I was born in 1959 in Fort Worth, Texas. I had congenital cataracts and other eye disorders which rendered me almost completely blind. From the year of my birth through 1966 I underwent several eye operations in an attempt to correct what could be corrected and give me as close to normal vision as possible. When the operations were completed I was still legally blind. This meant that from that time forward I would have to wear thick glasses and use alternative techniques such as magnifiers, books printed in large type and in later years, a long white cane.
For several years my blindness wasn't really an issue in my social interaction with other kids. For some reason it simply never came up. I attended regular schools until the 3d grade, when I entered the Lilly B. Clayton elementary school in Fort Worth. This was the first 'special school' I had ever attended, meaning there were other blind students in my classes. This was really the first chance I'd ever had to make contact with my blind peers. The school had both blind and sighted students in attendance, as the push was beginning to 'mainstream' blind and otherwise disabled children into public schools. Lilly B. Clayton was designed to allow blind kids to attend classes with each other in an overall environment that included attending classes with sighted students. It was probably felt at the time that this would make the transition to regular public schools easier for the students who were blind.
I saw my blind classmates simply as other kids, yet I was beginning to realize that we were different from our sighted classmates. There was the obvious difference that they had full vision and we didn't. The other difference was that we seemed to be closer to each other than the students who weren't blind. I didn't think much about this at the time, but in later years the memory of it would touch me. Though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I had experienced my first taste of the blind community.
Lilly B. Clayton allowed us to expand our learning experience and enjoy it. I learned for the sheer fun of learning. I particularly recall one day. I had gotten a book about John F. Kennedy from the library at lunchtime, and was at my desk, completely engrossed in the book. My teacher reminded me of the class after lunch, and I told her that I'd be there shortly and kept on reading. The biography occupied me to the point that when I next looked up it was to my teacher telling me I'd missed the class. I said that I was caught up in the book and nothing more was said about my missing the class. It was that kind of school, the sort of school where learning was something most of us seemed to do without much prompting.
The atmosphere and closeness to my fellow blind was something that I obviously enjoyed, since I was devastated by the news in the summer of 1970, that I would no longer be allowed to go to school with my friends starting in the Fall of that year. My parents had moved our family to Alvarado, Texas, and they wanted my brother and I to go to the elementary school there. They also felt it an inconvenience to drive me to and from school in Fort Worth, despite the fact that one of them worked near, and the other inside the city. I saw this as a disastrous turn of events. I had been going to Lilly B. Clayton for 2 years by this time, and had developed a bond with the other blind kids in my classes. I knew instinctively by then, that we shared experiences, and could very closely understand each others' day to day struggles with blindness and everything that it implied. Clayton was like nothing I had ever experienced before. In later years I would come to realize that it had been the best school experience I would ever have. The child I was at that time simply didn't want to leave his friends. Later on, though, I came to realize that it was much more. My fellow blind students weren't just other kids. They were my brothers and sisters, my fellow blind, and I would miss them terribly.
With the same misgivings as any new kid in town I started classes at Alvarado Elementary School at the end of that summer of 1970. This would mark a horrible turning point in my life. Where I had been treated like any other student in the schools of Fort Worth, I found almost nothing but never-ending bigotry and malicious hatred in the new school in Alvarado. This resulted in DAILY harassment both physical and mental. Gone was the closeness and free-spirited joy of learning. These were replaced by the beginning of a YEARS-long struggle for survival and personal dignity.
'Blindy Boy,' 'Four-Eyes,' 'Six-Eyes,' 'Crossicana' and other such names became mine, as far as many of my classmates were concerned. Fights between myself and my tormenters happened often. Sometimes I would win and sometimes I'd lose, but the pressure was always there. I had to deal with people trying to steal my glasses, smudge them with mud and other physical attacks as well.
No account of those years can be complete without giving proper credit to the fumbling, bumbling Mr. Magoo. A cartoon version of this character's misadventures had been released just as I entered Alvarado ISD, and the kids that gave me the most trouble found it VERY inspirational. 'Magoo' became another one of my nicknames, and thanks to this program's influence my school life in the Alvarado Independent School District became even more a DAILY hell. When I hear black people speaking out against such media offerings as Amos and Andy, or when Hispanics condemn such misrepresentations as the Frito Bandito I can completely understand their feelings. These stereotypical and negative images of minorities, however intended to be taken by their producers, simply pour more gasoline on the fires of bigotry spawned by ignorance. Thanks to the producers of the 'Mr. Magoo' cartoon show I bore the scars of that hatred, inspired, nurtured and goaded on by their program.
To the classmates that reveled in these daily torture sessions it was funny. All a great joke. When I'd complain I'd be told by them to, 'lighten up,' and not to take things so seriously. This was usually the response from most adults I confided in as well. There was absolutely nothing I could do. I felt that almost none of my peers were on my side and even the few who recognized my pain knew better than to take on the larger number of students who were definitely NOT on my side. Survival is the name of the game in school, and Texas law proclaimed that children must attend at least 180 days of school per year. I ignored the law, however, and cut school as much as possible until I left high school in the summer of 1978, making a rude hand gesture toward the building as I left. I eventually earned a high school diploma after finishing out my classes through correspondence courses.
It's often said that children are cruel, and this is the way it is, and possibly even that this is the way it SHOULD be. Some even suggest that experiences such as the ones I had gone through can build character. All I know from my experiences, however, is that I didn't have one day. NOT ONE SINGLE DAY in school from the late summer of 1970 to the early summer of 1978, when there wasn't at least one incident of physical or mental abuse from my classmates. Far from enhancing my character, my experiences only steered it in the wrong direction.
When I finally left school in 1978 I was to put it simply, consumed with hate. I saw almost all of my peers as enemies, bent on humiliating me. Sadly, there were even times when I refused to give people a chance to show that they weren't like those who delighted in my torment. As I saw it sighted people would prefer that the blind just disappear unless they could provide the sighted some amusement.
Even in the midst of my pain, however, I was beginning to think that there had to be something better for blind people than what I was going through. I was thinking ahead to the day when I'd go out and start working. Perhaps it was this pattern of thought that led me to get up in front of a class one day in high school and fulfill an assignment for a short spoken address by talking about hiring the disabled. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but this was the meager beginnings of something that would later come to be one of the most positive facets of my life.
For some years thereafter, I stayed in the town of Alvarado, keeping my Grandparents' farm and caring for them. I discovered both a talent and a passion for making nature photographs, and found ample subject matter all around me. I even began to entertain notions of possibly turning this into a career. During this time also, I was still quite bitter from the years of persecution. Events beyond my control were about to change that however, along with the rest of my existence.
1984 dawned, and my family began an effort to move me from the place I lived to Fort Worth or some other large city. Without consulting me they had decided that this was the best thing to 'do with me.' They felt that my aspiration to make a living at nature photography was ridiculous and unworkable because of my blindness. To them it was much more practical for me to work at a 'sensible job,' such as those offered at the Fort Worth Lighthouse for the Blind (officially called the Tarrant County Association for the Blind). And so began a campaign of badgering that didn't stop until I was gone from the place I loved.
My view of the situation was, of course different. At that time someone was needed on the farm to maintain and protect it, as our area had for a few years, been victimized by burglaries. Not only did the farm need a guardian, but I knew that if I was to make a career from photography I would need a stockpile of good images to begin create a marketable portfolio. Since my focus was nature there was no better place for me to be than exactly where I was.
None of my opinions of views mattered, however, and I was moved from the farm and into Fort Worth, Texas in the early Spring of 1985.
To say the least this turn of events was an emotional blow. I was in a city where I didn't want to be, employed at a place I didn't want to work and away from everything that I loved. It was possibly the lowest point of my life. With no true allies to be found I was more alone than I had ever been before.
I soon settled into the routine of work at the Fort Worth Lighthouse and home in my small apartment next to Carswell Air Force Base. Though it wasn't the life I felt I should be living I needed money to survive, so I got acclimated and used to the routine.
At the Tarrant County Association for the Blind I was 'promoted' from being paid piecework for putting guitar strings into individual paper sleeves, to working in the Association's box factory. TCAB had a contract to produce packing materials for sensitive electronic parts. In real terms this meant cutting, folding and stapling cardboard together and adding a kind of foam rubber to create the finished product. This was a fairly steady contract and unlike other workshops for the blind the Lighthouse did not usually have many layoffs of employees for lack of work.
This was the image that TCAB wanted the world to see. A caring, sheltered environment where happy, industrious blind people worked, making themselves useful to society. The reality however, was something more than the Tarrant County Association for the Blind would have the public know of. Many of the blind persons working at TCAB felt exploited when groups of people toured through the factories and workshops, these people exhorted to contribute to the United Way or later on, directly to the Lighthouse itself. We were told that this practice would continue, whether we liked it or not and that being put on display in this way was, in the words of Bob Baggott, a manager at TCAB, "a job requirement." Though the layoffs were rare they did occur. Employees were expected to sit by their telephones on days they were laid off and wait for a call to come in IF managers at the Lighthouse needed them to come to work the next day. Machines at the Association sometimes broke down, creating a direct danger to their blind operators. The reality of work at the Tarrant County Association for the Blind was much like working for the company store in the 19th Century. Overworked field staff at the Texas Commission for the Blind would place people a TCAB and then forget them, taking credit for closure of cases while workers at the Association endured low pay, no health insurance of any kind, no job security, no representation, no ability to bargain with management, nepotism, cronyism and harassment from Lighthouse officials if any complaint was heard. The Tarrant County Association for the Blind was a grim dead end to myself and many of my coworkers.
Among my coworkers at TCAB was Sharon Bishop, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. Seeking to change the apaulling conditions under which I and my fellow blind worked, I became a member of the Fort Worth chapter, NFBT sometime in 1987. Sharon had loaned me some tapes of speeches from the Federation's national leaders, and I was beginning to see that it was possible for blind workers at the Association to take their destiny into their own hands and initiate the kind of change that was needed to bring our status to a par with people working in comparable industry outside of the Lighthouse.
I was beginning to realize other things as well. I found through the tapes and our meetings that the blind were organized in their national movement. The National Federation of the Blind concerned itself with many wide-reaching issues concerning the quality of life of the blind and I agreed with almost every position that they took on these issues. The leaders of the NFB and its affiliates were blind people themselves, individuals of personal power and respectability. The Federation I found, was an organization that had real power, the kind that could cause businesses, government agencies and even the courts to see things our way and act accordingly. To a young man like myself, victimized by unknowing or unfeeling people for 17 years the messages of the National Federation of the Blind were extremely powerful.
I was drawn to the Federation. I wanted to be part of an organization that was made up OF blind people, not created for the blind by the sighted. It excited me to join with other blind people in a group where blind persons were in charge and where we as blind people could decide our own destiny. This organization had the kind of powerful, positive influence that I had never enjoyed in my own personal life, having spent 17 years as a target, fighting back when I could but always alone. Here, finally, were blind people like myself, ready and willing to go head to head with the bigots of society and wonder of wonders, many times these NFB people actually WON.
The executive board of the Fort Worth chapter made me public relations committee chair. I found that I enjoyed this post, having something of a talent for writing in a style that was acceptable to the news media. I borrowed other tapes from Sharon and learned more. I subscribed to 'The Braille Monitor,' the monthly magazine of the NFB. Before long I was ready for the challenge to come.
This came when many of us who worked at the Tarrant County Association for the Blind decided that we had had enough. Conversations with our supervisors and a meeting with Bob Mosteller, Executive Director of the Association had produced only frustration. They were willing to talk to the workers but in the end, things would remain the same and we all knew where the door was if we didn't like the work environment. We could no longer tolerate this, so Sharon Bishop contacted the local Teamsters Union representatives. Other lighthouses had been organized by a partnership of the Teamsters and the National Federation of the Blind, and we believed the time had come for the Lighthouse in Fort Worth to become organized too, so that we could collectively bargain with management from a position of strength. We saw no other way. Frank discourse with management had produced nothing, so we would take the next logical step, the drive to organize.
We began speaking to our fellow workers at TCAB, hoping to gain enough support so that a vote could be taken on the question of union representation. We knew that our position was strong. The Tarrant County Association for the Blind was a nonprofit organization, completely dependent on its blind employees to keep its doors open. We also knew that management salaries depended on those doors staying open. We told our coworkers these facts, and a few things that they hadn't been aware of before, such as the fact that TCAB's Executive Director, Bob Mosteller, was paid a yearly salary of close to $50,000.00. For many this hit home, as some employees in parts of the Association's workshops brought home paycheques of less than $1.00 for two weeks' work. We believed that the day was ours, and all we had to do was reach for it.
Sadly though, we could not gather enough votes to call the question of representation. Despite our best efforts management saw to it that most of our coworkers were intimidated into not supporting the union effort. They were told that if a union came to the Lighthouse the workshops would be closed down. We did what we could to convince them otherwise, but in the end we simply couldn't gather the votes we needed.
This wasn't the end, however. Soon after our organizing efforts had stopped TCAB management announced some rather radical changes. While workers still would have no representation, there would now be health insurance, slightly higher pay and other concessions such as a job coach, whose task it would be to find jobs outside the Lighthouse for those who were interested. Management knew that they had dodged a bullet, and that they would be forced to treat their employees better or face consequences they didn't want to deal with such as a renewed union effort that might succeed.
My experience at organizing at the Tarrant County Association for the Blind was quite an education. I learned first-hand that the blind were like other minorities. Some of us were willing to put ourselves at risk to fight for justice. Others would betray their own for a scrap thrown from the majority's table. Still others would sit on the sidelines, content to do nothing as long as they themselves were secure. Most important however, was the demonstration that blind people DID have the power to change things for the better when they came together and had the courage to act.
By the summer of 1988 I knew that I was a Federationist at heart. I had been in the trenches, fighting the good fight on the local level. I had no idea what was in store for me when I went to Chicago in the summer of that year. Suddenly I was surrounded by over 2,000 of the most wonderful people I had ever met. It was the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind. It was one thing to read about the convention experience in the 'Monitor,' and quite another to actually be there. It was a revelation. The Texas delegation was seated directly in front of the podium and behind me, ranked state by state, were thousands of delegates from every state in the union. No experience I'd ever had compared to that moment. It was all true. Here they were, my fellow Federationists and here I was, a part of this great organization. By the time President Maurer finished his opening address any possible doubts that I may have had about Federation membership and our effectiveness had vanished. He spoke to us of the progress that had been made that year and I heard example after example of change brought about by people...Blind people like myself. Not 'superblinks' but ordinary men and women, determined to change what it meant to be blind.
Federationists say they will never forget their first convention and it's true. It was a week that changed my perspective completely. On the train to Chicago I still held on to much of the resentment and bitterness that had built up over the 17 years of torment in the Alvarado school system. Before and during my journey to Chicago I felt that sighted people were the enemies of the blind. I didn't believe that most of them meant blind people any direct harm, but as far as I could tell the results were the same in the end. The sighted would win, the blind would lose. I knew there were exceptions, but this was the way I thought things were.
Then I got to Chicago and started to interact with my fellow NFB members. It was astonishing. I discovered a kind of closeness that I hadn't felt for years. In a way it was Lilly B. Clayton all over again. Once again I was among blind people and I was learning and teaching at the same time. There was optimism, hope and the resolve to effect change. Unlike my Clayton experience, though, I had been made slightly cynical. I had come to Chicago fresh from 17 years as a second-class citizen and several years of personal struggle after that, seeking the personal dignity that I knew I deserved as a human being.
I discovered an organization comprised of blind persons like myself, who believed in each other and the power of collective action. I also found something I never fully realized I hadn't had before that week. Respect. Yes I was a blind guy but that didn't matter there. No one brushed aside my views as ridiculous or unworkable. For the first time in my life I was actually listened to and understood. It was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was wonderful. somewhere during that week I had also let go of my hate. I accepted that most sighted people actually wanted to treat the blind as equals, and it required only education to make this happen. Those who had wronged me in the past were mostly the victims of their own ignorance and superstition. I would never hate sighted people again. It was time to bury my past and get on with a future marked not by victimization, but by personal control, discipline and the power to fight the good fight and win.
While I've been active in he NFB I've helped the Federation win some impressive victories. We've won the right for blind people to serve as Foreign Service Officers with the U.S. State Department. We've kept tabs on local, state and federal agencies serving the blind and kept them honest. We've helped government pass laws that confirm the civil rights of blind people nationwide. We've influenced advertisers and even television networks such ask ABC to discontinue inaccurate and damaging portrayals of blind persons, the sort of skewed perspective of blindness that do us harm by misrepresenting our capabilities, our intelligence and our worthiness to join in the greater society as equals with our sighted naighbours. We've even cooperated with ABC to help spread the real truth about blindness and our ability and right to be an integral part of the world. I've written and mailed letters, made phone calls, handed out pamphlets, attended meetings from local to national, travelled to Washington D.C. to speak to members of Congress, sent out email and maintained a Website concerning blindness. I've done all this because I've seen that it makes a difference, that my participation really does mean something.
We prefer to achieve our goals through education and discussion. In fact we've done most of what we have through these means. We're aware however, that sometimes it's not enough to simply ask for what you want. There is a time for collective, nonviolent action and when all else fails we're ready and able to combine our strengths when an impass has been reached and the situation calls for it. I feel it's worth the effort because what's at stake makes it so.
Through all of this though, I've never forgotten myself or let those good traits in me slip away. I've kept my own opinions and haven't been afraid to express them. As a part of the National Federation of the Blind I can be a whole person and still make a difference. Yes, we do insist on equal treatment from our sighted peers, but we ask no more from them than we do from ourselves. We don't use our blindness as an excuse for personal failure or as a source for personal gain. I know that as a blind person I have to try for excellence and treat others as well as myself with understanding. Sometimes it isn't easy but nothing really worthwhile ever is. My life has led me to this point. I can think of no better way to take revenge on those who have harmed me over the years than to turn that misunderstanding, that bigotry, that hate in on itself and turn it into consensus, acceptance and love through a positive self-image and positive action. That is why I'm a Federationist.
If you would like more information about the National Federation of the Blind you are welcome to contact write or call our national office. National Federation of the Blind 1800 Johnson Street Baltimore, Maryland 21230 Telephone (410) 659-9314
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