By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
As Blanche DuBois famously said in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” There is something to be said for dogged determination but rarely in life do people achieve anything on their own, be it success, happiness, a career, etc. I am eternally grateful to all those known and unknown to me who helped me on my journey. Truth be told, they may not have even been aware that they helped me.
When I lost my eyesight due to meningitis, there were many people upon whose kindness I relied. They helped me maintain a strong vision of what was truly possible with this new way of seeing. They got me standing upright and pointed in the right direction. The incomplete list of individuals includes my parents, friends, relatives, doctors, nurses, social workers, guide dog trainers, and physical and occupation therapists. I don’t care if they were motivated by a moral, contractual, legal, or any other type of obligation. The fact is that they helped me, and their kindness will never be forgotten.
Many of the forefathers and foremothers of the blind community and the disability community in general have helped me by laying a foundation upon which I could stand to see what was possible. They also showed me what still needed to be done to achieve authentic inclusion of Ability alongside Race, Gender, Orientation, and Religion in both our social and corporate cultures.
Random acts of kindness echo through space and time, touching lives in profound and unpredictable ways. That list includes people like Louis Braille, a man who died over 160 years ago, but he helped me and millions of other blind people to read. Less famous but no less impactful, was the unfortunate customer services person that happened to catch me in a bad mood while I attempted to navigate around digital barriers serendipitously improved my life.
Years ago, when I first left the hospital after losing my eyesight, I admittedly had difficulty paying my bills. It wasn’t because I didn’t have the money, I did. However, the technology that allowed me to read computer screens could not interface with the bank’s technology. I could not complete a simple task like banking because of it. I called to complain and to see what solutions they might offer. I thought that since it was a huge bank with what was likely hundreds of billions in deposits, they figured out a solution for other customers like me. I could not be its only customer who was blind, right? Oh, the bank representative had a solution— only it was a bad one. She suggested that I, a grown man with master’s degrees who ran million-dollar businesses, should get someone to look at my bank statements and bills and write the checks for me.
I was infuriated that she thought I should be relegated to third-class citizenship because I was blind. Her company’s technology failure should not have required me and millions of others to lead a life with less privacy and autonomy in our financial matters. What was even more maddening was that this person thought they were helping. I don’t mean this to seem like I had any animosity or hate toward that person due to her ignorance of Ability. Rather, I am grateful to her and people like her because they galvanized my inspiration and drive to start our nonprofit, My Blind Spot (MBS). Among other things, MBS is dedicated to universal access to all digital platforms for all people, regardless of their ability. I never want people with disabilities to deal with the same indignities I endured. It’s our goal to help millions of “strangers”, people we may never meet with disabilities.
I am also grateful to the flight attendant and pilot from Flight #4384 of the now defunct US Airways who in November 2013 kicked me and my then service dog, Doxy, off our flight from Philadelphia to Long Island, for no good reason. In solidarity, the scores of people on that plane walked off in protest of that injustice, even though I was a stranger to them. On that cold autumn night, my heart was warmed by the kindness of strangers. I was lifted by their compassion and generosity of spirit. Whenever I am feeling down, I will often think of that day to remind myself that there is still good in the world. Above all else, strangers became friends that I could rely on. Several high-profile airlines reviewed their policies regarding people traveling with service animals because of the indignity that I endured. The kindness of those strangers that night led to a partnership with American Airlines, JetBlue, and the trade organization, Airlines for America.
Note: If you’re interested, the incident made international news. Click here to listen to the NPR story or you can click here for my interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News.
The great Irish writer, William Butler Yeats, once said something along the lines of “there are no strangers, only friends you have not made yet.” We in the disability community should appreciate the friends we have not made yet. They cleared the way for us to become who we are, even if they did not mean to. So too, we also need to join together to clear the way to make it easier for others who don’t and may never know us.
We do that by collaborating with kindred spirits and people with like minds. Right now, I am thinking of my friend and colleague Brian McCourt, from the Able Channel. Recently on the AccessAbility Works podcast, we discussed his efforts to create content that helps people better understand and manage their medical diagnoses. His programs will help thousands of people he will never meet. Click here to find that episode.
Brian and I collaborated on an award-winning program called “Together We Are Able.” Aside from the Telly Awards it earned, that program will help throngs of people understand the disability community regardless if they are part of it now or will inevitably be in the future. We will likely never meet them, but it’s great to know that we are hopefully helping and inspiring them. I think I can speak for Brian when I say we do what we do, not for the accolades or the kudos but to help make the world better for the friends we have not made yet.
If you are a friend that I have not made yet and you want to help me change the world for people with disabilities, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.