Our Stars, Ourselves, or Something Else?
By Tony Candela
A famous line in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is uttered by Cassius in response to the accolades Julius Caesar seemed to garner wherever he went. “The fault, dear Brutus, [that we are underlings] is not in our stars, But in ourselves….” Although now a powerful leader, the name ‘Caesar’ had not been prominent in the past. Cassius and Brutus, envious and perplexed, wondered aloud how he could stand like a “Colossus” while they who were of greater lineage remained subservient?
In the time of Caesar (he died in 44 BCE at age 56), it was common to see one’s fate as either under one’s control or controlled by undefined forces in the universe. Today we tend to be more mechanistic, ascribing causality less to the fates and more to tangible forces. We look to a combination of ourselves and elsewhere and select the stars as a last resort. (For those who are religious, spiritual, or cosmological, substitute your own word for “stars”.)
As I write, I have just participated in a podcast where the topic of conversation was employment of the blind. Also, currently, I am part of a project with a mainstream company to improve the accessibility of its software to blind people. The issues are familiar, just as those about employment of the blind are. In fact, in both situations, the broader issues come down to the same ones pondered by Cassius and Brutus so long ago. Are the difficulties we face today caused by our stars, ourselves, or something else? Put another way, do we blame fate or the nature of blindness for our difficulties; do we look to ourselves and how we have or have not overcome our blindness; or do we say our difficulties are mainly socially constructed? Modern disability advocacy leans toward the latter; I cannot help but lean towards all three.
Let’s begin with our stars. Personally, I ascribe to a cosmological view. This means that the pattern of the universe that began 13.8 billion years ago affects us today. We are all products of stardust. How, for example, did those of us who are blind get this way? Surely, since most humans, the product of billions of years of progress from simple organic molecules to complex multicellular organisms, possess state-of-the art visual systems, something in the genetic structure caused the visual systems of some of us to go awry. Were they cosmic rays, genetic switches turning on or off, low-probability events like parents carrying recessive genes (my situation), or something else, like environmental factors that we just happened to contact?
Taking other examples, let us assume our intelligence is a gift we receive via inheritance, but how we nurture it contributes mightily to the way we are today. And what of our plans for life? Were we predestined to travel the paths we travelled or did we make choices as we encountered our life circumstances? What within us led to the choices we made, or were we simply buffeted by waves of time, space, and energy to do everything we have done?
Turning to ourselves, specifically our drive and willpower, psychologists talk about temperament. This is “an aspect of personality concerned with emotional dispositions and reactions and their speed and intensity” which goes towards how well we nurture our native intelligence, how aggressively we solve problems, and how actively or passively we deal with our disabilities. When we encounter the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and decide either to succumb or “to take up arms against them”, we engage willfully to shape our futures.
Sometimes we fight; sometimes we seek help; and sometimes, disillusioned, overwhelmed, or feeling otherwise inefficacious, we allow the fates to dictate what will happen to us. The latter is often easier or more practical; the former lays a lot of responsibility on our shoulders and opens us to effort and frustration.
Then there are the forces that lie elsewhere. These include other people, social and institutional structures, and the environment, consisting of both what is built by humans and Mother Nature.
Blind people have a higher employment rate today than ever before. According to data gleaned from the American Community Survey, part of the work done by the U.S. Census and reported to me by the National Research and Training Center (NRTC) on Blindness and Low-vision, our employment rate is 48%, meaning our unemployment rate is not the oft-quoted 70% but 52%. Still, not only must we continue to wonder what has kept the fifty-two percent from gaining employment, but what of the fate of those who are employed? Many are self-employed, many are part-time or under-employed, and still others are hanging onto their jobs for fear of not being able to get another one. Then there are many of us who have done quite well, but even we have had to work hard at it and occasionally struggle for access and fight for our rights, causing stress in the workplace.
As for technology access, a large part of our recent employment success stems from more powerful access tools and increased buy-in by technology manufacturers and employers , sometimes by coercion and sometimes by enlightened self-interest. There is still an unjustifiable level of inaccessibility in the world and hence the need for aggressive advocacy.
In observations of myself and others, the way we embrace what is in the world or fail to do so, or do so only to a certain extent, dictates how capable we will be. This includes how successful we are not only in the workplace, but in all aspects of life. For example, if I possess only an average amount of skill in dealing with life and work, there is theoretically a whole lot more skill I could possess. Why wouldn’t I have these skills? What might keep me from being at the top of the continuum instead of in the middle? Figuring out answers to these questions will go a long way to being more efficacious in the world.
Take technology. While many of us have learned how to use our computers, smartphones, and specialized devices and while some of us are highly skillful with them, there are more of us, myself included, who know more than enough to get by but not nearly enough to handle all of the problems we run into in the world. Acquiring new skills is hard for many. Some of us flourish when presented with new learning problems while the rest of us cringe at the hardship we anticipate.
I recently assisted the NRTC to teach a job-seeking course as part of the work I do for them. Students were from around the country and ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. Some of the students were whizzes with their technology, handling the Zoom calls, chat boxes, shared documents, and digital handouts quickly and efficiently. Others had difficulty muting and unmuting themselves and could not read a handout while the class was proceeding. Some students had English as their second language; some had other physical disabilities; some were working on building up their emotional strength and their confidence. We spent a great deal of time working on how to make good first impressions with employers, the job interview being the most obvious gate-keeping event in the employment process. Some were overly aggressive; others meek; and still others did not have their “elevator speeches” ready for fluent delivery. The often-unasked question: “How can you possibly do this job and all it entails with your disability, including getting to work” is the stuff of one of the elevator speeches which must be delivered quickly and fluently.
I also noticed that it seemed many of the folks in the classes seemed to be alone and not well supported, either by the Vocational Rehabilitation system or friends and family. Thus, we made sure the classmates formed a working network with each other and discussed how to expand their help-getting network as much as possible. This single skill can go a long way to helping all of us get along better in work and life.
In the end, we are still the stuff of stardust. Whatever our personalities and other gifts, we are destined, if nothing else, to exist among our fellows in the universe. As we navigate the barriers of our existence, let’s at least help each other so none of us will be alone.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
Books by Tony…
Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy
A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports
Vision Dreams: A Parable
A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.
More About Tony…
Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.