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Kicking Off ‘Chains of Sympathy’ at Meeting of the Blind in Anaheim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were hairdressers and horse trainers, real estate agents and attorneys, fitness gurus and secretaries, scientists and farmers.

At the 56th annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, which drew an estimated 3,000 people to the Anaheim Hilton, the emphasis Saturday was on everything that blind people can do--not on the obstacles to doing them.

Elizabeth Campbell, 34, a reporter on the city desk of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, where she covers the inner city, was one of the speakers at a job seminar. She said afterward that she never considered her job, which involves much reading and writing, to be beyond her.

“I don’t see it as a sight-based profession,” Campbell said. “You have to be adept at getting people to tell you things.

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“It would be nice to see people’s facial expressions,” Campbell said. “But it’s my responsibility to ask someone what the room looks like . . . or what they’re wearing.”

Campbell’s self-confidence and her employer’s willingness to hire her reflect just the spirit that the NFB hopes to promote in the larger community, NFB Spokeswoman Barbara Pierce said.

The organization, based in Baltimore, has 50,000 members and affiliates in every state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. It focuses on issues ranging from the integration of the blind into society to raising public awareness through education.

Pierce, who edits the organization’s monthly magazine, Braille Monitor, said that often the greatest obstacle for a blind person is the ignorance of the sighted about what he or she can do.

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“It’s key for blind people to kick away the chains--chains of sympathy--and for sighted people not to put them on us,” Pierce said. “Give us a chance to fail, and we’ll demonstrate that we can succeed.

“Especially if you grow up blind, you had parents or teachers who only meant the best but kept telling you to stop, that you couldn’t do something or you’d get hurt,” said Pierce, who began losing her eyesight in elementary school.

The NFB’s mission is to counter admonitions to the blind that they should choose a course of careful dependence. To that end, the group holds seminars for children, adolescents and parents on how to avoid giving care that may stifle potential.

Scott LaBarre, 28, of Denver is an attorney for the NFB, and Pierce unabashedly attributes part of his success to his early involvement with the organization.

“We got him early and brought him up right so that, by the time he hit law school, he already knew he could do it as well as anyone else,” Pierce said as LaBarre listened with a smile.

LaBarre won a scholarship from the NFB at age 17 and has been associated with the group ever since, he said.

“I went blind at age 10, and my notions of what blind people could do was very limited,” he said. “Most I knew were living off the government. But I was a good student, so I knew I could do well at the books.”

Almost 80% of blind people in the U.S. are unemployed, a statistic that the NFB hopes to change as blind people succeed in their careers and become role models for others.

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Convention speaker Steve Shelton, a senior systems engineer with ALLTEL Information Services in Denver, encouraged people interested in computers to pursue careers in technology and not to be put off by graphics programs or other challenges.

Shelton, a computer programmer for 20 years, said that over time he has had to persuade employers to give him more responsibility and promotions.

“People will say, ‘Boy he’s doing a great job at what he’s doing, but I don’t know how he can do this other job,’ ” Shelton said. “It’s not blatant, and it’s not malicious. They just make assumptions about what it is they think you can do.

“But if enough people get in there and get jobs and fight their way through it, that’s how we’re going to educate people,” he said.

The convention continues through Saturday with seminars for blind youth; sessions on guide dogs, parental concerns and computer science; a cultural exchange program; a dance; and a seminar by Jim Near and Lloyd Johnson, two blind men from Idaho, both 75, who built a house together.

Registration is at 10 a.m. today in the hotel’s Pacific Ballroom. The cost is $10.


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