Amanda E

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.

Our third visit to the Tri-County Association for the blind consisited of Jackie, Alicia, and I sitting in a small room with machines. Jackie was in charge of feeding pieces of paper into a machine, which then spat them out for Alicia to place in a tray. Meanwhile, I sat next to them folding fliers into thirds to be placed in another tray. We did that for over an hour and then stuffed the fliers into envelopes for the rest of the time. The fliers were not even related to the Tri-County Association, but rather, they were for an organization in PA for gardening and landscaping. We were by ourselves for the entire time and had no interaction with any of the other workers whatsoever.
I was hoping that after the minimal interaction with the other workers the past weeks we had vollunteered at the Association, that maybe this week would be different and we would be able to work more closely with the other people and for longer periods of time. However in actuality, we had absolutely no interaction with anyone at all. It was very disappointing for all three of us, because the purpose of us being there is to be able to have that interaction, which was completely lacking this time. Although I don’t mind helping out the Association, the work we were doing was not even related to blindness or any other disorder and I felt as though our services were being taken advantage of. At one point, Danette wanted us to go into an even smaller and more secluded office and make phonecalls. It was very disappointing to not be able to talk to any of the people we had met the past few weeks or meet anyone new.
I’m not sure that I can really relate this to anything we have read, since I dont have any experiences at the Tri-County Association this week to draw from. I almost wonder if maybe the people from the Association who give us work to do have been misinterpreting our intentions and thought we merely wanted to help out with the Association as a whole and that we didn’t want to have the interaction with the other workers. If this is a possibility, maybe they think we feel uncomfortable around the workers because of their disabilities, in which case they would feel as though they were helping us to “avoid anomalous things” (35) through segregation, as suggested by Mary Douglas in her concept of dirt from “Extraordinary Bodies”. That it the only excuse I could possibly think of for them not allowing us to have any interaction at all during this past visit.

We arrived at the Tri-County Association for the Blind and were immediately sent to the back room to stuff envelopes. All of the workers were at lunch, so we were placed at a long table at the back of the room, isolated from the other tables where the workers sat, and began our assembly line process of stamping and stuffing large manila envelopes with a large-print newsletter for the visually impaired. The three of us worked on that for the majority of the time. As the workers started trickling in from their lunch break, a few of them approached us, remembering us from the prior week. They all seemed very eager to once again have new people working with them. When we were done stuffing the envelopes, Bob (who is apparently in charge of the workers at the Tri-County Asc.), immediately gave us a choice as to what we would be doing for the remainder of the time. I chose to work with a woman I had not been able to speak to the previous time. We spent the remaining 1/2 an hour peeling stickers off of casette tapes from the Library of Congress. While we worked on that, she told me a lot about her declining vision, and her past and present working situations. She also introduced me to one of her friends who was working a few tables down from us, whose diabeties caused her to go blind. When we left, everyone expressed how eager they were to have us come back again next week.
Although we were able to interact with the people there, I really didn’t feel as though we had enough time with them. The point of being there, first and foremost, is for us to be able to talk with all of the workers who are visually impaired (some of whom also have mental impairments), and I don’t know that we are fully being granted that opportunity. What struck me most this time was a conversation that I was not a part of: Danette, who heads up the Tri County Association, was offering tickets to a lecture about the mental development and processes of children. When one of the workers expressed interest in going to the lecture, she immediately brushed him off and added: “You don’t even have kids; why would you want to go?” in a patronizing manner. Alicia, Jackie and I could only exchange confused glances with eachother as this exchange transpired: I think we were all equally shocked at the amount of disregard with which Danette treated him. The fact that he didn’t have children should have excluded him from the experience of attending. Clearly she found it impossible to believe that he could actually be interested in learning about something with which he didn’t have any connection. It was very offputting to be a witness to this somewhat degrading exchange.
I was able to work with one of the women whom I had not spoken with the previous week. She had not been blind of all of her life, but explained that she her eyes had been deteriorating since she was a child, due to the fact that she was born prematurely with complications. She continued, telling me that although working had never been a problem for her, due to her eyesight, she was “encouraged to retire” about 4 years ago by her employer at the time. She said that since then, she has realized how hard it is for people to get work if they have any type of disability. Although she only has poor eyesignt (and is considered legally blind), in the working world she is placed on the same level as someone with mental retardation, in terms of desireablity to be hired. It was saddening to hear about how much trouble she has had trying to get work the past few years.

Seeing Danette interact with the workers at the Tri County Association epitomized much of the stereotypical treatment of people with disabilities. She treated them like they were beneath her, as is described in “Extraordinary Bodies”, by Marie Garland Thompson. Bob almost seems to be a Frank Minna persona to the workers: he treats them with respect, and they all seem to adore him, but he never overtly shows his affection in return. His bond with all of them is shown through his playful teasing, but it’s evident that the friendship/relationship is reciprocal. Because of the minimal interaction we had with everyone though, it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from our experience thus far.

Next Page »