Editor’s note: In honor of Black History month, which is celebrated in February, this post was revised slightly and reprinted from Empish Thomas’s personal blog. In the post, Empish reviews Ever Lee Hairston’s book Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness.
The first time I heard about Ever Lee Hairston was several years ago when I read the book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek. In this depiction of two large families, the author wrote about an incident at a family reunion. Ever Lee called out the white Hairston’s for how they mistreated her family who were sharecroppers on the land for many years. I remember thinking how bold this blind Black woman was to do this in a large, crowded room full of people. However, she was spot on to say something, because the white side of the family had profited for a long time while her family lived in poverty. The second time her name popped up was while I was listening to a favorite podcast, called The Nod. She was being interviewed about her life. The third time I heard about her was another podcast by Freedom Scientific, in which she shared her life including her published book. After hearing interviews with this lady three times, I told myself this was no coincidence. I needed to read her book and get the skinny on her life.
Ever Lee Hairston’s Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness, can be found in audio format at the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. I was particularly interested in her life story because I don’t come across many blind Black women who have documented their lives. The only other similar person about whom I have read is Haben Girma, the first Deaf Blind woman to graduate from Harvard.
As I read Ever Lee’s story, I pulled out four core areas about which she was ambitious: her education, career, marriage/family, and the National Federation of the Blind.
Ever Lee’s Childhood and Education
Ever Lee grew up in the segregated south on the Coolemee plantation in Mocksville, North Carolina. She was the third of seven children. Her days were filled with school and picking cotton. Ever Lee realized from an early age sharecropping was not the life she wanted to live. It was hard physical work; she was fearful of snakes and her family had little income. Ever Lee desired to become a nurse because one of her sisters was constantly ill. However, she knew her parents had no money for college. Being ambitious, Ever Lee made a plan. She heard about work opportunities up north, and during the summer, worked as a live-in maid to save money for school. During this time Ever Lee struggled with her vision. She knew something was wrong but was not sure exactly what. She didn’t go to an eye doctor and never told anyone because she was ashamed. All through college, living with her aunt and uncle and working as a live-in maid, Ever Lee kept her vision problem a secret. This caused her to struggle through school because she couldn’t always see the chalkboard, printed books, or exams. When it was time to take the nursing exam, she failed the eye test portion. Ever Lee was deeply disappointed, but pressed on, and obtained her teaching degree.
Ever Lee was ambitious about her ability to be employed. She shared an incident where she applied for a position and got the interview. She dressed professionally and showed up on time with resume in hand, but when she arrived it went downhill. The employer told her they had never hired a blind person before, and she left disappointed.
I also had a similar experience shortly after losing my vision. I went in for an interview, and the first thing said to me was, “Oh, I didn’t know a blind person would apply for this job.” When that was said I knew, like Ever Lee, that I wasn’t going to get the job. That one statement spoke volumes about what that employer thought about people who are blind, even though I was qualified for the job.
But like me, Ever Lee pressed on and found a more open-minded employer, who not only gave her a job, but helped her advance her career. She worked several years as a teacher and then later as a counselor at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). I worked for DHHS too when I was in high school and my first year of college. I was not blind at the time, but I did have a co-worker who was blind, another one with cerebral palsy, and a supervisor who used a wheelchair. Like Ever Lee’s experience, mine was rewarding, self-affirming and built my self-confidence. It also helped when I went blind because I was able to pull from the experience to help me make it through.
Marriage and Family
Initially Ever Lee was hesitant about pursuing dating and romantic relationships because she was fearful her blindness would be exposed. She didn’t date in high school or college. Ultimately, Ever Lee let go her fear, fell in love with and married a guy. The relationship didn’t last because he was gaslighting and cheating on her. She figured out what to do, took her son and left, got her career together, purchased a home, and eventually, met and married another man. When that marriage ended from abandonment, Ever Lee kept going.
I appreciate Ever Lee sharing these intimate details of her life. Failed relationships are hard to deal with and being public about it takes courage. Also, I admire the fact she shows them as just relationships in which blindness is not the center. Many times, I have had to address the question/concern about my disability in a relationship as if it is the most important thing when many other factors make up a successful match.
Getting the Eye Diagnosis
After years of struggle and disappointment, Ever Lee finally got a proper diagnosis. An eye specialist told her she had a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). The doctor also told her it would probably get worse over time. Ever Lee’s vision did get worse, and for a long time, she relied on others to help. Or she “faked it till she made it.”
Learning About Services for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind
While Ever Lee worked at DHHS she learned about additional services for the blind. She got a call from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) inviting her to attend their convention. Her aha moment came when she was offered an agenda in braille and large print. By this time, she could no longer read print, and she didn’t know braille. This is the moment when Ever Lee knew she needed more blind skills. So, she took 6 months off from work for vision rehabilitation training. She had already been using a white cane but needed more education on how to live an independent life as a blind person.
I could relate to this decision too. I also took off from work for about a year to go through a similar program for the same reasons. Attending the convention and training was the beginning of Ever Lee’s full involvement in NFB. After that she became an active member, advocate, mentor, and later joined the national board of directors. After losing my vision I also became involved in the disability community. First, I became an advocate, then later public educator. Today, I am a writer and blogger on the topic of blindness.
I encourage you to read Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness by Ever Lee Hairston and learn more about this enterprising woman. If you are struggling with vision changes and haven’t seen a doctor, it is critical that you get timely treatment. Once you have a diagnosis, you can then move on and make plans about what you need to do, including finding vision rehabilitation or other services.
Check out our book review section on VisionAware, which includes books about blindness and low vision.
A Black History Month Celebration of Leaders in the Blindness Field – VisionAware