Blind civil rights group forming to serve Western Slope
In the mind of the beholder, the sight of a blind person navigating the sidewalk with a service dog or white cane may generate thoughts that further disable them but rarely define them.
Do blind people really count their steps to get from one place to another?
Do blind people really have increased hearing ability and other heightened senses?
“If people think you have these weird capabilities, then you’re separate and apart,” said Kevan Worley of Worley Enterprises, a California contractor that provides food, hospitality, vending and custodial services.
“(Those stereotypes) make me a freak,” Worley said. “But I’m just a regular cat like you.”
Worley also is blind.
In an effort to break down those stereotypes and promote the civil rights of blind people, organizers recently formed a Western Slope chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
“Many sighted folks still look down on and exclude blind people from ordinary everyday activities,” Worley said. “This is not done out of hate or meanness. It occurs because of myths and misconceptions about the capability of blind people.”
“We believe that all blind people really need is access to opportunity. We say equality of opportunity. I don’t want you to give me something, but I do want the same chance to compete,” he said.
About 70 percent of blind people are unemployed and only 10 percent of blind children are taught Braille in public schools. Braille is one of the tools blind people need to find work, Worley said.
Technology also is necessary to succeeding in the workplace, said Jessica Beecham, chapter development coordinator for the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado.
The technology exists, but not enough employers are willing to explore how it can be used in the workplace.
Discrimination against blind people persists, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, which, among other things, guarantees blind people equal access to public facilities.
On the day before her interview with The Daily Sentinel, Beecham said a cab driver refused to allow her into his cab because she uses a service dog.
Blind people are prevented from using public kiosks to obtain information about flights because airports like Denver International have been given years to make them blind-accessible, Worley said,
Amazon’s Kindle is not enabled for blind users, but Apple has worked with the blind to manufacture iPhones they can use, he said.
Accompanied by Beecham, Worley came to Grand Junction to gage the desire of local blind people for a local chapter of the federation.
A meeting conducted by the duo at the Center for Independence, 740 Gunnison Ave., answered the question. Local blind people want a local advocate focused on their needs.
There are about 100 blind people living in the Grand Valley, Worley said.
Margaret Williams, an 89-year-old Grand Junction resident, attended the meeting. Williams said she would serve on the board of the new chapter if needed.
She started attending meetings of a low-vision group at the center about five years ago, when macular degeneration began to rob her of her sight. She is now legally blind, retired from a 20-year career with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I wanted to learn what I needed to do and how to adapt,” Williams said.
Like many others who attended the initial National Federation for the Blind meeting, Williams was disturbed to learn how certain businesses, including Goodwill Industries, are allowed by federal law to discriminate against blind people by paying them less than minimum wage.
“I was disappointed. I don’t think that’s fair,” Williams said. “I can see the other part, too, but we’re just as capable of doing certain things as a sighted person.”
“All these stereotypes close doors of opportunity,” Worley said. “Our job is to increase the public’s awareness about who we are, what our capacity is and what we can accomplish if given good training. If myths and misconceptions go away, doors of opportunity are open.”
The National Federation of the Blind of Colorado is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group made up of blind people of all ages and their families and friends, Beecham said.
“We work together to promote full participation and integration of blind people in all areas of life, and we serve as an advocate for change when equal access is denied,” she said.
The federation believes the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight but the general misunderstanding and lack of information about blindness that exist.
“We believe that with the proper training, opportunity and positive attitudes, blindness can be reduced to a mere physical nuisance,” Worley said.