Discrimination on ice: Fighting to protect rights of blind people

August 10, 2008|By Marc Maurer

Many Marylanders may not realize it, but blind people like to skate, and many know how to take to the ice safely.

For years, the local affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind has held its annual convention at a hotel in Ocean City that features an ice skating rink, and the blind convention participants enjoy the rink along with other hotel guests without problems. Blind skaters use their canes on the ice, just as when walking, in order to avoid colliding with other skaters and to observe the boundaries of the skating area. When ice skating, the cane is held closer to the body than it is when walking down the street to avoid tripping others.

Blind skaters use their cane, along with their other senses (especially hearing), to move across the ice without fear of accident or injury. At the same time, their white cane alerts other skaters to the fact that they are on the ice.

All of this was carefully explained to the management of the Northwest Family Sports Center, an ice skating rink in Mount Washington, when 14 blind teenagers and five adults arrived there Tuesday night to skate. The young people were participating in the Teen Empowerment Academy, a summer program operated by the National Federation of the Blind and designed to promote independence and self-confidence.

Despite their explanations, they weren't permitted to skate. The rink managers continued to insist that blindness posed a safety hazard to their patrons. They questioned the ability of the blind adults in the group to supervise the young people effectively. They wanted to place restrictions on the blind skaters that are not applied to other members of the general public by cordoning off a special section of the rink for their use. But the youths refused to be segregated; they didn't want a special accommodation. They saw it as discrimination, and under the law, they were right.

The Maryland White Cane law provides that the blind cannot be denied access to any facility that is open to the general public. That's why members of the National Federation of the Blind returned to the Mount Washington rink the next afternoon with the youth group. We had another talk, this time stressing the provisions of the White Cane law, and management relented.

We skated for an hour alongside other members of the public without incident, as we had expected.

The Maryland White Cane law, the Americans With Disabilities Act and other such laws are designed to integrate people with disabilities into society and to protect them from discrimination. These laws recognize that the blind and others with disabilities should be treated as individuals rather than discriminated against based on stereotypes and misconceptions about our capabilities.

But people still make assumptions about blind people, their likes and dislikes, their abilities and their inabilities.

It's prejudice, based on ignorance rather than malice. But it's prejudice nonetheless, and it is inexcusable and exactly what these laws were designed to prevent.

The notion of individual liberty - the ability to make one's own choices, take one's own risks and direct one's own life - is a bedrock principle of American society, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. It applies to everyone, including the blind.

In defending the right of these blind teenagers to skate with the general public, the National Federation of the Blind was defending the right of every individual to make his or her own decisions and pursue his or her own happiness. It wasn't just about a night out skating.

Marc Maurer is president of the Baltimore-based

National Federation of the Blind. His e-mail is

officeofthepresident@nfb.org.

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