Posted May 21, 2019
Story and photos by Ciano Chandler, senior journalism major. Reprinted from InterCom.
Editor’s note: This semester’s InterCom class wasn’t just an educational experience for public relations major Sarah Massengale — it was also an educational experience for the students, staff and faculty who’d never worked alongside a person with a disability. Sarah taught us to rethink how we communicate in class, how we use technology to collaborate and how we tell stories about people. But the lessons we learned are too important to keep to ourselves. That’s why we asked Sarah to include a reflection at the end.
When Sarah Massengale isn’t singing opera or writing articles about performances statewide, the junior public relations major is busy pursuing her second college degree. She sees her new career path not as an abandonment of music, but as a complementary option.
At 14, she began singing gospel music in a very small Baptist church. She wasn’t exposed to anything resembling classical music until a teacher heard her sing and then introduced her to Carolyn Poole, a professional pianist who Massengale now describes as a mentor.
“After hearing me she invited me to sing in her choir, then explained to me about the idea of voice lessons,” Massengale said. “She connected me with a voice teacher in St. Matthews, South Carolina, and I have been studying classically ever since.”
Once upon a time, music was Massengale’s lifelong plan. That changed after she graduated from Converse College with a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance.
“I was going to take off to New York and do music,” she said. “But it’s crazy with competition and requires a certain level of cutthroat personality that I don’t have. I’m ambitious, but I cannot be cutthroat — it hurts me.”
With music being such a competitive field, Massengale knows that it will not be easy for her to achieve that dream on pure talent and skills. It’s going to require much more from her. “You know, when you’re blind, you can’t wait tables to cover expenses when you’re taking auditions,” she said. “Those kinds of jobs are not accessible to you that let you do things on your own schedule.”
Massengale was born blind, but she does not allow her visual impairment to define her. She believes many people erroneously view people with disabilities as incompetent or unable to care for themselves.
“Why is a person with a disability the standard by which everyone’s success should be judged?” she said. “I’m just another person, too. I happen to be blind.”
Stephanie Martin, SJMC adjunct instructor, reminisces on what the experience was like teaching Massengale in her PR writing class. “It was stressful at first figuring out how to approach things, but as far as working with her, she’s a wonderful personality, very challenging and a great writer,” Martin said.
“I hope the university continues to look for ways to help students with disabilities.”
Martin said that even though Massengale is a patient student, her fellow classmates must be patient with her as well. “When she asks a lot of questions, it’s not to make things more difficult for you, but to get a better understanding about what they’re doing, and simply asking more to learn more,” she said.
Her classmates are learning more, too. Having her in class is helping them learn to better describe visuals in full detail.
“I’ve never had a class with anyone with a disability like that,” classmate Natalie Kistner said. “But I think there are definitely times when we do stuff that doesn’t accommodate her and she points it out, which takes strength.”
As Massengale approaches her senior year, she’s confident that she knows herself better than she did during her early years of college. “I can’t sit here and tell you, ‘Oh, I want to work for this company in 10 years,’ ” she said. “What I know is that, ultimately I would love to do something in which I can put PR and music together. You know, maybe work as the PR person for the Metropolitan Opera.”
It has truly been a pleasure to write for you this semester as a part of the InterCom team. This issue’s profile on me by Ciano Chandler has been the source of some interesting reflections for me, both on how I view disability and on how I wish others to view it. I hope that sharing some of these reflections with you will prove beneficial for any of you covering those with disabilities and for those of you who simply hope to learn more.
When Ciano first approached me to ask if he could write this story, I had a slight moment of hesitation. When I agreed though, the first thing I said to him was that blindness wasn’t the story, a comment that left him slightly bewildered. “Have you ever read a mystery novel?” I asked him. He hadn’t. “When you read one, you spend about two thirds of the book trying to puzzle out what’s happening. Then, in that last third, there’s a single detail that is slipped in like a silken thread that ties everything into a neat bow." That’s what I wanted for this piece. My blindness was to be that detail.
I’ve grown up with my view of blindness informed by the philosophies of the National Federation of the Blind. The NFB’s “one-minute message” states:
"The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day, we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want. Blindness is not what holds you back."
This is the angle from which I approach all stories written about me. We don’t, for instance, write a story on someone just because they are tall or have red hair; we write stories because someone has done something that is interesting or newsworthy. Why then should stories about those of us with disabilities be any different? After all, disability is just a characteristic, not what defines us. This is something Ciano did very well, though some teaching was required. The profile became a collaboration between the two of us that I am extremely proud of.
I am aware that some people may find the title’s wordplay to be insensitive, especially as it relates to a blind person. However, I would ask those who do to keep in mind that the title is my work and amuses me. I also encourage anyone who is offended to stop and think. What is it that really offends you?
We live in a society where people without disabilities are often offended for those who have them because they feel they should be. I challenge that notion. I ask anyone who’s offended by anything in this profile to examine whether you’re offended for those with a disability or offended because you’re uncomfortable with disability. If it’s the latter, I encourage you to learn more about blindness or even volunteer your time to your local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
Whatever you do, spend some time learning about disability from those who experience it every day. Then, perhaps, you’ll be on your way to becoming a part of the open, inclusive and equal society I hope will one day exist for those of us with disabilities.
To those of you who are journalists and public relations professionals and may one day cover people with disabilities, my message goes a bit further still. We live in an age where this coverage is a form of human interest often referred to in various parts of the internet as “inspiration porn.” Do not fall prey to this! Cover someone with a disability because of their success, because they’ve done something incredible or because they’ve been a part of something newsworthy. Don’t even mention their disability unless it truly has some bearing on your story, but if you must mention it, remember my words: Disability should be like that single silken thread in a good mystery novel. It is that last, late-blooming detail that ties everything into a neat bow at the end of your story.
Thank you to everyone who has stayed with me until the end of this letter. It means a great deal and speaks volumes for the understanding of College of Information and Communications alumni. I hope all of you have found something valuable in this explanation, and if you have any questions or concerns, I would be happy to talk with you. Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.