Braille Monitor

March, 2001

Why I Am a Federationist

by Larry W. Hayes

From the Editor: Larry Hayes is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico. He is also a Past President of the San Juan Chapter in Farmington. A number of affiliates plan a convention agenda item each year titled "Why I am a Federationist." It is modeled on a talk by the same name that Dr. Jernigan gave many years ago. That speech has always been a favorite in the recorded literature of the organization, and this agenda item allows the rest of us to consider the question and answer it for ourselves. This is what Larry Hayes had to say about himself at the 2000 New Mexico Convention.

The first thing that came to mind when Art [NFB of New Mexico President Art Schreiber] asked if I would share with all of you why I am a Federationist was, Oh God! Why am I a Federationist? Well, why am I a Federationist? I decided that, before I could share anything of value with you, I should have a pretty good answer for myself. Many reasons came to mind off the top of my head, but that was the problem: they were off the top of my head--no real thought involved. How does a person objectively examine his or her motives concerning beliefs?

Something I had learned from Ford Motor Company provided me with my starting point. Some years ago Ford sent a survey to its customers asking what features they would prefer in a car. From this questionnaire Ford designed the Edsel, and most of us know how much of a failure that was. Ford kept that questionnaire and sent it to customers again, but this time they asked what kind of car and features they thought their neighbors would like. From these results they designed the Mustang--one of the most successful cars in sales ever built. In the case of the Edsel fantasy overcame reality, and customers dreamed up a perfect car that was overpriced. The Mustang succeeded because people can be more objective when examining their neighbors' wants and needs. Since I didn't want to overprice my results, I decided to follow Ford's lead. So I asked myself why my blind neighbors are Federationists?

I started thinking about all the people I know in the NFB. Why does this person put out so much effort to help other blind people, or why does that person even bother to come to the meetings? As I thought about different people, it seemed to me that members fell into one of two categories: givers or takers. Givers are those who feel a responsibility to share their knowledge, abilities, and experiences with other blind people; takers are those who believe that the NFB exists only to meet their personal needs.

What then am I? Am I a giver or a taker? The honest answer would be both a giver and a taker. I believe that we all become involved in the NFB in the first place as takers, but what do we choose to take: that which we can carry away in our pockets or that which we carry away in our hearts and minds? I have been a taker of both kinds, but the most valuable things have been those I carried away in my heart and mind. My heart took the love of many new friends--friends who actually understood about my blindness, friends who believed in me more than I dared to believe in myself. My mind took a true sense of belonging and the knowledge that it really was okay to be blind.

I could conclude my discussion of why I am a Federationist with three words: security, equality, and opportunity. When the NFB logo was designed, I don't know if the varied meanings of these words were intended to include both givers and takers, but the fact that they do became apparent to me when I looked up the words. Judge for yourself.

Security. 1. "Freedom from risk or danger." Safety? I don't believe that the NFB intended this as its meaning. Well-meaning people constantly try to provide us with this type of security. "If you just sit here, you won't hurt yourself." Safe. Takers expect the NFB to provide this kind of security. 2. "Freedom from doubt, anxiety, or fear." Confidence. This definition seems right to me--freedom from doubt of one's abilities, freedom from anxiety over traveling independently, freedom from the fear of blindness.

As a giver I am secure in the knowledge that the NFB will work towards blind children receiving a good education using accessible textbooks. The NFB works to insure that people will not be victimized by the laws because of their blindness. The NFB works to help blind workers receive a fair wage.

Equality. 1. "The state or instance of being equal." As dictionary definitions are prone to do, this one really didn't say much, so I looked up the definition of equal. "Equal 1. Tranquil, calm, flat, level, or smooth. Same." Somehow I've never thought of the NFB as tranquil. I think we all know better than that. "If you blind people don't cause any waves, you'll be taken care of." So goes the takers' definition. 2. "Having the same capabilities, having the same privileges, status, or rights." What about responsibilities? The dictionary didn't mention responsibility, but I believe that with equal rights come equal responsibilities. An example of this definition would be equal before the law. 3. "Having the requisite strengths, abilities, and determination." An example is being equal to the task. We believe we are equal in strength, ability, and determination. These equalities should provide for equal privilege, status, and rights.

As a giver I am a Federationist to do my part to ensure that blind people enjoy equality in public attitudes: that we need no longer be looked upon as second-class citizens, that blind people receive equal pay for work performed and fair consideration when applying for work, that blind people receive equal consideration in obtaining housing, insurance, etc. This list is long. We can all cite many more examples.

Opportunity. 1. "Chance. Implies luck or accident in the arrival of an opportunity. A break adds to chance that adverse circumstances have unexpectedly become favorable." We all know that the NFB makes its own breaks, but many takers seem always to be waiting for that big break. 2. "A favorable or advantageous combination of circumstances resulting from a suitable occasion or time." Well this may fit, but perhaps not really. While the NFB certainly takes advantage of favorable or advantageous circumstances, we also learn to see opportunity in unfavorable and disadvantageous circumstances.

Security, equality, and opportunity: words on a logo I have seen many times without giving them much thought. They mean a great deal more to me now. I hope that they mean more to all of you as well. I still remain both a giver and a taker. Sometimes I feel spoiled in what I've been able to take. By giving, I have received the gratitude of people I have been able to help. I have been able to accept the pride of accomplishment in making a difference.

To others those accomplishments may seem small and unimportant, but for me they are important--maybe not in outcome, but certainly in personal growth. I have received the respect of people I also respect. We all look at others with admiration. When those I admire in turn value my opinions, I am able to absorb a better self-image and a growing belief in the true power of the NFB. This power is not at the National Center in Baltimore; it's in the hundreds of chapters across the country that continually fight the battle for security, equality, and opportunity.

One person or a small group can make a difference. In the past I didn't believe that, but today I do. Try it and see. I want to thank Art for asking me to give this talk because it forced me to examine my reasons for belonging to the NFB. I will conclude by asking each of you, "Why are you a federationist?"