Education: Are We Making A Difference?

Education: Are We Making A Difference?

By Emily Zitek

I work as a sole proprietor at the Department of Health and Agriculture in St.  Paul.  My job as a vendor exposes me to many different customers a day.  Two of the most important factors of working as a blind small-business owner besides customer satisfaction are self-advocacy and educating people about blindness.  This has proven to be really challenging for me at times, especially when it seems like I'm not getting anywhere with someone, typically when I think I've done enough to show this person, and they go back to their original ways of thinking.

Sometimes I ask myself, Why should I continue doing this?  Am I really making a difference?  This was a question that kept assaulting me, particularly after I heard about a seminar, after it happened, that was given during lunchtime one day in my building.  Two blind sisters, one of whom had written a book about how she had once been able to see and what a tragedy it has been since losing her sight, gave the seminar.  A couple days after the seminar, one of my regular customers came into my store to talk about what she had learned.  During our conversation, she stated that someone in the audience had asked one of the sisters, "Do you feel like you're missing out on things because you can't see?”  Before the blind lady could answer the question, she teared up and began explaining how tragic her life has become since she became blind as a child.  Then my customer had mentioned that one of the blind ladies giving the seminar said that when you come into a room, you should touch the blind person's shoulder, to let them know you are there.  I won't go on about other things I heard, but I was appalled about the things I was hearing and explained to my customer that my philosophy was a lot different.  I had been running my business in my building for almost three years totally independently, hauling cases of pop through the building day in, day out, showing customers that although I have almost no vision, I could still lead a normal, successful life.  I felt like after I had done all that work, answering loads of questions about my philosophy regarding blindness, that seminar that those blind sisters had given had reversed all my hard work.  It was hard to want to continue doing things as I had been so enthusiastic about, because God only knew how much of my customer base had attended that seminar and believed that being blind was so awful.

My frustration about this whole education thing increased about a week later.  My husband and I frequently go out and do things with another couple on weekends.  The gentleman had had adjustment-to-blindness training at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc. several years ago, and his wife is from another country and teaches children Spanish.  At least twice in the past year and a half of doing things together, all of us have gone to a movie.  Both times, I had gotten as much out of those movies as everyone else had, and going to a movie seemed like just another normal activity every group of friends would do.  So one afternoon recently, the four of us were eating lunch at a Chinese restaurant when we began talking about the Buddy program for blind children, and the topic of blind children watching movies came up.  The husband of the Spanish teacher said, "My wife doesn't understand how blind children can go to a movie and get anything out of it.”  I was so frustrated that I pretended to sneeze so that I could hide my face.  First, everyone in our group is legally blind except for the teacher.  The husband was talking about blindness as though it was something totally new to him, and undesirable, for that matter.  After all the time we had spent together as couples, all the questions I'd answered, and after all the movies we'd gone to see, I wondered how this lady, who was a teacher of children, could ask such a question.  In addition, I grew very concerned about what might happen if a blind child was put in her class.  Would she exempt that child from an assignment after watching a film, assuming that the blind child couldn't possibly do the assignment because he couldn't "watch" the film?  Would that child get less out of her class because of her lack of understanding about blindness?  And what disappointed me the most was that her husband had spent six to nine months at BLIND, Inc. and was taught everything there was to know about the true meaning of blindness, and he still acted as though he was clueless about it himself.  He should have been the one educating his wife, but instead, he chose to feed into the "poor blind people" attitude that we as NFB members try so hard to change in our society.

Two weeks after this incident, I was on the other side of this scenario when State Services for the Blind sent a new staff member to job-shadow me for the day.  Steve Larson, then the new Director of Administrative Services at SSB, was born with no arms and uses two prosthetics with hooks on the ends.  He does most things with his feet, and right away, I found myself feeling "amazed" that he could do such things with his feet as pulling money out of his wallet, holding a cup of hot coffee, and eating his lunch.  But how many times have I gotten frustrated when someone comes up to me and makes a big deal about how "amazing" it is that I can get around so well or run my own business?  I just hadn't been sure what Mr.  Larson really could and couldn't do, which is the same reason others feel this "amazement.”  It's because they just don't know, and this is when and why education is so important.  Throughout the day with Mr. Larson, I caught myself having to bite my tongue when I wanted to ask if he needed help with something.  Once, I had almost jumped right in and done something for him, without even asking or thinking about what I was doing.  So I had to put myself in other people's shoes, ones who might not understand about my blindness.  People's lack of understanding, like my own in the beginning, must certainly bring about some frustrations for Mr. Larson, especially when he finds himself needing to repeatedly educate people about what he really can do without arms.  Like most blind people, Mr.  Larson uses alternative techniques to get most things done but needs help with certain things that we take for granted every day.  I felt like the day with Mr. Larson was very successful, and it was an opportunity to educate each other.  We were both very open to learning from each other, and it was a positive experience that made me feel like I really am making a difference.

So is educating people worth it?  When people are receptive to learning about our blindness or other disabilities, and you can see that what you're saying and doing is making a difference, it definitely is.  But there is a point where certain people just don't get it, and they probably never will.  Don't put this responsibility on another blind person, because we must work as a team to get the true meaning of blindness out there.  All we can do as Federationists is keep working at it, because overall, we are making a difference.