Community Voices - Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce FlagBarbara Pierce, an Oberlin resident and the first post-war blind student to attend Oberlin College, has worked for the last 40 years for the National Federation of the Blind, advocating for the civil rights of blind people. She is a leader nationwide as well as in the Oberlin community.

Q: What word(s) or image(s) would you use to describe Oberlin:

A: Friendly, conscientious, passionate, intense.

Friendly: I think small towns are friendly because there’s a greater amount of noticing and caring about what’s happening to people and the willingness to step forward and help by providing things such as transportation or making meals.

Passionate: I’m very involved with the civil rights of the blind. It’s a low-incidence disability. People don’t know about blindness; yet, when I get a forum to talk about the problems, I’ve got people revving up… they are horrified that people are earning 15 cents an hour in sheltered workshops, and they are ready to roll up their sleeves and do something about it. You can get people to care.

Intense: There’s always something bubbling away on the front burner, here. Like the intense desire to be in the forefront in being ecologically responsible. I take great pride in Oberlin and Oberlin’s willingness not to be irresponsible.

Q: Some people use the word “sustainability” to mean actions that enhance/maintain the economic, environmental and social welfare of the Oberlin community. What does sustainability mean in your life?

A: The ability to live in such a way that you can keep going, that you don’t tap out your resources, that you’ve got enough to carry on with.

We use to have little exercises years ago, in which for a week or a month we would undertake to live on what somebody living on welfare had to spend on food. So we ate hot dogs, bread, and canned fruit…. And it was exhausting and humbling…. And the kids drank reconstituted dry milk and hated it! But it was important to do it, and obviously we survived and we did okay with the exercise, and I knew that, if we didn’t have any more money than that, we could manage, but it wasn’t easy or fun. But we knew there was an end to the experiment, and that made it artificial.

So sustainability to me means that you can keep going with the effort, that it’s not so exhausting to put one foot in front of the other that you don’t have time to think of anything other than where your next meal is going to come from.

Q: What actions are you engaged in that relate to sustainability?

A: Well, we drive a hybrid car, and we made it clear to our kids that, if they wanted to drive hybrid cars, we would make up the difference in what it would cost them to buy a hybrid car. And Anne our daughter did do that. Bob walks everywhere, and of course, since I don’t drive, I walk everywhere also. And I see that as intentional conservation of gasoline.

We’ve got the curly light bulbs. I try to watch water consumption and hot water consumption. I wash my clothes in cold water. I have a Laundry Pure that ionizes the wash water to remove dirt, making detergent unnecessary.

We are pretty adamant about turning off lights and turning down the heat at night.

And I personally always keep the lights off.

Q: Equal rights is part of sustainability, I mean I don’t believe we can cater to a certain segment of the community and call it sustainability…We need to look at everybody joining together. And I think that the work that you’ve done as a leader, to help people become integrated into society so they are treated as an equal person…Can you speak about what you’ve done there?

A: “Well since 1974 I’ve been active with the National Federation of the Blind, which is a consumer rights organization, and it really is aimed at precisely what you talk about: equal justice, equal rights. There is a tendency to wrap disabled people in cotton batting and put them safely up on the shelf, so they won’t get hurt and won’t get in people’s way…So partly what I do is to insert myself and get in people’s way.

My children were highly insulted at the way people stared at me because I use a long cane when I walk. They constituted themselves “the stare-back contingent.” I couldn’t see people staring at me, and of course the way you get people to stop staring is to stare back at them. So they simply denominated themselves as the people to stare people out of countenance and made them stop watching…That was good for them, they needed to do that.

I remember once I was walking down the street with Marky in a backpack and Anne was riding a tricycle in front of me. I called to her to stop at the corner, and she did. A man was there lecturing her about how she had to be careful to take care of me. She was three; she had not the least notion of what he was talking about…But this tells you about the presumption that being equipped with vision gives one control, power over somebody else. People ask me why I don’t use a dog, and I tell them because I’ve never met a dog that is as intelligent as I am. I know I couldn’t trust a dog because I want the full force of intelligence to make decisions about whether the traffic is stopping or the light has turned or whatever it may be.

I’m always pushing on societal expectations of blind people and what is fair treatment. We have a 70% unemployment rate, and that’s not because 70% of us are incapable of holding down a job. It’s because people don’t believe that we are capable. They say, “I can’t afford to release someone to take you to the bathroom.” Umm, who asked you to take me to the bathroom? I mean, how do you think I got to this employment interview?

So I am always, always pushing the social norms, the social expectations. I value the seven years I worked for Oberlin College because I was in the face of every alum coming back here. Every time I planned a reunion and competently got the paperwork done, and dealt with the problems facing reunion-planning committees, I reminded them that blind people are able to function independently, and who knows what effect that may have had on their hiring practices. Jobs are key to equality. Once you give a person a job, then you give them the right to economic independence.

Q: Any advice for your fellow community members regarding care for the environment/sustainable living respect for nature?

A: I wish people would put a blindfold on and walk along the sidewalk in front of their houses and notice how rough the pavement is and how many low hanging branches there are. There have been times when I’ve been particularly annoyed and I have carried clippers with me, and, when I hit something with my head, I simply clip off the branch and leave it lying on the sidewalk. Being mindful of these things, it would be a courtesy to all walkers, but especially to the blind. There are several of us in town now. People don’t pick up their feet, which is what you have to do with these uneven sidewalks…

This is inspiring to really appropriately transmit what environmental justice means… because sustainability is suppose to be the balance between economy, environment, and social justice, but social justice gets  the short end of the stick.

A: Well that’s because there’s a bunch of people who have social justice. But everybody can benefit from a better economy and a better environment. We all benefit if we lower the carbon footprint of the community, but social justice, there a lot of people who have theirs, and they don’t think of how fragile that can be. All it takes is a stroke or a fall for it to be gone.

Think about appliances. Try to find a stove that a blind person can operate: you can’t do it.  And that’s not because it’s harder or wildly expensive to make, but because design has gone the direction of smooth and sleek, flat panels, LED controls.

I get calls all the time: “How can I help my mother dial the telephone better? She can’t see the numbers on the telephone anymore...How can I get this fixed for her?” Really, there aren’t good solutions.

It’s not for nothing that people refer to the able bodied as the temporarily abled. You live long enough, and you start losing your capacities.

Universal accessibility should be build-in everywhere.

 

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