Tag Archives: History

Blindness and Disability are Popular Themes for October

The fall is my favorite season and time of the year. The weather is cooler. The autumn colors of brown, orange, golden yellow, dark red and green are on display. October is the month when all of this jumps off. But one other thing I recently noticed is the number of blind and disabled observations happening at this time too. Not sure why this is the case but I couldn’t let another day go by without pointing them out. Or at least the ones I know about.

Man Getting an Eye Exam

1.  World Sight Day is held on the second Thursday of October every year and aims to focus global attention on vision impairment and blindness. There is a different theme every year, with many of those who mark the Day taking the opportunity to both celebrate achievements to date and advocate for increasing attention towards eye care.  According to the World Health Organization 1 billion people around the world have a preventable vision impairment or one that has yet to be addressed.  Reduced or absent eyesight can have major and long-lasting effects on all aspects of life, including daily personal activities, interacting with the community, school and work opportunities and the ability to access public services.

2.  White Cane Safety Day is observed nationally on October 15th. It was a law passed to protect white cane pedestrians by giving them the right of way and recognizing that the white cane was a symbol of blindness. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law in 1964.

3.  Blind Americans Equality Day. In 2011, White Cane Safety Day was also named Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama. The mission is to celebrate the continuing achievements of blind and visually impaired Americans and reaffirm the commitment to advancing their complete social and economic integration.

4.  Meet the Blind Month is hosted by the National Federation of the Blind every October. Throughout the month, members conduct a variety of outreach activities in their local communities. Many of these activities focus on White Cane Awareness Day, lived experiences with problem solving, self-confidence and intersectionality.

5.  National Disability Employment Awareness Month acknowledges the ingenuity people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces. Each October NDEAM celebrates America’s workers with disabilities and reminds employers of the importance of inclusive hiring practices. In 1945, Congress declared the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was dropped to include individuals with all types of disabilities. Congress expanded the week to a month in 1988, and changed the commemoration to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

6.  Blind Awareness Month  was created by The Little Rock Foundation in Voorhees, New Jersey to promote improving blind and visually impaired children’s lives. The goal is to educate the public about good eye health, and treatment of eye disorders.  Inspire people with stories of the blind and their accomplishments. Advocate for research, resources and laws that benefit the blind community.

After doing my research I would dare to say that October is the month of the blind. I would encourage you to take some time and learn more, volunteer or donate to an organization serving the blind community.

Its a White Cane Not a Stick

The white cane has enabled me to travel safely and confidently by detecting stairs, sidewalk curbs, doorways and obstacles. It gives me the added security and protection I need so that I don’t stumble, fall or run into things. It identifies me as a person with a vision impairment. When people see my cane, they have a better understanding of my situation and can respond accordingly.  Or at least I think they should. I have found that people want to refer to my cane as a stick. I get responses like, “Where is your stick, Empish?”, “My relative who is blind uses one of those sticks too.”  Or my favorite is, “Where can I get one of those sticks?” My emotions range from frustration, annoyance to amusement.

So, why is my mobility aid a cane and not a stick? Have you ever wondered why the white cane is white and not some other color?  Who made the decision for the color white in the first place?  When did the blind start using white canes anyway? Well, since today is National White Cane Safety Day I thought it would be fitting to do a little digging into the history and the safety law around traveling with it.

Little Black Girl Wearing Braids and Walking with White Cane

Prior to the use of the official white cane people who were blind and/or visually impaired used staffs, sticks and canes as instruments in their modes of travel.  These tools were use more to alert the blind person to obstacles in their path rather than for noting their blindness.  It was not until the 20th century that the “cane” was used for identification purposes.  During the times of the two World Wars canes began to be used by people with vision loss; first starting in Europe and then branching out into the United States. According to the American Council for the Blind, James Biggs of Bristol claimed to have invented the white cane in 1921. After an accident claimed his sight, the artist had to readjust to his environment.  Worried by the increased motor vehicle traffic around his home, Biggs decided to paint his walking stick white to make himself more visible to motorists

The White Cane Becomes White

It was not until ten years later the white cane established its presence in society. A national white stick movement for people in France was launched. The campaign was duplicated in England and was sponsored by Rotary clubs throughout the United Kingdom. Yet, in the United States it was the Lion’s Clubs International that helped introduced the white cane to the blind community. In 1930, a Lion’s Club member watched as a blind man attempted to cross a busy street using a black cane. Realizing that the black cane was barely visible to motorists, the Lion’s Club decided to paint the cane white to increase its visibility. In 1931, the Lion’s Club International began a national program promoting the use of white canes for persons who were blind.H-

A Tool for Mobility

Black Man Wearing Shades and Walking with White Cane

Up to this time, blind people were using their white canes primarily as symbols of blindness not as a mobility aid. But when the blind veterans of World War II returned, the form and the use of the white cane changed. This was an attempt to get veterans active and involved in society again. Doctor Richard Hoover developed the “long cane” or “Hoover” method of cane travel. These white canes were designed to be used as mobility aids and returned the cane to its original role as a tool for mobility, while maintaining   the symbolism of blindness. This also ushered in the concept of orientation and mobility training; where a person with vision loss learned about their surroundings and how to travel safely and confidently.

Today, the white cane is a visible identifier that the person has some form of visual impairment.  Much like the wheelchair symbolizes a mobility impairment. People with vision loss travel with their white canes directly in front of their body so that others can see it clearly. This is especially critical when approaching a street intersection. To a motorist driving down the street or hovering at a street light; the white cane stands out because of its color and the red strips help deflect a vehicle’s headlights.

White Cane Safety Day Passes

Two White Blind Teens Holding canes and Sign Saying Celebrate White Cane Safety Day

The white cane began to move into the political scene and state legislation began to pass. The first two states to past safety ordnances were Illinois and Michigan. The ordnances protected white cane pedestrians by giving them the right of way and recognizing that the white cane was a symbol of blindness. In the early 1960’s, several state organizations and rehabilitation agencies serving the blind and visually impaired encouraged Congress to proclaim October 15th of each year to be White Cane Safety Day in all fifty states. This event marked an exciting moment in the long campaign to gain state and national recognition for the white cane. National White Cane Day was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Its designated October 15th as National White Cane Safety Day. Georgia went a step further and created a state law and protection for those pedestrians that use a white cane.

What the Law States

Here is a summary of the law:

1. Only people who are blind or visually impaired should travel with a white cane.

2. When a motorist comes in contact with a person traveling with a white cane at an intersection that driver should come to an immediate stop to avoid injury or harm to the white cane traveler.

3. Any person who is in violation of the above will be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Now you have learned some history on the white cane. Why it is no longer called a stick. You now know why the white cane is white, do you think that motorists stop for it? Do you think that people see the white cane as a mobility aid and symbol of visual impairment?  For those using a white cane, do you have to explain its usage a lot or barely at all? What things do you think can be done to make people more aware? Share your comments.

Hadley Provides 100 Years of Remote Learning to the Blind Community

Empish Reading Braille

For a century the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired has provided remote learning to the blind community. This is an enormous accomplishment. Even more so in the midst of COVID-19 where distant learning, sheltering in place, social distancing and remote access are becoming the new normal. According to their website, the mission of Hadley is to create personalized learning opportunities that empower adults with vision loss or blindness to thrive at home, at work and in their communities. Well, I can attest to Hadley’s mission because I have personally benefited from their instruction. I am going to share my experience, but first let me give a little history on the organization because again 100 years is a long time to be in existence and knowing the back story is important.

History of the Hadley Institute

William Hadley, a former school teacher, lost his sight at 55 and loved reading. He wanted to learn braille but was frustrated with finding a teacher so he taught himself. Along with an ophthalmologist and neighbor, Hadley found a way to share his love of learning with others who had lost their vision too. So, in 1920, the Hadley Correspondence School and the “braille by mail” curriculum launched.  The very first student, a woman in Kansas, had also lost her sight later in life and wanted to continue reading. She mailed her lessons to Hadley, and he corrected and returned them along with encouraging notes. This was the beginning of the close instructor-learner relationship that is a trademark of Hadley learning today.

Ways I’ve Benefited from Hadley’s Instruction

I too was one of those who lost vision as an adult. I learned braille previously at a vision rehabilitation center but realized too late that I didn’t have a good solid game plan on how to implement it beyond the alphabetic code. I learned braille because that is what I was supposed to do and I saw some immediate benefits such as labels for my Music CDs, spices for cooking and metal labels for my clothing. I was not thinking about reading braille books or magazines. Outside of that braille was just a vague thought in the back of my mind. As a result, my reading and writing skills stayed on a rudimentary level; much like a kindergartner at school. So I contacted Hadley to take a braille course and began my journey back to braille. Unfortunately, life got in the way and I didn’t finish my course however I accessed other learning tools from Hadley.  The next course I took was on LinkedIn where I went through the modules online to complete my profile and then connected with my instructor. Once we connected, my instructor gave constructive criticism on my LinkedIn profile that was helpful. Another Hadley course was on the keyboard. Over the years my typing and keyboard skills had gotten slack and sloppy. I was making several key punch errors. This course helped me get reacquainted with the home row and other important keys, practice proper posture and slow down my typing for accuracy.

I love a good informative and entertaining podcast. Hadley offers Tech It Out is an hour long, monthly call-in discussion group; but I listen to it afterward as a podcast. There I have learned about all kinds of technology for home, work and entertainment. The very first one I attended we discussed grocery shopping and food delivery apps.  So many people joined in the conversation and that was long before the pandemic! Other podcast topics have been on accessible small kitchen appliances, using tablets, watching audio described movies and learning about streaming services. Their most recent topic is accessing tech support for your devices.

All of the remote learning I gained from Hadley was at no cost, at my own pace and from the comfort of my home. They are a non-profit organization and receive donations to provide these services. I applaud Hadley for the work they have done and have no doubt they will continue to be successful in educating the blind for many more years to come.

ADA 30th Anniversary Logo

Four Reasons I’m Thankful for the ADA

July 26th will mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It was in 1990 when I was a freshman in college that Former President George H. W. Bush signed this powerful piece of civil rights legislation into law. On that day, with  disability advocates and policy makers present, the door was  opened wider to more opportunities and access. People with disabilities have struggled with full inclusion into mainstream society for many years and the ADA was passed to help remedy this problem. The ADA has four principals: equality of opportunity, full participation in society, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities. Additionally, there are five titles:  employment, transportation, state and local government, public accommodations and telecommunications. I lost my vision many years after the ADA was passed so didn’t know much about this law or feel its full impact. It wasn’t until the late-90s when I was dealing with employment and transportation that I began to completely understand its authority and be grateful for its existence.

First Reason is Employment

When I went blind, I was young and entering the workforce. My employer was familiar with the ADA and provided work accommodations. I was given magnification devices, low vision aids and later when my vision worsen screen reading software for my computer. Since that time at every job I have received the necessary work accommodations. using these tools have not only helped me to work, but continue working, boost my self-esteem and enhance my quality of life.

Second Reason is Voting

I have been voting since I was eligible, but when I went blind the process changed. Thanks to the ADA I can now vote with accommodations. State and local governments must provide assistance to a blind person whether it is to offer an absentee ballot, read voting information and/or have an accessible voting machine. I have shared about my recent challenges voting in Georgia’s primary elections but it is because of the ADA that I can speak up and advocate for myself.

Third Reason is Website Accessibility

Since I work from home and use the internet constantly, I interact with inaccessible websites daily. Graphics with no alt text, edit boxes that don’t work, check boxes that don’t check and on and on. I also struggle with inaccessible mobile apps on my iPhone. But the ADA says that websites must be made accessible to people with visual impairments. Some folks say that the ADA does not specifically address the internet and was written prior its creation but the world wide web is considered a public accommodation and is covered by this law. A recent lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza demonstrates this point.

Fourth Reason is Entertainment

Empish at Concession Stand Purchasing Popcorn

One of my favorite forms of entertainment is watching a movie. A fast-pace action, suspense thriller, a funny comedy, a classic animation, a gory horror or a sappy romcom—I love them all! But the funny thing is that I didn’t really get into movies until I went blind and couldn’t see the screen! Go figure?! Then I really, really didn’t get into movies until audio description became readily available. The ADA requires that movie theaters provide audio description to blind and visually impaired people so now I can watch the latest blockbuster.

If you are a person with a disability or know someone who is what ways are you thankful for the ADA? There are a lot of things we still have to work on when it comes to equal access and full inclusion. As I shared before, I still struggle daily with website accessibility and mobile apps. I also have challenges with attitudinal barriers because of the intersectionality of my disability, race and gender that I contend with often. However I celebrate the numerous achievements we have made in these past 30 years and look forward to more success.

March Trilogy Book Cover

Review of NLS Graphic Novel the March Trilogy by Congressman John Lewis

Editor’s note:  Civil Rights icon, Congressman John Lewis passed away on Friday, July 17th from pancreatic cancer. Many news reports, articles, blogs, podcast and conversations are happening right now about this incredible man and the major accomplishments he made to push the needle forward for equality for everyone. As a resident of Atlanta, I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak on more than one occasion at disability and/or social justice events. A couple of years ago I wrote a book review for VisionAware on his graphic novel titled The March Trilogy.  In celebration of his life I am reprinting it here.

The March Trilogy as a Graphic Novel

I don’t typically read graphic novels, as a matter of fact this book that I am reviewing is my very first one. For those that are not familiar a graphic novel is a written story presented with cartoon-type drawings in a panel format. They are similar to a comic book but much longer and with more text. I have been told they are very popular and many people love to read them.  Well, the Library of Congress/NLS record their first one titled The March Trilogy by John Lewis. Although Lewis has published an autobiography in the past, the idea to make his story a graphic novel came from the time he was 15 years old when he first learned about Martin Luther King through reading a comic book on his life.

I was excited to read this book because it was about the life of US Congressman John Lewis.  He is not only an icon in the civil rights movement, more popularly known for his beating while trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the March to Montgomery in 1965; but he is an outspoken politician in my hometown of Atlanta. These reasons made me even more interested in reading this book.

The overall story of Lewis’ life was educational and fascinating.  Without giving too much away, I learned so much about his life that I didn’t know and was inspired by his passion and zeal to create change despite some incredible difficulties.  His childhood growing up with parents who were sharecroppers gave him firsthand exposure to racial inequality. He attended college while participating in sit ins at lunch counters and bus boycotts.  Then he later extended his civil rights activities into a career in politics.

Challenges Reading a Graphic Novel

 Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

But after I downloaded the book and started to play it on my NLS talking book player that is when the challenges and some disappointment began. The first thing I noticed is that my mind began to wonder from the story and I had to rewind my player. I realized that I was doing this not because the story itself was not interesting or that I was tired, sleepy or distracted but because I was having a hard time figuring out when the description of the graphic started and stopped. Terminology and phrasing such as “zoom in”, “zoom out”, “next panel”, “we see”, “in the frame”, “the next three panels show” give you an indication that the reader is describing what is in the panel and then going back to the text but if you are not listening carefully you can miss it. It is done very seamlessly. This is not necessarily a bad thing but just an observation. For years I have tuned my ears and my brain to read an audio book and thought that I had become quite proficient but reading this graphic novel challenged my audio reading ability. I had to really pay attention in order to visualize the scene and pictures in order to keep them separate from the actual text. There were times when I thought maybe I am trying too hard and should just let the story flow and not be concerned about it. Perhaps that is the way to read an audio format of a graphic novel?

The second challenge I had with reading this book was the detailed audio description. I love audio description and have written about it many times here on the VisionAware site but in this book, I found it to be a little overwhelming. The description of the illustrations was very detailed and lengthy. I shared my thoughts with a sighted friend who had a printed copy of this book. She listened to the NLS version and we reviewed it together. She understood my concerns and thought that in some ways the descriptions could have been shorten. But perhaps that is just personal preference. Some people like a lot of information when it comes to audio description and some like less. 

On a positive note. I did appreciate the sound effects of the reader that were made within the audio description. That did bring the book to life more and made the story even more interesting. For example, when John was a child, he had to feed the chickens on the farm. The reader actually makes clucking sounds as John is doing this task. Some other sounds are phones ringing and an alarm clock buzzing. The reader also changed the inflections in his voice which I also enjoyed.

But despite these enhancements I have to conclude that a graphic novel is probably not my type of book to read. I found the story itself to be a good one however the illustrations to be a distraction. It was just too much for me to digest in an audio format and it took away from the overall story I was trying to read and enjoy. But perhaps you will read this book and have a totally different experience.

Fireworks Display

Fireworks and Eye Safety During COVID-19

The Fourth of July is coming up this weekend. It is typically known as a time of fun, remembrance and celebration for many Americans. Friends and family gather together to enjoy early morning parades, backyard barbecues, and nighttime fireworks. But with the onset of COVID-19 what will this year’s July 4th observation really look like? I did a little  sleuthing around on the internet and got mix results. Some cities and states are going to proceed business as usual and have gatherings. Others are going to shut them down completely. But regardless of how you celebrate please stay safe and well. I am sharing what I will do this 4th and also some firework safety tips.

Audio Described Fireworks Presentation

Empish Holding Replica of the Capitol and Surrounding Buildings

as for me I have decided for the first time to participate in a virtual audio described fireworks event. The American Council of the Blind is hosting their annual convention via Zoom Videoconferencing this weekend. Part of this event will be an audio description of the 2019 firework display at the Capitol. When I was sighted, I would attend fireworks for the holidays but after losing my sight it was very difficult and I really didn’t see the point. No pun intended! But now that audio description is available, I am going to give it a try and I am pretty excited. Oh, and for those that are saying, “what is audio description?” Audio description is a feature available to us blind folks that uses words to describe what is being seen. It is usually used for TV, movies and live theatre to describe scenes between the dialogue. For example, facial expressions, body language, costumes, movement in a scene and also sub-titles. It enhances the entire experience for those of us who are blind and helps us have an inclusive time with our sighted peers.

Staying Safe from Firework Injuries

If you decide to celebrate the 4th with fireworks at home because of COVID-19 there are ways to stay safe. Fireworks are exciting, fun and spectacular, but don’t let an accident spoil your celebration. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 180 people end up in the emergency room everyday due to injuries from fireworks during the  months of June and July. Lots of those are children, especially teenagers. The typical victim is an unsupervised teen, at home, with a group of friends. They are playing with fireworks and chances are one of them will end up in the emergency room. Some of those injuries are eye-related. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says that fireworks can cause devastating and life-changing injuries that range from skin burns and thermal burns of the eye to bleeding in the eye, retinal detachment, and even a ruptured globe and blindness. In order to stay safe, the CPSC has provided some tips to avoid injury:

1.  Never allow young children to play with, or ignite, fireworks, including sparklers. Sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to melt some metals.

2.  Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy, in case of fire or other mishap.

3.  Light fireworks one at a time, then move away quickly.

4.  Never try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks. Soak them with water and throw them away.

5.  Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Move to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks.

6.  Never point or throw fireworks (including sparklers) at anyone.

7.  After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding the device to prevent a trash fire.

8.  Make sure fireworks are legal in your area, and only purchase fireworks that are labeled for consumer (not professional) use.

Fireworks and Eye Safety Tips

Prevent Blindness  provides useful info on eye safety and fireworks if you opt to use your own:

  1. If you suffer an injury due to fireworks, especially to your eyes, seek help immediately.
  2.  Do not rub or rinse the eyes. 
  3.  Do not apply pressure.
  4. Do not put on ointments or take any blood thinning pain medications like aspirin or ibuprofen.

I hope this post was helpful as you and your family prepare to enjoy the 4th of July. If you do decide to celebrate at home keep these things in mind about fireworks and eye safety.

Photo of Helen Keller

My Favorite Quotes from Helen Keller

Today is Helen Keller’s birthday. She was an icon in the blind, visually impaired and deafblind community. She was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing her to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker. Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and sponsors an annual “Helen Keller Day”.

This incredible woman overcame and accomplished so much during the course of her life. So in celebration, I want to share some of her famous quotes  that I like from her book To Love This Life: Quotes by Helen Keller. To start my most favorite one is, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” I realized that shortly after losing my vision that I had to take “the bull by the horns” and jump into life. I realized my own mortality; that life was too short and that I might only get one chance to do the things that I wanted. It is amazing that a disability brought me to this decision. Looking at Keller’s life also inspired me as well. I first read about her when I was a little girl and was amazed that a woman who was deafblind could accomplish so much. She learned how to read and write. She graduated from college. She traveled all over the world. She met famous and important people. She fought for civil and human rights. She co-founded Helen Keller International, an organization initially for blinded WWI soldiers. She was outspoken and a feminist. She did not allow her disability to keep her from enjoying the fullness of life or participating in it. Her life was truly an adventure! I model my life the same. Continue reading for more of my favorite quotes.

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

“I think the degree of a nation’s civilization may be measured by the degree of enlightenment of its women.”

“True teaching cannot be learned from text-books any more than a surgeon can acquire his skill by reading about surgery.”

“I cannot but say a word and look my disapproval when I hear that my country is spending millions for war and war engines—more, I have heard, than twice as much as the entire public school system costs the nation.”

“Personally I do not believe in a national agency devoted only to the Negro blind because in spirit and principle I am against all segregation, and the blind already have difficulties enough without being cramped and harassed by social barriers.”

“The woman who works for a dollar a day has as much right as any other human being to say what the conditions of her work should be.”

“I am younger today than I was at twenty-five. Of course the furrows of suffering have been dug deeper, but so have those of understanding sympathy and inner happiness. Whatever age may do to my earthly shell, I shall never grow cynical or indifferent—and one cannot measure the reserve power locked up in that assurance.”

“The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them.”

Now that you have read some of Helen Keller’s famous quotes are you motivated, inspired or encouraged by her life? Did you know about Keller before now? What do you think about her and her contributions to society? Share your thoughts and feelings about Keller in the comment section below.

Juneteenth Logo- Celebrating 155th Anniversary

Recognizing Juneteenth and Curious About Disabled Slaves

Today is Juneteenth;  the day slaves were freed in Texas. Although I live in Georgia, I am very familiar with this holiday because I am a native of the Lone Star State. I grew up hearing the story of how slaves were notified they were free two years after the fact. Each year there would be all kinds of activities, news stories and of course family barbecues at home or at the local park. It was and still is a time of celebration in the African American community. But since I have been living in Georgia for several years, I have not participated in the observation. Now with the recent conversations and protests around racism in this country and abroad, the idea of Juneteenth becoming an official national holiday has risen again.

Juneteenth not only marked the end of slavery in Texas but also in the United States. Here is the story from History.com. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War was over and slavery in the United States has ended. Despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, a lack of Union troops in the confederate state of Texas made the order difficult to enforce. Some historians believe the lapse in time on poor communication in that era especially during and after war time.  Others believe slave owners intentionally withheld the information to keep slaves working as long as possible.

Celebrants dressed to hear speeches during a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas.
Celebrants dressed to hear speeches during a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas.

Major Gen. Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

On that day, 250,000 enslaved people were freed, and despite the message to stay and work for their owners, many left the state immediately and headed north or to nearby states in search of family members they’d been ripped apart from. For many African Americans, June 19 is considered an Independence Day. Forty-seven states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, but efforts to make it a national holiday have so far stalled in Congress. Many corporations like Twitter, Nike, Target, Harvard and the National Football League have made Juneteenth a company holiday with paid time off.

As I reflect on Juneteenth, I think about what happened to the disabled slaves? I have often wondered about slaves with disabilities in general. How they managed on the plantation. Since the existence of a slave is the ability to work and be abled bodied how does that actually look for a person who has limited abilities and functioning? As I have been and continue to do research, I have struggled to find a lot on the topic. I read the books on Blind Tom and wrote about it in a previous post. He was a famous musician that was never emancipated. But when he was born his master wanted to get rid of him. It was his mother who begged for his life. Later he discovered the piano and the rest is history. The intersectionality of slavery, labor and disability is something I find very interesting. Even to this day we value a human being based on his or her ability to produce. If you are not able to work and produce something of value you are not worth very much. The unemployment rate is sky high right now because of the pandemic  but the unemployment rate in the disability community has also been high  and even worse for disabled African Americans. This has been the case for decades and many don’t blink an eye. The assumption is that disabled people can’t produce and therefore are not very valuable.

African American Slavery and Disability Book Cover

The life of the disabled slave has got me wanting to learn more. In my research I have found one book so far at one of my favorite libraries, Bookshare.   The book is titled, African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860 by Dea H. Boster. The summary says that, disability is often mentioned in discussions of slave health, mistreatment and abuse, but constructs of how “able’ and “disabled” bodies influenced the institution of slavery has gone largely overlooked. This volume uncovers a history of disability in African American slavery from the primary record, analyzing how concepts of race, disability, and power converged in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. I am looking forward to reading this book and learning more about this somewhat unknown part of America’s history.

Haban Girma First Deafblind Black Woman to Graduate From Harvard

Haban Girma Book Cover
Haban Girma Book Cover

Black History Month is quickly coming to a close and as promised I wanted to share about one more black person with a visual impairment. This person is not a historical figure from the past like Blind Tom but rather made recent history by being the first black, deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School.  Her name is Haban Girma and her first name means pride. She is from Eritrea and moved to the United States when she was a child.  She wrote a straight forward, no-nonsense  book about her life entitled Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.  

I read the book through my membership with the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, (NLS).  Unlike Bookshare, NLS provided this book in a commercial audio format so I got to actually hear Girma’s voice as she read her book. NLS books are not text to speech files; each book is read and recorded by a human being. The collection has about 65% fiction and 35% nonfiction. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are the most popular. There are also books in Spanish and a limited number in other languages. NLS is a free library service enacted by Congress that provides printed materials in audio and braille. NLS has regional network libraries that patrons contact to access books, magazines and other materials that are mailed to them via Free Matter for the Blind.  The books are sent as an audio digital cartridge and play on a specialized NLS player. This player is loaned to patrons from the library. But I usually  don’t want to wait for books to come in the mail so I download them via Braille Audio and Reading Download, more commonly known as BARD.  

Listening to Girma tell her story was very interesting and relatable. She shared about her childhood and the challenges of being deafblind especially the moments of isolation she experienced. There were times throughout the book were trying to reach out and engage with others was hard because people don’t get disability. But I appreciated her positive attitude and perseverance. She is not totally blind or totally deaf. She described her hearing loss by saying that when people spoke it sounded like “mumble, mumble.” She also said that traditional hearing aids didn’t work for the type of hearing loss that she had. She has residual vision and she described it as seeing “a parent on a couch as one blob atop another.”

As the years progress, her hearing and vision decreased and she learned how to use a white cane later moving to a guide dog. She also enrolled in a vision rehabilitation center to learn daily living skills and how to be more independent as a blind person. To better communicate with others, she started using a braille note device and Bluetooth keyboard. These pieces of adaptive technology allow Girma to communicate face-to-face with virtually anyone. The person can type on the keyboard, while she reads on the braille device and response verbally. This has helped her to not only communicate, but complete her education, practice law, maintain employment, travel around the world and meet and introduce former President Obama at a disability presentation at the Capitol.,

After reading Girma’s story I felt what an amazing woman! I felt especially proud because she is black and disabled and it is not very often that positive stories of people like myself are written. I left feeling very encouraged by her life and all that she has accomplished so far. Her desire to aim high and reach farther push me to do more of the same. If you want to read her book, and I encourage it, try listening to it in audio. You can check it out at NLS if you are disabled but if not try Audible.com.