Another Perspective on the Zoo

Hello friends. I know I said that the entry I posted on September 2 could be my last journal entry until Christmas so I could focus on studying. But after receiving an outrageous/hilarious/pathetic e-mail Thursday night, that plan has changed because I just could not resist sharing this e-mail with you. But before I do, I suppose I should give you the back story behind this e-mail correspondence. As I have mentioned in other entries, I went to a mainstream public school as a child where the teachers were wonderfully accepting of students with disabilities, or where assistants taught me from an early age to advocate for myself and hold myself to the same expectations as my sighted peers. Then following high school, I was accepted by a wonderful private college that is also full of staff and students who are open-minded and comfortable with blindness. Over the years, I have heard other blind people mention that a lot of sighted people are narrow-minded in their perception of the capabilities of blind people, especially when it comes to employment. But since I had never personally had to deal with these narrow-minded attitudes, I naively doubted whether these stories were really true or wondered if maybe these stories were exaggerated.

 

My blissful ignorance about the attitudes of some sighted people was briefly shattered in October of my freshman year in college. Toward the end of September, a mass e-mail was sent out to students about a phonathon the college was doing, and they were looking for student employees to help with it. I had declined an offer for full-time campus employment that year because I didn’t know how Gilbert and I would handle the transition to college and I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew by throwing a job commitment in to the mix. But this phonathon was a short-term job that I think only lasted two weeks or so. Gilbert and I were adjusting really well, so I felt confident my grades would not suffer with such a short-term commitment, and I was also excited about the chance to make a little money and get some work experience for my resume. Talking on the phone is no problem for blind people, and the adaptations if I needed to enter information in to a computer are minimal. Most of the computers on my campus can access the Jaws screen reader software, and though I was still relatively new to Jaws and hadn’t completed training to learn all of its features yet, I knew the basics which I thought was all I would need for this kind of job. If the job required me to use a computer that was not connected with Jaws, I figured I would have no problem either talking to the technology department to get it installed, or having the list of numbers e-mailed to me so I could enter information using my braille notetaker and then e-mail the information back to the manager right after my shift. The newspaper editor I worked with for a high school mentorship program assigned me to call a bunch of local businesses to make sure their business hours and addresses were up to date, and this e-mail method worked beautifully for that situation. So with confidence and excitement, I decided to fill out the online application for this job.

 

It used to be that whenever I did anything that involved people who didn’t know me and my capabilities, such as applying to participate in a program or enter an essay contest, I always made sure to never mention that I was blind because I didn’t want this knowledge to have any influence, positive or negative, in the decision the essay judges or application reviewers made. I didn’t want my essay or application to be rejected if the reviewer was narrow-minded and maybe thought someone else wrote the essay for me or something like that, but I didn’t want the essay or application to be accepted if my essay or application wasn’t the best one submitted, but the reviewers awarded me out of sympathy or because they think my blindness makes me amazing! I wanted my applications and writing to be judged on merit alone. And so, I filled out the application and when it came to the section to write a paragraph about why I should be considered for the job, I made sure to highlight my friendliness, social skills and desire to learn and gain some real world job experience, but never said a word about my blindness. That way, if I was hired, the manager might be a little stunned and caught off guard when Gilbert and I strolled in on training day, but she judged my application on merit alone, so if she thought I was a great candidate on my application, she would take a deep breath, look beyond my blindness and work with me discussing accommodations. Well unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

 

My mom and dad both had to work on the Saturday that was designated as training day, but since I had a dorm room that semester, they dropped me off at the dorm Friday night where I got a good night’s sleep, got up, took care of the dog, got dressed, ate breakfast and confidently and excitedly headed for the training room and what I thought would be the start of an exciting opportunity. But I don’t think I had even found a seat at one of the tables when the manager approached me and told me that this job requires a special software that there was no way they could adapt for me, and seemed to have no interest in discussing alternatives, or investigating to see if maybe this software was compatible with Jaws. She was polite to me and apologized for the fact that I went to the trouble of applying for the job and coming to training, but instead of being open-minded and discussing with me how accommodations could be made for this job, she remained adamant that there was no way this job could be adapted, leaving me no choice but to leave, feeling stunned, embarrassed, and for the first time in my life, a little discouraged about what the future might hold for me when it comes time to seek permanent employment if this narrow-minded treatment was already happening in college. I am sure some of you are thinking I should have been more persistent or even sited the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires employers to make accommodations for people with disabilities. But since I was so unaccustomed to that kind of narrow-mindedness, I was too stunned and caught off guard to respond. My parents also pointed out that this job wasn’t worth fighting for, and I should save the fight for a more permanent job related to my major that I will really want. I agreed with their reasoning, as well as the fact that the overwhelming majority of people I meet are wonderful, so it is not worth making life difficult fighting with one narrow-minded employer when there are probably hundreds of other employers who would love to have me on their payroll.

 

To be fair, I should mention that this incident was not the fault of anyone working at the college because when I told another teacher about the incident in casual conversation one day, they said the phonathon was conducted through an outside agency, and it sounds like others had negative experiences with the agency too because the teacher told me the college was not going to hire this agency again. The teacher even reported my story to an administrator who e-mailed me apologizing for the incident and encouraging me to apply the following year. Last year, the mass e-mail was never sent to students for another phonathon, so they must not have done it last year. But the apology, and the wonderful employment offer to answer phones for the college switchboard restored my confidence in myself and the decency of my fellow man, until this past Thursday that is.

 

Next summer, I will be eligible to participate in a Journalism internship, so about two weeks ago, I was sitting in front of the computer at work with nothing to do but wait for the switchboard to ring when it occurred to me that I should start researching local internship opportunities. I thought a good place to start would be an internship opportunity my advisor briefly mentioned last year with the Zoological Society. I don’t really enjoy going to the zoo as a tourist because the animals are mostly in cages (not that I would want tigers and snakes loose of course), and I hated standing in the hot sun listening to my mom read signs about the animals when I could get the same information from a textbook. But I do love animals, and figured this internship might give me a new perspective of the zoo that would be really interesting. Also, I had a lot of experience already with newspapers and thought it might be fun to try something different. And as an additional bonus, unlike most internships which are unpaid, this internship paid $8 an hour! Not wanting a repeat of the phonathon embarrassment, I decided maybe it would be more responsible of me to write to the coordinator of the internship letting her know I was blind and asking if this internship would be appropriate for me before I applied. The rest of the work day was spent carefully composing this message. Here is what I wrote:

 

Dear (Name of Coordinator),

My name is Allison Nastoff, and I am about to enter my junior year at Carroll University. I am majoring in Communication with an emphasis in Journalism, and will be eligible for an internship next summer. I was told about this Journalism internship with the zoological society by my advisor, and am considering applying for it because I think it would be a unique and valuable experience. But before I apply, I wanted to ask you a couple questions because I am totally blind, and was wondering if this is a disability this internship could accommodate. I am an excellent writer, and would be able to write or do any necessary research for this internship using Jaws, a screen reading software that speaks what is written on the screen. I think this software could be paid for by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation if you do not already have it, but wanted to make sure installing this software wouldn’t be a problem should I be accepted for this internship. My other concern was that in reading your requirements for the internship, I saw that one of the requirements was walking around the zoo. I am physically capable of walking, and have a guide dog. However, I don’t know my way around the zoo, so I would need someone who could accompany me and direct me. So because of these accommodations I would need, I was wondering if this internship would be appropriate for me, and if these are accommodations the zoo can provide. Thanks in advance for your help.

Allison Nastoff

 

I hadn’t heard back from her, and was beginning to think I never would. And then Thursday night at about 11:00, I had just finished reading an article for politics and thought I would just check my school e-mail one more time before turning off the braille notetaker and going to bed. I didn’t expect any messages of interest, let alone this absolutely outrageous reply:

 

Dear Allison,

Thanks for your interest in our journalism internship. I admire your determination to complete college, considering your blindness. I think you may be under a misconception that the Zoological Society communications internship is mainly sitting at a computer and writing. In reality, the internship involves: –Walking the Zoo extensively and observing animals and interviewing staff, with visual observations of their work and of exhibits –Going to numerous events in which the intern works with a photographer to get information for captions, photo permission forms signed (and they have to be read and checked for information), descriptions of the people photographed and the scene in which they are photographed, helping the photographer arrange the subjects, etc. –Learning about the visuals that go with stories, including what makes a good photo, a good layout, etc. –Proofing layout proofs (hard copies that must be read and the photos checked), and writing in corrections by hand –Creating children’s activities after viewing other activities from the past, including putting together crafts, mazes, etc. –Having each draft of a story edited and critiqued in red ink or yellow highlight (we don’t use TRACK CHANGES), a major part of the learning process. –Learning how to do research for a story. We have a library here with many specialized books that have not been translated into Braille. We do not rely on the Internet as the sole source for story research. -Learning how to interview people, including reading body cues and describing their environments. -Being able to navigate our computer system quickly to find information in numerous folders. You are welcome to apply for the internship. You may, however, want to apply for an internship that does not require as much visual and physical work as this one does.

Sincerely, (her signature)

 

Alright, maybe it could be argued that I threw too much information at her in my message, and maybe I should take a less overwhelming approach in the future by perhaps simply sending them an e-mail simply saying that I am blind and invite them to call me or arrange a time to meet them in person to present myself in a less overwhelming manner. You could also say that I asked if she thought the internship would be appropriate for me, and she was simply being honest. Even so, part of me was outraged, and another part of me was laughing hysterically about this narrow-minded reply! I especially loved the sentence: “I admire your determination to complete college, considering your blindness”. Now I see what those other blind people I have talked to over the years meant when they mentioned having to deal with sighted people who thought blindness was a terrible tragedy that condemned them to a sad, hopeless life, and were amazed that the blind can do anything. And then, just like the phonathon manager, it was clear this lady had no interest in discussing how this internship could be adapted. When I read the message to my parents the next day, they were just as outraged as I was, and my mom agreed with me that I should not apply for this internship because there are so many open-minded people I could intern with that I don’t need to waste a summer dealing with this person. But my mom, who is usually a quiet person like me who prefers to let things go rather than making a scene, surprised me when she said I ought to at least respond to this person with a refutation of her negative assumptions of me, and educate her a little about blindness before we part ways. I kind of agree that this would be a good idea because I agree with the philosophy that if we don’t educate narrow-minded people about our capabilities when given the chance, these negative attitudes will only persist. But another part of me, the part that always likes to assume the best about people, wonders if maybe this coordinator is a genuinely nice person who just didn’t reread her message and think about her tone and how it could be perceived by the recipient before clicking send. After all, one of the first things I learned in a high school communication course is that you have to be especially careful when composing e-mails because you cannot communicate your tone of voice through writing, so your words could be perceived negatively by the recipient even if that wasn’t your intention. But another problem is that another part of me is thinking “whether she intended to be narrow-minded or not, that is how she came off to me, and all I can think about is how I would love to give her a piece of my mind, a feeling that is not conducive for writing a polite, professional and strictly educational response. On that note, sometimes when emotions are raw, it helps me to just forget about professionalism and speak my mind. So here is a response I wrote last night that I have been fantasizing about sending:

 

Thank you so much for getting back to me and providing more detailed information about what this internship involves. However, while I had some misconceptions about what this internship involves, your e-mail makes it clear that you have some misconceptions regarding the capabilities of blind people. In reality:

–Being blind has done nothing to impede my ability to complete college courses. With only a couple minor adaptations like screen reading software, and ordering electronic copies of books from the publisher if they are not available online, I am able to take a full course load and I am treated no differently than my sighted classmates when it comes to course expectations. Also, I am not simply completing these college courses. I am completing them with excellent grades, as I have made the Dean’s list every semester.

–For my Journalism courses, I interview people routinely, and it is true that I cannot see their body language. But the same things I cannot see in their body language, I can pick up in nonvisual ways such as observing the tone of their voice. Also, I am perfectly capable of walking, and if these workers are truly passionate about their interaction with the animals, I bet they would have no problem describing any important interactions they have with these animals that I cannot pick up nonvisually.

–I have had classes where some information wasn’t available in braille or online, but with a little openmindedness, my teachers and I have been able to negotiate other ways for me to receive the same information.

–I volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and love planning weekly activities for my little sister, so I believe there are plenty of nonvisual ways I could contribute to planning children’s events.

–It is true that photos and layout would be visual, however other teachers have realized that not being able to do these things is not a big deal, and this small limitation should not exclude me from all the other nonvisual, and tremendously valuable experiences of the class. I feel the same holds true for this internship.

Don’t worry. I won’t apply for this internship because while the visual aspects of the internship could be adapted, an internship where I would have to deal with such narrow-minded attitudes would not be appropriate for me. You are welcome to have your opinions about blindness, but I think you might want to consider educating yourself better and thinking more open-mindedly about the capabilities of the blind before making these negative assumptions in the future. Sincerely, Allison Nastoff

 

If you are stunned by my strong language, don’t worry. I haven’t hit send on it, at least not yet because since most of you readers are adults and for many of you, dealing with narrow-mindedness is probably business as usual, I thought I would solicit your advice about how to address this lady. Have any of you tried to refute the negative assumptions of these kinds of people? If so, what kinds of responses have yielded the most positive results for all parties involved? Should I send my response as is? Or, have you found trying to change the attitudes of these people is a hopeless cause not worth the trouble? Any advice and personal experience you could offer would be much appreciated. Thanks, and I hope this new year of school/work is going well for all of you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: