Spitzer-Schmitzer: Listen To The Next Governor

Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson fields questions about his next job at his March 13 news conference. [Source: Nathaniel Brooks/NYT]
Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson fields questions about his next job at his March 13 news conference. [Source: Nathaniel Brooks/NYT]

Now that Sirius Satellite Radio is launching the Client 9 Channel, the rest of the world can revel in Eliot Spitzer’s dénouement like there’s no tomorrow. My attention turned immediately to his successor when I learned that David A. Paterson will be the first legally blind governor in U.S. history. When I heard Paterson’s March 13 news conference, I sensed that he may be the rare leader who can do what Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn’t do 80 years ago: proclaim a disability proudly as an act of political affirmation.

I share some things with the next New York governor, including age, visual acuity, disability, and political motivation. As best I can tell from the news photos, he appears to be a stubborn holdout for manly facial hair on Fashionista Street. I can only hope to share his humility and wit. When asked at the news conference whether had ever patronized a prostitute, NYT reported that he paused, gave a sly smile, and answered, “Only the lobbyists.” If asked, I could answer honestly, “No, but I was a lobbyist.”

When asked the inevitable question about being an inspirational role model for blind people, Paterson turned it into a teachable moment. Noting that “71 percent of the blind and 90 percent of deaf people are unemployed,” he said he would consider it a privilege if his governorship helped to change employer’s attitudes. [Listen to the sound-bite on NPR; read the transcript]

I can’t vouch for the precision of the second number, but I know the first is spot on when framed this way: 70 percent of blind people who are working age and want to work are unemployed. Those of us in the other 30 percent, David Paterson included, know what it takes to get and stay there. It isn’t luck or noblesse oblige. It takes skill, negotiation, creative problem-solving, and tenacity in the face of pervasive, often institutional, employment discrimination.

Carl Augusto drove this message home when the NYT
asked him about it this week. A colleague from my earliest days in the disability movement, Augusto is president and chief executive of the American Foundation for the Blind. Paterson served on the AFB board from 1997 to 2006. Augusto said of him:

He doesn’t talk about his visual impairment much because it’s not a significant factor in his life… People say to me, ‘How could he function without knowing Braille?’ Well, guess what, he functions, and functions very, very well. He does it because he’s smart and uses what he thinks are his best adaptive skills.

Paterson’s example is already loosening the grip of age-old stereotypes of what it means to be blind. Blindness takes many forms across the vast, complex continuum of visual perception. It isn’t limited to what you imagine when you close your eyes or fumble in the dark for a light switch. Here’s how NPR reporter Margo Adler described some of the nuances:

Paterson, who lives with his family in Harlem, is completely blind in one eye; in the other, he can see people only up close. He doesn’t use a cane or guide dog.

He’s also steeped in literature. He has been known to quote Dostoyevsky at press briefings.

Dostoevsky? I’ll listen to someone who can talk about that. At my age and august station in life, I don’t have many heroes left. I certainly wasn’t looking for one. But I could hitch my wagon to this guy’s star.

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2 Responses to Spitzer-Schmitzer: Listen To The Next Governor

  1. Mark Willis says:

    Steve Kuusisto wrote a fine NYT op-ed on Paterson’s significance:

    “I imagine the future governor’s information-gathering skills are supple and inexhaustible… Blind people are invariably creative and resourceful. Obviously we’re good listeners. But what people may not know is that learning to have a keen sense for what others are talking about requires developing an equally sharp curiosity about human beings. When people talk to me, I can’t just listen; I am also compelled to take stock of the person behind the words. This means asking questions that might not occur to people who can see.”

  2. Mark Willis says:

    The Nation vetted David Paterson’s NYC progressive credentials, and disability was an “as well” detail tucked near the end:

    “Paterson will… emerge as a national leader on issues of concern to people with disabilities–both as a passionate advocate and someone who can speak from experience.

    “Paterson is legally blind–he suffers from optic atrophy, a degeneration of the fibers of the optic nerve-–but the condition has rarely seemed too much of a burden for this graduate of Columbia University in 1977 and Hofstra Law School.

    The “suffer/burden” language suggests to me that progressives don’t really get disability as a social/political process.

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