A Message From Penny Forward Founder and CEO, Chris Peterson
Picture this: I’m traveling to the National Federation of the Blind of Florida’s state convention in Tampa, just stepping into a Lyft that will bring me from the airport to my hotel. The driver throws me a curveball with a question: “Is it complicated to be blind?” I’ve just tackled the maze of an unfamiliar airport, grabbed my checked bag, and orchestrated a series of text messages, phone calls, and help from fellow travelers to find my ride in the bustling arrivals area. In a nutshell, I was in a rush, feeling like I needed to be swift and out of the way. At the same time, I was keen on explaining blindness in a way that makes it seem less complicated, showcasing my independence to someone who was meeting a blind person one-on-one for the first time.
As the weekend unfolded, I got into deep conversations with new friends and rekindled connections with old ones. What became clear was that we, the blind community, share a lot—experiences, desires, and concerns. We all felt a strong urge to dissect these issues among ourselves, hoping to navigate the world better and change how society sees us. Sadly, we also discovered that we sometimes grapple with how we view each other.
Here’s something you might not think about: what we wear speaks volumes to the sighted world, just like it does for everyone else. In most situations, the choice of clothing can make or break your sense of belonging. Wear something too casual to a wedding or a job interview, and you might come off as not taking it seriously. On the flip side, go too formal to a laid-back gathering, and people might think you’re out of touch. And we’re not even getting started on factors like color, pattern, and fit—those can either flatter or flop depending on your unique body type and skin tone. And let’s not forget, most of us just want to feel comfortable in our clothes. In short, even something as seemingly simple as dressing up for a job interview can be a real nail-biter, especially when you’ve never had the luxury of using visual cues like sighted folks do. Many of us get better at this with experience, but that nagging worry about being judged for a fashion misstep never quite goes away.
Travel is another adventure for us that’s full of twists and turns. During that weekend, I got to hang out with a group of community relations pros from top guide dog training programs. Wrangling a gang of blind people is an art in itself. We used texts, rendezvoused at a common spot (the elevator bank), and hollered to each other to get everyone together. Then came the debate: should we revisit a familiar place from the night before or try something new? And should we roll the dice and walk to one of the nearby options, or play it safe and call an Uber or Lyft?
It was a beautiful evening, and a stroll would’ve been great to stretch our legs after a day of standing or sitting around at the convention. But we had no clue if we’d encounter sidewalks or face barriers like busy streets without crosswalks. Plus, we didn’t know how safe the area was. After a bit of back-and-forth, where it seemed like we were all trying to prove our independence to each other while respecting everyone’s concerns, we hailed an Uber XL to take four of us and our trusty guide dogs to the restaurant.
While we waited anxiously, wondering if the Uber driver would accept our canine companions, our conversation shifted to more ordinary topics. We chatted about the weather and whether we preferred to dine inside or outside. These relaxed exchanges, filled with laughter and jokes, are something anyone can relate to, whether they have a disability or not.
Yet, that lingering question persisted: What did the other diners think of us? Were we the center of attention, the only blind bunch in the joint? Or did we fly under the radar? I believe I wasn’t the only one hoping that we came across as capable, regular blind folks who made being blind look like a walk in the park. And none of us wanted anyone to make a misstep that would be unfairly attributed to our blindness. We definitely didn’t want pity, nor did we want to let the blind community down in the eyes of others. We’re all passionate about enlightening the sighted world so that we can make future interactions smoother. But, let’s be real, we also need to stand up for our worth and demand fair compensation for our expertise.
As I got back home that night, I couldn’t help but conclude that, yes, being blind is complicated. But you know what? Life itself is a complicated affair, and some of the challenges we face might be similar to, or different from, those that sighted folks encounter. It’s vital that we keep having these conversations among ourselves and with society at large. We shouldn’t be forced to fit into sighted molds just to be seen as valuable contributors. On the flip side, we and our sighted counterparts need to work on understanding each other better. My strong belief is that our worth comes from being unique and making a positive impact, rather than blindly following societal rules that weren’t designed with us in mind. The world needs to adapt to recognize our value, and we need to play a part in that transformation. That’s why I founded Penny Forward and surrounded myself with people who share my mission to drive change. Penny Forward will continue to step up its game, helping our community earn money through employment or self-employment, manage finances effectively, and build wealth—combining all these elements for a brighter future.