The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

October 6, 2007

disABILITY: 'Disabled' doesn't mean 'unskilled'

Did you know that blindness is the third-most feared thing in this country after AIDS and cancer, and keeps employment of the visually impaired limited to 26 percent of those ages 21 to 64?

I don't know about you, but I find that really appalling. It doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be that way at all.

Would you say that babies are at a devastating disadvantage because they can't talk or because they have little muscular and motor control? Hopefully you realize that it's only a temporary situation. As they grow, they learn and hone their skills. Sooner or later you have a child, and then an adult, who is capable and talented in so many ways that weren't readily apparent from the start.

Let me just tell you, people who go blind have the capacity to learn, function independently and have some pretty impressive talents, too. And, it's not always readily apparent right from the start either. People develop and become adept at things over time and with practice. But it can't happen if they are prevented from having the chance to challenge themselves with new things and gain confidence through adequate exposure.

The problem is that our culture is so convinced that this is a visual world. At best, there's a general fear that anyone without sight is inevitably in danger of hurting themselves, or at worst blind people are written off as completely out of luck.

But wouldn't you say that it is pretty hard to succeed when nobody wants to give you a chance to get experience, or perhaps prove the skills you possess already? How does one get his foot in the door when the door is bolted shut on him?

There are many blind people out there with a whole repertoire of skills, adaptive technologies and personal modifications, all of which help them achieve equivalent work standards as their sighted counterparts. But because the people hiring can't imagine being blindfolded for a day and being able to handle themselves, they automatically decide that there isn't any way that anyone else would be able to have the capacity to do it either.

I had applied for a dish-washing position at one eating establishment right after graduation. I'd worked in two other kitchens during prior summers and had volunteer experience to back me up. But, of course, the man looked at me and my cane more than he looked at my resume.

And with that, he turned me away, saying I'd end up getting knocked over and wouldn't be able to handle the busy environment there.

I was a bit irritated to know that I was seen as fragile or weak, at least as compared to my peers, just because I was blind. What people don't initially realize is that I do have ways of coping with circumstances and situations that work for me.

I do also have ways of doing a job as it's supposed to be done, and I do it as safely, accurately and professionally as other people do it. My methods might not be completely the same as other people's, but it's the slight modifications in the way I do things or the way I carry myself that makes me able to be on equal ground with others.

I'm sure there are reasons out there as to why a process ought not be modified, but it's ridiculous to reject modifications of process when the outcome ends up the same as it would have been otherwise.

You know, vision is probably the only sense that most sighted people use to its full capacity. And, because they do use it so fully, it leaves no real need for them to use their other senses to capacity. That doesn't mean that the other senses aren't as adequate or are of lesser quality than vision.

I, personally, use my other senses to a much greater capacity than I think people even realize is possible. For example, I have what I call 3-D hearing.

What I mean by that is, just as other people have visual depth perception, I have auditory depth perception.

More technically, it is referred to as "facial vision." It's much more developed in people without sight. Facial vision refers to the ability to sense subtle variations in sound direction, air pressure and electronic fields. And that perception can be used to distinguish size, shape, distance and a whole lot of other technical things that people mistake as exclusively visual.

You know what, though? I didn't get to the place I'm at all by myself. I had parents who did so much to support and advocate for me when I was a kid. I was mainstreamed in a regular school and given encouragement and opportunities alongside my sighted peers to participate in art, music and sports. I was taught everything from the basics, such as reading and spelling, to the more advanced things such as Spanish and trigonometry.

There's really no single experience that has taught me what I know and what I'm capable of now. It is, however, more a combination of all experiences and all exposures to a variety of things that has helped me become adaptable and perceptive.

It's the duty of parents, teachers and community support groups to help children with disabilities or impairments to gain a healthy self-confidence, and to explore the practical modifications and adaptations necessary. After that, it's up to business people to recognize that disability does not automatically mean unskilled.

Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for 11 years.