Blind Card (Never Leave Home Without It)
So many times I've heard the term "NFB philosophy" and the stories of all the people who have helped fight for the rights of blind people everywhere. But for a long time, these things didn't mean anything to me. It wasn't that I didn't care, but I thought those stories were out of date and things like discrimination against the blind were a thing of the past. Then reality pulled the rug out from under my feet.
When my friends and I were in Atlanta for the NFB National Convention, Mike Sahyun, Zach Ellingson, and I decided to go out to the Six Flags over Georgia amusement park and ride some roller coasters. We had no idea how such a simple thing could end up being so complicated. We purchased our tickets and joked and laughed as we stood in line. Upon entering the park, we were asked, "What's up with the sticks, guys?" Zach, our travel instructor at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc., replied, "These are our canes. We need them to get around." The guard then told us, "Okay, go ahead." We thanked him and proceeded into the park. Then, about twenty feet from the gate, another security guard approached us. He told us we needed to come back to the gate. With puzzled looks, we asked him why. He told us we could not go in the park with those "sticks." I tried to explain to him that canes are not "sticks," but before I could finish my sentence, he yelled and told us he had a job to do. Without a word, we followed him to the gate.
At the time I was thinking, "This has to be a joke. There is no way this can really be happening." It felt like a dream. When we got back to the gate, we were told we would have to leave our canes there. The dream was turning into a nightmare. Once again, we tried to explain that we use our canes as tools of navigation. He told us they looked like weapons. We replied once again that they were our tools of navigation, and not weapons to harm people. Over and over, we tried to explain this. They wouldn't budge. We couldn't get them to understand, but we certainly were not going to give up our canes.
When the guards finally realized that we just weren't going to give up our canes, one of the security guards came up with what he must have thought was a stroke of genius. "Where's your blind card?" "What?" I replied. "Blind card. It proves you're blind." I laughed to myself. This had to be the funniest thing I've ever heard. "There's no such thing," I told him. "Yes, there is. It's a plastic card that says you're blind," he said. I felt like saying, "I never leave home without it," but decided the humor would be lost on this gentleman. Instead, I told him what he was asking for could only be found through medical records, and I don't keep those on me. He said he keeps his medical records on him at all times and asked me if I would like to see them. Hoping he would take the hint I told him, "No, it's none of my business and you have no legal reason to show them to me."
By this time, they had about five aggravated guards around us, and the crowd of spectators was growing. Just as it seemed things couldn't get worse, they told us we would have to stay at the gates with security until a manager could come and talk to us. After all we had said; they detained us. Looking back on it now, I realize how fortunate I was to be there with Mike and Zach. We kept each other's spirits up and voices calm. After fifteen minutes, we asked if the manager was on his way. They told us he would be there in about five minutes. As we waited, we talked amongst ourselves. The crowd stared and whispered. After another twenty minutes, we asked if the manager was there yet. They told us once again, "No, he'll be here in five minutes." We started getting the feeling they were playing the waiting game with us. After about another half hour, we finally spoke to the man we were waiting for. He brought out paramedics to try to determine if we were blind. He then asked us if he could give us a sighted guide so we could leave our canes at the gate. We told him no. He then told us he didn't want us to have the canes because we might hit people's legs by accident with them, and it could start a fight. Zach then gave the gentleman his very first travel class. He instructed him and showed him how a blind person would only tap another person's ankle. After that, he made us give our solemn word that we would not use our canes as weapons. He then said that after 9/11, you could never be too careful because terrorists are everywhere. I replied, "We're not terrorists." He said, "Are you sure you want to go into the park? The road is not level, and you could fall." We then replied, "We'll be fine." I couldn't believe that after all of the waiting we had done, he was still trying to talk us out of going into the park.
By this time, our attitudes were not so upbeat, and the weather had started getting bad. We tried to make the most out of the day, but I felt so defeated. I wondered if I was wrong to oppose their views of what the blind could and could not do. While walking through the park, we were followed by security guards. Just when it seemed like our darkest hour, it started to rain. We then knew the day was shot.
After we came back to the hotel, we spoke to our fellow Federationists about what had happened. The support and understanding they gave us made me feel at home. I'll never forget how secure I felt around them. Their support reassured me that we had done the right thing in standing up for our right to keep our canes. The next day we spoke to Peggy Elliott (or as I like to call her, Peggy Give-them-hell Elliott). She went out to Six Flags and had a nice little chat with the park management, after which they seemed to see the error of their ways. The park gave us free passes and issued a letter of apology.
Looking back now though, what happened to us at Six Flags was necessary to show me the real value of public education and collective action. I once said to a friend, "Why should I have to waste my time educating others?" and now I know why. The hour I spent at Six Flags being interrogated was worth more to me than a full day of rides. I learned that discrimination is real and really does happen, but when it does I don't have to deal with it alone. I have all kinds of friends in the National Federation of the Blind who have my back, just like I've got theirs. I also realized that there have been a lot of blind people who have stood up to discrimination over the years and because of them, the way is now easier for me. I hope that because of our actions, someone else won't have to deal with the same situation-if that happens, I will have given back some of what has been given to me. So there are a lot of people I would like to thank. Mike Sahyun, Zach Ellingson, Dick Davis, Peggy Elliott, Shawn Mayo, Joyce Scanlan, President Maurerr, all the people in Public Relations in the Federation, and all my brothers and sisters in the NFB. Without you, the philosophy of the NFB would not stand strong. Thank you all for standing by us.
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