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Enlightening The Sighted

by Rebecca R. Long

Rebecca Long is a senior political science major at Gannon State University in Erie, Pennsylvania. She has also become a committed and perceptive Federationist, thanks to the Washington Seminar. Here is her story as she tells it:

I was more than uncomfortable. It was my second day working as an intern for Leadership Erie, a leadership program for adults of the Greater Erie community in Pennsylvania, and here I was at lunch sitting next to the only disabled person in the group. Her name was Judy Jobes, and she was blind. "Disabled": that is how I thought of her at that lunch a little over a year ago. Now Judy is one of my closest friends and my greatest mentor in my career. She is anything but disabled. My understanding of blindness has grown because of Judy but even more because of the national Federation of the Blind.

My experience with the Federation began in January of this year. I came home from class one day to find a message from Judy asking if I'd like to attend a conference in Washington, D. C., during which we would talk to Members of Congress about issues of concern to the National Federation of the Blind. I was hesitant but decided not only to attend the conference but to drive the six of us to D.C., since I would be the only one in the group with full sight. My friends and parents were baffled by this decision, dwelling on the burden they felt I was inflicting on myself. However, the opportunity to watch the political process in action shimmered before me, and I ignored the skepticism of my family and peers. Being a political science major, I couldn't pass up the chance to observe interest-group politics. Before the trip I envisioned learning primarily about advocacy; I wasn't thinking how much I could learn about blindness. Judy told me that the experience would change my life, but I didn't understand what she was talking about at the time.

As I loaded luggage handed to me by my Federation companions, I began to get concerned. How was I going to guide all five of them at the same time? How much sight did each of them have, and how was it going to help? What if I did or said something that offended them? How much help was too much? How much were they depending on me? All of these questions pass through the mind of a sighted person when put in a situation dealing with a group of blind people for the first time. Finally I decided I couldn't worry about it, and if I did make a mistake there would be about 500 blind people ate the conference who could let me know.

Saturday there was a student seminar, and throughout the whole morning I was disturbed. These blind students were upset with the injustices of the educational system. It was clear that they felt cheated of their right to be considered equal to sighted students. I sat in the audience and thought to myself, "These students may be intelligent, but you cannot ignore the fact that they are blind and that blindness has to be considered disabling". I couldn't comprehend what it was these students wanted. By the time we sat down to lunch in the hotel restaurant, I was completely annoyed with myself for not being able to empathize with these students and the problems they were clearly having. But during that meal I slowly began to understand.

After being handed a Braille menu, I realized that the waiters had assumed that I must be blind. After all, their reasoning clearly went, why would a sighted person be interested in attending a conference for the blind? Deep in conversation at the time, I didn't acknowledge the waiter when he brought my entree. Presumably in an effort to be helpful, he pushed the plate I was eating from away and pulled the new one across to rest in front of me. This simple act was so terribly patronizing that I suddenly started to realize what these students wanted - to be treated with decency and respect for themselves and their abilities.

For the next five days I was shoved into chairs, grabbed by the arm, stared at, pointed to, and referred to (usually in a hushed voice) as disabled. Those who realized I could see cast sympathetic glances at me as if I'd been trapped into community service or something worse. Even the assistants in Congressional offices, many of whom had dealt with the Federation members before, didn't realize how offensive it was when they looked to me as a leader simply because I could see. In those six short days I began to see blindness as less a tragedy and more a simple albeit bothersome hindrance. I began to realize that Judy had asked me to attend, not because the Pennsylvania group needed sighted supervision, but because she knew that the experience would be invaluable to me.

The philosophy of the Federation was evident once I allowed myself to see it: "Given proper training and opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of real equality with their sighted peers." The Federation's ability to organize is amazing; even the legislative offices in D.C. noticed and commented on it. With this kind of organization and efficiency brought to bear on the problem, obtaining proper training for all blind persons is a potential reality. The Federation does more than provide training, advice, and support for its blind members; it enlightens sighted people simply by the example set by those members. The achievement of the Federation's goal of ensuring that proper skills and attitudes are taught to blind people will help to dispel the misconceptions about blindness that are held bye the general public. The organization has already done this for me.

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