With Strength, Knowledge, and Passion: The Future is Ours
by Alan Tu
From the Editor: One of the 1999 scholarship winners was Alan Tu, a high school graduate from Naperville, Illinois. He is now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The convention was Alan's first experience of the NFB. When I sat down beside him at the Board of Directors meeting on Friday morning, though, it was clear from his questions and conversation that he had made a good start at reading Walking Alone and Marching Together.
Alan is obviously very bright. His parents decided to attend the convention with him, but he was far more interested in getting to know the folks he was meeting than in spending time with his family.
On July 9, just three days after the close of the convention, Alan sent me the following little essay about his impressions of the convention. Anyone who questions the value of our scholarship program should read this article and contemplate what impact the NFB has already had on the life of a young man who is obviously going places and who intends to do what he can to see that he and other blind people acquire freedom and independence on the way. This is what Alan says about what he learned at the NFB convention in Atlanta:
The 1999 National Convention of the NFB was my first convention. It was certainly an unforgettable experience, and I hope to be back next year. I wish to share some of the insights I gained in hope of providing some inspiration and food for thought to others.
If it were not for the Scholarship Committee, I would not have had the opportunity to attend the convention. I will forever be grateful to the members of this committee, not just because of the scholarship they awarded me, but just as much because of the invitation they extended me to come to Convention. For the first time in my life I interacted with a large and diverse group of blind people. The first lesson I learned was that blind people could do anything--well maybe except driving--with appropriate but reasonable accommodations. The people I spent time with included a lawyer, two computer programmers, and a person who worked in a national security position.
Two of the things I tasted at the convention--besides the great food--were freedom and independence. I knew in advance that I would have more freedom of mobility at this convention than at home, where I usually stay with my family.
A part of Dr. Jernigan's speech, "The Nature of Independence," comes to mind. He said that, in the process of gaining independence, one first feels fear and insecurity. I certainly experienced those feelings. But, beginning on the second day, I had gained enough knowledge and daring to explore the hotel. Then, as Dr. Jernigan so insightfully predicted, I went through the stage of rebellious independence, wanting to do as many things as possible without my family's shadow. Towards the end of the convention I think I became more independent in a normal way.
But another lesson I learned was that we as blind people must recognize when to ask for and accept help from our sighted family and friends in the interest of efficiency, even if we know we can do it ourselves. This, I would humbly suggest, is a step beyond normal independence towards the ultimate goal of interdependence, in which blind and sighted people are integrated and help each other. Along these lines I learned to appreciate the power of asking.
This convention was dedicated, of course, to the memory of Dr. Jernigan. I regret not knowing him because he was such a mentor and teacher to so many people. He blazed a trail for all blind people, and in many respects being blind is easier today than it was a couple of decades ago, thanks to Dr. Jernigan and the Federation. One final personal lesson I learned at the convention: Don't be ashamed to say, "I am blind." From now on I will not say, "I am visually impaired," but I will say that I am blind. Not totally blind, mind you, but blind nonetheless. This is who I was, who I am, and until or unless a cure is found, who I will be; and I am proud of it.
As we in the Federation march on beyond where Dr. Jernigan left off, there are many battles left to be won. The first one, in my opinion, deals with orientation and mobility instruction. Route training, as I learned from personal experience at the convention, just doesn't cut it. I learned more during convention week listening to how people get around than I had learned from my formal O&M instructor in the past year. It must be impressed upon all instructors that specific route training does not make sense since, every time one wants to go to a new place, the theory says we need to call our instructor to teach us how to get there, which of course is not feasible. Instructors should teach what I call self-orientation skills (the skill of orienting oneself to a new environment) and basic mobility (how to travel safely in a wide variety of environments) be it a street, a staircase, or a maze of winding corridors.
Another battle the blind must continue to wage is the battle for respect. To illustrate this, let me share a brief story. About a year ago I met with my rehabilitation counselor for the first time. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I might want to do computer programming. He asked if I would be interested in a supervisory position, to which I responded affirmatively. He discouraged me by saying that it would be difficult for me to supervise subordinates because they would not respect me. As far as I know, my intellect is at least average, so I assume he thought subordinates would not respect me because of my disability. What makes this tale more interesting is that this counselor is blind. As one can see from this story, the battle for respect will be ongoing and hard-fought. We must continue to earn and demand the respect of all people, regardless of whether they are sighted or blind.
On the other hand, while we demand respect from others, we must also demand competence and self-confidence from ourselves. We must foster healthy self-esteem and interdependence. Rehabilitation agencies, the government, and even our families may give us support of every kind, but it is we, the blind, who must take charge of our lives. Rehab may train us and give us equipment; the government might give us a check; and our families will give us unconditional love; but ultimately it is the strength, knowledge, and passion within us that will make us succeed.
Strength means our personal toughness and unity within the Federation. Knowledge means our skills and intellect. And passion means our courage and determination. Individually these characteristics are insufficient. But with these three attributes working for us, no force on earth can stop us from taking our rightful place in society alongside our sighted friends and colleagues.
Self-respect and personal attitudes are somewhat less tangible than the next two issues I will discuss. The first is literacy. I was shocked when I learned at Convention that only 10 percent of blind children read Braille. Children with any useable sight at all--even though they are significantly impaired compared to their peers--are made to struggle with print. This causes two problems. First, in the higher grades, college, and professional jobs, the amount and difficulty of reading will increase; and the time provided for reading will decrease. Eventually the blind person may realize that Braille is necessary, but by then learning Braille will be much harder.
The second problem is that struggling with poorly seen print is often so slow and laborious that the reader never reads in fluent streams of words. The actual skill of reading--regardless of the medium--will be degraded. We must work to convince parents, teachers, and the other powers-that-be to teach Braille to the low-vision children who need it.
Many people said thirty years ago that the tape recorder would replace Braille. Similarly, many people now say that computers will replace Braille. Therefore, these people say, learning Braille is unnecessary. The truth is that many mathematics, science, and foreign-language texts are difficult or impossible to record and even harder to store on a computer for use with speech-access. This is just one use of Braille I don't see going away anytime soon. Failing to teach Braille to every blind student is an injustice.
Despite my comments on the longevity of Braille in the foreseeable future, Dr. Kurzweil's presentation at Convention reminds us that technology is continuously progressing by leaps and bounds. He predicts that in my lifetime implants will be available which will allow people to interface mentally with information networks. I am concerned that, as technology moves forward, it will leave the blind behind. We as blind people must always think creatively to adapt technology. We do not want to stand in the way of progress, but we must also make ourselves heard to the manufacturers that products should be made user-friendly to all people, sighted people as well as blind people. We have economic power. We have a voice, and we must make ourselves heard.
The blind have made incredible gains since the Federation was founded in 1940. But as we look back upon the barriers we have taken down, new barriers and issues emerge. Still the future holds great promise. First, the average person is more aware of the rights and responsibilities of blind people than before. And, second, the blind have united. Strength is in numbers, and the essence of our strength as blind people is the Federation. Together we will assert our rights and take our responsibilities. And no force--be it an ignorant individual, an inconsiderate bureaucrat, an unyielding entity, or even an irrational system--will stand in our way.