When the interactive and fully accessible national traveling exhibit from the museum of the American Printing House for the Blind, "Child in a Strange Country: Helen Keller and the Education of People Who are blind or Visually Impaired," opened in May at the Ann Arbor District Library, my life changed. I was not expecting the strong reaction that came up from somewhere deep inside of me as I looked at the picture of Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macey. I had to hold back the tears. I saw before me what was missing from my life since my nest emptied and what wasn’t missing from Helen’s: Service Providers.
If a picture of Helen Keller were taken today, she would only be shown sitting at a computer with a Braille display. Anne would not be shown bent over Helen holding the mouse and scanning the desktop for items that the computer could not read because the software code was not written for the blind and sight impaired, but she would be there. Even Helen, I realized, could not have done her work nor written all of her books alone using the technology that has been offered to the blind and sight impaired since the early 1990s.
I knew after looking at that picture Of Helen and Anne that I needed to take some time away from technology. During this time-out I learned what no rehabilitation counselor, social worker, or teacher ever taught me. It is something that my mother called common sense. I learned that I need people even more than I need technology. Independent living is not just a myth. It is a concept that has grown like a virus out of control and infected our culture. The business model of networking was eliminated from the lives of the blind, sight impaired, and handicapped as a life skill. It is no wonder now that the unemployment rate in these populations is so dangerously high since the concept of networking as part of a job search is often overlooked.
As the picture of Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller almost haunted me for weeks, I began reading more about them and their lives. In my opinion, the woman who should be pictured with Helen or Helen and Anne is the most important and powerful woman in Helen's life, her mother. It was Helen's mother who believed in her after she became ill and lost her ability to see or hear. It was her mother who enlisted the aid of the Perkins School for the Blind, insisted that Helen would not be institutionalize, made sure Helen was home-schooled as long as that was best for her, and kept her daughter and Anne from being exploited after they became celebrities. It was Helen Keller's mother who had the strength to stand back and only watch as Anne pulled Helen away as she clutched her mother's skirt.
A picture of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy should have a crowd in the background that includes Alexander Graham Bell along with many doctors, teachers, and family members who, like her mother, made sure that Helen reached her full potential and was never alone, even when Anne Sullivan Macy had to leave her for her own eye operations because she was legally blind.
There was a time when the blind could not lead the blind. During the last century, legally blind people like Anne Sullivan Macy were trained to teach the totally blind. In this century, the totally blind are teaching the legally blind and sight impaired how to use technology. They are teaching computer engineers what hardware can be invented to improve all of our lives. They are working with companies like Google and Apple to make software and devices even better.
For several months I searched for the parts of my life that were missing, that were keeping me from living up to my full potential. I found what I needed in an unusual place, a biography of the bestselling author, Danielle Steel. If this prolificwriter needs to employed nannies, shoppers, personal assistants, researchers and secretaries, I need to stop believing that I have to do everything myself. I can choose to save $300 to spend on some computer software or spend $300 to hire a typist, or editor, or web designer, or driver, or accountant, or personal assistant for 20-30 hours. The choice is mine. If technology businesses think they have no competition, they are wrong.
I recently applied for two jobs. The first was at a university in California. I was able to complete 100% of the online application and submit it myself. I applied for another job at a university in Michigan. I was able to fill out the application, but I could not upload the documents that were requested along with the application.
Believing that the world is a good and fair and wonderful place, I made a very big mistake. I called the Human Resources Department at the academic department’s hiring committee chair’s request just to make things official. I requested an accommodation and received it. The HR representative uploaded my information over the phone as I dictated it to her and added the files that I emailed as attachments. After discussing the matter with a technology consultant, I learned that this Michigan University did not use the proper programming code. Buttons and links were on the screen but were not being identified by the screen-reading software. I passed this information along to the HR representative. The number one rule of job hunting for the handicapped was broken. I let the HR department and the hiring department know I have a disability. If they hired me, changes would need to be made. It is much easier for employers to find a reason not to hire me. I should have just paid someone for $10 to fill out the form. This experience also left me asking a very important question: Do I want to work for a university that does not comply with the ADA?
I took one last look at that picture of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy before the library exhibit closed and asked, "Will the sun really come out tomorrow, Annie?" After reading As I See It: From a Blind Man’s Perspective that was written by Robert T. Branco, the founder and publisher of Consumer Vision Magazine (www.consumervisionmagazine.com), I believe it will. He not only asserts that his readers need volunteer or paid staff from time to time; he teaches them how to protect themselves as they select the people they will hire. Please don’t confuse these people with caregivers. The blind, sight impaired, and people with handicaps do not need a caregiver unless a medical condition requires one. They just need the same help anyone else needs who has too much to do and not enough hours in the day.
Once upon a time, I wrote a children’s story about a princess. I just could not find the right ending. After thirty years of trying, I finally understood that I was expecting the princess to rescue herself. In the world of Happily-ever-after endings, theresolution is supposed to come through the assistance of a fairy godmother or handsome prince. The independent living dictate hadn’t just stifled my life; it had stifled my creativity.
There is a story in the Bible that shows Jesus, the ultimate Service Provider, helping a blind man named Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52) He asks the man what he wants. The man then says that he wants his sight restored. I have heard many interpretations of this passage except one. To those who say that Jesus was testing the man or using this encounter as a teachable moment, I believe otherwise. I believe that Jesus loved the man just as he was, that Jesus saw the man as perfect just as he was, and that Jesus loved what was left— a man with more trust and more faith and more real vision, the kind that does not come from mere eye sight, than the crowd of onlookers.
Today, I hope you will take some time away from technology and love what is left in your life.