My Keynote Address to the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired
A keynote address delivered by Jonathan Mosen to the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired on 3 November 2016
It’s an honour to be with you today, to be in the presence of so many people who are changing lives and facilitating opportunity.
I’m mindful that there’s a lot going on as I visit the United States this time. As I talk with taxi and Uber drivers, listen to the conversations at restaurants and spend quality time with friends, it’s clear that some have been experiencing very tense times of late. Some people who usually get on with one another are finding that their friendship is strained almost to breaking point. The process of finally determining the outcome seems to have been going on forever. But I’m confident that the wounds will heal and people will be able to move on and reunite, now that the world series is over.
But I promise not to talk about any contentious current events in the news during this address. Sadly, I’d have to sit down pretty quickly if this address were about baseball, since I have only fractionally more knowledge of baseball than I have sight. Instead, I want to say thank you for the difference you make.
I used to be a frequent international traveller. A long time ago, I sat next to a fellow passenger on a 12-hour flight, and we got talking about our work. It turned out that he was an executive for one of the most successful fast food chains in the world. He said to me, “what business do you consider us to be in?” I was beginning to wonder if I was sitting beside one of those people who concludes that because your eyes don’t work, your also cranially impaired. But I decided to play along and said that obviously the company was in the fast food business. His reply caught me off-guard. He told me that everyone says that, but in fact their primary business was real-estate. What made the company successful, he said, was the prime real-estate it owned around the world, and the fast food was a means to that end.
So it wouldn’t be an inaccurate statement for this executive to tell people he was in the fast food business, but he was looking deeper, perhaps searching for more meaning in his life given the harm a lot of fast food is causing.
When you provide education and rehabilitation services to blind people, it’s true that the practicalities of that involve assisting someone to travel safely, perform household tasks well, read using the priceless gift Louis Braille left us, and so much more. All of those things are worthy vocations in themselves. Every night, you can end another precious day on this planet knowing you did something to change a life for the better. Not every profession offers that satisfaction. But in my view, there’s one prerequisite without which none of these specific tasks would be possible. Belief. It may be that someone comes to you with a well-grounded sense of belief in themselves, perhaps due to positive parenting, the support of fellow blind people through a consumer organisation, or simply because the person is inherently optimistic by nature. But self-belief is often hard-won, fragile, and easily lost. How you as blindness professionals deal with that challenge of instilling self-belief can fundamentally set the direction of someone’s life for better or worse.
When I was 12 years old, a group of blind students of which I was a part met with a vocational guidance counsellor from our blindness agency in New Zealand. We were all asked to talk about what options we might be considering for a career. I didn’t hesitate. The answer was the same as it had been since the moment I could talk. I wanted a career in radio. This meeting predates the wide availability of the Internet, we’re talking the early 80s, so networking with other blind people overseas who were in broadcasting was difficult. Yet I was determined to make my dream a reality, and I knew that there were indeed other blind people out there doing radio successfully.
To my disappointment, the counsellor was discouraging. He told me he’d recently been into some radio stations, and that they were starting to move to systems that were visual and inaccessible in nature. Not only did this meeting take place before the Internet, it took place even before computers were accessible for most jobs. Perhaps I was just an arrogant kid who wouldn’t accept reality from a grown-up who knew, or perhaps I was showing a determination to succeed at whatever I put my mind to. But I refused to be told it couldn’t be done. To help make sure it could be done, when I was 17 I set up a radio station staffed by blind people which broadcast for two weeks during one of our breaks from school. The station had city-wide coverage. We sold ads to pay for hiring the broadcast equipment and the construction of the tall AM transmitter mast. When it was up and running, I phoned the manager of every radio station, and all the popular radio personalities of the day, inviting them out to look at what we were doing. That way, I instantly established my own valuable network of contacts in the industry, and I helped change their expectations. Sure, you can wait for opportunity to knock, but there’s no harm in putting a neon sign on your door to make it harder for opportunity to miss you.
I was assisted in that endeavour by the principal of the school for the blind, who would take a bunch of us in his car to attend meetings. He’d encourage us, clearly taking pride in the initiative. I have never forgotten the attitude of the counsellor who may have derailed my dream. Because had I not been as resilient, maybe the discouragement I received would have prompted me not to follow my dream. But I don’t think of him often. Instead, I think far more often, and with considerable affection and gratitude, of the principal who believed in me. The man who went out of his way, in his free time, to show me that I could do anything I put my mind to. The man who, as I navigated the bureaucratic minefield of obtaining a radio license, reminded me that investing in hard work pays dividends, and that few things worth having come easy.
It worked. I worked in commercial radio for a number of years. In that role, I frequently had to be my own advocate, assuring potential employers that I could work in their studio without sight.
So sometimes, a professional may inadvertently discourage, when encouragement is appropriate. But it’s not as simple as that. Because sometimes, blind people can stomp on the dreams of other blind people too. At that same meeting, when the counsellor was going around the table asking the kids present what they were considering as career options, one of the kids said he wanted to be an astronomer. This comment was greeted by the rest of us 12-year-olds present with howls of derisive laughter, and I was laughing as hard as anyone. You’re blind! You can’t look at a telescope! How on earth do you expect to be an astronomer! And for weeks and weeks we laughed at this kid, we teased him mercilessly, about wanting to be an astronomer. Kids can be cruel sometimes.
I didn’t really think about this much after we’d all moved on to other things, until a few years ago, I met a blind man, Kent Kullers, who’d worked for Nasa. Now obviously, he hadn’t been looking through telescopes, but he had worked in some fascinating areas including the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. He talked knowledgably and fascinatingly about stars and black holes and the wonders of the universe. I don’t know whether anyone ever laughed at him when he set out to be an astronomer. But it’s a cautionary tail, because sometimes, it’s other blind people who seek to stop one of their own from reaching for the stars.
When I was in my late teens and still determined to achieve my radio dream, someone told me about an ad in the paper they’d seen for a broadcasting course run by professional broadcasters. I thought that having a piece of paper to say I’d done the course might help me, so I did what the ad said and sent them a demo tape. They called me back in short order, offering me a place on the course. They also told me the price tag, which was way beyond my abilities as a penniless student. On that basis, I declined. But to my astonishment, they called me back again. The man from the course said that my tape was so good that they would offer me the course for half price, because it was in their interests to have me graduate from their course. They were sure I would be going places in radio, and they wanted to be able to say that Jonathan Mosen had graduated from their course. So I said, cool! I’ll pay half price, and can I come in a little early as I want to get familiar with the equipment and put braille labels on the media being used. And the attitude instantly changed. He asked me what I was talking about. I told him that I was blind, so I’d just make a couple of simple modifications and I’d be up and running. He said, look really there’s no point doing the course since a blind person could never have a future in radio. I never did the course, and a few years later, I became his boss.
I tell this story because this incident would have been enough to break some people, whose self-belief was at a low ebb, or non-existent. One of the saddest things I come across is someone who has had one setback too many, and is finding it hard to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep trying. Blind people like me will face ignorance and discrimination, it goes with the territory when you’re a member of a minority. Where appropriate, of course we should fight it with litigation. But mentally, we need to fight it with determination, education, and belief.
And it is never, never too late to give your attitude a software upgrade. It’s easy for us to become angry with the world. But anger is a choice. Viewing something as a setback or a challenging learning experience is a choice. Taking steps to become more employable, more presentable, more capable, is a choice. Thinking that opportunity will simply fall into our laps is a choice, albeit it a foolish one.
The praise and feedback we get influences our aptitude at something. If someone is told, or tells themselves, that they aren’t good at something, chances are they won’t be. If some event causes them to revisit that same thing with a different attitude, the results can be very different. And blind people are exposed to a lot of negativity. No doubt many of you have seen the literature indicating that more people fear becoming blind than acquiring any other disability. Sight is a dominant sense, so if you have it in full measure, of course it’s natural to use it and depend heavily on it. But that’s quite a different thing from concluding that one can’t function effectively without it, a conclusion many simply believe to be a truism. It’s a conclusion sometimes re-enforced by people and organisations who should know better, making the work of rehabilitation and education professionals like you more difficult. Only recently, a US organisation raising funds to research cures for various eye conditions asked people to record videos of themselves performing common tasks while blindfolded, and upload them to YouTube. Now if you’re suddenly deprived of a valuable faculty on which you depend, and have had no instructions about how to perform tasks in an alternative way, you’re going to function as well without that faculty as I’m going to talk at length about baseball. So most people walk away from a simulation experience like that frightened about blindness, and misinformed about how a blind person who has received appropriate training can function in the world. It’s a serious matter, because some of those people will be employers who eventually encounter a blind job applicant. They’ll instantly recall their own experience of blindness, and that may contribute to their assessment of the blind job applicant’s skills.
Let me be clear, as someone whose blindness also comes with the added limited time bonus of a degenerative hearing condition included absolutely free, I understand the insidious nature of degenerative conditions. Something that was once easy gradually becomes tougher. It’s horrible and its demoralising. Blindness has been my constant reality all my life. I’m used to it, and I personally have no desire for sight, although many other blind people feel differently. But I’d give anything to have my hearing restored to normality, and I know that’s exactly how many people with degenerative eye conditions feel about their sight. I strongly relate. But it’s foolish to put our lives on hold, or sabotage public perception, while we await a cure that may or may not ever come. That’s a recipe for a wasted life, full of missed opportunities and regrets.
There are little proverbs, aphorisms, clichés, that are so ingrained in our culture that few people seem to question them. My favourite is this little piece of absurdity. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. This one was triumphantly proclaimed to me by a supposedly learned lawyer who was on a nationwide TV show with me back in New Zealand, to justify why no blind person should ever be allowed to serve on any jury. The origins of this phrase are unclear. Some attribute it to Erasmus of Rotterdam, a 16th-century Dutch Renaissance humanist., But there are variations of it in numerous languages. Another variation, translated from the French, is “when a blind man bares the standard, pity those who follow”.
These antiquated little pieces of ablest nonsense put forward the view that disability in and of itself makes you inferior, and further, the more disabled you are, the more inferior you are. But I sometimes find myself wondering, what would the kingdom of the blind actually look like? I mean if everyone were blind other than a single one-eyed person, or even a minority of one-eyed people, we’d have a very different world. So please accompany me for just a little while to the kingdom of the blind.
Welcome! Vehicles provide a lot of auditory and tactile information here, so a blind person can drive them, we are the majority in this kingdom after all. Normal drivers, they being blind, are concerned about their safety because one-eyed people are being distracted from all the auditory and tactile feedback the vehicles are offering. On radio (there is no TV in the kingdom of the blind of course) debate is raging about whether it’s safe for one-eyed people to be given driver’s licenses.
An organisation has recently been formed, the National Federation of the One-eyed, to champion the rights of this minority.
Over a century ago, a new form of writing using symbols was developed by a clever one-eyed inventor. He says it’s more efficient for one-eyed people to use this new form of writing called print. A limited supply of print books are available, and recently, an agreement was reached to transcribe standard Braille books into print without first having to seek the permission of the copyright holder.
In recent years, computer and smartphone manufacturers in the kingdom of the blind have, as a matter of human rights, added a new accessibility feature to their devices, known as a screen. Sure, all the computers talk and come standard with full-page Braille displays, but the National Federation of the One-eyed have been fighting in the courts, where blind justice is practiced faithfully, for the rights of this minority to be accommodated. And this thing called a screen is seen to be essential assistive technology. Since the cost of production have to be spread across a very small user-base of one-eyed people, screens are hideously expensive. There’s a long way to go before screens are affordable to everyone and work equally well across platforms, but a start has been made, and the one-eyed just need to be patient and grateful for what they have.
I could go on, but let me try and sum up on this point? “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king?” Seriously? Poppycock. It is society and its majority that disables us with attitudes and decisions, not the disability itself.
But these outmoded and misinformed attitudes all make your job, as rehabilitation professionals and educators, more challenging. They eat away at the very core of what is required for success, belief. No one says it’s easy or that it doesn’t require some grit and determination, but plant the belief, and with the training provided by teams like this one, blindness is not the end of the story, it’s a new beginning.
In my view, exposing blind people to adult blind mentors from an early age is a must. But Equally, I think parents of blind children need adult blind role models in their lives too. Many people have had little to no meaningful interaction with a blind person before, then they find themselves a parent of a blind child with the questions and grief that that often brings. What can I expect of a blind child. How should I treat them differently. What’s going to become of them when they’re grown? As a father of four children myself, I know that it’s instinctual to try and keep our kids from harm, and for many, those emotions are super-charged when they have a blind child. I grew up with kids who were wrapped in cotton wool, mollycoddled, not allowed to just be a kid who happens not to see. It was done with love, yet some of them are still paying the price as adults. When I was a kid, I was fortunate. I had an older brother who was blind, and through him, had access to a lot of great blind role models. And also, my parents let me be a kid. I rode bikes and even a skateboard. I had more than my fair share of bruises, just like any other kid. So parents and children alike need to meet blind people who are just getting on with life and successfully doing what people do. It all fosters belief.
I don’t know whether this is a uniquely New Zealand thing, but when I was the Chairman of New Zealand’s blindness agency, I came across this term super blind. As far as I can tell, it seems to relate to any blind person who doesn’t conform to the expectations the user of the term has of what a blind person should do or how they should act. I gave an entire address to a group of parents in New Zealand about the importance of parents setting up mentoring programs both for their benefit and the benefit of their blind children. And when I checked in afterwards to find out how the speech was received, the President of the group said that one of the agency staff present said that I had set unrealistic expectations and that we can’t all be super blind. So I had to explain that blind people are a microcosm of society as a whole. You name it, we’ve got it! Blind people doing a wide range of professions, some of us nicer than others, some more ethical than others, and with a wide range of skills. In some cases, our professions or attributes will gain us more attention than others. But sighted people are no different. If someone eventually becomes Chief Executive of their company, or President of the United States, I’ve never heard them described as super sighted.
We must believe in our kids. In the united States, parents tell their children, this is America, you can be anything you want to be, even President. Blind kids need to believe that as well, because it’s true.
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of parenting, when my first child, a daughter, was born, I had lots of people asking me, in sort of hushed, whispering tones, “is she, you know, like you?” This was an odd question to me since I’m clearly male and she wasn’t dressed in pink to make any kind of political statement or anything. But then I realised that they wanted to know if she was blind. When I’d answer the question straight, that no, she was sighted, they’d sound relieved and say that that was great and she’d be able to look after me. And of course, once I retire, I hope she will help keep me in the style to which I’ve become accustomed since she’s now an electrical engineering student and I hope will earn lots of lovely money. But I realised that if I could just find a way, there was an educational opportunity here. There had to be a way for me to gently point out that actually, blindness is OK. So I began answering the question by saying, actually she’s sighted, but we love her just the same. And that seemed to make the point to most people.
We’ve come a long way. New Zealand, like the United States, now has legislation making discrimination on the grounds of disability illegal. The incident I described with the radio course couldn’t happen now. Of course, sometimes this causes the discrimination to go underground and it’s harder to prove, but for the most part it’s great news. Yet such legislation is no panacea. It legally protects our right to equal consideration and reasonable accommodation. But in a difficult job market, we have to be prepared to put the work in. If we write poorly crafted job applications riddled with spelling mistakes because we haven’t used a spell checker, why are we surprised when nothing ever comes back? If we turn up to a job interview and we’re not well presented, we don’t make an effort to try and look at the person we’re talking to, we’re not ready to educate and try and put people at ease, our hygiene is poor, then we can’t expect jobs to fall into our lap and aren’t entitled to get frustrated at the world when nothing happens.
I’m sorry for the use of what is clearly a buzz word, but when you believe in yourself, it really does affect your personal brand. If you can imagine yourself in a role you really want, then you start to act the part. You write more professionally, you conduct yourself better. It’s hard to maintain that level of self-belief when the rejection letters keep on coming in, sometimes because you were legitimately beaten by a more suitable candidate, sometimes undoubtedly because you’re a victim of inaccurate stereotypes. But if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you. People who live life boldly and daringly will fall short and make mistakes sometimes. But personally, I’d rather go to my grave having made mistakes and learned from them, than be tormented with a series of “what if” questions. The letter you don’t write, the chance you don’t take, the phone call you decide not to make could be the one that changes everything. The Beatles felt they were out of options, then an obscure record label took them on and the world changed forever. A penniless single mother wrote a book, sent it off, and was rejected by 12 publishers until one company finally took her on, and published the first Harry Potter book. Thomas Edison had many more failures than successes. What kept them going? Belief. A belief that they had something to offer, even if others couldn’t see it yet. And in the jobs that you do, you’re uniquely positioned not just to provide valued, essential blindness services. You make sense of the need for such services by fostering belief.
So when the admin seems unconquerable, you’re dealing with someone with whom you’re having difficulty establishing a rapport, and it all starts to feel like a daily grind, take some time to give yourself a pat on the back. You may sometimes feel like you’re knocking your head against a brick wall with all the bureaucracy and some difficult people, but you’re making a difference, and changing lives. It’s up to each individual blind person to make a go of their own lives in the end. Agencies and the people who run them can only be facilitators. But when you believe in a client, and you demonstrate that belief, you can help plant the seed of self-belief, or re-enforce it when it’s at a low ebb. When you can have that kind of impact on the world, it’s a very special thing. Thank you for all you do.