Braille Monitor                                                                                August-September 1986


Striding Past the Barriers

(The following article appears in the March-April, 1986, issue of Dateline, a magazine published for employees of American Express and its subsidiaries. Even though the Monitor recently carried an account of the honor Curtis Chong received by being recognized by the Jaycees as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans (see April, 1986), the Dateline article--which deals, in part, with the same thing--is worth printing. The philosophy it portrays is one we would all do well to ponder. Besides the article, there is a full page picture of Curtis walking, cane in hand, in front of the IDS building. After the title, the article begins with a subtitle and then continues into the text.)

Curtis Chong Works Hard For IDS Financial Services and for Equal Treatment of the Blind

The uncomfortable silence at the other end of the line was the most familiar of sounds to Curtis Chong. It was the usual reaction to the news that he is blind.

In this case, the caller was a headhunter. Would Chong, she asked, be interested in a position with IDS Financial Services?

Yes, Chong had answered, without hesitation. Did the headhunter know he was blind? Then came the long pause and the uneasy silence. The recruiter promised she'd get back to him.

Sure, sure, he thought to himself and almost forgot about the call. About a week later she did call back--with an appointment at IDS. Chong interviewed for the position and was hired. That was six years ago. Since then, Chong has combined a successful career as a systems programming specialist with his work for the National Federation of the Blind. It was his Federation work that brought him national attention as one of the U.S. Jaycees' Ten Outstanding Young Americans for 1986. The national Jaycees singled out Chong for his efforts to have computers made more accessible for the blind.

"I'm well aware that I receive these kinds of awards because I'm blind," he says. "If I was sighted, I wouldn't be honored. But I have to take these kinds of honors as golden opportunities to get sorely needed publicity for our efforts."

Chong's efforts over the years have included lobbying legislators and employers, as well as representing the blind before community groups and the media. And, as he's become increasingly adept at working with computers, Chong has spent considerable time educating other blind people not to be afraid of computers, and employers not to be afraid of hiring the blind to work with computers.

"I realize I don't have to do the Federation work any more. I have a good job. I have a family--a wife and a seven-year-old daughter. I own a house. I could just go on and live well, like an ordinary person. But I wouldn't be able to sleep well at nights knowing that I'd be neglecting other blind people who can't cope as well as I can. "Whatever happens to one of us really happens to all of us. If a blind person in California is denied the chance to go to college because he or she is blind, then down the road, that's going to affect every blind person. So it's in my own self-interest to help prevent these things from happening."

Chong says his work for the Federation takes up a great deal of his time. "Sometimes it seems as if I have two jobs," he says. "That's not quite the case. But my friends do joke occasionally that they think I work at IDS in my spare time."

His friends can joke all they want. For Chong's supervisors and co-workers say they wish they had more employees like him--spare-time for full-time. And that includes many who readily concede that, at first, they had serious reservations about a blind person's ability to do the job.

Glenn Hansen, director of systems development for IDS and one of the people who hired Chong, recalls interviewing him: "I had the typical concerns that most sighted people have when it comes to the blind. But I also remember being quite impressed with Curt's knowledge and his ability. And particularly with his confidence in himself. "Most of us, with a whole library of manuals, aren't as well prepared as he is."

Chong has his share of praise for IDS as well. In particular, he says he's pleased that his supervisors and colleagues aren't condescending towards him. "No one has come by to ask me if I need help getting around the cafeteria. Or about putting Braille in the elevators. They generally don't bother me with those kinds of questions."

He notes that, besides paying for people to read to him and buying a voice-activated terminal that reads aloud the text on the screen, IDS has made few special concessions to him. "And that's the way it should be." "He's always insisted on being independent," Hansen says of Chong. "I remember telling him from the start that we expected that he'd be able to work alongside everyone else with few, if any, exceptions. And that's exactly how it's worked out."

Chong says he's pleased that his performance has convinced many that a blind person can do the job. At the same time, though, he says that's not enough. "I know that many at IDS regard me as a very competent employee. But I also know that many of these same people think of me as an exception. And I don't like that.

"What I hope will happen is that some day, a blind person is going to come into an employer's office. And that employer, in the back of his or her mind, is going to think, 'I've read about Curtis Chong. That's the blind computer guy in Minneapolis.' Or the employer will have heard about someone like me. And that employer will say, 'OK, I'll give this person a chance.' Wouldn't that be nice?"