by Sanho Steele-Louchart
From the Editor: Sanho has written an article that may well become a Federation classic. He lives in Oklahoma, where he serves as the second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Oklahoma and as the secretary of the Central Oklahoma Chapter. He was previously a mobility instructor, and his colleagues helped push him toward the Federation by talking about this crazy group that thought blind people could be educated, employed, and active in their communities. He thought those were fine aspirations and decided to find out more about us. Here is what he says:
Militant. Radical. Extreme. Cultish. These are the words many of us hear when we’re first told about the Federation. Once, I might have agreed.
I began orbiting the NFB after going blind fifteen years ago. I say orbiting because, if the detractors were to be believed, the NFB was an organization of political malcontents—its members foaming at the mouth, rabid with vitriol and an anti-sighted bias. It was impressed upon me not to get too close. These people—these “Federationists”—genuinely believed that under the right circumstances, blindness could be reduced to a mere inconvenience. It was discussed in equal parts anger and scorn. My teachers were offended by the Federation not just because they felt that traditional blindness educators were portrayed as incompetent, but because they felt blind people were being misled. The NFB demanded false hope and loyalty bordering on fanaticism. The NFB was dangerous.
I think it’s fair to say that the only thing that could hurt my sighted teachers more than an attack on their profession was what they perceived as a direct attack on their students. In their minds, the immediacy of unrealistic expectations was far worse than the abstract threat of low ones. I was told that in the NFB, only the “super-blind” were welcome. The NFB didn’t only want to promote an unrealistic image of blindness; it wanted to showcase blind people as healthy, well-adjusted, and employed. But what about the blind people who are miserable, struggling, and barely getting by? What about the blind people who have multiple disabilities or the blind people who don’t have access to public transportation and assistive technology? What about the blind people who live perfectly wonderful lives but still feel destroyed by the inherent limitations of blindness—in short, the people who aren’t super-blind.
I accepted these criticisms of the Federation with an outsider’s neutrality. I had the sense that the issue was bigger than I knew, but I knew enough not to ask them many questions. My teachers were thoughtful, intelligent, and deeply compassionate people. That was good enough for me.
As life went on, I was exposed to more views about blindness and blind people. There were the people who believed blindness was a bad thing and those who believed it was neutral. There were the people who believed blind people were best served by having residual vision and those who believed the amount of a person’s residual vision had no more consequence on their life than the length of their hair. There were people who believed that blindness was akin to a death sentence, and there were people who believed that blindness was—dare I say it—nothing more than a relative inconvenience. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everyone I met from the latter category was a member of the NFB.
I became entranced with the philosophy of blindness. I read books. I joined calls. I learned travel from NOMC’s and Braille from NCRTB’s. I spent more than a decade learning to live and breathe Structured Discovery. But I still wasn’t a member.
It’s true that I met one or two NFB members who were fire-breathing, foam-spewing juggernauts along the way. I met many more who radiated joy and passion. I met several who said one thing but did another, and I met countless people who lived in a state of quiet authenticity. I met NFB members who seemed super-blind, and I met NFB members who were hot messes. I met movers and shakers, and I met people just trying to stay sane in their own little corner of the universe. I know Federationists who love being blind and some who would jump at the chance to be sighted. For everyone I meet who is blind-only, there’s a multiply disabled person somewhere nearby. In fact, the best example of the NFB philosophy I’ve ever met was arguably a young woman with significant cognitive and developmental disabilities. But that’s a story for another time.
The point is, I’ve never met two NFB members who were exactly alike. To say that the NFB is a cross-section of society is laughably inadequate. NFB members have vastly different experiences surrounding blindness, and contrary to how it might look from the outside, no single experience is held out as the right one. I’ve been fortunate to get to know this firsthand. I can confidently say that the NFB isn’t about being super-blind, or one-size-fits-all, or perpetuating an anti-sighted bias. The NFB is just about managing expectations. What do I expect of myself? What do I expect of others? It’s really that simple. It isn’t about anger. It’s about awareness. I concede that those expectations might sometimes go too far. But those flaws, such as they are, exist with specific individuals, not the organization as a whole.
Remember that I’m young. It’s entirely possible that the NFB of yesteryear was one built by bricks of anger and alienation. Those walls are tall. They’ll come down brick-by-brick. But that anger, that frustration—that refusal to lie down—those are all indescribably valid. Those emotions helped clear the path for people like me to enjoy the peace I do today. And take heart: those emotions are not the driving force which fuels the NFB of 2021.
The driving force is love. Call it what you will. Perhaps respect is a less fraught word. Regardless, the NFB knows that blind people are fundamentally capable of managing our own expectations. We decide what we’re capable of. We decide who we are. We decide how to live. We respect a blind person’s ability to make an informed choice. And, when we disagree, we endeavor to do that respectfully, too.
No organization is perfect. Organizations are comprised of people, and people are complicated. But I am honored to say that, after so long on the outskirts, I am finally a proud member of the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you for being my Federation family.