A Face for Television
When I graduated from high school, I decided not to go to college right away since, after I broke up with Kathy, I had no reason to go to Ohio State, where I had been accepted. Its bast in personal campus intimidated me.
Since I wouldn’t be going to college, my folks said I would have to get a job.
So, my mother introduced me to the head of personnel for NELA (Northeast Lighting Association) Park, General Electric’s lighting research and marketing campus where Mom worked as secretary for their medical center. On that hot afternoon in July 1967, the head of personnel watched me fill out the four-page questionnaire with my face pressed to the table peering through a thick magnifier which enabled me to read the forms’ print and fill in the right line. It was slow work. The fellow read my application and then looked up and said to me flatly, “We don’t hire the handicapped”. I had thought I could work on the grounds crew or as a dish washer or janitor or something, but I didn’t blame the guy. As far as I was concerned, I was damaged goods, and I wouldn’t have hired me either. My self-esteem was very low. Back in those days, if I had been hired at GE, they might have paid for my college to develop my written and verbal skills, which had already been demonstrated in high school.
I might have retired from GE’s marketing department, like my mom retired from GE, after a lifetime of faithful service. But they didn’t hire the handicapped.
He referred me to City Blue Printing, which had the generous reputation of being a company that did hire the handicapped. But I wasn’t taking any chances and besides, I was ashamed of my disability. I didn’t tell City Blue Printing that I couldn’t see, I filled out the application in the men’s room. So I was hired, having hidden my low vision from them. At City Blue, I failed at two jobs requiring excellent vision and then was sent back to the employment office. When the employment officer spoke to me, the kind gentleman told me in his most compassionate tone, that they did hire the handicapped as delivery boys, taking buses around town to find exactly the right street, and exactly the right building number, and exactly the right office number to deliver finished work orders. I suppose people with many disabilities could have done that job, but not my disability. I told him, I would not be good at that either, but that I appreciated his offer. When I took the bus home in the middle of the day, after only a couple of weeks on the job, I realized that the world of employment was going to be a lot harder than I had figured it would have been.
Vision seemed to be the key, but I was determined to work. My next job, which I heard about through a high school friend who also hadn’t gone to college, was sort of a scam I learned. I was hired to work within a new concept in membership organizations, a health spa. The job required wearing a doctor’s smock over white shirt and tie, keeping the gleaming chrome exercise equipment and ceiling to floor mirrors spotless, repeatedly vacuuming the red carpet, and keeping the sauna, whirlpool, and restrooms likewise sparkling clean. We also put on the pretense of being skilled personal trainers. It seemed that every job required paper work. there were personalized exercise forms with small print and tiny boxes with which I was supposed to keep detailed records about our member’s exercise programs.
But the members all had their own routines, like the banty rooster guy who strutted around wearing a white sweat suit, shiny laced up boots and a wide leather belt with an oversized silver buckle declaring, “First Runner-Up, Mr. Ohio, 1957. When he showed it to me and I told him I couldn’t read the buckle, he told me what it said. I was genuinely impressed. and while I spoke to all of our customers, and learned a great deal about them, like a bar tender, barber or pool boy might learn about their customers’ lives, they didn’t need my services. Then one evening, some one really did need my help. He shuffled up to the white desk where I sat , a 73-year-old spindly-legged, potbellied judge who had had a heart attack and was told by his doctor to get in shape. So, without any idea what I was doing, I got out my trusty magnifier and set up an exercise program for the old judge who, I now know, really needed a highly-specialized, heart rehab program. I had him curling little silver dumbbells, walking on the treadmill in his rubber flip flops, , bench pressing light weight loads on the universal gym, and then, easing himself into a well-deserved, steaming hot tub, after baking in a sauna at over 100 fifty degrees of dry heat. Yikes! What could possibly have gone wrong? Holiday Health Spa tried to recruit me into their management program,. No chance. I had found their high-pressure sales techniques and overall vibe to be so distasteful that I wasn’t going to stick around. I had decided to start college at Cleveland State University in January, 1968, , so my life with the health spa industry had a natural end date. After two quarters at Cleveland State, I hitchhiked to California, knocked around while studying hard at two junior colleges, and thanks to my high grades, got into the University of California at Berkeley. I graduated from Berkeley with highest honors, and then, ten years after GE had told me they didn’t hire the handicapped, I earned my master’s degree in Rehabilitation Administration. I heard about a Federal job opening within the blind Business Enterprise Program, in the Regional Rehabilitation Services Administration office. It was a disability preference hire, and my masters was a perfect fit. But the interviewer voiced there would be too much reading, although I showed him photographs of myself using a new device, a closed circuit video magnifier, which could blow the print up to mega letters I could read, like I had used successfully at Berkeley, to study my class notes, while reading my voluminous text books through listening to recorded readers 40 hours a week. Funny, seven months before, we had staged a successful 24 day sit-in, within that very Federal building, to gain our civil rights, including employment rights, under Section 501 of the Rehab Act, which said the Feds could not discriminate if I were otherwise qualified, which I was. No matter, no job, because that guy just didn’t hire guys with my disability. A woman with quadriplegia got the job instead.
I had been working since I was nine years old, and by that time, for five years as a program administrator. I began volunteering teaching guitar, at the new Peninsula Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, while I was still in junior college. Because of that volunteer job, I was offered a great opportunity, developing and running summer programs for teens and tweens with visual
disabilities. Well, I worked continuously, even after not getting hired by the Federal Government. Years later, by the time that I was 42, I was a father, and sole support of two children, with a stay an at-home wife. I was rehab director at the Cleveland Sight Center, and had put in two decades in the blindness field developing many successful rehabilitation programs. . ironically, I had even been asked to and consulted with NELA Park, the same place that told me they didn’t hire the handicapped. Their lighting Research Institute engineers, right after they had developed a new green fluorescent bulb to illuminate the Statue of Liberty, asked me to help them develop a new light bulb for seniors, with their many forms of reduced vision. I came up with a new concept, which would meet everyone’s needs. a three-way pink incandescent light bulb, which could illuminate from a very low light 50 watt for elders who were light sensitive, to a very bright 150 watt for seniors needing increased illumination. However, my main job was rehabilitation programs. One innovative rehabilitation program which I developed at the Cleveland Sight Center, applying assistive computer technology to help people obtain and retain their jobs, was recognized by National Geographic and Doctors Without Borders, as an international model. By the time my days were running out in the blindness trade, I had lost all my useful sight, and I was grateful to have that job which blindness could not upend. I had every reason to expect that I would retire from the Cleveland Sight Center, since I was good at my job, and assistive technology had given me access to word-processing, through which I could write, edit, and apply my mental brawn as a grant writer, administrator, professional writer marketing our programs and otherwise ply my trade, which did not require sight.
But a new executive director just piled on the paperwork, all of which was only on paper, while, at the same time, he cynically reduced my secretarial support. There were annual and quarterly personnel evaluation systems for my forty employees, eight of whom reported to me, monthly program budgets for my eleven programs, consumer satisfaction questionnaires, accreditation file systems, and more. He didn’t want me around, so he made my life miserable. He didn’t like my advocacy – always finding new ways to help folks with visual disabilities. and although my personnel file gleamed, there was no union to protect me. I worked at the boss’s pleasure. So, I packed my office and left a job which clearly was not blind proof.
It was 1992 and I decided to hang out my shingle as an ADA Consultant. I applied for training as an ADA Implementation Specialist, through the US Department Of Justice, and was accepted into a weeklong class, taught by Berkeley’s Disability Rights Education Defense Fund. A year later I received Phase II training,. I did hustle up a few jobs teaching the ADA to government employees, and received many referrals of people with disabilities from around the country who did not have funding for my fees, so I worked pro bono, helping many people benefit from the ADA’s protections without charge. Still, I had to make my living another way,
Just as I was fired, my wife and I had separated and I had moved into an apartment within walking distance to get my kids for evenings and weekends. Within my apartment complex there also lived the news anchor for a local network television station. It occurred to me that I might land a job as a reporter doing a disability beat, reporting on upbeat stories about people overcoming disability. Thanks to a sighted friend spotting him over dinner, I approached the fellow at the restaurant within our complex and gave him my elevator pitch. He made a little box out of his fingers, and studied my face for a moment. He stated, “You have a face for television.” Then he gave me the name of the news director and told me that I could use his name to get my foot in the door. . I scheduled an appointment with her and called my regular cab driver to drive me down to the station. I had prepared a portfolio with a dozen story ideas, letters of recommendation, and my resume,
The news director made that same little finger box and studied my face. Then she said (no kidding), that I had a face for television. She read my materials. Then she set down what I suspect she thought would be an insurmountable obstacle course of tasks; she told me, she had recently laid off a cameraman, whom who was available for hire to film my audition piece. She would lend me a station camera and let me use the video editing suite to put together my finished story, which had to be exactly 2 minutes long.
I remembered a high tech Cleveland connection. I phoned Doctor Jim Bliss, the President of Tele sensory Systems Inc., the Silicon Valley company where I had worked fifteen years before. My memory was right! Jim gave me a great story idea starring his old college roommate, who was now a leading doctor within both Case Western Reserve University. and the Veteran’s Administration. Through Jim’s connection, the door opened and I telephoned the key people from the various Cleveland institutions involved with this bio-medical breakthrough. Then I arranged to hire the grumpy cameraman, and scheduled a full day of shooting at locations across greater Cleveland. During the afternoon within the editing suite with the staff person who would normally work with reporters, I spliced the seams together, and recorded needed voiceover elements. Voila! I was ready to present the news director with my 120 second masterpiece – a news story on a cutting-edge technology which enabled a man with a high spinal cord injury to
use his paralyzed hand to answer a telephone, pick up and drink from a Coke can, and write with a pen. The story involved scenes interviewing my boss’s friend, the surgeon from Cleveland’s Metro General Hospital,, and most importantly, the very man who had received the first surgical implants, and was able to use his paralyzed hand in the most camera-friendly ways. Finally my closing shot, summarizing the revolutionary biomedical beachhead, and its
promise, standing in front of the Metro General Hospital sign, with a Life Flight helicopter landing behind me, silver hair and dark glasses, signing off holding the familiar station’s call- letter microphone. It came in at exactly 2 minutes flat. First, I showed my audition piece to the news anchor who had recommended me, and he was impressed and said it was professional in every way and he would welcome me to the team. I scheduled an appointment to share it with the news director, who had given me the herculean assignment. I think she was stunned that I had independently produced a professional 2-minute television news story. It had tremendous human interest, sparkled with a Cleveland sheen, highlighted the genius of researchers, doctors and computer engineers who had fabricated an surgically-implanted the computer-driven system, controlled by a shoulder harness which stimulated his hand muscles and enabled a paralyzed man to once again use his hand for essential everyday tasks. \
I began the story talking about spinal cord injuries, using “b-roll” meaning, in this case, stock shots, images of a car accident where people were being loaded into ambulances on stretchers. Then right into the interviews with the projects’ principles. The story was told by those actually involved and showed a medical miracle of a man with quadriplegia using his hand again. He was great on camera and the impact really came across. Who wouldn’t want that story? The news anchor liked my work, the news director signed off on hiring me, The final decision was the station’s executive. I recognized his name. He was an old-time shoe-leather reporter who had worked his way up the television station’s food chain and was now executive director of this new Fox Station in Cleveland. He looked at my story and just had one criticism. He said that people would find it depressing to see a blind man on television. He said that his station wouldn’t hire a man with such an obvious disability. A face for television or not, those dark glasses were a deal breaker. ! Nobody wants to see that! although in principle, the ADA gave me protection against such prejudice and discrimination, I knew, that to fight it, would only have made me an enemy if I were to get the job, and I didn’t want to work in a hostile work environment, so I let it go. I didn’t have the money to hire an attorney anyway.
Instead, I created a role for myself , writing character education, disability and diversity awareness and acceptance songs, an classroom activity guide and finally a school musical on anti-bullying with a counseling guide – all for schools. Soon I was invited to present keynote addresses, and workshops at education conferences,.
By the end of that run, I had worked in 47 states and 5 other countries and had moved over 30,000 items from my catalog. The No Child Left Behind law brought the curtain down on character education as every school dropped social and emotional intelligence education like a hot rock and began to chase test scores like fast food junkies chase burgers. All of my work dried up within six weeks and performance contracts were instantly cancelled. I wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible had I not experienced it. Ultimately I consulted in the museum world and volunteered at hospice for years. I produced CD’s for both. . I had started my company “Music from The Heart” in 1986, and I do hire people with disabilities, In fact, I prefer them. Since my television audition piece, I have discovered my range of talents and have done exactly what I have chosen to do. Including developing and producing this television show, which is our experiment in spreading positive thought serving the social good.
There are 2 types of barriers faced by people with disabilities: architectural and attitudinal. The easier one is physical barriers. Ramps can be built, doors widened, tactile and large character signs installed, telecommunication networks established in every state, and computers modified with large print programs or speech.
??The other barrier is attitudinal. As my “stories about General Electric, the San Francisco Federal Regional Office and the television station demonstrate, one man’s prejudicial beliefs can present an insurmountable handicap, like an athlete in a wheelchair confronting a sheer cliff during a marathon. In my life experience, becoming a grounds crew worker for GE, Federal regional rehabilitation program administrator or innovative television reporter remained jobs for the sighted since myth, fear and stereotype stood, and sadly, still stand
as invisible barriers to many of our sisters and brothers with disabilities. Employment remains the last frontier concerning accessibility. It is always in individuals’ hands, whose beliefs control their actions. Since the ADA was signed into law in 1990 (a law which we had hoped would remove the barrier to employment for people with severe disabilities), we have actually lost ground and fewer people with disabilities enjoy the privilege of employment because of others’ beliefs. There are many great stories about people who have surmounted barriers of belief and prejudice and are currently employed and proving those dinosaurs wrong. Yet those of us with disabilities remain the most unemployed and impoverished Americans.
My advice to young people with disabilities is find what you love to do and do it!
My career began by volunteering. That lead to a paying job. One job followed the next, all beginning with and ending with my offering to volunteer. I know it’s a different world, with fewer jobs for anyone as automation crowds in on the working world. Whether you can find gainful employment or not, if you volunteer, you will be increasing your chances of getting a job, and adding to your nations’ and your worlds’ common wheel of community wellbeing. That, after all, is the greatest benefit any of us can hope for through working. I know, I step up and volunteer and volunteering is working.