The Banquet Speech Not Given

The Banquet Speech Not Given

By Scott LaBarre

(From the Author:  Those of you who attended the Annual Banquet of the National
Federation of the Blind of Minnesota on November 3, 2007, know that I made a decision not to present my written banquet speech.  I was moved by the evening’s events to relate some more personal stories and reflections about my growth in the Federation under Joyce Scanlan’s leadership.  It truly was an honor and privilege to be the National Representative at this year’s convention and to be witness to an historic moment in our organization.  I salute you Joyce for your three plus decades of excellent leadership, leadership that has laid an excellent foundation for the future.  That foundation will allow Jennifer Dunnam, our new president, to continue building our organization as we draw ever closer to our collective goal of first class citizenship and true equality for the blind  of Minnesota and for the blind of this nation.  It was also a terrific evening  for me because many people special to me attended including my parents, Donna and Charles LaBarre; my younger brother, Craig LaBarre; my aunt and God Mother, Joanne Blakeslee; and a friend and local legal counsel for a number of Federation cases, Sonia Miller-van Oort.  Anyway, here is the actual banquet speech I originally intended to deliver.  My personal philosophy on blindness and growth expressed in the speech reflect the teaching, love, and support offered by my Minnesota Federation family.  For that gift, I can scribe the words thank you, but those words do not adequately express my gratitude.)


According to John Lock, the great British philosopher and scholar, we are born a tabula rasa, a blank slate.  Lock believed that it is the experiences we encounter from birth forward that form the essential part of who we are.  Although Lock had his own spin on it, his ideas were not entirely his own.  This concept originates as far back as Aristotle who talked about the unscribed tablet.  This Aristotelian notion sharply contrasted with the previously held Platonic notions of the human mind as an entity that pre-existed somewhere in the heavens, before being sent down to join a body here on Earth.  A derivation of Plato's perspective is that our genetic make-up predisposes us to a certain pattern of life experience.  According to Plato and others, the tabula isn't so rasa.  We are talking about the classic argument of nature verses nurture.  As with most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere between these competing theories.


With regard to our beliefs about blindness, are we born a blank slate or a preloaded program? Is one's belief system or perspective more important in shaping our response to blindness, or does blindness have certain limitations incapable of alteration?  The prevailing perspective on blindness falls more in line with the thinking of Plato.  Most assume that a life with blindness is one of inferiority, one of loss, one of tragedy, and nothing can be done to change the tragedy of blindness. 


I, like most of you in this room,  sincerely doubt that what we as human beings know about blindness is imprinted on our genetic make-up or predestine in some manner, incapable of change.  What we know about blindness is largely, if not exclusively, formed by our learning and our perspective on life.  One's perspective, or orientation towards life, is formed from a very early age and either reinforced or altered by experience. 


  It is mid October, the year 1978.  The autumn sun sets earlier and earlier in the sky each day, leaving the house on the hill cloaked in darkness by dinnertime.  A young boy wakes up from an afternoon nap.  He strolls into the family living room.  He freezes and fear paralyzes him from head to toe.  A primordial scream from the deepest part of his being echoes through the house.


His mom and dad rush forth trying to console him, trying to calm him down, but efforts fail.  His younger brother sees his distress and starts crying too.  The day is dark and full of dread. 


The boy is ten and thinks his life is over.  He is now blind, never to see again.  All his learning and all his experience during his young life have taught him that to be blind means helplessness, means poverty, and means a sad life.  This boy is so young, but life already seems to have ended. 


Why does this young boy have such thoughts and powerful fears?  It is what he has learned, the perspective he has been taught.  Sesame Street showed him pictures of the blind.  They stand at street corners with their dark glasses and guide dogs selling pencils to those who would take pity.  The narrator tells the young boy that the blind have difficult lives and that those with sight should feel sorry for the blind.  Everything important takes sight.  How would this young boy survive and be successful? Is his perspective on blindness permanent or can it change? 


Those of us gathered here tonight have learned the answer, the proper perspective.  The proper perspective comes from the National Federation of the Blind.  There are many ways to analyze it, but I think the primary reasons why our perspective is superior come from our philosophy and our people.  We have a belief system free of prejudice and free of limits.  We have the people, full of talent and commitment.  We are changing what it means to be blind and first class citizenship awaits.  However, we aren't there yet.


Even though life is getting better for us, we can all think of recent events that instruct us that we are not generally considered first class citizens.  Sometimes those events are rather subtle and sometimes they are blatant.


Recently, I was walking down a sidewalk close to my house.  There was nothing special about the day or anything that I was doing.  I heard someone approaching on a bike.  The guy yells out, as he cruises past, "keep it up buddy, you're doing great!"


That is the sum and substance of my encounter with bike man.  What exactly was I doing great, walking?  Maybe he admired my clothes, my stride, or my good looks.  Maybe he was a seer.  Certainly, he could tell that I am a very good trial lawyer and that my practice is going well.  Or maybe he could tell that I am a wonderful father to my children.  Yes, that guy must have been something else to tell so much about me as he whizzed by on his bike.  Well, I suppose it is possible for people to possess extra sensory powers, but I have had countless encounters with Bike Man in a variety of different settings.  Whether it is a guy riding by on a bike or someone else telling me how amazing I am, certainly it is impossible for all these people to possess extra powers and be able to know so much about me?


The truth is that they don't.  Most of them only know what they see and what they see is my blindness and nothing else.  They complement me for doing normal and basic things, like walking or shopping or some other daily task.  They tell me that I am amazing for doing things that they take for granted.  They do this because they don't believe that they would be able to function without their sight.


We, of course, know differently.  We know that with a positive attitude and proper training, blindness is a very manageable condition.  However, as long as a majority of the sighted believes otherwise, we will face barriers to education, employment, and to the mainstream of life.  Generally, the sighted do not possess ill will towards us but rather pity.  They feel sorry for us.  Regardless of the reason or motivation, second-class citizenship still means inferiority and suffering. 


It is difficult for the public to imagine us as successful.  In my life, I constantly run into the situation where people cannot believe that I am a practicing attorney.  The sophistication of the people expressing their amazement that I am a lawyer ranges from the very uneducated to, well, lawyers themselves.  I will never forget the good old days of when I was classified a young lawyer.  I attended a fall conference of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division being held in Vancouver.  I walked into the room where the opening session was to be held, and immediately another young lawyer grabbed my arm and started pulling me back towards the door while saying, "Sir, you're in the wrong place.  This is a meeting for lawyers."  He about collapsed on the spot when I informed him that I was a lawyer and that I had obviously found the right place.  That occurred eleven years ago, but it still happens to me all the time regardless of where I go and what I am doing.


These experiences result from one thing, low expectations about what we can do as blind people.  Unfortunately, these low expectations often stem from—and are shared by—those who serve the blind.  I will never forget my involvement in the Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP).  Taking place on the campus of St. Thomas College, now University, SWEP was a program designed to evaluate the skill level and vocational aptitude of blind and visually impaired youth during their highschool summers as well as provide real work experience, for pay, in jobs typically held by teens.  Well, during my first summer in SWEP, it was the Program's idea that we would be evaluated vocationally by having us perform strictly manual tasks such as simple assembly of nuts and bolts.  After a few days of this, I complained to the supervisor and to my rehab counselor.  In way of context, I was an “A” student, and my plans included college and a profession thereafter, not work in a sheltered workshop.  At first, my complaints went ignored.  About the third time around, the supervisor yelled at me saying "shut up kid; sit down and do the work; you better get used to it because it is the kind of work you'll do for the rest of your life!"  My rehab counselor told me that I was arrogant and unrealistic to think that I would do anything different from sheltered workshop jobs.


At this time, I did not have the Federation in my life.  I seriously wondered if the supervisor and the rehab counselor were right.  Maybe I was too hopeful, too unrealistic.  Thank God they turned out to be wrong and that my initial beliefs and dreams turned out to be true.


Unfortunately, negative views of blindness persist, sometimes through blindness organizations themselves.  Many of you have undoubtedly heard of the "currency case," that of the American Council of the Blind v. Paulson wherein the ACB has sued the U.S. Treasury demanding that all currency is readily and tactilely distinguishable by the blind.  As you know, the lower Court, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Treasury is violating the law by not making the currency completely accessible.  Regardless of your views on this case, I want you to hear one of the justifications ACB used in its legal brief before the lower Court.  In describing the great trouble the blind have in managing U.S. currency, ACB's Brief says, "These burdens are significant for millions of Americans.  They are borne on a daily basis by the most vulnerable individuals in our society.  The current design of U.S. currency constitutes a major impediment to disabled individuals in independently engaging in daily life activities."  I don't know about you, but don't include me in that most vulnerable catagory!!  If the blind themselves say that they are the most vulnerable segment of society, is there any wonder about why society's negative attitudes persist?



Now, I suppose we are at the point where we should ask whether the glass is half empty or half full.  I think it is at least half-full.  There is cause for hope.  For every bad experience, I have at least one good experience regarding my blindness, and I think that the same can be said for society in general.

This ACB Case is, if you will, a case in point.  The case is currently on appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  Legal experts regard this Court as the second most influential court in the land, second only to the Supreme Court.  On the DC Circuit, there are fifteen judges, one of whom is blind.  David Tatel sits on that Court and does so with distinction.  Many have said that if the next President is of the appropriate political flavor, Judge Tatel may be on the short list for appointment to the United States Supreme Court.  Our founder, Dr. tenBroek, could have only dreamed of having a blind judge sitting on our nation's highest courts, yet we have made that come true.


My own life is replete with positive experiences involving my blindness.  Two that are very dear to me surround the births of my children, Alexander and Emily.  Alexander is our oldest, and when my wife, Anahit, and I were preparing for his birth in the fall of 2002, there was some question about whether the hospital and medical personnel would allow me to participate in the birth activities as all other fathers do, activities like cutting the chord and carrying my little guy from the labor and delivery room to the new born nursery.  I explained my desires and my abilities to our doctor, and no trouble occurred after that point.  Even though Alexander was born by emergency c-section, the doctors and hospital staff allowed me to participate fully.  One of my very proudest moments is carrying little Alexander, just minutes old, from the OR to the nursery, a distance of several hundred feet.  The nurse who walked with me simply gave me directions and did not make a huge deal of my blindness.  I felt like any new father should have felt, full of joy about my son's birth, full of relief that the emergency passed with both my wife and son in good health.  I thank God that my blindness did not play a role in denying me the joy and relief that any father would have expected.


So, how do we change the prevailing perspective on blindness?  How do we convince society that blindness does not make us inferior and that it is simply a different way of experiencing the world?  Our Federation leaders, Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer, have delivered scores of speeches on this topic, and there certainly isn't just one formula.  However, one formula in particular has always stuck with me.  In 1991, Dr. Jernigan delivered a banquet speech to the National Association of Blind Students assembled in Washington DC.  He told us that we change what it means to be blind through individual action collectively focused.  Mostly, we do not change what it means to be blind through dramatic events but rather one simple act, one person at a time.  We may all think that we are powerless alone, but that isn't true.  Every life we touch makes a difference.  Therefore, it is important, dare I say imperative, to consider ourselves ambassadors.  We must conduct ourselves as we want the world to know blindness.  If we all do so, we will reach our goal, our dream of first class citizenship.


Because of the depth and breadth of our collective action, I know that we will reach our goal, our dream, of a day when we are not treated in an inferior manner just because we cannot see.  I hope and expect that we will reach a time when our society adopts a perspective about blindness like my young son's.  About two years ago, Alexander and I were waiting for a light rail train, and he said "daddy can you see the train coming?"  And before I could say anything, he then said, "Oh, you can't see it because your eyes don't work but you can hear it.  You will know when to get on the train, right daddy?"  You're absolutely right, Alexander.  You in your very young years have learned that we might not see but we have different ways of getting the same job done.  You don't think that I am any less of a daddy because I can't see.  When will society learn the same lesson?  I don't know when but I know that it will happen.  It will happen because of us, the National Federation of the Blind.


As you most certainly know by now, I am the little boy discussed at the beginning of this speech.  The feelings expressed were real, powerfully so.  In fact, words cannot adequately describe the terror I felt on October 18, 1978 and for days, weeks, months, and even years afterwards.  My growth from that point to where I am today has been long, and at times, difficult. 



I thank God that I have two wonderful families in my life, the LaBarre's and the National Federation of the Blind.  My mom and dad didn't know exactly how to handle my blindness.  They were as scared and depressed as I was.  One thing they did know, however, is that they wanted their son to live a normal life and to be happy.  Even though they wanted to protect and shelter me, they resisted the urge, let me be a kid, and I am so thankful that they did.  I want to take a moment here to recognize the fact that members of my family and a dear friend are here tonight.  Please join me in thanking them for their love, their encouragement, and their support of my involvement in this organization.



My other family is, of course, our Federation.  You couldn't allow me to speak long enough to describe fully how this organization, this family, has changed my life.  It has allowed me to believe, at a fundamental level, that I am normal and that my life need not be artificially limited. 



The answer to the question of how the blind can achieve first class citizenship and change the prevailing perspective is assembled in this room and throughout our great land.  It is the National Federation of the Blind.  The Federation is many things.  Perhaps most significantly, it is a gift, a gift created by Dr. tenBroek, built and strengthened by Dr.  Jernigan, sustained and further expanded by Dr. Maurer, and lived and expanded to new heights by all of us.  It is a gift we must not squander.  It is a gift that we must cherish, build and grow constantly.  It is a gift only limited by the extent to which we can dream, dream of a better life for the blind.  It is a gift that I know will lead us to a day of true freedom and equality where people will look at us as normal people who just do things differently.  Let us join our hearts, our minds, our hands, and our individual actions together and do the work we must to make our dreams come true!



I stand here tonight humbled and blessed.  It is impossible to express all the good we have done and that we will undoubtedly do.  It is impossible in a speech like this to express how much this organization means to me, how much it means to the lives of our blind community.  However, I welcome this difficulty because it means that we are truly changing the perspective on what it means to be blind in profound ways.  We are heeding Dr. Jernigan's advice and changing our destiny, one action and one person at a time.  I stand here tonight resolute in the knowledge that our standing in this society grows more and more each day.  First class citizenship for the blind is no longer just a fanciful dream.  It will be our reality.  We are not damned to a Platonic view of blindness where our destiny is predetermined.  Rather, we have the power to write our own tabula, the power to write our own script, a script of positive beliefs and true equality.  Because of our philosophy, our love for one another, and because of our commitment to changing the prevailing perspective on blindness, no barrier can stand in our way.  Our dreams must become our reality.  Now, let's join together, march forward to the future, and make it happen!!