Re-printed by permission from the Summer 1997 issue of THE VOICE OF LOW VISION - the newsletter of the Western Pennsylvania Council of Citizens with Low Vision.
Jayne Leone is active in a number of disability and advocacy organizations. Those who wish to respond to her final question may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The four words in the title are scary -- especially when grouped together! Overwhelming, maybe!! But essential if one is to survive and to cope with life. Let's examine each of these words.
Power can be positive, or it can be negative. Power that is used to overwhelm, to subjugate, or to compel conformity is negative. Power that is used to enhance or enrich is positive.
Empowerment is positive. Empowerment may be enabled, but in order to be real, it must come from self; that is, it is self-motivated -- and self-motivating. Associated with empowerment are concepts such as vigilance, persistence, persuasion.
Like power, control can also be either positive or negative. It relates to making choices, establishing priorities, using will power. In the positive sense control relates to the ability to function either as an individual or to act for the good of a group. Words such as responsibility and far-sightedness may be associated with control in its positive sense. In this sense, A bus driver who manages to maneuver his vehicle through traffic with equanimity in order to deposit his/her passengers safely at the curb uses a large measure of control. In its negative sense control involves domination. One can control our access to information, our ability to become mobile. Holding back positive emotional reinforcement and limiting our options are other examples of control used negatively. Negative control is associated with repression.
Self-control, control of self, is essential for empowerment. When we feel frustration, anger or rage at the attitudes or reactions of loved ones, friends, colleagues or society toward us as visually impaired persons, self-control enables us to remain rational and to function viably within our home environment or the community. Self-control is an empowering dynamic. Self-control helps us to be good examples to others; it enables us to discuss with and teach others how we, as disabled persons, manage to cope. cope with disabilities. Self-control enhances our credibility and contributes to self-esteem.
Confidence is the product or result of one's past experience. It is related to one's value system, to one's system of strategies to deal with solving real-life problems, to knowledge of self, to one's general outlook. Confidence is affected by such conditions as isolation, integration within a social group, level of functioning or degree of independence. Associated with confidence are concepts such as assurance, assertiveness, conviction.
Self confidence, confidence in oneself, is a quality that, along with self-control, can enhance empowerment because it can help to generate or increase motivation to achieve goals.
The dictionary tells us that courage is the ability to do what needs to be done, even under adverse conditions or circumstances. It is my opinion that courage also has a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical dimension. Of these four, one dimension may be more or less strong than another, from individual to individual. These components make for an odd combination, puzzle or design. This may explain, in part, why courage -- courageous acts or decisions -- manifests itself differently among individuals. I believe there is within each of us the potential for being courageous -- to dare to do and to be. The recipe is a balance among the four qualities I have been discussing: empowerment, self- control, self confidence, courage. In my own experience as a person with low vision, the sense of empowerment, self-control, self confidence, a deep breath, a moment of prayer, have given me the courage to get through some very trying times in my life. We are never fully aware of what our courage -- or the collective of empowerment, self-control and self confidence -- can do for, or show to, others around us. We can affect others and each other on so many levels without being cognizant of it. The times we feel the least effective and the least courageous may be the times we help those around us the most. There is an old saying: "No man is an island."
Also, there are always those members of society who look around and observe how others act, react and interact in various situations and under various circumstances. Proffering support, encouragement and help can be a gate, a pathway, a bridge to many others around us.
Related to the word courage are the words encourage and discourage. (In fact within the word courage is the word rage.) Think of the times we have encouraged ourselves or encouraged others. Now think of the times we have discouraged ourselves and discouraged others. There are many buzz words being used today -- such as empowerment, challenged, support -- used by many professionals, when in reality the operative word is courage, encourage or discourage. As we well know, many social institutions can encourage us or discourage us as disabled persons. They can help us be empowered, help us to maintain self-control, help us be self confident, help us gain courage. By discouraging us they can do the opposite.
We must assume a proactive, assertive -- and at times aggressive -- stance relative to our destiny. Just because our vision may be impaired or in a state of flux, because we are not able to do many very commonplace things without assistance, such as reading our own mail, reading a current book, the daily paper, a menu, does not give others the right to take power or decision-making away from us. Nor should we be too willing to relinquish them -- by perhaps talking ourselves out of doing something we are really able to do. True we may have to do them differently, at a different time, with more conscious attention. But so many of them can still be done; some with help. And it is permissible to try things and to fail until we can find a successful strategy for doing what it is we are trying to do. Those around us may say "Isn't it amazing that that person (with a visual impairment) can do things so well!" or "Isn't it amazing how they try." Yes, we can do many things well; we just don't see well. In fact, we may not see at all. But we are just as valuable -- we have just as much worth -- as any other human being.
We can look after each other, those of us with similar conditions, such as vision loss or impairment. We can listen; we can show empathy toward those who are confronting problems and undergoing adjustments that we have already experienced. They, in turn, may be able to provide support for us when we need to overcome hurdles they have already negotiated successfully. It is a reciprocal process or exchange. We can share information, experiences, fears, hopes, dreams ideas, knowledge. We can help each other to set and attain goals. We can encourage each other without being judgmental. After all, this is what advocacy is all about: To create an environment and the opportunity for people to live full lives, even with adversity.
In the midst of working toward overcoming our disabilities, we should take time to focus on our special skills and talents. Maybe we are hear on this earth at this time in order to teach or to encourage others around us. Something to think about.
Day to day living with a disability and attempting to exercise empowerment, self- control, self confidence and courage can be tough. Sometimes society can be controlling of our lives by doing too much for us or not doing the correct thing(s) for us. The challenge is to persuade society to allow or enable us to have the courage to try to do the things you are able to do. ON the other hand, if we need special help or support, we should not be too proud or afraid to ask for it.
Let me give you an example of the payoff of a little, but important, help. At an event I attended recently, an 80-year-old woman was playing the piano. I walked over to compliment her on her playing. During the course of our conversation I learned that she has macular degeneration and her husband is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. This lady used to be the pianist for the Pittsburgh Opera. As we talked, she was playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" from memory. She told me that she had felt so depressed that day until I came over to spend time with her. Before I left, I took down her name, address and phone number. The next day went to the Pittsburgh Blind Association and bought her a 20/20 pen, a tablet of large print paper, and a signature guide. I told her that her bank could order large print checks for her use. I got her hooked up with the Carnegie Library for the Blind so that she and her husband could read together at night when he could not sleep. And I gave her the number for the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind. from which she subsequently received instruction at her home. Later she and her husband moved into a more supportive facility where she was able to receive help in caring for her husband as well as with her own needs. For the first few months after our meeting I regularly received calls from her telling me how grateful she was for the kindness I had shown her and the help I had provided. In reality was very little help; it was more like giving direction, showing her where she needed to go. This woman demonstrated great courage in a difficult time of her life.
I do not tell this story to get "a pat on the back," but rather to make the point that the little things we do for others who feel defeated, depressed, unsure, can open up for them gates and pathways that can lead to wonderful changes for them and alter their lives significantly.
I guess this is really my reason for writing this article: For all of us to think of strategies to help ourselves and to help others. In the days to come try to think of the ideas of empowerment, self-control, self confidence and courage and how they can apply to your situations and your lives. Try to think of how the media and society views us visually impaired or blind (disabled) persons. I believe that within the next 10 years the number of senior citizens with visual impairments will increase. people will be living longer, but unless they are very fortunate, they will not escape the ravages of time. The eye seems to be very vulnerable. The point is that the media and society will have to take a more insightful look into their feelings and attitudes about visually impaired persons because there will be so many more of them to deal with. Many advocates in the disabled community (including some members of WPCCLV's Board) have seen action in this direction already. Implementation of ADA has given more rights to disabled people in the workplace, made possible more access to information.
I urge all of you to become active participants in what happens to you. Doing so will increase your self-esteem and contribute to your self-actualization. To do this, you will need to feel empowered, to exercise self-control, to feel self-confident and to have courage. We all have doubts, fears, insecurities. but we must rise above them if we are to help ourselves and help others. What do you think?