blindness field, but we cannot afford to emphasize involvement in the affairs of the blind at the expense of other pursuits. To show the public that being blind no longer limits our ability to enter and succeed in most professions, we must not only continue to push back the technical and attitudinal limitations, but we must tinker with our own expectations.

How might this be done? In the awarding of scholarships, applicants contemplating careers unrelated to work with the disabled might be slightly favored over those who are directed toward the blindness field from the outset. Perhaps the Federation could reach out more than it does now to blind people whose primary interests lie outside the field of advocacy for the blind but who still feel the responsibility to contribute their expertise toward improving the lives and prospects of their fellow blind. Perhaps more blind people representing these outside pursuits could be featured at meetings, at conventions, and in publications. What we want to avoid at all costs, I believe, is to equate success as a blind person with making work for the blind the primary focus of one's life.

Perhaps it all comes down to the way we think of ourselves. I am a scientist who happens to be blind, not a blind man who happens to be a scientist. This does not mean that I am ashamed of my blindness or that I abandon or ignore other blind people. In fact I proudly rely on Braille and the long white cane, perhaps the most recognized symbols of blindness; and I eagerly lend what expertise I have to teach, advise, and encourage blind people and those who work directly with them. But blindness is not my central focus. By striving to be the most incisive scholar, the most productive scientist, the most inspiring teacher, and the most effective contributor to the scientific community I can be, I hope I also serve the long-term interests of the blind by showing the world that a blind person can compete successfully in fields where blindness is essentially irrelevant. Self-serving as this may sound, this viewpoint strikes me as necessary to the expectation of full integration.

"The National Federation of the Blind is not an organization speaking for the blind--it is the blind speaking for themselves." This is the well-known motto of the Federation, a sentence that crisply expresses a philosophy of independence and participation. As we continue to penetrate the spheres of business, government, academia, and the arts, I hope and expect that the blind will also increasingly speak on behalf of people and causes not directly concerned with blindness. This must happen as the next step in our drive toward full acceptance and inclusion. We must take this step ourselves and not, as Pip had to do in Dickens's tale, wait for an outside benefactor. The Federation has amply demonstrated that the blind can succeed. Now we must redouble our efforts to place the blind in positions of responsibility in matters of concern to a larger public.

Dr. Vermeij can be reached by email at <[email protected]>.