Why I Am a Federationist

by Tonia Valletta Trapp

Braille Monitor

July, 2003

From the Editor: Tonia Trapp is the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico and president of the Albuquerque Chapter. She works as an advocate for the New Mexico Protection and Advocacy System. At the 2002 convention of the NFB of New Mexico Tonia delivered the following speech telling her audience why she is a Federationist. This is what she said:

Before I talk about why I am a Federationist, I would like to tell you a little about myself. I have been totally blind since about the age of two, and I am almost twenty-nine years old now. I was fortunate to grow up in northern Virginia, where services for totally blind children were fairly good. So I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school, college, and beyond. I know that many blind children do not have that opportunity, so I consider myself blessed.

I received a B.A. degree in religious studies from the College of William and Mary in December of 1995, and I completed my master's degree in social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May of 1998.

I have been married for almost five years to Greg Trapp, the current director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Greg is also blind. For the past three years I have worked as an advocate for the New Mexico Protection and Advocacy System, a private, nonprofit agency devoted to protecting and securing the rights of people with disabilities. I really enjoy the work that I do.

If I were to describe myself in one word, it would be "driven." I set goals, and I work hard until I achieve them. I take on challenges, and I strive to conquer them. One of the challenges I have had the joy of taking on is my recent election as president of the Albuquerque chapter of the NFB of New Mexico. After I was elected, I started thinking hard about these questions: Why am I a Federationist? Why should people come to our meetings? What are we trying to accomplish?

The NFB has a catch-phrase that expresses very clearly what the Federation is all about. The phrase is, "Changing what it means to be blind." Now if that isn't a challenge, I don't know what is. In fact, the challenge of changing what it means to be blind is irresistible for me. I have to be part of it. I want a piece of the action. So what does it mean to change what it means to be blind? Well, I look at it this way. Society in general contains many myths about blind people. I am not saying that everyone everywhere believes these myths, but in general many people do. The Federation, on the other hand, teaches the truth about blindness. Let me give you some examples. Myth: Being blind is a bad thing, a sad thing, and something to be ashamed of. Sometimes this idea is expressed in words, such as when someone comes up to you and places a hand on your shoulder and says, "I'm so sorry that you're blind." Have some of you had that experience? Sometimes the idea is expressed more indirectly, through attitudes. Consider the parents who say to their blind child, "It's perfectly all right for you to use your cane at school, but you're with us now, so you don't need it. Put the cane away." One is likely to acquire some cuts, bruises, and scratches from following that advice. Or consider the teacher of a blind child who says, "You don't need to learn Braille, because you still have a little bit of sight. We'll have you read large-print books. What's that you say? You have to put your nose to the book in order to read it? Well, that's all right; you still don't need Braille." The truth: It is OK to be blind. There is no shame in being blind--no shame. And as a fellow blind person, I encourage you to swing that cane. Your cane gives you independence. Don't be ashamed to use your cane. Learn Braille, and use it. Braille is your key to the world of printed material. Don't be ashamed to use Braille. Here's another myth: Blind people are helpless and totally dependent. In fact, we are so helpless that we cannot so much as tie our own shoes. And we certainly cannot go anywhere by ourselves. We must always have someone with us.

The truth: Blind people can do for ourselves. We can take care of ourselves. All we need is confidence and good training in the skills of blindness. The Federation says that blind people are not pitiful; we are powerful. Another myth: Blind people cannot work.

The truth: Blind people can do just about any job--well, maybe not airplane pilot or taxi driver. Blind people work as engineers, lawyers, scientists, receptionists, mathematicians, social workers, writers, and just about anything else you can imagine. Many of these myths about blindness pervade society, so I will mention just one more before closing. This last one is one of the most tragic. The myth is that, if you lose your sight, your life is over. You may as well throw in the towel because it's all over.

The truth is that, if you lose your sight, you can learn to do most or all of the things that you used to do when you were not blind. You just learn to do things differently. Becoming blind does not mean that your life is over. The Federation is all about destroying society's myths about blindness and instilling truth about the worth and abilities of blind people. With every person we reach with the truth about blindness, we are changing what it means to be blind. That is why I am a Federationist.