Some life events are so momentous you know you will be transformed forever. That knowledge buoyed me as I boarded a city bus to have lunch with my editor at The Dial Press. I was twenty-eight years old, and my first novel had just been accepted for publication.
“Please let me know when we get to 46th Street.” I felt tall and proud, and my voice radiated confidence. Of course the driver would let me know when we reached my stop. This was going to be a perfect day. I had stepped into the winner’s circle.
My earrings swung lightly as I followed my guide dog Yulie, a four-year-old German shepherd, down the narrow aisle. I slipped into a seat and she curled up at my feet. The bus ground forward through the city traffic. We were on our way.
What would my fellow passengers say if they knew they were sharing their morning commute with a genuine author? Finally, I had achieved a version of myself the world would recognize and respect. People would know I wasn’t simply that blind woman with the beautiful dog. I was a woman who signed literary contracts and rushed off to lunches with editors.
Several publishers occupied the third floor of the vast office building at 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a prestigious address right next to the United Nations. After three conflicting sets of directions from strangers, I arrived at the Dial Press suite. I was fifteen minutes early, and the receptionist invited me to wait on the vinyl-covered sofa.
“First,” I said, “could you tell me where the ladies’ room is?”
Stunned silence. “Oh, no! I’m afraid not!” the receptionist stammered. “It’s way down the hall … you’ll never be able to find … there are obstacles …”
What obstacle did she think could possibly stand in my way? I asked again, a firm, no-more-nonsense request for information, but she refused to give even a hint.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll wait.” Surely my editor would have no trouble explaining how to get from Point A to Point B. She was in the business of language, after all.
I heard the receptionist saying my editor’s name. “Your twelve-o’clock appointment is here,” she reported in a clipped, professional tone. Then her voice dropped to a stage whisper. “She has to go to the bathroom,” she hissed. “And she’s blind!”
Heat flooded my face. To the woman behind the desk I was not a triumphant new author. I was merely blind, with all the liabilities that blindness entailed for her. I was an irresponsible, oversized child; at any moment I might pee on the furniture.
Seconds later an inner door flew open, and my editor dashed out to avert disaster. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, she offered to show me to the ladies’ room. She was abundantly gracious, and we salvaged our meeting, despite the awkward start. Over coffee and dessert I brought up a new book idea, and she invited me to submit a proposal.
Publishing my first novel changed my life. I left my career in social work forever and became a full-time writer. But my first meeting with an editor was not the transformative event of that long-ago day. The pivotal moment came when I heard the receptionist announce, “She has to go to the bathroom – and she’s blind!”
Blind since birth, I grew up having to prove myself to others. My family believed in me, but beyond the safe sphere of home the world was full of doubters and detractors. Teachers offered to lighten my assignments; scout leaders discouraged me from going on field trips; at the amusement park a manager refused to let me ride the roller coaster. “You better not try that, dear,” I heard again and again. “Wait over here … We’ll do it for you … That will be easier … safer …” Past success and present abilities counted for nothing. The refrain was endless: “You can’t do that. It’s not for you. You’re blind.”
Achievement was the key, my parents assured me. If I studied hard and seized every opportunity, I would carve a place for myself in the world. I came to believe that if I were enough of a success in life, someday people would see me fully. They would know that blindness did not define me, that it was just one aspect of who I was, like being female and American. The receptionist showed me that no achievement would ever free me from the humiliations of prejudice.
As a student on a liberal campus in the 1960s, I answered the call to collective action many times. I marched on the Pentagon with a placard that demanded “BRING THE BOYS BACK HOME!” I tutored underprivileged children and visited patients who languished on state psychiatric wards. I knew I was blessed to have grown up with a loving family in a clean, comfortable suburb. Out in the Real World were millions who did not enjoy my good fortune. My generation was committed to changing all that. We would shatter the bulwarks of inequality and create the world that ought to be.
While I sang “We Shall Overcome” and added my voice to the chorus that called for “PEACE NOW!” I was fighting an endless series of lonely battles. An art professor barred me from his studio sculpture course; a doctor in the campus clinic refused to sign my routine health form for a trip overseas; I was turned down for participation in a winter term project. It was because I was blind, they said. That was all the reason anyone needed.
Each struggle honed my skills at fighting back. I learned to bargain, to build an argument, to go over heads. In the end, after varying degrees of stress and psychic pain, I usually prevailed. Doors opened – tentatively, grudgingly – but once I crossed the threshold I had another chance to prove myself capable.
It never occurred to me that the roadblocks I dealt with were symptoms of a pervasive social injustice. Terms such as racism and capitalist exploitation were part of my vocabulary, but I knew no word for the exclusion I encountered because of my blindness. It seemed deeply personal, a shameful burden unique to my experience. My friends were sighted. I had never had a blind mentor. In all my life I had never met a blind teacher, a blind shopkeeper, a blind banker, or even a blind homemaker raising children. As far as I could tell, blind people vanished into the stratosphere when they grew up. I felt I was embarking upon a solo journey.
After I graduated from college I earned a master’s degree in social work. I had built a strong résumé, laced with volunteer work and summer internships in addition to my graduate training. My résumé won me a series of job interviews. Over the phone prospective employers were cordial and enthusiastic, but the tone turned cool the moment I walked through the door. Sometimes a position that was available that very morning miraculously had been filled at noon. Sometimes the interviewer served up advice. At the large agencies I was told to try a smaller place where the staff could give me the special attention I surely would need. At the small agencies, I heard, “You should apply at one of the big places that have a lot of different programs; maybe they can fit you in somewhere.” The social work director at a renowned private hospital declared, “Because of your handicap I’m not about to hire you. Why should I hire someone with a problem? I have dozens of other applicants to choose from.”
As the months passed, all of my classmates found work. They became self-supporting adults, respectable members of the community. I was still living at home, sending out résumés and growing more and more desperate. I began to understand that the treatment I received had nothing to do with my personal failings. It was a generic response to my blindness, not unlike the rejection African Americans historically experienced when they applied to an all-white college or sat down at a whites-only lunch counter. I was dealing with blatant discrimination. Surely there were people who could help me. I called the ACLU.
The woman who answered the phone listened carefully, then passed my call to someone else. “We’ve never had a situation like this before,” I heard, and my heart sank. My call was handed on yet again, to “someone who will know.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t help you,” the voice of authority told me at last. “If it was discrimination because of race or religion or gender, we could take it on. But there aren’t any laws about discrimination on the basis of disability. If you want help from us, you’ll have to change the law first.” I went back to my résumés and my interviews.
After months of searching, I found a position at a community mental health clinic in a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side. It was an ideal job for me, allowing me to work with a wide variety of clients. My colleagues were warm and welcoming, and I quickly became a full-fledged member of the team. I rented an apartment in the city and flung myself into my exciting new life. But I couldn’t forget the ordeal of discrimination that I had endured. When a financial crisis threatened to close the settlement house and throw me back into the job market, I felt a clutch of dread.
I had been living in New York for two years when I crossed paths with a blind acquaintance from my childhood. We had attended the same summer camp for blind children, and now she, too, was living in the city. Like me, she had encountered a wall of discrimination when she looked for a job after college. Now she had banded together with a group of young blind professionals to write an amendment to the New York State Human Rights Act so that it would cover disability as well as race, religion, and gender. I remembered my call to the ACLU and pitched in to help. Our amendment passed and became part of the law in New York State. A few months later, the state law was superseded when the U.S. Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Its groundbreaking Section 504 forbade discrimination against people with disabilities in any program that received $2,500 or more per year in federal funds.
What had happened was extraordinary. Hundreds of us with disabilities – blind people, deaf people, polio survivors, people with cerebral palsy – had pooled our strength and changed the world. We had won legal protections that never existed before.
I stepped back in relief. I didn’t want disability rights to become my life work. With the passage of the new laws I felt free to move on. Of course, it was naive to imagine that Section 504 would vanquish discrimination. Yet I believed that change would be powerful and clear. Blind students would no longer be forbidden to take the classes they wanted, and blind job seekers would have recourse if a prospective employer said, “Because of your handicap I’m not about to hire you.” Busy with my career and my circle of friends, I didn’t try to learn whether the law was having an impact. I wanted to believe in good news.
Eventually I left my social work job and moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico to try my hand at writing. I would stay for a year, I told myself, but I stayed for five. I wrote a young-adult novel, Belonging. I sent it off to make its way in the world, and one day I received a letter saying that it had been accepted for publication. I went to the Dial Press to have lunch with my editor.
The women’s movement of the early ‘70s coined the phrase, “The personal is political.” What could be more personal than the desire to visit the ladies’ room discreetly and with dignity? In that moment with the receptionist at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, my dignity was stripped away.
The truth did not come to me with a blare of trumpets and a crash of cymbals. It seeped in drop by drop as the years passed; everyday life brought reminders and reinforcements I could no longer ignore. Step by step I waded into activism. Turning away was no longer an option.
I became a committed member of the National Federation of the Blind, an organization that advocates for the full participation of blind people in all aspects of life. We fight for equal opportunities in education and employment, for access to technology, for the right of blind parents to raise their children, for accurate portrayals of blind people in the media. We work to educate the public about the abilities of blind people and the contributions we can make when we are given a chance. To me, one of our most crucial activities is the mentoring of blind young people. We try to teach them that they can walk with confidence, that they can grow up to carry all the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood, that it’s perfectly respectable to be blind.
Today when I visit the offices of a publisher, I don’t have to ask where the ladies’ room is. On the wall outside each restroom door is a Braille sign clearly marked “MEN” or “WOMEN.” Discreetly and with dignity, I can choose the right door.