BHM: Teaching TABs to See

Ever Lee Hairston is the first African American Vice President of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Federation for the Blind.

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During her childhood she helped her parents and grandparents on a Cooleemee Plantation in Winston Salem MA, where they were sharecroppers and took the bus to a segregated school 18 miles away from home. As a teen she went to New York to work as a live-in caregiver to a terminally ill child; when the child died, her parents offered to help put Hairston through nursing school. Unfortunately, the school would not let her attend due to the discovery of retinitis pigmentosa. Hairston refused to be deterred by ablism, so she went into the teaching program at a different college. Unfortunately, 4 years after she started teaching, she was fired because of her rapidly deteriorating eye sight.

While Hairston initially let repeated incidents of ablism and racism get to her, she ultimately fought back. Once in college she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Building on her own knowledge of discrimination and unfair labor practices in the South, Hairston was committed to ensuring African Americans had better choices and equal access to education and employment in the future. She recalls her involvement in the Sears and Roebuck discrimination case sit-in as the proving ground for her disability rights activism, By the time she was being ridiculed in public with other blind colleagues, she felt she had endured enough sanctioned identity based hate that she knew she had to stand up and stand strong.

In 1987, she applied to do entry level social service for the state of NJ and confronted the ableism of the hiring committee head on. When they claimed her blindness would get in the way of her ability to intake clients properly, Hairston pointed out that it takes more than one skill to understand people and that she had developed quite a few skills during her time as a caretaker and a teacher. She not only got the job but then exceeded her peers expectations by moving up the ranks. While her time as an advocate continues to be marred by workplace discrimination at the intersections of race, ability, and gender, Hairston holds her co-workers accountable as well tries to educate them. She feels her presence both as a Supervisor for State Health and Human Services and as an advocate in the court room has been essential to changing the way people think about both black women and differently-abled people.

Hairston’s work also allows her to continue working for working class women and people of color’s rights by working for social justice in the courts. She is also a club woman, and her advocacy and mentorship of other black women was recognized in 1999 when she won the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Woman of the Year Award.

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