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Don't Shoot The Piano Tuner

In some of the blindness-related journals I have been reading recently, I have noticed comments that bothered me. The authors argued that the traditional blind trades were inferior to regular jobs and should be avoided as career choices. This wasn't said in so many words; however, the message was obvious.

In the past, agencies serving the blind offered only a few training choices to their clients wanting to work. If the client wanted to be trained for a career outside of a narrow list of approved careers, the agency refused to help and told clients they were on their own.

So many blind people over the years were trained for careers that were not their first choice in order to receive the financial assistance they needed. As a result, many people spent their lives in jobs they didn't want and were unsuited for. They were forced by bad luck and bad advice into one of the so-called blind trades.

Some of those occupations were piano tuning, massage therapy, vending stand operator, and chair caning. Approved trades boiled down to those that used the allegedly enhanced hearing and tactile senses of the blind, according to the agency experts.

Today, blind men and women have far more choices. Largely because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind {in the United States} and its efforts to reform the agencies, blind people no longer have to settle for the very limited career choices their predecessors had. It is understandable that people still feel some disinclination to choose a career in a blind trade. But in an effort to exert our new ability to choose, some people are unfairly denigrating the blind trades and those who work in them.

A little over a year ago, I adopted a piano from a Federation friend who no longer wanted it. It was in pretty good condition considering that it was built when my parents were in high school. One thing it did need, however, was a tuning. As soon as the piano arrived, I got a call from another Federation friend who is a piano tuner. He wanted to set up an appointment for tuning my instrument. When the time for the appointment came, so did the tuner. He was right on time.

Being a curious person, I asked if I could watch while he fixed my piano. He agreed and began to work. We talked about pianos and about his career as a tuner. He had freely chosen and now loved his career. He described travelling from one appointment to another and explained that he had to look for new clients constantly while taking care of his current ones. A bit over an hour later, he was done tuning the piano and giving me an education. He had a new client, and I had a new respect for a self-employed entrepreneur who happened to be blind.

My day job is as a computer programmer. I write software and carry out other duties as assigned. One of those duties is interviewing prospective employees. After interviewing for several years, I have learned which employee traits are valuable to my organization. Some of the traits sought by organizations include working independently with a minimum of direction, managing time and meeting deadlines, solving expected and unexpected problems as they occur, communicating effectively, and cultivating new business opportunities.

My self-employed piano-tuner friend had all these traits and more. He was the only one working to expand his business, keeping track of his expenses, and collecting fees. He was solely responsible for arranging his transportation and making sure that he acquired the latest training. If he got sick and couldn't work, he did not get paid. If he wanted to take a vacation, he again lost income for that time. The success or failure of the business was completely his responsibility. Few people have the drive to pursue this kind of career.

So remember, there is no shame in working at an honest job that gives personal satisfaction and pays well enough to cover one's material needs. The only shame is in excluding a potentially satisfying career choice because of an unfounded prejudice.

Reprinted from Future Reflections, Summer/Fall 2005, and originally published in the NFB of Virginia newsletter, the Vigilant.

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