by Daniel B. Frye
From the Editor: Dan Frye is the executive director of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI), the state agency responsible for providing vocational rehabilitation, independent living, education, and eye-health services to blind and vision-impaired residents of New Jersey. Prior to his role with CBVI, Dan served for three years as the national manager of the Randolph-Sheppard Program and grants officer for the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults at the Rehabilitation Services Administration. An active Federationist at the local, state, and national levels since his childhood in South Carolina in 1982, Dan worked on the NFB's national staff from 2005 to 2010 in our Affiliate Action Department and as associate editor and editor of the Braille Monitor. Finally, from 2002 to 2005 Dan served as national advocate for the Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand (ABC NZ), where he used his skill as a Federation-trained advocate and graduate of law school to promote the legislative and political agenda of the ABC NZ membership. Throughout his adulthood Dan has been involved with Democratic politics, the Unitarian-Universalist community, and Lionism. He and his wife Renee reside in Newark, New Jersey. Here is what he says about his college experience and learning to fit in:
Soccer was the dominant sport played and appreciated at Erskine College, the small, four-year liberal arts institution where I earned my undergraduate degree. During freshman orientation it was made clear to everybody, sports enthusiast or not, that support of, if not involvement in, Erskine's extracurricular point of pride was important. Much of community life and campus spirit were influenced by the success or failure of our Single A, championship-caliber women's soccer team. As a matter of course then, we were all made familiar with the location of the soccer field in the sleepy little town of Due West, South Carolina, and it was there that we, as newly admitted students to Erskine College, pledged our allegiance to the Flying Fleet.
Founded in 1840, Erskine enjoys the distinction of being the oldest private college in South Carolina. It was and remains a small school, enrolling approximately eight hundred students while I was there. Generations of families sent their offspring to Erskine to study but also, it seemed to me, to honor their heritage and institutional tradition. In such an intimate environment, situated in a small southern town characterized by charm and a unique regional culture, the arrival on the scene of a blind freshman with no identifiable ties to the community must have been jarring for campus residents so steeped in an ethos of custom and conformity.
Motivated in part by an adolescent desire to fit in, but also by an interest in demonstrating that there was nothing inherently abnormal about being blind, I immediately immersed myself in the college life. I sought and secured election to the Student Senate as a freshman and then served during my last three years of college on the Student Judicial Council, the entity charged with hearing and resolving student infractions. Loving to sing, I auditioned and was accepted as a member of the Erskine College Choraleers, a show choir that annually toured and served as a musical ambassador for the school. Wanting to develop my skill as a writer further, I volunteered as a reporter for the Erskine College Mirror and was ultimately given the opportunity to write my own weekly column, "Spotlight," featuring accomplished members of the student body.
In order to help pay my way through college, I worked as a tutor in the Office of Academic Counseling Services. Among all these obligations I worked in time to study so that I could actually earn the degree for which I came to college.
Gradually I managed to integrate into the social microcosm of Erskine life with a measure of success. Along the way, though, I had to engage in a great deal of public education about blindness. I explained and demonstrated, for instance, that I could independently carry my own tray in the college cafeteria without problem or incident. Additionally, professors prompted by a misdirected sense of benevolence, would occasionally offer to exempt me from performing assignments which they believed to be beyond the ability of a blind student. I would explain that it was important for me to complete comparable tasks in order to receive credit for my coursework. These and other lessons helped to increase the respect for and expectations of blind people in the Erskine community.
On a crisp fall Friday evening in my senior year of college, I was walking up Main Street in pursuit of a sub sandwich for supper at the Station, a refurbished gas station turned take-out deli. As I walked this familiar route, I could hear music wafting from the seminary as I passed and loud cheering from the soccer field about a half mile away. Otherwise the evening was quiet, and I was intent on grabbing a bite to eat and relaxing after an intense week of school. The streets and sidewalks were vacant except for an occasional passing car. My mind was far away in thought as I soaked up the familiar sounds and smells of my fourth autumn in Due West.
Suddenly my attention was captured by a persistent honking horn and shouted inquiries from several rather intoxicated students visiting from a neighboring college. Out of the opened window of their noisy automobile, they asked, "Hey, where's the soccer field?" I stopped, gave them the driving directions, and they were off as abruptly as they had appeared.
As I finished my walk and returned to my dorm room, I reflected on the simple but significant interaction that had occurred earlier. Sighted people, driving along, observed me comfortably engaging in my community and asked if I could be of assistance to them. I responded appropriately with the desired information, and we went our separate ways.
Frequently as a blind person I have been subtly discouraged from contributing to the social intercourse of my world by those who harbor low expectations of blind people or who simply are unaware of our community's diverse aptitude. Often the reservation stems from a desire to make things as easy as possible for the blind person or from a general sense of discomfort caused by limited exposure to blind people. In short, misinformation, low expectations, and a genuine kindness are regularly the culprits for our restricted opportunity to contribute in an unobtrusive way to the normal course of affairs. The final factor in this diminishment, as I pondered this topic on that memorable Friday evening, has to be our own complacency resulting from teaching that encourages blind people to accept assistance more often than we are urged to give it. So I resolved that evening to carry my luggage, answer questions in a crowd, help others as it was needed, and generally not take for granted the importance to a blind person of acting normally. I recognized then and there the value of engaging in such simple but significant social interactions as a way to advance our integration as blind people into the larger world. The direction I offered to the soccer-seeking students, while not profound, may have helped them understand the innate normalcy of blind people. I was glad to have been there to answer their question.