Barbara 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 words or images would you use to describe Oberlin?
A: Friendly, 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. 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 of being ecologically responsible. I take great pride in Oberlin and Oberlin’s willingness not to be irresponsible.
Q: 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. It was exhausting and humbling, but it was important to do it. Obviously we survived and we did okay with the exercise, but it wasn’t easy or fun. 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. Bob walks everywhere and of course, since I don’t drive, I walk everywhere also. 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. 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. The work that you’ve done as a leader, to help people become integrated into society so they are treated equally, is a part of sustainability too. 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 really aimed at precisely what you talk about: 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. Partly what I do is to insert myself and get in people’s way. 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 or power over somebody else.
“I take great pride in Oberlin and Oberlin’s willingness to be responsible.”
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. 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: This is inspiring to really appropriately transmit what environmental justice means because sustainability is supposed to be the balance between economy, environment, and social justice, but social justice often gets the short end of the stick.
A: Well that’s because there are a bunch of people who have social justice. However, 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. 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 built-in everywhere.
Tags: Neighbors, Our Downtown