October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), the purpose of which is to educate about disability employment issues and celebrate the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities.
The history of National Disability Employment Awareness Month traces back to 1945 when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October each year “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
More information can be found on the Administration for Community Living website.
Dr. Frederick Moss, Instructor and Faculty Representative for the Department of Music, is blind. A native of Atlanta, he discovered music as his passion as a young boy who, as he said, “was trying so hard to fit in.”
Born in 1962, Dr. Moss grew up in a time when some of his teachers were not especially progressive or accommodating. Some examples include resistance to participating in marching band, challenges when teachers would write notes or assignments on a blackboard, or allowing for extra time to take a math test in braille.
Dr. Moss, who has been with Schoolcraft College since 2001, graciously sat down for the following interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, to provide reflections and insight.
Q: What is it like to be blind?
Dr. Moss: The answer to that is so big and so huge. I guess that’s part of how we’re living our lives these days – we want these quick answers to complicated questions. To start, there is often this assumption that floats around that I must have everything done for me. For example, I’m not a great cook, but I can cook for myself.
To explain further, it’s a matter of helping people understand all the time and constantly that there are other ways to do just about everything. But they’re not often easy fixes. A screen reader would be an example of one of the quick fixes, though it took a long time to get this type of technology.
The harder fix, for example, is transportation. I’m lucky I have a colleague willing to be my Uber almost every day. And my wife, too. When I was living in Atlanta, though, it was hours on buses.
Q: How did you find your way?
Dr. Moss: I would say I started off pretty darn confident. Elementary school didn’t seem like that big of a deal, though I do remember I wasn’t thrilled that it wasn’t easy to be part of Little League. But I found other things. I’m also grateful to have grown up in a time when it was still fashionable to play in the neighborhood. So, we worked out alternatives to kickball and things like that. I did feel very much a part of my neighborhood and especially my school.
And then comes middle school. And everything starts changing. I think that was one of the first times I felt a tremendous amount discomfort and a moment when I had to define myself.
I had grown up dreaming of being in the marching band. My life’s dream at that point was being in the University of Alabama’s marching band. And in high school the first thing that comes up is the band director refusing me to be part of the marching band.
I had never had this type of resistance from a teacher before. Suddenly the dream is challenged. We went round and round and I did finally make it in.
From then on, there was always this question rattling around in my head if the next person was going to help or hinder. I was always prepared for pushback from that moment on. I was relieved when I was embraced and encouraged or got that feeling of “here we go again” when I got pushback.
When I entered college, the stakes were so high. I felt it was a moment that would define my career. So, I had those worries throughout college, such as convincing someone I could be a student-teacher. I also worried about what work would look like after college because I certainly knew by this time the resistance of having a teacher in a school setting who was blind or visually impaired was intense.
Q: How did you get into music?
Dr. Moss: Howard Gardner, who is adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard, talks about young children demonstrating affinities for various areas of interest early on. I think for me, it was music and relationships, or making friends. I started out on piano and did the traditional piano thing, but I was singing and moving and being as musical as I could early on. Then I focused on clarinet in fifth grade. I was drawn to it and homed in on it. I felt success, and that became my thing as I moved into high school.
Music has really served me well in so many ways, but that early feeling of success did have something to do with finding my voice. I knew then there was something specific I could do, and if I could do that, there must be other things I could do.
Q: What was your classroom experience like growing up?
Dr. Moss: By the time I came along in my school experience, the mainstreaming process was starting. My own experience, especially in the elementary school, was good. On one hand, I had shared experience with other kids who were blind and visually impaired, but also spent a lot of time around sighted kids.
Some challenges were self-imposed because I was so driven to succeed. When schoolwork wasn’t coming for me quickly, I would get terribly frustrated. I felt I was not moving at the same pace as my non-disabled peers.
I remember in high school and college particularly feeling a lot of fatigue because I was putting out so much effort. And then there was the business of navigating through a very crowded school, using a cane, which set yourself apart from everyone else, which you didn’t want to do. But if you don’t use it, you’d get jostled around.
Those were some of the more difficult experiences. I was really blessed I was encouraged strongly to eradicate what we call blindisms as a kid – staring up, rocking. I was encouraged to work against those things. I hated it at the time, but I think it helped me have healthier interactions at an early age. I was also really lucky to have a small circle of really committed friends I’m still in touch with to this day.
Q: How has your experience been at Schoolcraft College?
Dr. Moss: This is exactly always what I wanted. This was the job I had developed in my mind’s eye. I feel really lucky landing here at Schoolcraft College. I’m sorry to say that is unusual because I think the unemployment rate among people who are blind or visually impaired is 75 percent, which is higher than the rate for disability in general, which I think is 70 percent. I’m very aware of the privilege that’s brought me here and the lucky strokes that have come my way and allowed this to happen.