This is it!

Lester headshotMuch to my dismay this blog marks my last entry for MU Local History Projects: Interns Corner. As I head into my final year of studying at Misericordia I am reflecting on my time working in the library at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). From the very first day I have been exposed to a whole new world. I started this journey by learning both NFB philosophy, and history. I have learned the long history the NFB has had in fighting for disability rights and the importance of fighting for them.

The NFB has taught me so much about the world and my place in it. It has taught me about the privilege I have as a sighted person, and it has shown me that as a sighted person there are things I can do to further their mission, such as advocating inclusiveness–both by political action as well as making choices to promote inclusiveness everyday,  taking a few moments to be mindful of my day to day actions, photo captioning, and not using language that is divisive in casual conversations. None of these are too hard in practice, and can go a long way in the fight for equality for all.

While here in Baltimore I have become to believe I am morally obligated to do this. I have learned about this obligation through the research I have conducted and the experiences that I have been exposed to, but most importantly, through the friends I have made.

My heart is breaking having to leave my fellow interns; they are all such great people. We have become a weird dysfunctional family. These people have made me laugh, they allowed me to worry, and be my goofy, geeky, insecure self without holding judgement. To Julie, Michael, Danielle, Luisa, and Jerad–and of course the one and only William Robert (Bill) who is Julie’s guide dog and my new best friend–I am going to miss living with you guys. I hope you know it is partly because of you that I am leaving Maryland with a better understanding of both the importance of The NFB and what blind people are capable of.

Celestial Light

So one thing this internship has done for me is it has allowed me to explore a variety of things that I would not have done, from fantastic restaurants, to concerts of bands whose genre is labeled “Art Pop.” My internship has not just taught me about Blindness but it has exposed me to other aspects of our culture. Recently there was an event called Art Scape which is the nation’s largest free art festival. During this festival there was a bunch of art exhibits one of them was called Celestial light (See below) when you walked through there was nothing but the roof, and it was placed so that when you came out you were bathed in natural light. As a way for you realized that the celestial light is all around you. I have to say that it was quite interesting. Reading the reactions on people’s faces who left after me, I don’t think many saw it the way that  I did; still, others not seeing it as I did didn’t diminish its brilliance.
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Picture of Celestial Light Exhibit (A giant cloth moon you walk through)

The reality that Summer 2016 is my last summer as an undergraduate student has gotten my mind craving experience and I have to admit that I had been craving this experience before it had even started. Back in May I knew I wanted to travel this summer. In fact, I had a plan of places I was going to go to before I even left for Baltimore, but of course those plans did not play out as they had in my mind. Still I can’t deny how amazing it has been to travel around as much as I have and how fantastic it is to have been blessed to live here in Baltimore for two months. Sometimes I think we forget to realize where we are in our lives; we are constantly trying to obtain happiness when happiness is right here. We don’t have to go search for it, but when you can, it’s that much more sweet.

The art exhibit entitled Celestial Light grounded me and reminded me I am here, right where I am meant to be.  I admit it is a bit new agey. Still I am a firm believer in this construct, however, in no way do I find it as an excuse to stay stagnate, but rather as an encouragement to embrace the moment. This is what I did later that night, when I was at a free The Mighty Mighty Bosstones concert. While the band played their music, a mosh pit formed and right before the song “The Impression That I Get” I had jumped in and moshed; people who know me know that I am a pretty uptight guy who doesn’t believe in taking “unnecessary risks” (even high water-slides are on my “been there and done that” list) – but being present I was feeling inspired so I jumped into this mosh pit with a bunch of people who had contagious smiles, and to be honest, it was freaking amazing. It wasn’t a violent pit like the ones depicted in angst filled 90s teen movies and at no time was I in danger.  I was off hours so there was no reason to not have fun and it was awesome. I totally got to check something off my “never in a million years” bucket-list. Both this art exhibit and the act of jumping into a mosh pit acted as a wake-up call, putting things that were floating around in my brain in order so that when I jumped in, and being present, my heart softened. As a result, I feel a lot more humble.

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Picture from the Mighty Might Bosstones concert

So with that said I have a message for the next person who takes on this intern assignment. Opportunity will appear to you because you are in a city, and I implore you to not take those moments for granted, in fact I urge you to go seek these opportunities out because life is short and you only live once. Even though I am uptight normally I always have sought new experiences (just not such dramatic ones) because I know we are better for experiencing them.  For every time you step outside your comfort zone be it trying new food or jumping into a mosh pit you will find more empathy for your fellow man.  Before moshing I didn’t know that it could be actually fun.  I broke down a barrier and realized that these people were just having a good time and that’s not a sin or something to be frowned upon.

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Picture of a rainbow at the Bosstones Concert


Lester headshotHowdy readers. Last week I was able to attend the National Federation of the Blind’s National Convention in Orlando Florida (NFB 2016). This convention is a gathering of over two-thousand blind people all with different backgrounds, from Stanford and Harvard Law graduates, to factory workers. I was introduced to so many brilliant people and was told so many different stories.

During NFB 2016, one of these stories came in the form of panels that were being held, and one panel I attended was on blind factory workers. As a millennial who faces job offers that pay non-liveable wages, I find the minimum wage to be extremely dehumanizing; so when I got to this panel I was horrified — going into it I thought they would be discussing unionization of factory workers, but I found out these factory workers were trying to organize not because they were getting paid minimum wage and deserved more, but rather to have a support group and a think tank for people who were being paid sub-minimum wage. Sub-minimum wage is defined as a wage that is lower than the established minimum wage. Up until this point in my life the only position I knew about that got paid this were servers, but I knew that chain restaurants were required to pay them minimum wage if servers didn’t make enough in tips. During this session I heard a story about a man who was a victim of this cruel and usual treatment, he was involved in a lawsuit and all he was seeking was minimum wage.

As somebody who likes to believe he is socially aware, my stomach turned when I became aware of “Section 14(c) of the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) which authorizes employers, after receiving a certificate from the Wage and Hour Division, to pay sub-minimum wages – wages less than the Federal minimum wage – to workers who have disabilities for the work being performed” (Department of Labor). How on earth were there people getting paid to do work for as little as 20 cents per hour? If you think this is uncommon, Forbes ran a piece where they showed that Goodwill Industries commonly known as Goodwill (the thrift shop), a company who “call themselves leaders in providing opportunity for the disabled” allows this practice in their franchises; one of these franchises wanted to pay a blind woman in Montana just $2.75 an hour.

Proponents of the law argue that this is fair because at least it gives the disabled employee a sense of giving back to the community. I argue that is bull. We need to address an issue and clear something up quick: if we continue to think blindness limits a person’s worth and ability, we are seriously mistaken. Blindness doesn’t define a person, or their skill set. Paying them sub-minimum wage encourages blind people to believe they are broken, when in reality, the people who think it’s okay to treat another human this way, for something the person can’t control, are the ones who need fixing.


The “not there” effect.

Lester headshotThis is going to be a post that talks about something many sighted people do but don’t want to acknowledge they do. It’s something I am calling the “not there” effect. The “not there” effect is when you are with a blind person and a sighted person talks to you and not the blind person as if somehow lack of sight also means they lack the ability to communicate. It is rooted in the popular misconception that blind people are fragile children and are not equals.

One day talking with my supervisor, she suggested that I pay attention to how others treated my co-workers who were not sighted outside of the Institute.

Ironically that night my fellow interns (all of whom are blind, as noted in previous blogs) and I went to the inner harbor here in Baltimore, Maryland. There was a running joke to make one of the interns fall into the harbor (this came from a previous event which I wasn’t at where one of the interns was close to falling into the water). So of course jokingly they were trying to get that same intern closer to the water, mind you while using canes – meaning they were well aware of their surroundings.

When the intern was fully aware but finally walking near the ledge playing along a woman jumped up and screamed to me (instead of them) they were going to fall in. I looked at her and said they are fine, which she responded with a death stare. I could tell she thought I was allowing my toddlers run around a Walmart unattended, and proceeded to watch them like a hawk with her hand over her heart all without ever talking to them directly.

Personally I knew that the interns would not actually fall into the harbor, but this woman didn’t.  This woman also clearly had a built-in cultural bias, the concept that because a person is blind they are not able to take care of themselves: that somehow they can’t joke, that somehow they can’t hear, or don’t deserve be spoken to. This bias nearly gave her what I can assume was going to be a heart attack. But knowing my co-workers, what they were capable of, and becoming aware of how others treated them, it gave something to me as well: anger– anger at society, and anger at myself.

Of course this is an extreme case of the “Not There” Effect. Still it got me thinking, and as somebody who studies morality, I believe it is my unwritten duty to cultivate the virtue of honesty. So I have to be honest with myself and you my readers, starting this internship I would have been that woman; I would have freaked out, I would have believed on some level that these adults who were joking by the water were helpless, helpless children who needed my help. Would I have addressed them directly?  I like to think that I would have. Still I fast forward 3 weeks and having been around my co-workers I actually cringe thinking of the person I was four weeks ago. Furthermore, as a co-caregiver to my mother who is blind but also has other issues I have been quite ignorant at what she was/could be capable of.

The National Federation of the Blinds mantra is “We know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back” (NFB). The reality is, blindness doesn’t hold anyone back (who doesn’t buy into the rhetoric of low expectations). Blindness is really like having pale skin–sure it can be annoying having to put on sunscreen every 15 mins but it doesn’t have to prevent you from being a fully functioning person and enjoying life.


Memes are not Accessible

Hi again, so I am in week two of my internship and things have been progressing nicely. I have been working in the library doing a variety of projects. Currently I am making interview logs and transcribing oral histories of people who have contributed to the blind community in a significant manner.

This past week I have become closer with my fellow interns. We have been eating out (a little too much), doing karaoke, and other “Intern Shenanigans”. These people are seriously great people through and through. All of them are impressive in their own way, and all are teaching me both about myself, and a culture I have been oblivious to.

For this blog experience, I wanted to talk about something that happened last night. One of our interns had to move her room due to the NFB hosting a stem program for high school kids. The floor we were on needed space for one of the high school students so she was reassigned to another floor. Of course we all helped her move, during which we lived streamed us singing show tunes in the hall.

This intern asked what a meme said and noted that the meme was inaccessible because there wasn’t a caption to describe what was in the image. She explained that it was “annoying” and explained that many blind people use Apple’s iPhone because it is accessible whereas Androids tend not to be. iPhones allow its users to have their phone speak what text in various applications. This means that they are able to have access to most everything a smart phone does. One of the few things that it doesn’t do is read memes  because they are an image, not a text file. As a boundless optimist, she was quite disappointed because this particular meme was something that was reflective about the Orlando shooting but was uplifting in nature. This intern is the most upbeat, optimism person I have met in a long time. It was pretty jarring when I heard that disappointment in her voice due to almost missing out on a positive message. Having become friends with many blind people on Facebook, I decided that I would start putting captions on my memes so they could know what was in the pictures. A benefit of doing this for the last week is that I don’t nearly share as much junk since I have to write out what the meme or picture says. It doesn’t take more than 60 seconds but those 60 seconds give you pause to sit and reflect if you really want to share the image you are sharing.

An example of a photo caption:

Getting homework done! [ Photo of my MacBook Air next to a Starbucks Strawberry Acai refresher on a rustic looking table]

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A Story of an Analytic Philosopher

Lester headshotMy name is Alexander Lester, and this summer I’m interning with the National Federation of the Blind’s Jacobus tenBroek Library.

When I arrived two days ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I approached the NFB’s giant city block building I felt anxiety. I travel a lot, so going to strange places usually relaxes me. However, my fears and anxiety have been completely relieved and I have been absorbing an insane amount of information from the the rich history of this organization. I have been exposed to different aspects of our world.

In addition, I have met some amazing people. There are four other interns, all of whom are Blind. Since you don’t know me, I guess I should note I am sighted.

As a philosophy major, my social circle consists of people that may be considered eccentric or esoteric, so I was a bit worried to be in a business environment, fearing I would have to refrain from talking about the obscure authors that consume my mind, and my kindle library.  Luckily, it just so happens that one of the four interns is a fellow Philosophy major (who I will admit is better read than I am), and even though he is from an analytic program, I won’t hold it against him (for reasons noted below).  The two of us have already had some pretty good discussions. One topic we discussed was how his department chair was willing to wave the Logic requirement of his degree because the professors didn’t know an effective way to express derivation with symbolic quantifiers. Parts of Logic are dependent on visual constructs.  Being blind, he didn’t have access to certain constructs as a sighted person would. With the goal of working as a professor in the future, this wasn’t acceptable to him. When he was stonewalled by his philosophy professor, someone supposedly dedicated to acquiring and teaching knowledge, he contacted the world’s top leading 20 logician’s to find out how to master the material. One of the emails he sent was published on a popular blog in the philosophy community called the Leiter Reports Philosophy Blog. The following text is his email, with edits suggested by the intern:

“I am a blind [sic]—philosophy Undergraduate student.  As it stands, in order to achieve a B.A. in Philosophy, my University requires that I take a course in Logic. Moreover, my personal education goals include achieving a doctorate in philosophy; therefore, I believe this requirement is pivotal for my success in the field.

Being Blind [sic], I foresaw some issues with the more visual aspects of Logic; namely the symbolic representation of statements. My department recommended I audit the course, in order to observe the possible accessibility requirements for the course. I audited the class this past spring and found no issues up until we got to natural deduction. I have little to no sight. The common solution which has been discussed is to get the degree requirements changed or to receive a course replacement; however, because I was able to successfully understand and utilize the theoretical aspects of Logic, I do not find this to be an adequate solution.

My question, then, is there a way that you have either utilized in the past—if you have had a blind student—to make the course more accessible or is there something my professor may be able to do to help?” (Leiter Report)

According to him, this lead to his department head taking a lot of heat from the Philosophic community for not trying to learn how to effectively teach the material.

I believe it was an interesting lesson for all involved and as an ethicist it hit home with me. Initially, I only thought about the surface level obstacles for him while studying philosophy such as reading texts (which are mostly available in audio format) and writing (which he is able to do via a computer with audio software); but also learning proofs – something that is sacred to the analytic philosopher – are also central to the discipline. The reality is, without knowing Logic (conveyed through these visual constructs), much of philosophy is not accessible.  It astonishes me that his professor thought it was okay to deny somebody who is pursuing a major in philosophy the tools needed to do a majority of it. That’s beyond me.

I am excited to see a thinker rise above opposition in pursuit of the good life. Yes, sight is helpful when learning philosophy, but that doesn’t have to stop non-sighted people from effectively learning Logic, or actively and thoughtfully wrestling with many of the world’s most important questions.

I am grateful for having met this intern. As it’s a reminder to both myself and others to see what it means to be a Philosopher, someone who is a lover of wisdom; one that will seek the truth no matter the obstacle, for the sake of the truth. In eight years, when I hope to be the one teaching Logic, I will remember this conversation and I will actively do my best to solve the challenges of my students, both blind and sighted. No student should be denied tools that are vital to clear thinking and living the good life.


“Advise for Teaching Logic to a Visually Impaired Undergraduate?” ‘Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog’ N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 08 June 2016.