I have always regarded myself as a pretty normal kind of guy. I am 64 years old and have been married for half my life. I have a Masters degree in Physics from the University of California at Irvine which I received in the usual timeframe. Following in the footsteps of most normal people after college I obtained a full-time job which for me happen to be in sales. I sold high tech computer related products for over 25 years. Sounds pretty normal so far?
There are two things about my life which most people would not regard as “normal.” The first is that on September 11, 2001 I was working in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center on the 78th floor. I escaped and then found myself traveling the world speaking about my experiences and inspiring others to learn how to cope with change and other issues that threatened the normalcy of their lives. My job change, while coming after a very abnormal and world-defining event, is not really all that unusual. It turns out that many people discover the opportunity to enter into the field of public speaking after a life-changing event.
The second non-normal part of my life, the thread that has run through my life since I was born, is that I happen to be totally blind. While the activities of my life, notwithstanding the actual events of 9/11, are pretty normal, blindness certainly is not, at least in the eyes of most people. The average American would say that blindness is extremely tragic and that blind people cannot possibly really be normal or as competent and productive as most sighted people. People are conditioned to believe that you can’t truly live life to the fullest if you can’t see, and that without eyesight, a person cannot live a life we view as “normal.”
Really? The concept of living, being productive, and needing a “normal life” only with eyesight never occurred to me while growing up and it is never deterred me and many thousands of other blind people who believe that we are just as “normal” as everyone else.
I was very fortunate as a child who happened to be blind that my parents did not believe that a lack of eyesight was any kind of real deterrent to living a “normal life.” When it was discovered that I was blind my doctors told my parents to send me away because a blind person could never amount to anything in the world. My parents rejected the doctors’ advice and raised me with the confidence that I could choose my own life path just like anyone else. The first time I realized that others did not view me as normal occurred in high school. Although there were instances earlier in my life where I heard conversations about me which call into question my “normal upbringing”, the confidence and convictions of my parents sheltered me from any real impact from the ideas of others. In high school I was denied access to riding the school bus simply because I happen to use a guide dog. Our local school superintendent decided that local rules outranked state law. Although it took involving the Governor of the State of California to resolve the issue and get me back on the school bus, eventually we were victorious.
I learned two things from that time in my life. The first was that it is possible to fight so-called City Hall and win. The second was that people were indeed going to treat me different and less than quote ‘”normal people”. The knowledge and strength I gained from my parents helped me minimize the effects of the first issue I mentioned. My own confidence and the knowledge and wisdom I have gained from interacting with thousands of successful blind people over the years through my affiliation with the National Federation of the Blind has taught me my presumed “lack of normalcy” was a misconception on the part of others and not true at all.
In my opinion I am as “normal” as anyone else. The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes a definition of “normal” which states “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle.” Well, I can see how some may not consider me normal since the incidence of blindness in this country is very low; less than .05% of all people experience blindness. When it comes to eyesight, I do not meet the standard of being part of the norm. On the other hand, when we consider what makes a quote “normal,” productive, useful, and relevant member of society, my experiences and life’s accomplishments definitely put me in the normal range by any definition.
Why is it then that no matter what my accomplishments, no matter what my life experiences, society considers me unusual and not a full, contributing? In today’s world we consider all genders normal. We say that we do not consider people of different races to be abnormal. We are even coming to the point where we say that no one’s sexual orientation makes them less than normal, although it is true we have some progress to make in this area.
If we think about it, the conclusion that we should draw about the concept of “normal” is really that one person’s normal is simply not another person’s normal. We accept that men and women are different from each other but we don’t regard that as unusual. We have passed laws saying that all races should be treated as equals. We have made many rules and we have created changes in our way of living to accommodate a variety of differences which may not fit into our old definition of normal, but which today have all become part of our new definition of the word. Some call this recognition of differences “diversity.” Unfortunately, diversity still does not include blindness or disabilities in general. While we as a society may be diverse we have not yet chosen to be “inclusive.”
There are nearly 60,000,000 Americans who have one sort of disability or another, but who collectively are considered to be not normal. Even our government and judicial system with all of its laws and precepts does not truly extend equality to persons with disabilities. To demonstrate this, consider the “Fair” Labor Standards Act of 1938 which makes up the foundation of many of the practices used to determine workers’ rights today. Section 14C of this act permits organizations and companies doing business in the United States to apply for exemptions from paying persons with disabilities the same minimum wage required to be paid to all other workers. In 1938 this exemption was supposed to be a vehicle through which persons with disabilities could receive job training in order to become productive enough to work in the mainstream of society. Unfortunately, some organizations such as Goodwill have warped this exemption in such a way to allow them to pay workers as little as $.21 an hour while paying senior management staff at various Goodwill agencies over $1 million a year in salaries and bonuses. Goodwill and other agencies claim that what they do is to provide a meaningful work experience for persons with disabilities and that earning a wage is only a small part of what they provide to the persons they “serve.” I wonder when was the last time that earning the best salary possible wasn’t a consideration when you applied for a job.
The fight to eliminate the subminimum wage exemption was begun several years ago by the National Federation of the Blind and has been joined by nearly 70 other organizations involving persons with disabilities. Even the President’s Console on Disabilities supports eliminating the outmoded and outdated minimum wage exemption of section 14 C. In 2013 Congressman Greg Harper introduced H.R. 831 to remove this exemption. What is conspicuously absent is outrage by society that a major segment of the population can be treated in such a shabby manner by the government and by some of the larger organizations and companies that are supposed to be advancing the cause of equality for all persons with disabilities.
When we contrast the outrage and anger society has poured out to Donald Sterling over his inappropriate and disgusting racial statements, even though they were only made to his girlfriend, with the way persons with disabilities in general, and blind people in specific are treated we can only shake our heads and wonder.
The reality is eyesight isn’t everything. Blind people are performing as meaningful and productive tasks in the workplace as anyone else in our society. There are blind teachers, blind accountants, blind musicians, blind entrepreneurs, blind psychiatrists and even blind brain surgeons all working successfully and, in fact, all leading as normal a life as anyone else. The real tragedy of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. Instead it is the continued misunderstanding and lack of empathy that people have about a characteristic which make a select few people different than themselves.
In my book, “Thunder Dog: the story of a blind man, a guide dog, and the triumph of trust,” (published by Thomas Nelson publishers in 2011), I discussed my life as a person who happens to be blind and tell my story of escape and survival during and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I can sum up my idea of how we all can become more inclusive of those of us who are different than they. In a section of “Thunder Dog” entitled “Guide Dog Wisdom” I say in part …” Don’t let your sight get in the way of your vision.” We can each break through the stereotypes we have about those who are different than we if we drop some of our assumptions and look for the potential in others.
It is understandable that people were outraged about Donald Sterling’s comments. We should be just as outraged that in this country any person with a disability can suddenly find themselves on the short end of the wage scale simply because we do not recognize that all of us truly are and were created equal and that we should live up to that basic principle. We all should contact our congressional representatives and urge them to support fair wages for blind and other persons with disabilities by co-sponsoring H.R. 831. Also, as a society, we should begin to look for the “normal” in persons with disabilities, not the differences.