on the RAGGED EDGE
Only after joining the disability rights movement did I become aware of the shocking reality that 70 percent of Americans with disabilities are unemployed. Even without knowing that, though, on learning I would soon be totally blind, I knew that keeping my job and ensuring job security must be my major mission.My Grand Deception
In 1972 at the age of 42 I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and told I should begin thinking about a guide dog or a white cane. The symptoms had been there for a long time, but it took a field-of-vision test to establish the diagnosis.
As a college student I almost failed a course in meteorology because I couldn't tell one cloud from another! Following college, graduate school, anthropological field work in India and 15 years of fulltime employment in the anthropology department at Temple University, I realized my vision was becoming more erratic and limited. In 1965, at the age of 35, I gave up driving after stopping at what I perceived to be a red light that never turned green! After realizing it was a Christmas ornament near a traffic signal, I decided to turn in my car keys to protect the public and me. I knew it was no longer safe to drive, but did not explore the underlying reason. For the next seven years I searched for that magic pair of eyeglasses to fully restore my vision. I never found them.
After hearing the diagnosis and recovering from the initial shock and disbelief, I needed to come to terms with my employment situation. Two years earlier, in 1970, I had left a secure tenured associate professorship at Temple University to accept a position at Baruch College, a branch of the City University of New York. The president offered me the rank of associate professor and a 50 percent increase in salary.
However, he was adamant in his unwillingness to bestow tenure, which would have been a lifetime commitment on the part of the institution. After all, he argued when the issue was raised, if I met his expectations and my proclaimed level of competence, tenure would follow within a short time. Confident of my ability and with a book under contract and nearing completion, I accepted these terms.
The news I heard that afternoon in April instilled in me a fear that my career could be jeopardized. How, if I lost my teaching position, could I support my family? I was plunged into depression and despair, but realized I had to come up with a plan to make my future employment secure. After sharing the devastating news with my wife and three children, I decided my only course of action was to inform the chairman of my department about the potentially gloomy future.
Dr. Norm Storer and I were hired at the same time to help create a first-rate Sociology and Anthropology Department at what had been a traditional business college with weak and understaffed liberal arts components. Norm had been hired as a tenured full professor and chair of the department. I served as his Deputy Chair -- and we had become close friends and mutually supportive colleagues. Norm and I constituted the personnel and budget committee and acted as executive committee for the department. We had lunch together three times a week and exchanged family visits.
On sharing the cataclysmic news, the two of us spent several hours discussing possible options. Both of us were aware of the anti-disability climate pervasive throughout academia at that time. We had seen newly hired disabled faculty held to a higher standard of teaching and publication than their not observably disabled peers. Since this was almost 20 years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, there was no protection for disabled employees. Our decision was to try to hide my continuing loss of sight as long as possible and push for early tenure. Norm as sociologist and I as anthropologist both recognized we were employing a social phenomenon known as "passing."
One strategy Norm and I developed was to attend meetings together whenever possible. I would stay in close physical proximity to Norm and he would unobtrusively guide me to a seat, introduce me to a colleague or escort me to a restaurant table. When I attended meetings by myself, I would arrive early after scoping out the route. Entering the venue before others arrived allowed me to find a seat without bumping into chairs or tables. I was also able to greet others as they arrived.
Since the rooms where I taught my anthropology courses were close to my office, getting there was not difficult. I began allocating more time to get to and from my office for meetings, and always used the same route. At this time my vision was sufficient to carry out these activities, but going from light to dark areas was becoming more problematic.
In the academic world three elements are considered in the mix leading to promotion and tenure. These are teaching, scholarship measured by research grants and publication, and community service. The strategy was to excel in all three areas and push for early tenure.
In the ensuing year I improved my student-based teaching performance rating from fourth to number one in our 12-person department, published a book and had three peer-reviewed articles accepted for publication, had a research grant renewed and attended more meetings and participated in more committees than anyone else in my department.
With all three bases covered, Norm decided to push for early tenure for me in 1973, though I'd been only three years at the college. His recommendation was turned down and we both were distraught. However, we soon discovered that Norm had made a tactical error: The word came back that if Ed Eames was good enough to be granted tenure after only three years, then he should have been recommended for promotion to full professor at the same time!
The following year Norm did not make the same mistake. By then, the three articles based on my work in the United Kingdom had been published and a contract for a second book had been signed. My teaching ratings remained at the top of my department and I had become one of the most active inter-departmental committee members in the college! Norm and I were relieved when his recommendations for tenure and promotion were unanimously approved by the School of Liberal Arts Personnel and Budget Committee. Of course, this recommendation had to be approved by the dean and the president, so we still had some worrying ahead of us. Keeping the secret of my impending blindness was becoming more difficult all the time, as my sight continued deteriorating. Most members of my department were aware of what was happening, but a tacit conspiracy of silence was maintained.
After receiving official confirmation from the president of Baruch, Norm and I spent an afternoon at a local bar we frequently visited for lunch. My inability to navigate the distance between our table and the bar could now be openly attributed to loss of vision -- reinforced by celebratory libations!
We decided I would go public and come out of the closet at the beginning of the next semester. That summer I enrolled in a program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Rehabilitation. The major emphasis was on learning the proper techniques of traveling independently using a white cane. Needless to say, a significant stir was created when I showed up using my cane at the first faculty meeting in the fall.
With the achievement of promotion and tenure, I could have relaxed , taught my three classes per semester and contemplated retirement. However, during the next 15 years I published four academic books, thirty articles in peer reviewed journals and received several research grants to continue my anthropological research. I also began shifting my career from pure academic to advocate and activist in the disability community.
Now that I have left the academic world and am pursuing a career as writer, lecturer and disability rights advocate, I look back at that frightening time in the early 70s at Baruch and realize how much I owe Norm and other colleagues who supported my grand deception.
Posted July 5, 2004
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