by Gary Wunder
It is all too easy to assume that people know me since I edit the Braille Monitor, but for purposes of this article let me do a little self-introduction. I am going to be speaking about something I am learning about rather than something I already know, and I’m going to be addressing issues that I have not lived but have worked to understand. I am a white male who is sixty-five years old. By any standard I have gotten most of the breaks that society has to offer. I realize that some of where I am and what I do is related to decisions and choices I’ve made, but I also hold in my soul a great deal of gratitude for the people who have wished me well and made my path easier. I only wish that every person in this country who is blind was offered the same opportunities, and it is to that end that I write to help those of us in the Federation make this an achievable goal.
Now let me turn to the dual subjects of this article. When I first heard the statement “Black Lives Matter” and then heard the broader statement “All lives matter,” I thought them to be quite compatible, in harmony, one simply being more expansive than the other. All lives do matter, but to conflate the two statements being expressed is precisely the problem because it moves the emphasis away from the lesser importance given to crimes against black people and the treatment they receive at the hands of those hired to heal and unite the communities they serve.
I was slow to understand the difference between the two statements until a few analogies were offered. If I say that blind lives need to be insured to focus readers of my message on the fact that blindness has kept people from buying life and health insurance on the premise that blind people will necessarily have shorter lives and cost more to insure, is my message emphasized or deemphasized by the statement that, of course, all people need or deserve insurance? If I say that blind people need computer hardware and software they can use to participate fully in today’s society, and someone else makes the observation that all people in this day and age need access to computers. What happens to my message about the cost of screen reader technology, Braille displays, and software that is written in such a way that it doesn’t matter how much money I spend on all of this assistive technology—I simply cannot use what is so available to the general public? When we advertise the National Federation of the Blind’s scholarship program, we are saying that blind students matter, that the technology used in the classroom must be accessible, and that accommodations must be made in the classroom for things that are only presented visually. Is that message heard, or is it likely to be overshadowed or dismissed entirely when someone makes the observation that of course many students need scholarships, whether they are blind or can see? If I put forward the message to Congress that blind people need access to home and medical appliances they can use, and someone who hears it observes that everyone needs the same thing, doesn’t my message that inaccessible touchscreens make both types of appliances inaccessible and threaten to drive me out of my home harder to hear and consequently less likely to be acted upon? If in appreciation I say to a gathering that I love my wife. Immediately someone observes that yes, but you love everybody, don’t you? Wouldn’t an answer that yes, I love everybody, actually be one that diminishes the point I was trying to make and could actually be hurtful rather than helpful?
At one time in our Federation we had a simple message. It went something like this: The thing that brings us together is blindness. The thing that keeps us together is focusing only on blindness. Being people from all walks of life of course means we will have issues in addition to blindness, but for the sake of unity, we must leave these at the door. Sometimes this focus was right. We should be able to fit under one roof those who favor more military spending and those who favor less. They should be able to agree that, in a country in which we spend so much money on and depend upon the military, there ought to be a place for blind people in her service. A woman who wants to stay at home and raise her child should be able to sit beside a woman wanting a professional career, both arguing for the accessibility of home and medical equipment. A man who believes salvation comes through Christ should sit comfortably with the man who feels that Christ was a good man but not as important as his Christian brother. Both should be able to share in the cause of making more spiritual material available accessibly in Braille and audio, and both should be able to address transportation issues that sometimes keep blind people from engaging in religious services.
But what happens when the more difficult issues intrude? How do we deal with the unarguable fact that a white man in St. Louis County gets more frequent visits from a rehabilitation counselor or teacher than a black man who lives in East St. Louis? Does the man from East St. Louis have a point in saying that he can never learn Braille when the person providing lessons comes so infrequently? What about his learning cane travel when the cane travel instructor fears walking with him through his neighborhood? We must somehow have policies that work for the blind of East St. Louis as well as the blind living in the more affluent St. Louis County, and a black person must have the right and all of us must take responsibility to listen when he says that the rehabilitation system he encounters is not the one we so frequently talk about. It certainly is our obligation to point out that the flawed system we want to fix must address not just the problems people have who live in affluent areas but also those for people of color who often may not?
Do we have all the answers? No. Does this mean we should avoid tackling the questions that will lead to equal opportunity? It does not. It is only through applied brainpower, building relationships, and making a place for ourselves in all communities where blind people live that we will begin to change those things that are difficult. It is only through risk and demonstrated caring that we will convince blind people in these communities that our message is for them, our love is for them, and that our aspiration that they can live the lives they want also includes them. We must work hard to avoid the suggestion that we are doing the offering, and they can come into our tent. Instead we want to make it clear, especially to ourselves, that this tent belongs to all of us and that addressing the issues of all blind people is a core principle of the Federation and not a gesture patronizingly offered by those who have the power to those who do not.
In a very divided nation we have messages to send about the needs of blind people, but perhaps we will send other needed messages as well. The futuristic Star Trek wanted to captivate us with new technology and going “where no man has gone before,” but quite intentionally it hooked us with another possibility, another promise we might strive to keep. That promise was to give all women and men an equal opportunity, to see others without stereotypes based on race, geography, or political differences. The point was not to ignore the differences we found among earthlings and others in the universe but to applaud the majesty of it all. The show wasn’t perfect; we had to have the good versus the bad, so some of those we found in the universe had to be fought, defended against, and made to understand that they could not live by conquering or mistreating others. Live and let live is so easily said and so much harder to implement. But it is nothing less than treating people as you want to be treated. Perhaps, more expansive and inclusive is to treat people as they would have you treat them. If we can send our message of need and hope together, what a force for good we can be—a force that starts with leading blind people and culminates in helping to lead all people to build a better world in which we see our safety, security, and happiness as inextricably bound together with those of our fellow human beings, regardless their race or socioeconomic status.