Employment: The Pivotal Issue

by Fred Schroeder

Braille Monitor

July, 1986

(Fred Schroeder is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico. He is also the President of the National Association of Blind Educators. In the Fall/Winter, 1985, issue of The Blind Educator --the publication of the National Association of Blind Educators--the following article appeared in the column, "From the President. ")

Perhaps the greatest barrier which blind people face today is in the area of employment. For it is in the search for jobs that blind people come face to face with the attitudes of the public about blindness. I am frequently told that there is no discrimination against the blind--that by and large society is sympathetic to the blind and eager to be of help in any way possible, and in many cases this is true. Yet, in many cases those who would keep us down and keep us out are the same ones that proclaim the loudest their belief in the capability of blind people.

In 1983 Paul Flynn, who is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Blind Educators, learned firsthand the true meaning of discrimination. Mr. Flynn had been a successful high school English teacher for more than twenty years when a new principal, Father Xavier fired him from his job proclaiming it "a sacrilege" for a blind person to teach. Nevertheless, Father Xavier claimed that he harbored no prejudice against the blind but simply felt that it was not reasonable for a blind person to teach at the secondary level. He urged Mr. Flynn to pursue elementary school teaching, and since the school Father Xavier ran was a high school that meant seeking a job somewhere else.

A year later we had the case of Gwynne Widhalm. Ms. Widhalm had just completed a degree in elementary education but was told by her university that she would not be allowed to student teach. Her university supervisor, Dr. Divney, explained that a blind person could not possibly supervise young children and therefore recommended that Ms. Widhalm consider high school teaching.

In both bases the discrimination was clear and the negative attitudes about blindness undeniable. Yet, Father Xavier and Dr. Divney both claimed that they believed in the ability of the blind to teach as long as they taught somewhere else. This same problem occurs over and over again.

In 1980 Karen Arellano Edwards enrolled as a freshman at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces. At that time she planned to pursue a career in teaching. In high school she had volunteered in a kindergarten class and found the work interesting and enjoyable. Nevertheless, when she went to speak with an advisor in the elementary education department she was told that it was not practical for a blind person to be an elementary school teacher because of the large number of children that would need to be supervised. At that time Mrs. Edwards did not know of the National Federation of the Blind and that there were hundreds of successful blind teachers throughout the country. So Ms. Edwards decided to enter the field of speech pathology. As a speech therapist she would still have an opportunity to work with young children, and since most therapy is conducted individually or with small groups, she reasoned she would not have any problem supervising her clients. Yet, the same pattern of discrimination again emerged. Mrs. Edwards was counseled by department faculty against speech pathology and once again was urged to consider pursuing another field of training.

Throughout her experience those with whom she dealt would have become angry had she told them that they did not believe that a blind person can become a competent professional. They would have become angrier still had she told them that their actions were discriminatory and reflected stereotypes and misconceptions about blindness. Yet, their treatment of Mrs. Edwards speaks more loudly than their claims of only thinking of what was in her best interest. The following article describes Karen Edwards' experiences in working toward a degree in speech pathology and describes for us the demoralizing and humiliating effects of discrimination. For discrimination it truly is, and we cannot be deceived by pronouncements of others that they are only thinking of what is best for us.

The blind can teach in elementary school. There are hundreds of blind teachers to prove it. The blind can teach in high schools and in colleges, for there are hundreds of blind teachers to prove that as well. And yes, the blind can be speech pathologists, for there are blind speech pathologists successfully practicing in schools and in clinics throughout the country. The real issue is not can the blind teach or conduct therapy. The issue is can we as an organized blind movement change societal attitudes which represent the real barrier to opportunity.