Article from the INDEPENDENCE TODAY Newspaper<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />October 2009 N.Y. Governor Paterson Blind to Tools of Success By Deborah KendrickSeveral years ago, when I received some mystifyingly bad treatment at the hands of other people who shared my disability, a friend who was both black and blind comforted me with her insight. “Blind people can sometimes be like a basket of crabs,” she told me. “When one of them makes it to the top, the others scramble to pull him down.” Folks I thought to be my peers, in other words, were attacking me out of envy.I vowed I would never do that. I would fervently support anyone with any disability who achieved success in any field. We should all be one happy family, right?Then, following the 2006 elections, alarms went off that challenged that personal pledge. The good news was that New York state had elected a lieutenant governor who was both black and blind. The more troubling news was that David Paterson, that newly elected official, by declaring that he didn't use any of those blindness tools – Braille, assistive technology, a white cane – indicated to those who don't have disabilities that he was too cool for all that nonsense. Those of us who proudly use the tools of blindness, who depend on them to give us a competitive edge in a host of professional and educational environments, tried to be tolerant. I wanted to be first and foremost proud. A blind guy – a sort of brother to me in the disability family – was rising to the top, and it was cause for serious celebration.Governor Paterson clean shaven. A new imageOf course, when Eliot Spitzer was caught with his pants down, so to speak, and Paterson rose to the very top of his state, sworn in as New York governor on March 17th, 2008, the media made even more noise about how this brilliant guy didn't need Braille or talking computers or any of that blind nonsense. He had a superhuman memory, we were told, and relied heavily on staff. His staff read important memos and documents into voicemail messages that he listened to at all hours.Voicemail messages? What?He’s governor of one of our most important states, and he doesn't use a computer? Still, I reminded myself to be tolerant. Each of us has different techniques, different ways to accomplish the same goal. One deaf person reads lips. Another uses American Sign Language. Another uses Signed English. And on it goes. The man was governor, after all. He didn't have to do things the way other blind people do them to earn our support. He was one of us, and we should stand behind him.Then Paterson started doing really dumb things. He didn't always know the facts. He made decisions and then, under pressure of one kind or another, reversed them. He appointed a lieutenant governor when nobody was sure he was even allowed to do that and who, to add insult to injury, had trampled with dirty boots on transportation prospects for New Yorkers with disabilities.He seemed to “get it” when he responded with disdain to the "Saturday Night Live" skit that ridiculed his blindness. And yet, he didn't hesitate to grab a few laughs himself at the possible expense of people with disabilities when he appeared in a wheelchair for a charity gig.More recently, he has vetoed one bill that would preventdiscrimination against people with disabilities in public facilities in his state and another that would require all polling places to be made physically accessible.OK, we could argue, just because he has a disability doesn't mean he has to always agree with us, supporting every bill that comes down the political pike to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers with disabilities. Shouldn't we still support him? He’s both black and blind, after all.The proverbial “last straw” in struggling to hang on as a cheerleader for this New York governor came when I started seeing references in the press linking his failures to his blindness. One New York state senator, Diane Savino, was widely quoted as saying, in effect, that hey, even though the guy is brilliant, he’s blind, after all, and being blind means he can't use the same digital tools -- such as e-mail or a Blackberry -- as his peers.Wait a New York minute! And let me do some deep breathing so as not to do anything undignified like spew bad words in my own e-mail or Smartphone messages!One headline read: “It’s not his race, it’s his blindness.” Let me set the record straight: “It” -- his failure to lead -- is not because of his race or his blindness. It’s the man himself. But blindness is something I know well and know more than a little bit about with regard to tools and techniques, so let me tell you now what I was suppressing all along.His avoidance – since childhood – of tools related to blindness, don't make him superior to other blind people, but rather inferior. He can't read print but refused to learn Braille. That’s denial to the point of masochism. In other words, he’s illiterate by choice! Why, I wonder, if he’s so “brilliant” did it take him 12 years to get two advanced degrees, when lots of “ordinary” blind people have obtained those same two degrees in six? And even though the second of those two degrees is a law degree, he never went into practice as a lawyer because he couldn't pass the bar exam. Why was that? Was it because he couldn't read Braille or use a computer? Now, in all fairness, I don't know the answer to that question, but his explanation is that he didn't receive adequate accommodations. But what would those accommodations be, anyway, for a man who is blind but doesn't know how to use any of the tools that similarly educated blind people avail themselves of daily?You could say it’s not his fault. When he was a child, New York City schools couldn't promise that he wouldn't receive any special education, and his parents moved to a suburb where he could go to public school “unhindered” by special ed. Now, maybe that was a good thing. I wasn't there. But it sounds to me like being perceived as sighted was more important to the family than getting the best education possible.And so, here we have a 21st-century governor – the first legally blind governor to serve in any state longer than 11 days – and he’s using 1960s or '70s tools to do his job. Staffers read materials onto tapes and into voicemail for him. He has no means of prompting himself with notes, which would be effortless had he taken the time to learn to read and write Braille.Had he been governor in 1975, the tools he now uses would have been adequate because sighted people at the time were using them at the same level of sophistication. But those tools now are inadequate.Why doesn't Paterson use a computer with one of the popularscreen-reading programs, such as JAWS or Window-Eyes or System Access? If he did, 99 percent of all documents generated by other computers could then simply be e-mailed to him. If he wanted to travel light, he could carry a netbook (a small laptop computer) or a thumb drive, into which staffers could pop anything he needed to read. With practice, he could do what blind professionals all over the world do – crank their reading speed up to several hundred words a minute and get through material as quickly as any sighted politician. Add that to his amazing memory, and he could have been a governor to make us proud.Why does he have staffers read newspapers to him? For free, he could sign up for the National Federation of the Blind's NEWSLINE, a telephone service that would enable him to read any of 220 newspapers around the country, from any phone anywhere, at any speed he chose. He could zip through articles at his own speed as quickly or even quicker than his sighted peers.Now, this “brilliant” guy is using tools that were state of the art when Jimmy Carter was president, has an approval rating that has dropped at a staggering rate, and against even the advice of President Obama, said he’ll run again in 2010. It’s pitiable, really, but I’m not feeling sorry for him. How can I when, along with his own failure, he’s pulling the overall acceptance of and employment opportunities for other blind people down with him?I’m not saying I could do his job. I don't think I could. But I am saying that lots of people who are blind could and do it brilliantly. He wanted so much to hide his blindness that now, in his appalling unpopularity, it’s the one thing that outsiders are interpreting as his weakness. It hasn't been. His weakness has been his own arrogance and denial of reality. It’s a shame. With proper training, he might have done a good job.But he isn't doing one, and I’m OK with having broken my promise to myself. I know now that just because he has a disability doesn't mean I have to like him. And if he’s going to fall headlong into the basket, I don't want him to kick the rest of us down to the bottom as well.Deborah Kendrick is a newspaper columnist, editor and poet. She is currently working on a biography of Dr. Abraham Nemeth.---------- Date: Sunday, January 24 at 5:38 PM --Email services provided by the System Access Mobile Network. Visit www.serotek.com to learn more about accessibility anywhere.
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