The past six weeks have seen our country once again take up the discussion of racial prejudice. It began with the LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, making extreme, racially prejudiced comments which have been broadcasted all over the world by every media outlet imaginable. Few people doubt the inappropriateness of Mr. Sterling’s remarks, private or otherwise.
Two weeks ago Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, made comments during a public forum discussing Mr. Sterling’s remarks and observed that in reality no matter what we think or say, we all have prejudices in our minds and hearts. In essence, Mr. Cuban observed that we all live our lives in some way according to the prejudices we carry around with us. He used some racial examples to illustrate his points.
While some people welcomed Mr. Cuban’s comments and expressed support for his observations, others condemned Mark Cuban, accusing him of being a racist just like Donald Sterling. In fact, all Mark Cuban said was that we all have prejudices by which we live no matter what we say out loud.
Unfortunately, while racial prejudice has been a topic of discussion for many years, and I think some of us have truly learned to be more accepting of racial inclusion, there are other forms of bigotry and prejudice which are as strong today as they ever have been. We give lip service to removing them and say that in fact we are not prejudice, but in reality we as a society are not doing much to change or even acknowledge that we have bigoted and inappropriate views.
One example of a class of people who face as much prejudice and as many barriers as ever is the group of persons in this country who happen to have some form of disability. Blind people especially are restricted from becoming first-class citizens through pervasive bigotry, prejudice and a total lack of understanding by those who happen to have eyesight. Let me illustrate my point.
I am blind and have been so since I was born in 1950. In my life I have graduated college with honors and obtained a Master’s degree in physics; I have worked successfully in sales and sales management, including in corporate executive positions. Perhaps even more remarkably, I also successfully escaped from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, have written a New York Times best-selling book, traveled the world as a public speaker and lecturer and my wife and I even own our own home. I realize that most people may not know me and my qualifications for being a contributing member of the human race. However, a week ago Sunday, while shopping at a nearby store, a young man came up to me and said “I’m sorry.” “Why are you sorry?” I asked. He replied that he was sorry because I was blind and could not see anything. I could’ve probably reacted in a less provocative way, but my response to his apology was “well, I’m sorry that you can see and will never know what it is like to be blind.” His reaction was surprise and before he could think of a response his mother called him away.
I interact with thousands of blind people daily through emails, Facebook, Twitter, and list serves. I can tell you with certainty the most all of them, like me, have experienced the same kind of treatment at the hands of people who can see. Even so, consider this additional example. In this country, it is still legal to pay a blind person less than the minimum wage because of an old law, (based on prejudice and lack of understanding), which allows organizations to apply for federal exemptions which would permit these organizations to pay blind persons and other persons with disabilities wages of any amount below the minimums set by our federal government and our states. The freedom of information act has allowed us to discover that there are blind and other disabled persons in this country who are being paid as low as three cents an hour by some organizations such as Goodwill.
The unemployment rate among employable blind persons in this country, according to the Social Security Administration, is over 70%. In fact, the unemployment rate is high not because blind persons cannot work, but because people with eyesight think that we cannot work. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act in force now for more than 24 years, this unemployment rate has not dropped.
Why is discussion about prejudice toward persons with disabilities not a part of the mainstream discussion, especially since there are nearly 60,000,000 persons in the United States who have some form of disability? Among those 60 million people, the incidence of blindness is low, and to a significant degree the same prejudice exists concerning blindness because most persons with disabilities still have eyesight.
I do not know if Mark Cuban employees any blind persons nor do I know how he would react if a person who happens to be blind applied for a job within his organization. I would hope that Mr. Cuban would judge any blind person or anyone with a disability on the merits of their qualifications and not the characteristics of their disability. Blindness does not define me as a human being. I am defined by what I do, by what I say, and by how I live my life. As a public speaker I know that while people will remember that I happen to be blind, they mostly will remember me by how I make them feel and what thoughts I leave them with at the end of my talks. It is time for all of us to open our minds and recognize that each of us has gifts and talents and that our physical differences may not necessarily make us different at all.