Former Gov. David Paterson honored the centennial of an advocacy organization for blind and visually impaired people at an event in Albany Tuesday with a personal story of how the group helped him overcome the challenges of his disability.
Paterson, who was both the only black and the only visually impaired governor of New York, visited the state capital to thank the state Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped at a reception Tuesday afternoon. A lively keynote speaker, Paterson credited the commission with helping him to advocate for himself as a young, blind man.
He related a story about an employer who refused him a job at a catering service during a summer when he was attending Columbia University. Rejecting Paterson because of his disability, the employer decided to instead hire Paterson’s brother, who was underage.
“In other words, he broke the law to avoid hiring a blind person to work at a catering service,” Paterson said. “He didn’t think that I could take an apple and a sandwich and put it in a cardboard box.”
After that summer, he returned to Columbia feeling distracted and downtrodden. He wasn’t able to succeed in his coursework.
“It was as if I couldn’t study anymore. I couldn’t get past: How am I going to ever get hired anywhere if, no matter how well I do in school, I’m not given the opportunity?” he said.
He returned home and received training from staff of the commission, which is overseen by the state but partners with non-profit service providers. The trainers counseled him, arguing that he shouldn’t blame the employer, his brother or any others who could have defended him.
“The problem is you,” they told him. “Because you never stood up for yourself.”
They suggested that he could have talked to local newspapers about the job discrimination, or he could have held a sign outside the business in protest. But he didn’t.
“It taught me the sense of advocacy, not just for myself, but for others,” he said. “So the incident, which was so painful for me, really became a turning point in my life. And once again, the commission was involved all the way.”
Tuesday was the 100th anniversary of the commission’s founding.