We honor here members, friends and supporters of the American Council of the Blind who have impacted our lives in many wonderful ways. If you would like to submit a notice for this column, please include as much of the following information as possible.
Name (first, last, maiden if appropriate)
City of residence (upon passing)
State/province of residence (upon passing)
Other cities/states/countries of residence (places where other blind people may have known this person)
Date of death (day if known, month, year)
ACB affiliation (local/state/special-interest affiliates or national committees)
Deaths that occurred more than six months ago cannot be reported in this column.
Aug. 12, 1952-Sept. 19, 2014
I first met Michael shortly after I started working at a wildly dysfunctional call center connected with a large federal agency. It was my first full-time job, and Michael went out of his way to teach me about the arcane procedures we were supposed to follow while answering customer questions.
Over time, we became friends. During meals together and conversations by phone, I learned that he, like me, had been totally blind since birth. We were also recent college graduates interested in politics, music, and psychology.
Significant differences also existed between us. He was raised in rural Connecticut by working-class parents, and spent much of his growing years at a boarding school for students who were blind. I was raised in a village about 30 miles north of New York City in upper middle-class surroundings, and spent all of my growing years as the only blind student in schools that I attended.
I also learned about Michael’s frustrations with the organization at which we worked: how his supervisor regularly criticized him in front of others; how he had not been promoted even though all of us viewed him as the most competent person taking phone calls; and how he sometimes struggled to get out of bed. As I began to deal with my callous and inept supervisors, he taught me about how to maneuver through office politics.
“You can’t say that!” he groaned as he reviewed a report I had written detailing an example of management ineptness.
“Say what?” I asked.
“‘Because of the incompetent stupidity of management,’” he read.
“But it’s true!”
“I know; but you can’t say that.”
“Fine,” I said, annoyed and amused. “What should I say instead?”
“Just describe what management did and let people draw their own conclusions.”
While Michael was eventually promoted, my disgust with the organization prompted me to accept a customer service job at a stodgy Wall Street bank, and when the bank outsourced my job to a call center in Jacksonville, Fla., I attended Columbia University’s School of Social Work. During this period, our friendship deepened. We compared notes about our challenges at work. He kept me centered whenever the liberal bias endemic in social work threatened to swallow me whole. We discussed music, family matters, history, foreign affairs, and challenges of living in a sighted world.
These conversations continued as I managed two federal grants and ran workshops for New York City taxi drivers while Michael continued to work at that dysfunctional federal agency. They continued, though less frequently, when I moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue professional opportunities there. We lost touch, however, when I moved to Missouri to get married.
About 10 days ago, I received an e-mail from a mutual friend informing me that Michael had died of cancer after a two-year struggle. I was shocked that he had died in his early 60s. I regretted not doing a better job of maintaining contact with him.
But mostly I’m angry. A regular theme of our conversations was Michael’s commentary about how management sucked the souls out of the employees who worked with him. While he was eventually promoted to a position that best fit his strengths, he complained about spending several hours a day doing nothing.
“Why don’t you try to find another job?” I would ask.
We both knew how hard it was for people with visual impairments to find jobs, and Michael, unlike me, didn’t have other resources in reserve if his job search failed. The pension he had earned for working there for nearly 40 years would have allowed him to lead a quiet life away from the racket of Brooklyn, N.Y. “You just have a more restless soul than I do,” he said during one of our phone calls. And I can’t help wondering if the stress he experienced working with managers who acted more like dementors than people made him more susceptible to the cancer that killed him.
Thank you, Michael, for your listening ear and sound advice that I know you offered to all of your friends. Thanks for your ability to acknowledge the shortcomings of your beliefs and the strengths of the beliefs with which you disagreed. And while I wish you had found another job, I admire your willingness to stay in one place and make things a little better for those working around you.
Rest in peace, Michael Henderson.
- Peter Altschul