Braille Monitor                                                                  June 1985


The Ride to Selma

by Jan Ottensman

(The civil rights leader James Farmer is apparently losing his eyesight. When he recently appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, the matter was discussed. Jan Ottensman is the President of the Upper Peninsula Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan.)


March 27, 1985

Mr. Bill Moyers
CBS Sunday Morning
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Moyers:

How wonderful it was to see a breathing, modern-day hero being recognized and appreciated on the most sensitive news program on the air today, CBS Sunday Morning. I'm referring to your March 24th interview with Mr. James Farmer, Civil Rights Champion.

It occurred to me how essential it was for my eight-year-old son to witness what a hero truly is. He now knows that heroes don't really wear flowing capes, gulp spinach, or pilot electronic cars that do everything but vote. I told him that this hero probably doesn't know karate or walk around with a telephone in his shoe.

Thanks to your insightful interview, Mr. Moyers, my son learned that a real hero fights for the rights of others by teaching them to be vocal but not violent, to persevere but be patient, and to hold on to what they know to be true.

I learned some things about heroes, too. They're not always perfect and, in fact, sometimes are appallingly uninformed.

As a member of the world's oldest and largest organization of blind persons speaking for themselves, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), I was alarmed at your and Mr. Farmer's perception of blindness.

It has been said that more can be revealed about a person by the question he asks than any given answer. When you asked Mr. Farmer which was worse, facing the Ku Klux Klan or blindness, I think I actually gasped.

Your question, which sprouted from fear nurtured by a lifetime of myths and misconception, intimated to the world that confronting a noose-wielding, cross-burning mob of satanic hatred might actually be preferable to facing blindness. How obscene!

As a woman who grew up sighted and has been blind now for six years, I understand the foundation of such fear. People are fearful of what they do not understand or have little knowledge of, such as death.

What was truly sad to me was that Mr. Farmer so blatantly affirmed the convoluted notion that death was easier to look at than blindness. He seemed to say to the world that at least with the Klan he could plan to avoid them or at least utter one more, "Our Father" before the festivities began.

Based on what he knows about blindness, Mr. Farmer would rather deal with death. In a voice slightly tight with fear, he said "with blindness, you have no options."

Here lies the true "tragedy" of blindness. It's a tragedy that belongs to Mr. Farmer and others like him, simply because they do not know that they do have options.

They may choose to give up their jobs, homes, or doing the things they enjoy, like reading. Or they may choose to face their loss of vision, change their attitude, and learn to use alternative techniques, aids, or methods in order to continue to lead a full, happy, and productive life.

It isn't easy. In fact, Mr. Farmer may soon realize that he is engaged in yet another battle for human dignity. I'm speaking of the struggle that the NFB has been spearheading since 1940. That struggle is that the blind be folded into society on the basis of equality. We are fighting to let the world know that we are individuals of various talents, skills, and personalities. We can be completely capable with full rights or defeated and dependent if we are denied proper education or the opportunity to grow and develop among the mainstream of society.

Mr. Farmer may view his blindness as a cruel paradox. He has been a champion over bigotry only to face discrimination in a new form. In time, I hope he realizes that this could be an ugly duckling opportunity to raise the consciousness of humanity one step higher. Mr. Farmer told us how pleased he was with some of the behavior changes in public places. The restaurant owner who refused him service twenty years ago is now gracious and anxious to please.

I would ask Mr. Farmer to return to that same restaurant as a blind man. He may be told that his dog guide is not allowed inside. It is! Someone may try to "help" him by pushing or pulling him into a chair. A waitress may shout at him because, for some reason, she thinks he can't hear, or she may speak to him as if he were a two-year-old. Worse yet, she might even ask Mr. Farmer's companion what "he" (Mr. Farmer) wants to order instead of asking him directly. It's also likely that the restaurant won't have a Braille menu available either. Further insult might arrive with his food when the waitress offers to cut up his steak, or worse yet, informs him that "this is a fork."

This sort of patronizing discrimination is secreted into every facet of a blind person's life. Functioning as a blind man, Mr. Farmer may discover that he is denied the seating of his choice on an airplane--frightfully reminiscent of the days when black Americans were told to sit at the back of the bus. His wallet may grow thin when he discovers that he must pay higher premiums for life insurance because of his blindness, or may even be refused insurance coverage completely. If Mr. Farmer were seeking full-time employment, he would be shocked by a society that would rather see seventy percent of blind workers being supported by tax dollars rather than being hired as valued employees.

Mr. Moyers, I would like to invite you to contact our National President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who leads the Federation with wisdom, faith, and love. You could help us reach the thirty to forty thousand people who lose their vision each year, and it is crucial to the Mr. Farmers of the world. You may contact Dr. Jernigan by phoning 301-659-9314 or by writing the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

James Farmer is still a hero, but his bus ride to Selma is not over, and the freedom march for human rights has a long way to go.