Quarterly Publication of the
100 East 22nd Street
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404
Voice: (612) 872-9363
Tom Scanlan, Editor
Volume 75, Number 3, Fall 2009
WE ARE CHANGING
WHAT IT MEANS
TO BE BLIND
Table of Contents
By Jennifer Dunnam, President
The expression "You never know what will happen in the next moment" seems truer these days than ever. Change is, of course, inevitable, and there is a great deal of it happening quite rapidly just now. Some of the changes take the form of unexpected twists, to which we must be prepared to react and shape the outcome. Some have come about as the result of careful planning and hard work on our part. Some are clearly for the best; some are difficult, and the positive may take time to emerge. Some happen quickly; some, in order to work well, have to be made strategically rather than swiftly.
The field of work in blindness here in Minnesota is in quite a state of flux at the moment. First, there are significant changes in leadership at State Services for the Blind. Of course, the directorship is in transition, and the nature of that change is still to be determined. There have been other retirements and announcements of impending retirements — including that of our own Jan Bailey, who will retire from her long and stellar career as an SSB counselor in December. This is not to mention the sudden and devastating terminal illness of Mary Archer, who has with great skill and dedication directed the Braille Section at SSB for many years.
There is a new director at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, and we are very much looking forward to meeting her at our annual convention this year. Also, the Department of Education is, at this writing, still seeking a qualified person to fill the position of Director of the Minnesota Resource Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired vacated when Jean Martin retired in October of 2008.
In spite of what succession planning may have occurred, the loss of the experience of all these people will have an impact, and it requires that we in the Federation be more vigilant than ever about monitoring the services and communicating with the agencies, so that they will continue to recognize us as the important resource that we are, and so they will know when something needs improving.
In no small part due to pressure from the NFB of Minnesota, there has been what looks to be a positive change regarding the staff training at SSB. A new policy was released in July, adding several components and increasing the length of adjustment-to-blindness training to six weeks. The request for proposals from training facilities has just been released, and we'll know more of how the policy will be implemented once the process is further along. We will also do all we can to see that the improvements remain in place regardless of leadership transitions at the agency.
Our work on a project as far-reaching in scope as our Braille Readers are Leaders campaign is just one of many examples of how the National Federation of the Blind has changed and grown in stature and power on a national level, taking on challenges of a scale we could only dream of 20 years ago. With the greater stature and power come greater responsibility and the requirement of new skills and approaches. Earlier this year, the U.S. Mint released the Louis Braille Commemorative Coin for sale. This achievement came about as the result of hard work on the part of our members all over this country, who contacted their legislators, convincing them of the critical need to do something about the horrendously low rate of literacy in braille among children. We achieved passage of the legislation by congress; we helped to design the first coin with readable braille issued by the U.S. Mint. We celebrated its release on March 26 with various events around the country. We have been working to help promote the coins and raise awareness about the need for braille literacy programs. But the job isn’t finished yet. The coins not sold by December 31, 2009, will be destroyed, and no more will be made. In order for us to realize fully the fruit of all our efforts, we need to do all we can, each of us, and all of us, to sell as many of these beautiful coins as possible. It is much easier to sell a thing when the potential buyers can get it in their hands and take it away with them after parting with their money. The Minnesota affiliate has purchased a stash of the coins, and they are available now, right here in Minnesota. They will be on hand at the convention and other meetings as well. We will be working to sell them at local coin shows, and other events, but we need as many individuals as possible to help sell them to people you come across who care about helping to improve literacy for blind children.
We now live in a world where something as simple as purchasing a washing machine has taken on more complexity and expense just to be sure we can use it. New technology is for sure a double-edged sword because of the unprecedented access and power it can bring us, and also the unprecedented ways in which it can shut us out of areas that once presented no problems unless we fight for inclusion of nonvisual access. We must do this while still maintaining the ability to be creative and resourceful about getting tasks done even when a nonvisual method is not obvious.
In Minnesota, we started Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) Inc. 20+ years ago, running it out of an apartment. Now BLIND has paid off the mortgage on our beautiful mansion that we once had to fight to even be permitted to purchase. We celebrated the milestone in delightful fashion at the end of July, and we can all be extremely proud of this accomplishment.
Of course, our affiliate has been undergoing some transition as well. During the past two years since you elected me president, I’ve learned more than I ever knew needed learning. There have been exciting accomplishments, but getting the hang of the many aspects to this job has not always been easy. I am grateful for all of the help and support from you who share our positive philosophy and our willingness to work together to put it into action. Our future looks as bright as ever, because this is a strong organization with a clear purpose. We don't just complain about the problems, but we roll up our sleeves and bring to bear our collective experience and our philosophy as we work together toward solutions. For our own growth as an organization — not only growth in size but also growth in depth — there will always be a need for us to make changes in our approaches, and we'll think these changes through so that we build on the good we already have and won't need to try to re-invent the wheel.
Amid all the changes, some things remain. Society still needs our help to understand the truth about blindness and to raise expectations for blind people. Too many people are still unnecessarily limited by low expectations. No matter what advances in technology may come, we who are blind need basic skills in literacy, travel, daily living and many other alternative techniques if we are to compete on terms of equality with those who are not blind, as we know we can. We in the NFB of Minnesota have long been a force for bringing improvement, and we will continue to do so. We are a relatively small group within society, and so, to be the force we want to be we must act in an organized and cohesive way. We in the Federation will, as we always have, seize the opportunity brought by all these changes, so that more will be able to learn the truth about blindness.
(Or, Did I Really Want to Cross that Street?)
It was a beautiful spring day, and even the air in downtown Minneapolis smelled fresh. She felt very good, having gotten great feedback on the training session she'd just conducted on web accessibility. And now, a quick errand downtown, and wasn’t there an Italian sandwich shop on the way? It would be just off the escalator on the fourth level of Gaviidae Common, as she recalled. Perfect — she’d stop there and pick up a quick dinner before heading home.
She entered the building and listened for the sound of the escalator. There was a cascade of sound — maybe a fountain, ventilation fans, and music — but where was that escalator? Hearing someone come through the door she had just entered, she turned and asked, "Excuse me, can you tell me where the up escalator is?"
"The what?" the stranger replied, "It's hard to hear in here, isn't it.”
"The escalator going up!" she said just a little louder.
"Okay, follow me." They walked what seemed like a long way and she suddenly heard a bell ring and the sound of a door opening that could mean only one thing.
"But this is the elevator!" she exclaimed in surprise and frustration.
"This is what I thought most people like you use, and I figured that was what you really wanted."
Rather than discussing it further, she jumped on quickly before the door closed. She had escaped from the not so helpful stranger, but had also left behind all of the good feelings of the day. She wondered what makes a stranger believe they know what you want more than you do. Finding the sandwich shop now would take a little more doing, but she would do it and take the escalator back down.
Some time earlier in downtown Minneapolis, he stood on the corner listening to the traffic and contemplating the nice weather when a woman dressed in business attire approached swiftly from behind him. He thought how it was too bad that everyone is always in such a hurry as he heard the pounding of hard-heeled dress shoes on the sidewalk. Suddenly, she hooked her left arm under his right arm and said without breaking stride, "come on, the light is green, let's go."
"But, but I ...” he started to say with surprise as he was propelled across the narrow street. Because she had hooked the arm he used to carry his cane, he could not use it properly and slightly tripped on the curb as they completed the crossing.
"It's a good thing I had a tight hold on you," she said, "and have a nice day." She raced off to who knows where and was therefore not able to see the expressions of surprise and frustration on the man's face. Before crossing, the man had been considering which street to cross at the corner depending upon which errand to tackle first. She would therefore have been confused had she heard him say to himself, "I guess I don't have to make that decision any more."
These are two examples of incidents that happen from time to time to many blind people, and in fact, both of the incidents above happened to the writers of this article, modified only slightly. Such encounters result in misunderstanding and even frustration at times, not just to those of us who are blind, but also for those who think they are being helpful. The complexity of the nature of offering and accepting help was brought home to us through something that happened when offering one another help. We'll present both sides of the story.
Steve's version: "I was hurrying to the chapter meeting after retrieving a cord I needed for the sound system from storage in the basement of our building, when I encountered Jennifer carrying some papers. A few sheets fell off the stack and glided across the room. Since I heard them land, I quickly walked over, picked them up, and handed them back to her. She thanked me politely, but I knew she was not particularly happy with me, and at the time was not certain why."
Jennifer: "I had just finished printing out several small documents in my office and was about to carry them upstairs. As I walked out the door, a page slid out of my hand and floated across the room. Steve came by, clearly in a hurry to get the audio equipment hooked up for the chapter meeting, which was supposed to start in mere seconds. When he heard the papers fall, however, he stopped. Without saying a word, he tracked down the pages, effectively preventing me from doing so, and handed them to me. I thanked him, of course — a kinder, more well-meaning person than Steve you’ll rarely meet — but I felt frustrated, just about as frustrated as I do sometimes when strangers are over-helpful. I could have found the papers just as easily as he did, and I was not in a hurry as he was. Of course, I understand the normal desire to help when a mishap occurs, and this would have been no big deal at all had it been an isolated instance, but this wasn’t the first time I felt over-helped, and I wanted us to reach an understanding since we work together very often."
As a result, we later discussed the nature of help, why it is offered, when it should be accepted and how it can be gracefully declined. It was enlightening to explore this subject on a situation in which sight and blindness were not a part of the equation as they usually are. One outcome of our discussion is a much better working relationship, but we understood much more about the nature of help as well. We realized even more clearly that help is complicated. It is really only "help" when the person receiving it feels as though it is. If two friends experience the complexities of help, is it surprising that things do not always go smoothly between strangers? Also, problems associated with giving and receiving help are not associated with blindness alone. Nobody wants to be offered help based upon the assumption that we are not capable of performing a given task. The above experience that we shared was the motivation to try to explore this issue through this article.
In our first two examples, there were more issues involved than just providing help. The woman, whom we will call Jennifer for the purposes of this article, already had a general idea of where the escalator was and could eventually have located it herself. She had asked for help that would, if given as requested, have made the process a little faster for her and brought little if any inconvenience to the passerby. He was willing to help, but his assumption that he knew best how to help made him unable to listen to what was really needed, causing inconvenience to both of them by taking them each a long distance out of their way.
What about the surprised man about to cross the street? We'll call him Steve to add a personal touch. What considerations made up his surprise and frustration? First, because of how the help was given, the hooking of his cane arm, he tripped on the curb making the helper feel justified in helping without realizing she had actually caused him to trip, reinforcing her feeling that help was required. Also, he was never asked if he needed help, not unlike what he did when he picked up Jennifer's papers without asking. Because of his handling of the street crossing, the woman would be even more certain next time that her assumption that help was needed was indeed correct.
Consider the reasons a sighted stranger may try to help a blind person. Sometimes help may be offered because of a look of confusion, frustration, or hesitation on our part. However, it is mostly offered when a blind person is about to undertake something that most sighted people cannot imagine handling without being able to see. What that means is that we are likely going to use an alternative technique that is mostly unknown to the person offering assistance, which means he or she has little idea how we're going to manage without help.
Besides this, we are individuals with differing strengths. Someone else may have gratefully accepted the help not needed by one individual a short time before, which can add confusion as well.
So why don't we just avoid the confusion and accept all help that comes our way? Why is it important enough to give this much thought to it? After all, people who are not blind help one another all the time, don't they? Well, as mentioned earlier, there are times when, even among persons having regular vision, care needs to be taken when offering help, but we'll leave that for another article. The reason we need to examine this topic is that we who are blind have a heritage in which “help”, generally considered a good thing, has too often stemmed from a lack of confidence in our capabilities and has been the agent of thwarting our independence and taking away our opportunities. We know that too much help comes at a great price, and we have worked very hard to achieve the independence we have, so that we can be fully participating members of our society. This very same desire to be integrated into society, however, requires of us that we find ways of dealing with unneeded help that educate people rather than just putting them off. We often find ourselves on the one hand not wanting to appear rude, and on the other hand not wanting to sell ourselves out or send the wrong message to others by accepting unnecessary help. It is not easy at all, but realizing that there is a basis for our feelings is a starting point for sorting out how to deal with the problem effectively.
Especially when alternative techniques are new to us, it can sometimes be easier to accept help than to do without that help. However, it is a little like having someone else do your homework, the job gets done but nothing is learned. We are also teachers, whether we choose to accept that role or not. When we demonstrate that we can do something, that we can handle a given situation, we teach those around us what can be done. If we are thoughtful, we can teach the public that we are individuals with different strengths. It is therefore only natural that each of us may react differently to an offer of help.
As Steve approached a long and curling line of people at the Twin Cities airport, a worker said to him, "Where do you need to go?"
"I need to check in for my flight to Baltimore, and I don't have a boarding pass yet. Is this the correct line?"
"Come right over here and I can help you," the worker replied.
"Is that really the line, though? It seems entirely too short."
"No, this is first-class check-in, and nobody is flying first class these days."
"I'm afraid I'm not flying first class, either, and I would like to take my place in line. Where is the end?"
"It is no problem at all, I can help you right here."
Steve replied firmly, "I know you are trying to help, but I really do not want to be given special help that I don't need. I have plenty of time before my flight leaves. Please just let me know where the end of the check-in line is."
The worker was silent for a moment or two, and then he said, "I guess you probably get tired of being treated special, especially when you don't need it." He then gave Steve clear instructions and he took his place in line.
Not every attempt to redirect help turns out this well, but this time the worker truly thought about it and understood. What is more, though, a message was also sent to everyone else who was standing in line — that a blind person is perfectly capable of standing in line with everyone else.
Several months ago, Jennifer was asked to pre-board an airplane when leaving Washington D.C. When she said she had flown often and would have no problem boarding with the other passengers, the gate agent actually became angry and walked away in a huff, apparently not understanding that it would be hard to get lost on a jetway. Of course, when Jennifer did board, she waited in line on the plane while those ahead of her situated themselves. Clearly, she had not delayed anyone. Who knows if the gate agent observed her and learned anything or not, but the passengers, not being aware of any confrontation, certainly saw a capable blind person board right along with them. Jennifer’s purpose in not pre-boarding, however, had very little to do with proving anything to anyone. Even though the gate agent had no concept of how it would work, to board the plane during general boarding was very normal for Jennifer — a non-event — and she didn’t see a reason to do it differently this time.
Confrontation is not always much fun, but accepting help we don't need results in loss of control over our own lives, sending the wrong message to those around us, and just plain making us feel small inside. Repeatedly accepting help that is not needed can even cause us to begin believing we do need it at some level.
We all know where the road paved with good intention leads, but we should not forget that most help is offered with good intentions. Certainly, it is true that some people offer help for other reasons, too, but disregarding good intentions won't help us in the end, either. Therefore, how we indicate that help is not needed is a delicate challenge, and each of us has to figure out ways to handle it by developing our own help strategies. These will be different for each of us depending upon our personalities, but it is something that we should think about ahead of time so that we’re ready when the next situation arises. Every situation is different, and there is a range of options, but preferably, we will find strategies that involve neither reacting with anger nor routinely accepting help that is not really needed. If we understand the nature of help, and why we feel as we do, we can develop a strategy for handling it in a way that preserves our control over our lives, enlightens others about the truth of blindness, and maximizes the chances that we will build bridges rather than walls.
In the National Federation of the Blind, we work to let people know that being blind does not automatically mean needing help, and that blind people expect to give help and not just receive it. Throughout our activities, we try to model what we would like to see in the larger society by creating an environment of normal expectations for everyone and working from the assumption that people are capable of doing for themselves and will ask if they need help. If we offer help, we leave the option to decline it, and we listen if different help is needed. We teach and learn from one another, directly or by example, the skills to do something independently that we once may have thought required help. Finally, we assist each other to find the best ways of dealing with the complexities of help and at the same time being independent. This aspect of the NFB is essential and benefits each of us as we live our daily lives as part of our larger communities, and it goes a great distance toward improving opportunities for blind people everywhere. Developing a strategy for accepting and declining help won't just happen, though. We need to consider the complexities and discuss approaches with one another. Perhaps what we have written here can provide a good place to start.
(Editor’s Note: On July 24, 2009 the members of the NFB of Minnesota, staff and students of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), and friends of both organizations gathered to celebrate the final payment of BLIND’s mortgage on the building at 100 E. 22nd St., jointly owned by the two. NFB of Minnesota did not have a mortgage, having paid cash for its share in the ownership of the building. Joyce Scanlan is the founding executive director of BLIND, and the past president of NFB of Minnesota. She gave the following address as the keynote of that event.)
This is indeed a fantastic day of celebration for both the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and for Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Incorporated. As far as I’m concerned, no one at all should be surprised. Yes, there were those who said early on in our existence, “Oh, they’ll be gone by April.” That was more than twenty years ago. Of course, they never said which April, so we were never very worried. We’ve already celebrated the twentieth birthday of the training program itself; but here we are toasting another glorious occasion: the final payment on our building mortgage. After fifteen years of on-time payments to TCF Bank, our two favorite organizations are the proud owners of this exquisite facility. It is now our very own, bought and fully paid for. I can’t wait to see that mortgage consumed by the flames. The deed is now wholly ours, and we have the papers to prove it.
Let me go back a bit and talk about some interesting background information that some of you may not have heard before. When we opened BLIND, Inc. in 1988, this very building was on the market for sale. The price didn’t matter; we didn’t have a dime to buy it anyway. Buying our own building at that time just wasn’t on our radar.
However, five years later, after we had survived the 3-year establishment grant business, we began to see a little more black in our budget and decided we could afford a down payment to purchase our own building. We began shopping around. We actually looked at 16 possibilities and ultimately selected this edifice. But that was after making down payments on two other buildings, one former funeral home and/or restaurant on Harmon Place, and one sort of sportsy/entertainment facility on the corner of 24th and Blaisdell. It had turned out in both cases that the former owners backed out of the deal — nothing to do with our interest or ability to pay. Luck was truly on our side because this building then came on the market again. Students, staff and board members approved of the purchase, after several inspections, so we signed the purchase agreement and confidently moved forward to raise the necessary money to become proud property owners.
Let me tell you of our unfortunate experience with a fundraising outfit to whom we paid $15,000 to help us raise the much-needed cash. They eagerly accepted our money and proceeded to do absolutely nothing to bring in money. We learned later that these two women had persuaded themselves that we were not going to make it to closure on the building anyway, so they disappeared without any explanation whatsoever. They took our money and ran, literally. Little did they know that we had real friends; we knew the treasurer of the NFB of Minnesota and there was no way we would be left in the lurch. With the partnership of the Federation, we were successful in coming up with the necessary $105,000 on the day we closed on the sale, December 27, 1993.
Many of you know of the razzle-dazzle the local Whittier neighborhood raised when word spread that blind people had bought this building. “Oh, blind people would never be able to appreciate the grandeur of this building.” “The building should return to being a private home with a family living there.” The negative talk was rampant up and down the public streets, in the neighborhood restaurants, and in the private homes. After pleading our case at multiple neighborhood gatherings making our reasoned case for being worthy of living in the community, the Whittier group held its secret meeting and voted 27 to 3 to accept us as property owners in their auspicious neighborhood.
Little did they know that we, too, had qualms about bringing our programs into these surroundings. We went to the local police department to check out the safety record of the area. When we asked the officer about Whittier’s crime rate, he asked us where we were now living. We told him we had been on Fifth Street downtown for several years, and he just laughed. I’m not sure he was right, but his laugh indicated that at least in his mind, Whittier was safer. That was enough to convince us that we could weather the strife in Whittier.
One more brief story about our early struggles in the neighborhood — our next-door neighbor vigorously objected to our moving in right next to his property. Within one month of our arrival, which was on March 26, 1994, he filed a lawsuit against us charging that our presence next to him devalued his property by $100,000, and he was suing us for that amount. Our attorney, Fred Ojile, put a quick end to the guy’s charges, and our enraged neighbor disappeared, leaving his house in a devastated condition and in the hands of the bank. We’ve had at least three more owners in that house since, without a bit of trouble from any of them.
Moving into the building was another traumatic adventure for many of us. Both the Federation and BLIND, Inc. moved in at the same time. Boxes were piled everywhere, and some students were trying to be helpful, while others were looking for hiding places to avoid the heavy work. Remember, we had no kitchens; contractors and architects were busily drawing up designs with the home management instructor so that work could begin as soon as possible. Tensions were high and tempers were short. Everyone survived, but we all heaved a big sigh of relief when the move was finally over.
The new building was a major change from where we had been. Our previous digs had consisted of about 3,700 square feet, all on one floor, and here we now had settled into about 27,000 square feet spread out over four floors. Well, our space was on three floors, because the Guthrie Theater people were on the fourth floor for the first two years.
Owning our very own space was a new adventure for all of us. For the first several years, we were in the midst of construction, the kitchens, the accessible bathroom and ramps, the elevator, the woodshop, fire doors, the front steps and sidewalk, and on and on. We were fortunate to receive an accessibility grant from SSB to make our building acceptable for everyone. Dealing with the city on every construction project was another challenge and has been ongoing to this very day. And, Shawn, you may as well get used to it; it will go on forever and ever. Once you take ownership of a building such as ours, it will take on a life of its own and grab a major chunk of yours also.
We must pledge to ourselves that we will care for this building with all the upkeep, remodeling, and beautifying as its age and our reputations and finances require; but we can never forget the first priority must be our students and the fine program we operate within these walls. I have definite faith that both the Federation and BLIND, Inc. board and staff will never forget or abandon our original purpose in creating this program — to provide quality training for blind people and to guarantee their future success in leading meaningful and productive lives. That was our pledge to one another in the beginning, and it remains so today and will always be so. We know we can learn from history, but we must keep our focus on the future. Life does change, and we must be focused on the changing needs of our brothers and sisters who are blind.
Here is a well-known poem, which speaks to the future and our connection to it. It speaks of passing the torch and embodies a Federationist philosophy of consideration for those who come after us:
The Bridge Builder
By Will Allen Dromgoole
man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide--
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."
Let us all keep this philosophy in our hearts and minds as we move forward in the years ahead.
By Emily Zitek
Growing up, there were two things my mother constantly said that always stick out in my mind: (1) stand up for what you believe, and (2) no matter what you do, try to be as successful as possible. Since then, I've always tried my hardest to accomplish both. And right now, my mission to do this lies within my career as a Business Enterprises Program (BEP, part of State Services for the Blind) operator.
I started my business in August 2008 as a temporary operator at the Departments of Health and Agriculture in St. Paul. I maintain 20 vending machines, 2 coffee clubs, and a convenience store. At the time I was asked to run this business as a temporary operator, it was still being decided whether this business would remain open because no operator was able to make enough money for it to be classified as making program average. My agreement with the BEP staff was that I would run the business for six months starting August 18, the day of my grand opening, and then after those six months, they would evaluate the structure of the business again and decide if the business would indeed remain open.
So I began running the business without much starting inventory and without much credibility with the customers. In fact, for the first week or so, customers wouldn't come into the store because they didn't realize that someone else had taken over. In most cases, customers were coming down planning to buy something, and the store was seldom open. But despite that, I began filling my machines twice a week, being consistently open, keeping products in stock and in date, and listening to what the customers wanted to see in the store.
By October, I was beginning to form a routine of daily responsibilities of running a business, such as keeping and maintaining book records, filling the machines, putting together orders, stocking the coolers and shelves in the store, and maintaining a friendly atmosphere for the customers so that they would remember their experience in my store as being a pleasant one. I was thinking that I had six months to continue enjoying this experience, and even if they decided not to keep it open in February, I would walk away from that business knowing that I had tried my best to ensure customer satisfaction.
Then suddenly, in about mid-October, BEP notified me that after further evaluation of the growth of the business, they had decided that Stand Number 165 would become open for bids. When I asked why they had made this decision so hastily, their response was that I had brought the sales of that business up much faster than they had expected, and BEP started getting many, many calls from satisfied customers, reporting how good a job the new owner was doing and how no one wanted to see the ownership change. Reports indicated that the store looked much cleaner and more organized, and they were happy that more variety of products was available, and best of all, the vending machines were always clean, filled and working.
This says a lot about being successful. As I learned in my BEP training, it's not that you have to be a great vendor; you just have to be better than the last operator was.
BEP has been around for many years, as most of us know. But what some of us don't realize is that things have changed since the enactment of the Randolph-Sheppard Act. The standards are much higher, and many vendors make a very good living. And let's face it: I could name four or five Metro Chapter members who have recently gotten involved in the program.
Every morning, all of us get out of bed with some sort of goal in mind. As members of the National Federation of the Blind, one of those goals is to work as hard as possible to educate the public about blindness and change the misconceptions that many people still have. What I do for a living is very hard work.
There are still misconceptions about the vending program, one being that it is a sheltered workshop. At one time, this may have been the case, which is understandable. But we must get with the times here and realize that the dynamics have changed in recent years. To my understanding, many years ago, some state agencies would place a client in the vending program if there weren't any other job opportunities for that client, almost like a last resort situation. It wasn't uncommon for a blind person to sit behind a counter all day, and all they had to do was collect money. Coke and Pepsi and whatever other distributors they had would stock the store for that operator. But in the past few years, there have been many requirements each applicant must pass before getting into training, such as good manual dexterity, excellent travel and computer skills, efficient reading and writing, and a certain degree of math skills. In addition, there are tests to evaluate whether each applicant is suitable for dealing with customers, stressful situations, and other aspects related to owning a business.
And I must say that once in the program, you are on your own. After you graduate from class and get a stand, you will take an initial inventory with the help of the BEP staff. Afterward, it's up to you. They will let you be successful, or they will let you run your business into the ground; it is your choice. It's sad to say that some operators have failed, but it has happened. Service technicians are available if there are problems you can't fix yourself, but you need to know how to make some repairs on the machines. There is support from the staff if there are problems beyond your control to help with the protocol of the general operations of your building location. But like any other small business, you are responsible for every decision you make, every set of records, every machine, and every problem that arises in that business.
One of the most difficult things I've had to face thus far is something we all hate dealing with on a personal income level — taxes. I worked at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) for almost ten years, and not once in that ten years did I ever have to worry about taking taxes out of my paycheck, because that was already done for me. All I had to do was make sure to file by April 15 every year, which was painless. In fact, most years I usually got a refund. But now, it's all in my hands. Nobody's going to look over your shoulder and make sure you pay your quarterly taxes. If I don't estimate my quarterly taxes within a certain percentage, the IRS and state revenue department penalize me. I can't just blame my employer, because I'm the employer myself. And this especially goes for problems that occur on a daily basis.
It isn't uncommon to want to blame another co-worker in your office because something didn't get faxed, turned in on time, ordered, or mailed. But I can't do that, and even if something isn't my fault, the customers know it's my business, so they automatically assume it's my fault. I might hire Cousin Joey to fill the machines when I'm sick and he may have been the one who put the diet Coke where the regular Coke should be. But customers don't know that. When a problem comes up, the sooner you take care of it, the more reliable your customers will perceive you to be. I'll use a classic example: about two weeks ago, I had a Coke machine that froze, which meant that every single can of product in that machine froze, expanded, and blew up. This happened over the weekend, so when I opened it up one Monday morning, the whole inside of the machine was like a huge snow cone that began avalanching toward me. Fortunately, all I had to do besides clean the mess was call Coke to come and change the temperature controller in the machine, but that machine was out of order for about two days, which means I was losing money. Customers don't always understand that it takes time to have service done on a machine, or that I'm waiting for a part to arrive from Japan. All they know is that Emily needs to get it fixed, and they get really grumpy if they don't have their pop available at break time.
Managing both the store and vending machines can be challenging, and this is why time management is so important. If I preferred, I could sit in the store all day and hire somebody else to fill my machines, which is something I don't like to do even when I'm sick. Or, I could go in early and stay late to fill the machines, which is what I do on a regular basis. But many times, I hire someone to mind my store for a few hours in the middle of the day while I go out and fill the machines. Doing this allows customers on their lunch break to observe that I'm the one filling the machines; I'm the one you need to talk to about a candy bar that was stuck in the machine or about your dollar getting jammed in the bill acceptor. They also realize that I'm not just pawning my responsibilities off on someone else.
It's up to you how hard you want to work. If you're willing to give it 110%, you'll do really well and make program average in most cases. If not, you'll see the results in your monthly sales and in the feedback from your customers. I can honestly say that I've earned the pay for every hour I work every day, but I have to work hard to be successful. This is both a mentally and physically demanding job, and I work among scientists and other food safety professionals who prefer a very neat, clean, and organized environment. Making such a group of individuals happy is one of the most rewarding things about my job, because they have such high expectations that I know I can meet on a daily basis.
My instant success in the program has paid off. I was lucky enough to be the successful bidder as the permanent operator of Stand 165 after it went on bidline, and I've continued to succeed and make the business grow. According to BEP staff, e-mails are still coming in from customers saying how much they appreciate me being there, and this alone makes me want to get up and go to work every day.
Before graduating from BEP training, each student must go through several weeks of on-the-job training in both counter and vending machine locations. I was surprised that after running my business for only eight months, BEP staff asked me if I would train students by having them do on-the-job training at my location. I got the call late one Thursday afternoon, and I asked the instructor of those students, "Ed, why me? I'm only a rookie at this business thing.” And he said, "Emily, you took a business that was just about run into the ground and turned it around in just two months. Doesn't that say it all? We want students to learn the alternative techniques of running a business from you.” Until that precise moment, I had no idea just how well they thought I was doing; because my perception in life is that the standards I set for myself every day should be the standards everyone must set.
What I've done for my customers is teach people that a blind person can successfully run a business. It was easy to please the customers; all I had to do in the beginning was show up every day and be in the store, and that in itself was better than the service customers had been getting before.
My job as a BEP operator is no different from the jobs and responsibilities of any other sole proprietor. Believing that the work of blind vendors is comparable to a sheltered workshop is just another misconception about the success of a blind person that we don't want from the public. I believe that the vending program is something we should promote and encourage blind job seekers to explore if that's their interest. It's not the only career in which blind people can succeed, but it is a great way of teaching responsibility, independence, leadership, and rewarding success. This is how I choose to show people what it means to be a successful blind business owner.
By Patrick Henry, St. Cloud Times
(Editor’s Note: Below is an article from the St. Cloud Times of June 23, 2009 that pays excellent tribute to one of our long-time Federation leaders in Minnesota. Andy Virden has been the president of our Central Minnesota chapter for many years and is very active in his community. This is the type of article we could use more of — from a writer who seems to take the basics of blindness in stride but can recognize that which is truly outstanding about this outstanding citizen.)
I’m sometimes asked how I come up with my columns. There’s no formula.
I’ve got my theme, lifted from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute where I used to work — “the renewal of human community” — and the Times’s directive: tie to something in the news and give a local slant. Lots of wiggle room.
About a week after one is published I go on “next column alert.” This one operates on two levels — what it’s about and how it came to be — and before we’re done it may not be entirely clear which level is which.
The first Thursday of June I was driving along Second Avenue in Waite Park and saw Andy Virden waiting to cross the street. If you’re lucky like me, and know Andy, you understand that simply seeing him was sufficient to get a column idea started. But where it would go, I wasn’t sure.
Then, within 24 hours, signals started coming from all directions.
A magazine article reported a plan, long in the making and soon to be realized, for a Statue of Responsibility that will be positioned on the West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty.
Another article summarized the tilt of economic research toward recognition that we are not by nature selfish, me-first creatures — that in fact evolution has frequently selected for altruism, caring for one another.
Then I read Times Writers Group columnist Barbara Banaian’s encomium to James Rugg as an example of citizenship and patriotism for his insistence that we are losing our liberties, government is a menace, and taxes are evil.
Here was my project: To redress a balance by holding up Virden as a very different standard of citizenship and patriotism.
I doubt there is a single point of public policy on which Rugg and I agree, but the differences aren’t simply political. They go deeper, to judgments about human nature, the range of individual responsibility, the purpose of human community.
Virden is one of my heroes. He could serve as a model for that Statue of Responsibility. He has spent his whole life demonstrating what the economists are only now waking up to.
Andy frequently tells you what he sees. He doesn’t see the way most of us do. He has been totally blind almost all his 81 years. But I, with eyes in pretty good shape, am frequently instructed by Andy about what’s really going on.
For 38 years, Andy took the pulse of the area from the concession stand he operated at the St. Cloud Post Office.
The range of his acquaintance is staggering. Last year I drove a truck in the Waite Park parade, with Andy as a passenger. Nearly everybody called out his name, with evident affection. From the sound of the voice, he knew who it was.
Andy is an advocate for the blind — for their liberty (don’t offer to do something for him that he can do for himself) — but even more, he is a champion of people caring for others, not just through charity, but also through government policy and investment (the government, after all, is “us,” not “them”).
During his years of faithful participation in St. Joseph’s Church in Waite Park (he’s a mainstay of the choir), Andy has been shaped by Catholic social teaching on the way liberty, responsibility and community are woven together for the common good.
I thought the column was done but then, by chance/fate/providence, the next DVD in our Netflix queue arrived: “Blindsight.” (Put it on your “must see” list.) Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to scale Mount Everest, leads six blind Tibetan teens up a 23,000-foot peak near Everest.
What he and they learn about success and teamwork, about liberty and responsibility, about altruism and empathy, is of a piece with what I’ve learned from Andy about citizenship and patriotism. It’s not the blind leading the blind; it’s the blind leading the sighted.
I’m sure Andy crossed Second Avenue just fine. For the sake of this column, I’m glad he was standing there.
This is the opinion of Patrick Henry, who has lived in Central Minnesota since 1984 and is the retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical & Cultural Research. His column is published the fourth Tuesday of the month.
Exciting times are coming in NFB conventions. Keep these in mind as you plan your activities throughout the coming year.
The Annual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be October 23-25, 2009 at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul – Riverfront in downtown St. Paul. Members have received a letter with details, and the letter is on our website at www.nfbmn.org.
The Semiannual NFB of Minnesota Convention will be April or May 2010 at the NFB of Minnesota building in Minneapolis. Members will receive a letter with details about a month before the convention, and the letter will be on our website at www.nfbmn.org.
The National NFB Convention will be during the first week of July 2010 in Dallas, Texas. This is nearly a week of friends, fun, and serious business. It is a chance to be part of the largest gathering of blind people in the world. The full convention bulletin will be in the Braille Monitor, and in the Upcoming Events section of the www.nfb.org website.
Metro Chapter — Twin Cities area; meets at 2:00 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month at NFB of MN Headquarters, 100 East 22nd Street in Minneapolis
Riverbend Chapter — New Ulm area; meets at 9:00 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month in New Ulm; contact Charlene Guggisberg at 507-354-2250 for meeting location
Rochester Chapter — Rochester area; meets at 7:00 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month at Peace Church in Rochester
Central Minnesota Chapter — St. Cloud area; meets at 12:30 on the second Saturday of every month at Old Chicago Restaurant in St. Cloud
Runestone Chapter — Alexandria area; meets at 1:30 on the third Saturday of every month at First Congregational Church in Alexandria
Many people are involved in getting this issue to you. The writers can write and the editor can edit, but until the material is printed, brailled, recorded, and distributed, it is just a computer file. Therefore, we owe great thanks to the following people for the work they do in producing this publication.
Tim Aune duplicates the cassette tape edition and makes the master copy for the compact disc edition.
Jennifer Dunnam transcribes the braille edition.
Art Hadley reads the audio edition for cassette tape and compact disc.
Kathy McGillivray transcribes presentations from convention recordings.
Judy Sanders proofreads and provides corrections for both the print and braille editions.
Tom Scanlan marks up and posts the website edition.
Sid Starnes deals with the printer for the print edition and other tasks as needed.
Emily Zitek embosses and collates the copies for the braille edition and mails all editions.