Lisa M

Now that I have performed 6 hours of community service at Tri-County Association for the Blind, my understanding of people with seeing disabilities has improved tremendously. The majority of the people with disabilities there were completely blind, and some were only partially blind. The workers were not dependent on Caroline and I at all, in contrast to how I was expecting them to be. Being blind did not seem to prevent them from doing many physical activities that I thought it would. I also became aware of the fact that the workers there view there own disabilities differently than I thought they would. Instead of acting like nothing was wrong with them, they would not be afraid to talk about their seeing impairments. There were numerous occasions when the people with disabilities would not be hesitant to remind me of the fact that they were blind (not that I forgot). I think that one of the most interesting and important lessons I took away from this experience is that, for the most part, people with seeing impairments do not lead lives any different than mine. The majority of the people I came in contact with raised families, and enjoyed many of the same leisurely activities as myself.

The more I volunteered at Tri-County, the more I realized they did for people with seeing disabilities. I feel that they have the most direct effect on their employees. Tri-County gives people with seeing disabilities jobs, which might be extremely hard for them to find else where. Danette and her staff work hard to set arrangements up with the government and many institutions that could potentially supply her with tasks the workers could do. On the same note, many of the jobs performed by the employees at Tri-County help the blind in general. For example, there is a radio station in the office that reads daily newspapers on the air for people who cannot see to read. In other departments, employees spend all day brailing books, magazines, dictionaries, etc. People with seeing impairments are also able to come into Tri-County and rent books on tape. Tri-County produces hundreds of different scented candles to sell, and all of the proceeds go towards associations for the blind. One last important service of Tri-County is the fact that they do their best to educate youth and parents of youth to take the correct steps to maintain healthy eyesight.

I do not feel as though I had a huge impact on the people who worked in the agency, however, when Caroline and I worked back in production I definitely think we had some effect on the blind. The jobs that they perform day in and day out are very monotonous and these tasks must get boring very quickly. The fact that they had Caroline and I were working along with them was good because it switched up the daily routine a bit, as well as gave them some help so they did not feel overwhelmed with their workload. I think that we also made time go by fast for them because we were new people for them to talk with. I felt like I had a much larger personal impact on the blind when we were working side by side with them in production, as opposed to when we were doing “busy work” in the office.

I think that the agency helps to alleviate one of the biggest problems that people with seeing disabilities face in a “normative” society: the challenge that they are faced with to find work. There are very few employers that would find it beneficial to hire a person with seeing impairments because they immediately focus on their disabilities. Furthermore, the jobs that the blind are hired for are boring and often require little skill at all. There are obviously many things that a “normal” person can do that a blind person cannot do, but the people with seeing disabilities do not let this get in the way of them living their life “normally.” For instance, they are always dependant on someone else to transport them to and from work, and other destinations. Also, they have to depend on dogs or walking poles to get themselves around, and lastly they must learn to identify things based on smells and sounds.

I am able to connect my learning experience with many of the discussions we have had in class. One of the biggest connections I made was the fact that because of the physical characteristics of the blind, many assumptions are made about them. Rose Marie Garland Thomas talks about this in Extraordinary Bodies. People assume that the blind live completely different life styles than those who do not have disabilities, and they also assume that they cannot perform on the job as well as others. I can also relate those with seeing disabilities to Lionel in Motherless Brooklyn. As he identified himself with Tourette’s, the blind identify themselves with their seeing disabilities. Leonard Davis’ claims that the real problem with society is that normalcy is socially constructed. There would not be a need for Tri-County Association for the Blind if this was not the case.

When Caroline and I first arrived at the Tri-County Association for the Blind Danette was out of the office. We waited for about 10 minutes until another employee, Angie, gave us jobs to do. There was a large stack of children’s coloring packets that the institution distributes to school about eye safety awareness. However, the front page of each pamphlet was outdated because it was left over from last year. So, for more than an hour, I sat in the production area in the back of the office and removed the staples of each packet, and stapled on the updated cover page. After I completed this task, I cleaned out filing cabinets from a closet in the office. This consisted of me emptying each drawer and placing everything in a garbage bag with the exception of file folders that were in decent condition that would be able to be re-used, so I picked out these folders, emptied their contents, and set them aside. By the time I was done filling up the trash bags, there was only about 15 minutes left. For the remainder of the time I sat in the production area with Caroline and folded newsletters into thirds.

My third volunteering visit was not one of my most meaningful experiences. Although I sat in the production area with the blind for the majority of the time, it was difficult to interact because we are so spread out, and it can be noisy at times. Also, from 2:00 to 2:15 the employees get a break, so they all leave the production area. During these 15 minutes, Caroline and I were alone in the back and on opposite sides of the room because we were doing different jobs, which makes it impossible for me to even communicate with her. So we sat in silence alone in a large empty room making the monotonous work even more boring. I felt even more isolated when it came to my second task of the day. I am not a claustrophobic person, but this room made me feel like I was. The room was approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, and filled with filing cabinets, trash, and dust. Angie could not find a prop for the door, and once she left and shut the door behind her I felt like I was in a closet. I was upset by this job that I was given. Luckily I was not in the room for a long period of time, but just the idea that they sent me in there to remove files out of on file cabinet and place them in trash bags irritates me. As I finished and struggled to carry a huge trash bag through the office to the trash can I felt more like a janitor than a volunteer. Going back to the production room was a luxury compared to the closet. I was even happier to be able to sit near Caroline so I could talk to someone. Although my interaction with the blind was very limited, I was able to observe a lot. I dread sitting back there for two hours once a week, and I cannot help but wonder how the blind sit back there day in and day out. I watch them work with blankets wrapped around their legs and winter jackets on because they are so cold. I could never imagine working fulltime in those conditions. I have grown more comfortable in the past three weeks going to Tri-County, however, there is one thing I am still unsure about. Many times I will see a person with seeing disabilities drop something or look for something while working. Then I watch them feel around until they find it, trying to identify what each object is they are touching. For example, Angie told me to get a stapler from a blind woman across the room so I could complete my task. I watched her open the cabinet and feel around for it. I saw it sitting on the self, but I did not know if I would insult her by telling her I could get it myself. So I let her feel around for it until she found it. Now that I reflect back on that situation, I still do not know if I did the right thing.

I think by observing the blind people at work I have come to better understand what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson refers to as “feminizing disability” (19). The jobs that people with seeing disabilities are assigned are things that a pre-schooler could do. I understand that there are some jobs people with seeing disabilities just cannot do, but I find it hard to believe they cannot do more interesting things than sit at a table all day and stuff pens with ink or put labels on packages. Also, the supervisors of the production area basically breathe down the workers necks all day, almost like they are babysitting. Things such as this feminize people with disabilities because it creates a division between the capabilities of the “normate” and the people with disabilities.

Friday Caroline and I had our second volunteering session at the Harrisburg Association for the Blind. The first thing we did was to put address labels on news letters that needed to be sent out for a lady named Diane. She said that we could sit in the production area while we worked because she knew that being able to interact with the blind was a major concern of ours. This task only took us about a half hour, and for the rest of the time we helped the seeing-impaired package cookies. There were over a hundred boxes filled with packages of cookies that needed to be put into bags and re-boxed up for airlines, in order to facilitate the stewardess’s job of serving the customers. Once the cookies were bagged, I put the bags back in to the boxes, taped them shut, and stacked the boxes on the cart.

I was glad that we were going to be able to work back in production because last week we did not get to interact with the blind, with the exception of Jim, who we only talked to for about 10 minutes. As we labeled envelopes, we did not talk to the blind much, but I did get to watch and see how they interacted with each other, I just did not know how to start conversation, because we were kind of on the other side of the room. When we first began packaging the cookies (working side-by-side with the blind), we did not talk much, but Caroline and I definitely warmed up to them, and we held a conversation with the two blind people we were working with, a women and a man. After hearing about their lives, and having them ask me questions about mine, I realized their seeing disabilities do not prevent them from doing anything that I do. They both had families and children, and enjoyed the same leisurely activities on the weekends as me (for the most part). While talking with them, I was surprised to see how often they referred to their disabilities, sometimes attempting to make a joke out of being blind, sometimes not. One example that sticks out in my mind is when a janitor came up to Andrew, the blind man we were packaging boxes with, and warned him that the floors were wet. The janitor was practically screaming in his ear, and Andrew turned around and says, “I’m blind; I am not deaf.”

At one point, Andrew, asked us what our majors were. When Caroline told him that she planned to major in Psychology, and possibly become a psychologist, he responded by saying “oh we would be great patients for you.” I found this to be a very interesting statement, and now that I think about it I find that it relates to the reading by Lennard Davis, “Constructing Normalcy.” Generally, people visit psychologists for a psychological problem, so for Andrew to claim that he would be a good patient reflects the fact that people with disabilities are not “normal.” The idea of what is “normal” has been constructed to create “problems” with those who have disabilities. Andrew cannot see, there is nothing mentally wrong with him, and I think that if he truly believes he needs to see a psychologist, then that is sad.

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