by Patricia C. Estes
The references in this article are to blindness more than any other disability because I am blind, so that is what I know. Examples of rearing children and human development are frequent because I am a mother of four, had a mother, and have studied all manner of mothering. If this article lacks the usual sports metaphors, I make no apology, and, if the issues seem to be over-simplified, it is because I don’t think life needs to be complicated.
For some reason I really enjoyed the way Dr. Jacobus tenBroek wrote the introduction to his famous legal treatise, "The Right to Live in the World.” He explained his personal frame of reference that underpinned the following fifty-five pages. Of course he also demonstrated his brilliant grasp of common sense and drew on his scholarly achievements and a doctorate of juridical science from Harvard University Law School. I had been forewarned that reading "The Right to Live in the World" would be a tedious venture. It was an article published in a legal journal, after all. But as someone who read The Federalist Papers at eighteen and at fifty-nine still considers it my favorite book, reading tenBroek's logical and sometimes tongue-in-cheek presentation of the case for civil rights for the disabled was enlightening. Where had this treatise been all my life?
I had just mentioned in our latest NFB of Maine newsletter that I knew little about Dr. tenBroek's personal style. Then I came across the 2008 DVD about the impact of Dr. tenBroek’s life and of his scholarship, "Jacobus tenBroek and the Right to Live in the World," right there in the Independence Market. I discovered it on the last day of my leadership seminar at the National Center this past May. We brought it home, and, as I was resting after all the excitement, I decided to pop it into the player and read it before I put it away. I mulled over the title and decided that it pretty much summed up our whole movement. But at that point I still thought that the phrase wasn't as clever as Dr. Jernigan's "We know who we are and we’ll never go back” or "Join me on the barricades.” And it seemed to me to lack the imagination of President Maurer’s notion to unveil the blind drivable car on the Daytona Speedway. But "The Right to Live in the World" was certainly right to the point, I had to admit. I guess that, having been blessed with such impressive leadership during all of my years as a Federationist, I just never felt the need to study any material from Dr. tenBroek's years as our first president.
The DVD is only about twenty minutes long, but, listening to it, I came to know Dr. Jacobus tenBroek through stories from his son, commentary by current civil rights law scholars, and President Maurer's commentary. I became so moved by this simple phrase, "the right to live in the world," that I felt it in my being and teared up because I could completely relate to it. It is profound common sense, and, if this landmark paper has been—as the legal experts maintained--the basis of most civil rights movements, is the most-often-referred-to treatise in civil rights law, and was the basis for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I had to ask why I hadn't seen more change in civil rights for the blind over the years. I believe that this issue is so basic to our understanding of our rights, the barriers we still face, and the work we still need to do that I referred to it again in another NFB of Maine newsletter article. At this point I received a note from the Braille Monitor editor suggesting that I write a piece on the subject for the magazine. If the greatest legal minds had already weighed in on it, I wondered what was left to be said--especially by me. Gary persisted, so I agreed to write something and let him decide what to do with it. If nothing else comes from this effort, I have been blessed to have learned and to have read some more about Dr. tenBroek and the beginnings and the staying power of the movement that is the National Federation of the Blind.
As I reflected on what I was learning and internalizing, I remembered vividly the times I had been denied the civil rights taken for granted by others. Dr. tenBroek asks often in "The Right to Live in the World" what happens when the disabled “come out of our homes and out of our asylums, and out of our institutions?"
I was hired as an assistant to the teacher in our local resource room for the blind. We were very excited. My husband Skip left for work, I called a cab, and our phone rang. The principal had the resource room teacher call to tell me not to bother coming because they couldn't hire a blind person to teach blind children. The principal had never even met me. I cancelled the cab.
Then there was the time we brought our daughter, who was working on a Girl Scout badge, to the Portland Museum of Art. As we were at the desk paying for admission and learning about the special exhibits, a security guard came up to me and grabbed my white cane, saying, "I'll have to take that."
"No you don’t!" I said, and I clung to my cane as he let go. He insisted that he would have to put it in a closet. I insisted that as a blind person I had a right to carry it. (By this time I had joined the Federation, and we were in the middle of the cane battles with the airlines. No one had mentioned that I would face the same thuggery in an art museum on a family outing) Kate's eyes were huge, and the three (well four) of us proceeded through the art museum with the static of the security guard's walkie-talkie following three feet behind us.
But these are old stories, and all blind people have them. Hadn't anything changed through all the years? Had the NFB done its work? It seems that the fear of blindness and the public’s perception are cemented into the psyche of society through our literature, our superstitious sayings, and every culture's myths. But a myth is just that: a myth. Common sense tells us that fear is simply false expectations that appear real. The struggle is that perception and fear, however falsely founded, preside and take control, and the simple, straightforward and honest approach is rejected in favor of a solution that is convolutedly complicated. All logic seems to disappear. This is exactly why we each need to be versed in the legal basis of our right to equality in order to persist and continue and to know in our bones why we have the right to live in the world.
I now have more focus when hearing new but familiar stories of illegal neglect, parental despair, and careers and timetables ignored by our state agency and others charged with delivering services to the blind. As a blind person and as an affiliate president, I know that our right to equal access has been argued over and over and has the weight of legal precedent. The blind not only have the basic right to live in the world, we also have the right to become skilled in what it requires for us to join our communities. It's all in tenBroek's paper laid out from his citing of the Magna Carta, referencing the U.S. Bill of Rights, and appealing to our logical minds through compelling common sense.
I am inspired to stop collecting stories in favor of taking action and finding the simplest path to solutions when I am approached with a problem a blind person is experiencing. I do have respect and deep empathy for people's need to recount their desperate situations, but I will no longer wallow with them. I'm an advocate, not a therapist. We have far too much experience and too many resources to offer to spend precious energy and time on anything less than forward movement. Either blind people will move with us, or they won't.
My first reaction upon learning more of tenBroek's personal style was to think to myself, "His poor mother!" Jacobus had no fear. He was totally blind by the age of nine, having lost one eye playing with bows and arrows (yes, to all you mothers and grandmothers out there--a stick!) and the other eye a couple of years later after being hit with a baseball. He continued to play like any normal boy and went bike riding with his sister. (Listen to the DVD to hear the rest of that story.). Jacobus tenBroek continued to explore his world, and no one had to persuade him that he had the right to do it.
I got to thinking about that concept and the fact that exploring our world is just a natural part of being human. I sought to enlarge my world a couple of years ago and thought I needed a brush-up cane travel session or two. The O&M instructor came to our home on a busy rural road.
"Which routes do you want to learn?” she asked.
I just didn't understand her thinking, “What?"
"Which routes do you want to learn?" she said more slowly; "Where do you travel most?"
I started to say that I wanted to learn all of them, but I settled for saying a walk to a friend's a couple of houses down. We were standing at the end of our dirt driveway.
"Well you have a special situation here."
"Well, yes, you have a blind drive."
"The cars coming up the hill to our left can't see you, but you can hear them, so we'll wait, and I'll show you." We waited, and in a moment we heard a vehicle coming up the hill towards us on our left. "One one thousand, two one thousand, three one…" The car passed in front of us. "See? You have six seconds."
"Six seconds?” I asked. “To do what?"
"From the time you hear a car coming up the hill, it takes six seconds for it to pass your driveway. You have six seconds to cross to the other side."
"Really?" My mind was racing. “What if I couldn't walk that fast that day? What if the next car was going faster? What if it was an electric car? And why did I want to cross the road anyway? So you mean I have six seconds, or else I go splat?"
"Well sort of. But that’s the chance a blind person takes traveling anywhere."
I couldn't stand it anymore and just went up to Margaret's house at the top of Woodbury Hill, where the instructor caught up with me. I cancelled future appointments, not knowing if I'd live to tell about it. It is just exactly as Dr. tenBroek writes in "The Right to Live in the World." When the blind and disabled come out of our houses and asylums and institutions, life suddenly gets complicated by the lack of common sense as we seek simply to move abroad in the land and to acquire the skills that we need. There has to be a better way to accomplish something as normal as exploring and expanding our world.
I observed the touch-the-beach-blanket phenomenon as our four children were growing up. We'd go to the beach and put a blanket down, and each would begin their own adventure. The littlest might move six feet away from our blanket and become absorbed with the sand and a shovel. The next oldest might walk to the water's edge and giggle before running back to touch the blanket, while the fifth-grade boy was yelling to me from out in water over his head and making blubbering noises that were supposed to scare me. He was touching the blanket in his own way. The thirteen-year-old girl walked the beach with her friend and turned around to walk to the other end, acknowledging me with a giggle as she passed our blanket. It's a normal part of human development and growth. Give them the opportunity and room and provide the assurance that you know that they can do it. No fear. It's no different for blind children. This is the same thing Jacobus tenBroek was doing as a child.
Our kids are much older now and have taken their right to live in the world for granted. But they still touch the blanket. Only now it tends to be plumbing questions for Dad. "You do understand I am in Maine and you and your plumbing problem are two thousand miles away, right?" Sure they did, but this was the situation and…Thank goodness the reassurance doesn’t always involve mothers.I ask myself where the blind child is. Home, or out walking and exploring with his white cane--feeling all the textures, smelling the smells, and plotting his own landmarks back to touch the blanket? I hope so, and I work in the Federation to this end, to imbue other blind people with the knowledge of how to take advantage of their Right to Live in the World.