I’ll miss congressman Barney Frank when he retires, but not for the usual reasons: his progressive politics, his eloquence, his wit. I should say that I haven’t always agreed with Frank, either. His lapses in public and private life are legend in Massachusetts. He can be famously cranky, some say rude.
But here’s what the Newton Democrat did for me last fall, when almost nobody was watching.
I wrote a memoir last year about my complicated relationship with my brother, Andy, who has multiple disabilities, including blindness. Andy’s sight has failed slowly, over more than 40 years. He hasn’t yet accepted that his sight isn’t coming back. My book, “Check This Box If You Are Blind,’’ is about two adults searching for ways to be whole: my brother, who doesn’t want to be labeled, and me, because my life has been profoundly shaped by his journey. It’s a story full of love and grief, courage and questions.
I cheered when the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped expressed enthusiasm last fall about recording my book. The program, sponsored by the Library of Congress, offers free Braille and audio materials to people with visual or physical disabilities.
But then before my book even reached the selections committee, the library service rejected it.
A letter from the agency commended the book’s honesty and compassion. “But Andy denies being blind,’’ it said. “His attitude would offend our readers . . . many of whom are proud to be blind.’’
In other words, my brother was the wrong kind of blind man. His story was wrong. His attitude was incorrect.
I was stunned. The last place I expected to encounter a stigma about sight loss was from professional advocates for people with visual impairments. Wasn’t it their mission to erase barriers?
So I returned an impassioned letter. My brother also has an intellectual disability, I explained. He is adjusting to blindness at his own pace, which is as fast as he possibly can.
“I am certain that there are all kinds of people living with sight loss and that not all of them . . . feel like celebrating blindness from the moment of diagnosis,’’ I wrote. “Shouldn’t the NLS make room for, and offer reading materials to, all kinds of blind and visually impaired readers?’’
Self-determination is at the heart of the disability rights movement. My brother has the right to define himself, I wrote, and not at the convenience of the sighted community, nor to satisfy powerful people in the sight loss community. This is politics, I wrote. It’s censorship. It’s certainly not my idea of a library, much less the Library of Congress.
I didn’t hear back from them.
I laughed, four weeks later, when someone suggested I call Frank. “He’s the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee,’’ I scoffed. “This is chicken feed.’’ But I was mad, so I dialed.
Two days later, Frank left a voice mail on my cellphone. Sorry, he said, but he hadn’t spoken to anyone at the National Library Service yet.
I bragged to people about Frank’s message on my cellphone. I played it for friends and watched their faces light up. This was last fall, when congressional budget talks were tanking and everyone was disgusted with politics as usual. Yet here was Frank trying to boost me out of my own tiny political pothole.
“He’s responsive, but he’s smart, too,’’ I interpreted for everyone. “He knows he just won my vote for life.’’
Frank’s voice mail said he had called the agency, but the librarian who had rejected my book had retired. He asked whether I could track down her successor. I did, then passed on his name to Frank, and left the new guy several polite messages of my own.
Six weeks passed, no response. I hesitated about contacting Frank again, then shot him an e-mail asking what more to try. Two hours later, Frank announced his retirement.
Oh well, I thought. So much for that.
But two days later, Frank e-mailed me. He had written a letter to the new collections librarian.
“The fact that something might offend someone is not in my judgment in any way a reason to reject something that is otherwise reasonable, thoughtful, and expressing a valid opinion,’’ he had said. Unfortunately, Frank wrote to me, they were “not persuaded.’’
“Sorry I can’t do more,’’ he closed.
Frank didn’t need my vote anymore, but he was following up. Following up on chicken feed. Reviewing his ardent antidiscrimination record, I think it was the principle of the thing that mattered to him.
Politicians often parade their principles when big votes are at stake, but what about when it’s just one vote? And what happens when they don’t need the vote anymore? What about when it’s chicken feed, and nobody much is watching?
I’m determined now, perhaps even more than before, to get my book onto tape and into Braille, so that everyone can read it.
As for Barney Frank, he’s leaving public office soon, and I hear he’s getting married - there’s a discriminatory barrier brought down.
Wishing you much happiness, congressman, and toasting your cranky, principled self.