by Fred Schroeder
(Reprinted from the September/October, 1983 NFB SPOKESMAN in California.)
Fred Schroeder, one of the hard working, dynamic leaders of the NFB, delivered this address at a White Cane Day Banquet of the NFB of Albuquerque. Many readers may recognize the name, for Fred was recently a featured speaker on the TOD A Y SHOW along with NFB leaders, Peggy Pinder and President Dr. Jernigan. Fred (blind from birth) wears many hats and wears them all well. He is the director of the Albuquerque Public School's Low Incidence Program (Deaf and Blind); State President of the NFB of New Mexico; a husband and a father of two lovely little girls. Fred, who is also a trained and experienced cane travel teacher, is currently challenging a decision to deny him certification as an Orientation and Mobility Instructor merely on the basis of his blindness. The refusal of the O&M profession to recognize the abilities of the blind to safely teach O & M to other blind persons is nothing less than unreasonable discrimination. Fred and the National Federation of the Blind plan to change that.
Today, across the nation the blind are observing White Cane Safety Day. White Cane Safety Day for most blind people in our society, is no longer simply the day where we make the public aware of the driving code. It has changed, it has evolved and it has grown to a day where now the white cane is a symbol of independence. At one time the white cane was used as a means of identifying blind travelers so as to alert members of the community to be watchful for the safety of the blind. Over the years, we have begun to find that relying on someone else to look out for our safety has potentially disastrous consequences. As a group, we have become increasingly aware of the means of providing for our own safety. This is not to discount the reciprocal responsibility for members of the community to be concerned with one anothers well-being. The struggle to travel with confidence that was once ours, we have now conquered. At one time, the ability to get out, to go down to the corner store, to go where we wanted to go, was something that for most blind people was a dream. Today, with rehabilitation and more importantly, with a change of our own attitudes as blind people about blindness, most of us are able to get out with security, with self-confidence and travel where we want to go.
The change that has happened has been a change in the conception of blindness. A conception of blindness is something that takes a long time to change. When it changes, its results are profound, yet the process of change is subtle. All of us have experienced this change and can look across the years and see change in ourselves. When I went blind, I went to the rehabilitation center in Albany, California. While there, I learned to use a cane. To use a cane gave me freedom that I had never believed as a blind person I would ever know. I was able to travel anywhere in the Bay Area that I wanted to go. I learned to use all types of public transportation and to cross major streets. It was an exhilerating experience. I felt in myself that I knew what it was to be a self-sufficient, independent blind person. However, my conception of blindness was still limited, but not by lack of skills. I knew how to use the cane. I could keep myself safe. My conception of blindness was limiting me.
A friend of mine who was blind called me and said, "I need to fly to Los Angeles tomorrow morning. I've never flown alone, can you tell me how to do it." I told her, "It's easy. All you do is take a cab to the airport. When you get out of the cab have the cabdriver find a skycap. The skycap will take you to the desk where you buy your ticket. They'll get you another skycap who will take you out to the waiting area. At the waiting area another agent will come along and put you on first. You'll fly to where you're going and then another agent will come on after everybody else has gotten off and he'll take you down to the baggage area. He'll find another skycap for you who will take you and your baggage out and find you a cab and the cabdriver will take you to your hotel. It's great. There's nothing to it." I was independent in my own mind at that point. I was independent because at least, I was not staying at home. I was going where I wanted to go and if I wanted to go to Chicago, I went to Chicago. Yet, I was limiting myself in what I believed I could do.
I was relaying this situation to another friend of mine named Jim who was blind. He said, "Now wait a minute. Why is it that you have people take you out to the gate area?" I said, "Well, in a big airport, how am I going to find the gate area? It's not practical to be wandering around an enormous airport by myself. It's so much easier and simpler to have someone take you out there."
Sometime after we had this discussion, it turned out that I went with this fellow on a flight. We went up to the desk and the guy in front of us, as is often the case, happened to be going to the same gate as we were. Jim paid attention to which direction the guy in front of us went after buying his ticket. In that way, we knew which way to start off after buying our tickets. We walked through the airport until we came to a major interchange of hallways and Jim stopped somebody and said, "Excuse me, which way is Gate 63." We got directions and we headed off down the concourse. After we walked a long way, Jim stopped someone and said, "Excuse me, what gate is this?" The person said, "It's Gate 47." Then Jim said to me, "Well, we got a ways to go still." So we kept going for Gate 63.
We got there and the gate agent came up to us and said that he would put us on early. Jim said that we would get on with everybody else. I thought to myself, I'll believe this when I see it. They called the flight and everybody got up and Jim said to me, "Well, with 200 people all going in one direction, it shouldn't be too hard to follow them onto the plane." So, I followed him, and he followed them, and we got on the plane. We got seated and I thought, now here's going to be the interesting part because we were going to land in another city and neither one of us had been to this airport, but the same principle worked.
We landed and instead of waiting for the gate agent to come and get us, Jim said, "You know, if we hurry up and get off the plane we can follow these people and probably out of the 200 people at least 150 of them will be going to get their suitcases so we ought to be able to find the baggage area." We got to the baggage area and I said, "Now, we need someone to help us find our bags." I said it a little hesitantly, because I knew for sure he was going to have something else to say to me. Jim said, "You know what your bag looks like, so just put your hand out and when your bag comes by pick it up." I was worried about getting the wrong suitcase, but sure enough we found our bags. In the meantime, we'd been paying attention and could hear where people were leaving the building. We went out front and we got in a cab and we left. My conception of blindness had changed. What changed in my mind was that what before had seemed like a reasonable way to operate as a blind person suddenly changed. I realized with some embarrassment that the way I had been operating was not because that's just a practical, reasonable way for a blind person to function. After all, I believed that we blind people have to be reasonable about what we can do. We shouldn't be too pushy or too aggressive. That's not what I was doing. I was limiting myself because I had never questioned a self-imposed limitation.
If you had asked me prior to that time why I traveled the way I did, I probably would have said that I've been blind for quite a while now and I get around as good as the next guy. I ought to know how it is blind people travle and that's just a reasonable way to do it. What happens to us over a period of time is we evolve a lifestlye where we stop questioning the way that we're functioning and how that might affect our lives. In the final analysis, whether or not you have some help you to a plane of you walk to the plane yourself, in and of itself, is not the issue. The issue is as members of society, what king of attitudes are we perpetuating in our daily lives. When we stop to question how we might do things on our own, not just for the sake of doing them alone, but for the sake of finding out what our abilities really are, we promote a positive attitude of blindness to the public. We are just normal people, living a normal life in an everyday sort of way. The attitudes of the public and the attitudes that we create in the mind of the public are the only things that are going to change people's conceptions of blindness.
I used to work for a rehabilitation agency and what I found is that rehabilitation counselors are just like the rest of the public. They tend to believe the same stereotypes of what blind people are capable of doing and what they're not capable of doing. Back to the conception of blindness, back to the notion of what's practical and what's reasonable.
The National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico has actively operated an advocacy program for rehabilitation clients in the state. We go with clients who are either feeling as though they are not getting all the services that they need or who are perhaps, newly blinded and just now applying for services. We accompany them to the rehabilitation office to ensure they are getting the services to which they are entitled. I went recently with a young woman who began losing her vision just a few months ago. She sat down across the desk from the counselor who asked her what she wanted to do with her life. She said that she was interested in cashiering. He was quiet for a moment and the said, "I'm a little surprised by that. I wouldn't really have expected you to want to go into cashiering, but everyone needs to have his dreams." The message that came through loud and clear that that dream will never come true for I'm not going to shatter your dream, .going to take it away, but it won't ever come true. You need to face that and consider realistically what you can do. He advised her to go home and talk to her doctor about what her future held. I sat there and I started to become angry because I knew that there are blind vendors all across the country doing their own cashiering. There are talking calculators and there are talking cash registers. The equipment is there, the technology is there, but a rehabilitation counselor's conception of what is practical, feasible, and reasonable for a blind person may well change a life.
The consequences go beyond rehabilitation. I remember very vividly the day when a friend of mine in California who is a rehabilitation counselor, called me and asked if I would help him work out a problem with an employer. He was having some trouble trying to get a woman placed as a receptionist and switch-board operator in a maj or business. We went down and we talked to the manager. This guy appealed to our sense of reason. He said, "Well, after all, there are a lot of telephones in this office and this woman might trip over the cords. There really won't be anybody available to take her to the restroom and to lunch." We talked and he appealed to our sense of reason. We appealed to his sense of reason and his concepts of blindness, and our concepts of blindness, unfortunately, never came together. His final argument was that she takes the bus to work and if there was a bus strike she wouldn't be able to get to work. His conception of blindness changed a life. The rehabilitation counselor's conception of blindness changed a life, and my conception of blindness has changed my life.
I remember when I first went blind, I wasn't a big coffee drinker. When I did drink coffee, it was with cream and sugar. When I went to the orientation center, we were expected to do things pretty much on our own. I found that if I was going to use cream and sugar, I would first have to find it, get a spoon, and measure it. It didn't seem worth the trouble. I might spill something and make a mess. So even though I didn't like it, I started drinking coffee black. After nine years of drinking black coffee, I finally learned to like it.
To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I hadn't gone blind if I'd be drinking coffee black or coffee with cream. Coffee isn't the essence of life. It's not what employs us or makes us feel fulfillment, but I think that experience has a meaning. That experience told me that the things I do on a routine basis, the accommodations that I make as a blind person, I need to reevaluate and to ask myself honestly and objectively if this is really what it is to be blind or is this what I am making it to be. Cervantes observed, "Perhaps to be practical is madness and maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it ought to be."
I think the challenge for all of us is to create a vision of ourselves as blind people. We need to create a vision for ourselves of what we can accomplish, in spite of the employer who is concerned about our means of getting to work or in spite of the rehabilitation counselor. The progress that we have made, as a group, is in large part related to the blind joining together as a national movement. The National Federation of the Blind has been in existence for 42 years and during that time the blind have made greater strides in society than at any other time in history. The reason we have made these strides is that we have realized that we need to take hold of our futures. We need to create our own conception of blindness and to share this conception with society. We have fought court battles across the nation. We have battled discrimination and most importantly, we have promoted a positive attitude about blindness.
Our philosophical orientation is that blindness is simply characteristic. As with all characteristics, in some contexts that characteristic will be inconvenient and in other contexts that characteristic will be very convenient. Blindness should not be romanticized, it should not be viewed as a sixth sense and conversely blindness should not be viewed as helplessness or second-class citizenship. We must look frankly and honestly at blindness.
There was a situation last year in two different states where blind mothers were threatened by the local social welfare agency to have their children taken away for no reason other than that the mothers were blind. The consequence of that kind of an attitude on our lives is devastating. We cannot allow society to make those judgments for us. The National Federation of the Blind stepped in and said, "There are criteria by which you evaluate whether a mother, blind or sighted, is fit or unfit. Is the child well-fed? Is he clean? Is he being cared for properly? If these are being done by a blind woman or a sighted woman, then there is no reason to remove the child from the home."
The National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) is an accrediting body which goes around and puts its seal of approval on agencies that NAC feels are providing quality service to the blind. Many of the members of NAC's Board, and many of the agencies that NAC accredits feel as though they are in fact providing quality services. Again you have to look at the basic concept of blindness that these agencies hold.
The Minneapolis Society for the Blind runs a sheltered workshop where their workers are paid less than the minimum wage. They were interviewed about two years ago by 60 Minutes. Most of us have seen 60 Minutes and would generally agree that the quality of investigative reporting is outstanding. They analyze the issues, they ask pointed questions and they reach logical conclusions. However, when 60 Minutes investigated the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, the interviewed one woman who had been in the shop for 11 years. They asked her about her education and background. This woman was college educated. She had a BA degree. She had been in the sheltered workshop for 11 years as one of their highest paid workers and was making $1.50 an hour. It never occurred to the reporters, given their conception of blindness, to ask her why with her training and education she had been with the shop for 11 years. Nationwide the Federation has battled discrimination and struggled with the agencies providing inadequate services. We have won many battles, but most importantly, we have watched society's concept of blindness gradually change.
We have been at war with NAC for many years. The war is based around one fundamental principle -- Who is going to be in control of the lives of the blind? Will it be the blind themselves or will it be the professionals? Aristotle observed, "We make war that we may live in peace." The agencies, in injured tones, say that all they are trying to do is provide the highest level of professional service; that the Federation is just a bunch of militants and a bunch of angry folks and are just stirring up trouble. Most of NAC's clients accordingly really like what they're doing and most of their clients are behind them 100 per cent. They never seem to stop and ask themselves why the blind are so angry with them. What provokes the blind to demonstrate against them? Why are the blind continuously picketing and writing letters to Congress? These questions never seem to come up.
The orientation and mobility profession is one of the subsets or subgroups of the professionals with whom we are forever battling. I talked at the beginning about the white cane as a symbol. What we have found over the years is that to be able to travel independently is something that, given reasonable opportunity, we are able to accomplish. What we are finding is actually a schism where blind people across the nation are beginning to learn in great numbers that they are able to travel independently. Whereas, on the other hand, the orientation and mobility profession charged with training us how to travel is solidifying their notion that we cannot travel in any meaningful sense. That may seem harsh, but I think I have good reason to be harsh. I talked with an orientation and mobility specialist several years back who told me that if she were blindfolded she would not trust a blind person to get her safely across a street. What she was saying is that generally a blind person can cross safely, but when push comes to shove, she wouldn't put her life on the line. I ask you reasonably why then should I put my life on the line, if the techniques don't work. I'd just as soon not be squashed by a car either. I have noticed that this conception of blindness is pervasive among orientation and mobility specialists. As a group of blind people, we are bringing the professionals to a place where they are going to have to reevaluate their conception of blindness.
We, as blind people, have to take hold of the future and make the future what we want it to be. Tonight we have gathered together and brought our friends, neighbors, and relatives so that we can share with them our concept of blindness. The progress we have made, as blind people, is progress of which we can all be proud. However, there is much progress yet to be made.
The blind children of today will be the blind adults of tomorrow and we must build a future for them. We must prepare for them a place in society. There is a blind child here in Albuquerque who is six years old. He is able to use the cane around school and can keep up with any sighted child. That is an opportunity that most of us did not have. This child's opportunity is a symbol of the progress we have made. It is a symbol of the freedom that we want for our lives and the lives of blind children. Our futures will be as bright as we can conceive them to be. As we stretch our own thoughts and challenge our routines and traditions, we will discover new opportunities which will fulfill us as individuals and collectively bring us first class status in society. We cannot allow our concepts of blindness or the concepts of those around us to limit our individual potential or to keep us from the goals toward which we strive.