Roger Chard at Parry Peak, Colorado
When it comes to hiring, education of potential employers is critical. This is where messages from a magazine like this and steady, relentless messages from blind or otherwise disabled people in, or formerly in, the work force come in. We do not have time to patronize and marginalize our blind population and to waste resources that are found in it. Have we learned nothing from a similar approach to race and gender? They tend to be at least as educated and technically proficient as their sighted counterparts, but something in the neighborhood of 70 percent to 75 percent of working-age blind adults, as distinct from the visually impaired, are unemployed or underemployed. Hiring reluctance frequently is premised solely on stereotypical projection and assumption supported by scant, mis-interpreted or no evidence. Before considering whether people with disabilities can find solutions on the job that may elude others who do not have a disability, consider how people with disabilities approach any job, especially where safety may be an issue. Massive studies covering thousands of workers conducted by the Veterans Administration after World War II showed disabled workers had better work safety records than their so-called normal counterparts, precisely because they thought about their safety. For instance, they did not reorient machines or tie back guards in order to achieve greater speed. Requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, together with expanding technological support, makes accommodating workers with disabilities easier and less daunting, and a combination of living experience and new technology increases the odds that a person with a disability will come up with imaginative ways to circumvent tricky work challenges.
From the standpoint of potential blind workers, we must be prepared to answer well intended questions about how we do or would do things, but not to stop there. We must make it clear that we want to show what we can do, to go to work, to work hard, to mingle and socialize like every other worker. We cannot be content with threshold matters of information gathering, idle curiosity, understanding, and acceptance, especially where employers and government are concerned. Knowing a little about our history can be valuable, too, knowing about some of the many successes of blind people can help our own self-esteem and to allay fear and deeply held convictions that a blind person cannot contribute to the work force.
Dr. Jacob Bolotin attended the Illinois School for the Blind in the late 19th century and went on to become the world’s first licensed, totally blind physician.
Sabriye Tenberken was totally blind, she traveled, often alone, all over Tibet to challenge centuries of treating blind Tibetans as less than human, of denying them education, work, respect, or a role in their community.
There have been thinkers and doers like James Holman, John Metcalf, Blaise Francoise, and Nicholas Bacon.
Holman was a totally blind and solo traveler of the early 1800s, before Braille, canes, and guide dogs. When journeying across the steppes of Greater Russia to Siberia, he was so scrupulously observant that he was arrested by the Czar’s police, charged with being a spy, taken to the borders of Austria, and expelled.
In the mid 1700s, John Metcalf, totally blind from childhood, was a successful road and bridge builder; a racehorse rider; bare-knuckle fighter; card shark; stagecoach driver; and ironically, occasionally a guide to sighted tourists of the local countryside.
Blaise Francoise was blinded during military service in the mid 1600s, just before he was to be promoted to the rank of field marshal. But he then wrote the definitive work on fortifications, and published other scientific works, including An Historical and Geographical Account of the River of the Amazons which included a chart that he drew after going blind.
Dr. Nicholas Bacon was blinded in childhood by a bow-and-arrow accident, but he obtained first place among his fellow students, got his law degree at Brussels, and became a blind lawyer of eighteenth-century France, despite ridicule of friends and professors.
Bernard Morin was a blind mathematician in the 1960s who showed how a sphere could be turned inside out.
Geerat Vermeij was a blind biologist who delineated many new species of mollusk, based on tiny variations in the shapes and contours of their shells.
Lisa Fittipaldi was a nurse and CPA who lost her sight, went into deep depression for two years, and took to her bed. But when her exasperated husband threw a set of watercolors at her and demanded that she get up, she used art to give herself mobility and freedom. She says: “People have a lot of misconceptions about being blind. There is life after blindness. First you have to learn alternative skills. And there’s rehabilitation.” Ms. Fittipaldi is hailed internationally as the only blind realist painter.
Michael May was blinded at 3, he went on to hold the world speed record for blind downhill skiers, to be a CIA analyst, and an assistive technology entrepreneur.
Henry Grunwald, the former editor in chief of Time, Inc., author of One Man’s America and once the U.S. ambassador to Austria, went one day to pour a glass of water and totally missed the glass. Was it time for a new prescription for his eyeglasses? No. He was in the early stages of macular degeneration. He gathered all manner of information regarding the history of the eye, ranging from light-sensitive primitive organisms to the latest surgical wizardry. Along the way, he also learned that unknowns like Henry James, James Thurber, Jorge Luis Borges, Michelangelo, and Monet all suffered from a similar loss of sight.
And there are Louis Braille, Jose Feliciano, Helen Keller, Ray Charles, Erroll Garner, Ronnie Milsap, George Shearing, Alec Templeton, Doc Watson, Stevie Wonder, or the totally blind, fifteen year old, World War II French underground activist, Jacques Lussyran.
But in his 1973 speech, blindness, “Is History Against Us?”, National Federation of the Blind president, the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, offered this important perspective:
Like the sighted, the blind have had their share of solid citizens, namby-pambies, strong-minded individualists, squares, oddballs, eggheads, and eccentrics.” Among the blind, as among the sighted, there are people who do remarkable and apparently very noteworthy things that are positive and negative, but that does not mean the vast majority of the blind strives for either extreme or to be regarded as capable of doing such things.
Technology as an equalizer for people with disabilities
I stop short of using the word “equalizer,” but technology has dramatically and remarkably closed many gaps–travel, communication, tactile graphics, awareness of surroundings, to name but four. And the future is exciting. The reason for not going all in on the word equalizer is similar to why I always have avoided the word “overcome,” relative to disabilities. I generally feel one can compensate, work around, largely make up for, but not fully overcome a disability, unless the disability itself is eliminated. But this view is in no way negative toward technology. I routinely refer to my 1980s computerization as a Life Changer, and I am sure various technological developments are viewed similarly by people with disabilities other than blindness. But a 2014 article I read in GeekWire contained this blunt, grounding statement from Steve Gleason, a former NFL player with ALS and with whom Microsoft was working to create a series of new features to make it easier for people to control a tablet with their eyes: “Until there is a cure for ALS, technology is a cure.” Despite the phenomenal benefits from technology, past, present, and future, I doubt that technology can 100% overcome a disability. I am convinced, however, that gaps between inability and ability will continue to narrow unimaginably. In some ways, I was overwhelmed by the freedom computerization gave me.
Advice to people who are concerned about not being able to pursue a career because of their visual impairment
No matter when one becomes visually impaired, there are many resources to consult. There are vocational rehabilitation agencies, there are individual consultants, there is an endless array of reading material in accessible formats that are very helpful with training and with providing wisdom on whether one can get a new job, continue an old job, seek accommodations with either. Sometimes legal counseling is necessary, too. A person who wonders about seeking employment should be pretty settled as to what he or she wants to do, learn as much as possible about what a job in the preferred field entails, then apply. If already in the job, make the appropriate variation on this theme, such as thinking through and requesting appropriate accommodations. I do not favor denying or trying to downplay the disability. One must own it and be prepared to articulate how a job can be done, in spite of the disability. Perhaps one may have to make adjustments in a career because of a visual disability, but visual disability is not a ground for avoiding pursuit of a career.
If blind from birth or shortly thereafter, it is important for parents to encourage their child to be a full participant in the same school and extra-curricular activities as his or her classmates and friends, to not get in the way of their child. It is important for parents to support their child, despite bumps in the road, and to not assume blindness prevents being part of the gang. Kids themselves are generally good at figuring out what works, how to be inclusive, how to incorporate accommodations for friends who need to be accommodated. It isn’t all that different than figuring out how somebody’s little brother or sister can be part of a pick-up sports team, despite being smaller, slower, or not as strong as everybody else. And sometimes parents can suggest solutions when their child is struggling. Withdrawing the child from whatever it is he or she wishes to try is almost always a bad choice.
If a child loses sight later in life, say in middle or high school, it is critical for the parent to provide positive, sometimes tenacious support, to not allow the child to become discouraged or morose. Fitting in is often of critical importance at that stage, and it is easy enough to fall out of favor from one day to the next, regardless of any role a disability might play. That parents cannot fight their child’s battles is no more or less true because the added element of a disability is involved. Any available professional counseling help should be sought. I have strayed into this territory because I think a child will be most comfortable with him or herself, have highest self-confidence if maximum involvement with classmates and friends is achieved.
Love for travel
I do enjoy traveling, and I have done a lot of it since retiring. Before retiring, I traveled to Winter Park, Colorado at least once a year for twenty-five years to ski with the National Sports Center for the Disabled; and I took a trip to South Africa. Since retiring, I have traveled to Portugal, Antarctica, Sweden, and Australia, and taken a one-month ship repositioning trip up the Atlantic from the bottom of Argentina to Hamburg Germany. For some years now, I have gone to Chautauqua, New York in the summer to participate in Chautauqua’s annual summer program. If with someone sighted, as I often am, traveling is not a big challenge, but if on my own, there are moments when in an airport, bus or train terminal can be disorienting because they have large, wide open spaces, and train stations can be disorienting simply because of noise near the tracks. Getting right down to the most practical considerations, however, rest rooms are among the most challenging for a blind person, especially the very large ones in airports, train and bus stations. No two are set out in the same way where location of devices is concerned, they can be noisy and crowded–people talking and moving about, toilets flushing, sink water running, hand blowers running, maybe children shouting. They require utmost concentration. Eating establishments present similar problems, plus challenges of their own–reading menus, getting the attention of a waitperson, getting to a rest room, getting in and out of the restaurant. Usually there is guide help available to meet me at planes and trains, to assist with getting baggage and getting to ground transportation. Likewise, there usually is help when onboard.
In terms of accessibility, many of the places mentioned above have lacked accommodations of the sort that make travel easy when strictly on one’s own. I enjoyed all of these places for one reason or another, but probably Antarctica was my favorite. It certainly was unique and was the most different venue of any I have experienced. Footing was a challenge, walking among noisy penguins, getting to and from little islands by Zodiac, and kayaking among seals and whales presented travel experiences that one typically does not encounter. Everything I did there was a first for me. I confess that I did not wander off on my own, and I don’t think much of anyone else did, either. A close second favorite was a visit to the village of Kuranda, Australia, including the fifteen tunnels, tropical rainforest, forty bridges, and waterfalls between there and Cairns. I was extremely fortunate to be with my partner on that trip, for nothing was truly accessible. That does not mean that a blind person cannot engage fully in such adventures, though. Often the biggest challenge is convincing the person in charge of your capabilities, despite the lack of so-called accessibility. I ran into that for the Antarctica trip, until I told the doctor that I skied black runs in the Rockies. He decided I would be “fine.” Even though people with disabilities are all over the place, a person who encounters us, frequently has never dealt with a blind person, a person in a wheelchair, a person who is deaf. Accessibility will vary tremendously from country to country, and some places are never going to be “accessible”–churches, palaces, castles, caves, cobble stone streets and walkways, or historic terrains.
Over four decades ago, a young man with a Ph.D. in organ performance from the University of Michigan applied for membership in an Ann Arbor health club. He was denied because he was blind, and the proprietor admitted it. His joining would be “unsafe” for him and other members. It’s “common sense,” he said. I sued the club to force admission. Negotiations went nowhere, and the case went to trial.
The club had not interviewed the plaintiff; not based its decision on any safety studies; had no complaints or other data against the application from its membership; and had no bad experiences with blind members at any of its other franchises. Its insurance risk evaluators did not, and could not, produce anything from within or without the club to support lack of safety, and no one else produced evidence supporting lack of safety. Better yet, there was a Michigan law defining health clubs as a place of public accommodation that was required to grant access to the blind, and it contained no safety exception; Plaintiff’s case was open and shut, right? Wrong! The judge heard the testimony, he even visited the facility, he upheld the denial and dismissed the case.
So I needed a better way to tell the court of appeals what was at stake. We had all the evidence and the law, but we had been trumped by “common sense.” In his previously referenced speech, Dr. Jernigan made many valid points, none more valid than this one:
In reality the accomplishments of blind people through the centuries have been out of all proportion to their numbers. There are genius, and fame, and adventure, and enormous versatility of achievement, not just once in a great while but again and again, over and over. To be sure, there is misery, also poverty and suffering and misfortune aplenty, just as there is in the general history of mankind. But this truth is only a half-truth and, therefore, not really a truth at all. The real truth, the whole truth, reveals a chronicle of courage and conquest, of greatness, and even glory on the part of blind people, which has been suppressed and misrepresented by sighted historians, not because these historians have been people of bad faith or malicious intent but because they have been people with run-of-the-mill prejudice and ordinary misunderstandings. Historians, too, are human; and when facts violate their preconceptions, they tend to ignore those facts.
My judicial panel was people of sight with run-of-the-mill prejudice, ordinary misunderstandings, projections, and preconceptions. Why wouldn’t its common sense be like the trial court judge’s? I didn’t have a victim or a star, I just had a blind guy who wanted to join a health club.
Yet I thought there must be something in my own operational philosophy: “Don’t over think!” And there was. Besides not seeing, how different was this blind applicant than any other applicant, each of whom had a variety of health club shortcomings. Blindness didn’t mean he couldn’t hear, dress himself, be educated, get to and from the club, think and look out for himself. Ability to think was the key.
If a sighted applicant noted on his/her application that he or she could not swim, should membership routinely be denied? Of course not. The application evaluator should presume the applicant was knowledgeable of those limitations and smart enough to not dive into the pool. Why, then, I asked, should it be presumed that a person who notes blindness on his application is ignorant of his experience, unaware of the role blindness plays in his life, will not be smart enough to seek or accept orientation to the facility and, instead, will barge onto the tennis court or free weightlifting floor? There was no justification to deny membership based on existing complaint, prior experience, known risk, or the law, and there was no reason to conclude that a blind person was less likely than a sighted person to think or to value his safety and the safety of others. Common sense made no case to so presume. I then borrowed some of the beatitudes that have circulated for years to belittle the baseless presumption:
BLESSED ARE THEY who refrain from shouting when they speak to me; BLESSED ARE THEY who talk directly to me and not to someone else; BLESSED ARE THEY who say who they are when entering a room and say hello to me; BLESSED ARE THEY who do not hesitate to say “SEE” when talking to me; BLESSED ARE THEY who laugh with me when I tell a joke related to blindness; BLESSED ARE THEY who wait for me to extend my hand before shaking it; BLESSED ARE THEY who offer me their arm so they can serve as my guide, instead of grabbing, pulling, or shoving me; BLESSED ARE THEY who place my hand on an object such as the back of a chair when telling me where it is, so I can seat myself; BLESSED ARE THEY who read me the menu and its prices and allow me to order my own meal; BLESSED ARE THEY who do not distract my guide dog from being my active eyes; BLESSED ARE THEY who treat me like a human being, for I am a human.
As I have said in a speech of my own to blind and other disabled listeners: There are many more beatitudes, and there is much more literature available today than thirty or forty years ago that openly tells your story, my story, our story with ever-burgeoning access to and communication of these stories, more attention will be paid to us, to what we do and can do. Barriers to full emersion into the social, political, and working parts of this society will weaken and fall, unless we forget to keep leaning on and pushing them. Edward Everett Hale said: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”
We, the blind and going blind, must remember that while we develop and implement strategies and set examples with our work and participation in social activities, with our deportment, speech making, demonstrating, lobbying, or our litigation, we always are learning, we always are teaching, and we always must be thinking.
The court of appeals reversed and ruled for thinking.
Read part 1 of his story here.