By Frank Lopez
Persons like us who are blind or visually impaired have been taught all the basic educational requirements of reading, writing, math, science, literature and history as well as a myriad of specialty skills such as orientation and mobility, braille and adaptive technologies. The one thing we have not been taught is how to advocate for ourselves. Apparently, we were not able to squeeze it into our jam-packed curriculum!
More than ever, it has become painfully apparent that we need to be able to make our needs and rights known to society at large. I sometimes think of us as tightrope walkers as we pursue our goals and careers on a very narrow rope that society has extended to us. Too often, the attitudes of society have determined what blind people are or are not capable of. These attitudes have become tenuous and restrictive, and they have not allowed many capable people who are blind to reach their full potential.
I don’t mind so much being a tightropewalker. I just want to have a say as to where that rope is going. As with all tightrope walkers, we are all going to fall sometime. It just helps to have a safety net so you can get back up and learn from your experience.
I believe that one of the main reasons we don’t learn to be good self-advocates is that we so desperately want to fit in, without drawing undue attention to ourselves and our disability. Many times when we do try to advocate our needs, it is perceived as being adversarial or totally unnecessary.
A good example of this was a recent experience I had during a job interview. The HR director told me, “The problem I have is that we have never hired a visually impaired teacher.” She followed that statement quickly with, “We cannot accommodate you.” My question is: How can they know they can’t accommodate me if they have never hired a blind teacher?
I offered several suggestions to this person and reminded her that I had 20 years teaching experience in public high schools. By putting forth a positive spin on my experience and accomplishments, I in no uncertain terms let her know that there are ways to accommodate a teacher who is blind. How many times have we said, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently!” I have had a lifetime of experiences that I feel have served me well. One of the best ways I can use that experience is to pass it on to those just starting out with their educational and employment goals.
It is hard to quantify the things that make a person who is blind a good self-advocate. A few of these characteristics include: good communication skills, knowledge of disability rights law, and a good support system–all of which helps keep you on the tightrope. A good support system can be anything from a mentor who can teach you the ropes to organizations that are specifically there to advocate for your needs. One of the best advocates I ever had was my resource teacher in high school. She taught me to believe in myself and not to be afraid to fall off the tightrope now and then. Sometimes our greatest learning experiences are from our failures because we don’t forget easily.
No matter how we advocate for ourselves, it is a very personal experience. Our circumstances, age and goals are all variables that are unique to us. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but we owe it to those who will walk the tightrope after us, to not have to relive the battles we have fought.
Frank Lopez lives in Sun Praire, Wisconsin.