Come Fly With Me
by The Opportunity Agenda, Sun Mar 08, 2009 at 05:33:20 PM EDT
The eye is one of the most complex organs in the human body. What was millions of years ago a simple concave receptor sensitive to ultra low frequencies of light has not just become an advanced organ that utilizes one-third of the nerve endings in the human body, but it has also become one of the most powerful influencers in the craft of rhetorical persuasion. So much, that those who lack this basic faculty of perception face great obstacles in the pursuit of opportunity and equality.
I've been stewing over this for several days now, after learning of Pavel Obiukh, a Russian advocate who was denied access to a flight leaving Moscow the other week, after the flight crew learned that he was a patron who was blind. The air carrier, S7, said it was in compliance with Russian law, which can deny access to a person with special needs if that person doesn't notify the carrier of such needs. Pavel did, in fact, notify S7, which failed to inform the flight crew, who then refused Pavel's entry onto the aircraft.
It's difficult to imagine such a situation happening in the United States, where an entire generation has grown up since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet, American perception mirrors more of Russian shortsightedness than that of America's own foresightedness in progress for people who have vision loss.
The other month, I was troubled following the airing of a Saturday Night Live skit that had New York Gov. David Paterson being mocked during the Weekend Update segment. SNL seldom holds back from using stereotypes as a comic tool. At times, extremes are used to make a point. Yet in this segment, Gov. Patterson, who is the highest legally blind government official in U.S. history, was cast as a mindless and wandering fool. The image has been used time and time again by television and Hollywood. It seems as though casting roles for people with vision loss is inspired more by biblical frames of incompetence and misfortune, than of a subculture that overcomes the obstacles placed by a culture that relies entirely on sight.
I'm not trying to tout my own success at overcoming blindness, having been legally blind since birth and totally blind for eight years during late adolescence. I'd rather shift focus onto the 70% of people who are legally blind, who are between the ages of 18-54, and who are unemployed, according to the National Federation for the Blind. Experience tells me that a person who has visual impairments can contribute much to society. Gov. Paterson showed the nation that after he took his oath as Gov. of New York State. However, there still stands great barriers in proving that we're a culture who leads with the heart, not with the eyes.
Perception often gets the best of us at the end. Our senses tend to be the greatest obstacle keeping us from true equality in this country. It's not just our eyes that hold us back, blinding us of what lies beneath a person's skin color, or how they compare to the "perfect image" of what pop culture tells us is cool or good looking. Neither, too, do our ears break the bias perceptions when hearing someone talk with a deep southern accent, or speak in a foreign language.
A culture that embraces diversity is the most successful avenue toward overcoming our own shortcomings as a species that relies heavily on our own sensory system. Community values are key in helping to lift up those who continually have obstacles placed in their path toward opportunity. But, it needs to be a community that doesn't mind being different. America, from its beginning, has been a rag tag group of people with a very different set of experiences. And in finding common ground, we take off our blinders and look not at perceptions, but what really exists. And in this real world, we open our eyes to the common good.
We might be a long ways away from curing blindness. But, we're only an earshot away from overcoming the blindness that roots itself in our bias toward one another. It's completely within our ability, making us all able bodied citizens. And when we all reach for that common good—rooted in diversity, adversity, and community—I have a strong feeling that we'll all be able to fly.
Read more at The Opportunity Agenda's blog.