Tue 12 Apr 2005
My interaction with people who have disabilities at the Tri-County Association for the Blind was minimal, at best. However I feel as though the little time that I did spend with the workers at Tri-County helped me a lot in understanding them better than I did when I walked in on the first day. Prior to spending time with the workers at Tri-Country, I had never really been exposed to anyone who was completely blind before. I have known people who were considered to be legally blind, but that was simply due to their old age and deteriorating eyesight (among other senses). It always amazed me how easy they made everything seem, from the sweeping motion of a cane in order to walk around, to remembering who we were simply by our voices when we came back a week later. What made our interactions even more interesting and, consequently beneficial, was the fact that the workers were not all blind, but there were some with minor mental disabilities as well. Yet all of these types of people, though surely told by most businesses that they were unfit to work, were carrying on their days at the Tri-County Association as “normal” workers.
Throughout our work at the Tri-County Association, I was able to see how beneficial the Association as a whole is to people who are blind. Not only are there people with visual impairments working at the front desk to greet people, but also they are present throughout the entire building. It is a place where people who are blind can go for supplies such as sunglasses, magnifying glasses, etc., but also for encouragement and a sense of understanding. One woman whom I worked with, named Virginia, explained to me how she found her job at the Association by going to a support group there for people who were becoming blind or who already were blind. She was able to gain support from the Association and also found a job. However, though the Association does a lot of good for the blind and disabled community, there is also a sense of superiority on the part of the management, all of whom are not blind. While those who are not blind get the managerial jobs, it is those for whom the Association was created who are left with the somewhat degrading jobs. For the most part, they were treated in an infantile manner and regarded as being less important than those in positions above them. Essentially, I was somewhat surprised by the lack of respect with which the workers were treated. Additionally, I was even more surprised by the fact that the management was so incredibly reluctant to allow us any interaction with the workers.
Every time we were actually able to interact with the workers, I can honestly say that I believe that there was a reciprocal relationship between us. Not only were the workers helping us understand their condition and life better, but also we were able to act as an outlet for them to talk about their blindness. It is amazing how open they were all willing to be, and how much they were able to share in such a short amount of time. Because they understood that we were not there to judge them, the workers were able to talk about a lot of the things that bothered them about their current condition. Aside from the fact that many were never able to live their lives like “normal” people do (or at least how they believe that normal people do), I found that the biggest source of discomfort for them was that they were not treated as equals. One woman told me that she liked us because she didn’t feel as though we were “thinking mean things” about her and the other workers. We were able to become close to them and listen to them, even if only for a couple hours, while we helped them with their work for the day.
It was in these conversations that I not only found that many of them felt as though they were judged by “normal” people who simply didn’t understand them, but also I saw that because of this judgement that the “norms” pass on the workers, they were not able to get the types of jobs that they wanted. One woman explained to me that she had been working all of her life with minor eye problems that were a result of her premature birth. She had never had any problems completing any of her tasks on a day to day basis. However when her eyesight began to worsen, suddenly she found herself without a job and without any new prospects in sight. Many of the workers around her agreed as she was telling her story, that there is a distinct bias against impairments of any type, regardless of how small they might be, or how little they effect one’s ability to work. The Association gave them a job, whereas other places would not even consider the possibility of employing them. One relatively young man had never had a “real” job in his life because he was born blind and was never even given the chance to work somewhere else. It was surprising that discrimination could exist toward a population comprised of people who are completely capable.
We see evidence of discrimination towards people with disabilities every day; people are called “freaks” simply because they look differently or act differently than the “norms” do. However, many of the workers at the Association and those who utilize its services are not even visibly different from the average person walking down the street. The presence of a walking cane or a guide dog would distinguish some of them from a crowd, but many of the members of the Association still have partial eyesight and are able to walk around like everyone else and conduct their lives in relatively the same way without being obviously different. Yet the bias toward them still exists once some people find out about their blindness, regardless of how inconspicuous it is. Perhaps it is these prejudices which society needs to overcome first, before moving on to overcome biases against people with more obvious differences from what is considered to be the norm or ideal.