Schroeder makes life of helping others

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Staff Writer

April 4, 2000 11 PM

A man who once believed his blindness made him less of a person now works to help others with disabilities.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Fredric K. Schroeder, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Service Administration, spoke at Troy State University’s sixth annual Helen Keller Lecture on Tuesday.

Like the individual the lecture was named to honor, Schroeder rose above a life of darkness to help those like him who can’t see.

At the age of 7, Schroeder lost some of his sight and health problems kept him out of school until the fifth grade.

It was then that Schroeder began to doubt his ability to do anything because his teachers didn’t challenge him because they didn’t think he could meet the same standards as his sighted classmates.

"For me disability meant inferiority," Schroeder said. "As a 10-year-old, I figured I thought I wasn’t smart enough.

"I grew up assuming others were more capable than me."

When he was in the seventh grade, Schroeder joined the Chess Club. He was paired up with another boy who pulled out a small travel chess board and set it up to play. After only a few moves, Schroeder lost the game and quickly lost a second in the double elimination tournament that morning before school. He walked out of that classroom and never returned to the club.

"That experience reinforced all the self doubts I had as a blind person," Schroeder said. "I felt inferior."

At age 16 he lost all of his sight and had no idea how to use a cane or read braille.

Schroeder remembers being in the hospital and wondering what kind of career a blind person could have. He came up with two ­ a disc jockey and a psychologist.

"When I look back at that period in my life, what amazes me is that I thought I could do anything at all," he said after telling the story of an algebra teacher telling him he couldn’t stay in that class if he couldn’t see.

Soon after totally losing his sight, Schroeder went to an orientation center where he learned how to use a cane, read braille and the other skills a blind person needs to know in order to make it in a sighted world.

But, the most valuable lesson he learned was during a bowling outing.

While walking with another blind man, Schroeder realized he could walk at a normal pace ­ even with a cane ­ when the other man left him behind as they strolled toward the bowling alley.

"That moment in time is when I began my rehabilitation," Schroeder said. "It was an exhilarating experience to realize I could walk normally."

At the bowling alley, Schroeder began asking questions like how were they going to keep score and was told they were there to have fun and the score didn’t matter.

"I believed I was doomed to a life of dependency (before that night)," Schroeder said. "The difference between us wasn’t he had more training than me. The difference was he has a different attitude."

Since that time, Schroeder has learned a blind person can do what he or she works hard enough to accomplish ­ just like anyone who can see.

He knows a blind man who owns his own restaurant. He has known a blind woman who started her own school because she wanted to be a teacher and no schools would hire her.

Schroeder may have been told over and over he couldn’t, but he proved he could. After earning a master’s degree, he wasn’t offered a job even though he’d mailed out 35 to 40 resumes. The only offers he got were as a dish washer and raking leaves.

"It was pretty devastating," Schroeder admitted. "I wondered whether I could really contribute anything."

But, he has contributed a lot to the disabled.

Schroeder was appointed to his current position in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. As commissioner, he is responsible for a $2.4 billion program that provides services to more an a million people with disabilities.

He believes services offered to the disabled need to support the assumption of equality because until that is done, there will never be "true equality." Through the program he oversees, Schroeder wants to change "complete dependency to lesser dependency."

His goal is to help the disabled elevate their own expectations, get the training they need and give them the means to battle discrimination.

"We have made tremendous progress in our society," Schroeder said, adding there are still barriers of misunderstanding which need to be destroyed.

Before appointed the ninth RSA commissioner, Schroeder served eight years as the executive director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, where he worked to reduce the unemployment rate of 70 percent among the blind nationwide.

Schroeder has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education. He completed post-graduate work in orientation and mobility as the first blind person to be admitted to a university program, but was denied certification because of his blindness. He then earned a doctorate in educational administration from the University of New Mexico.

He is the author of more than 20 published articles and makes numerous presentations across the country on the future of disability policy.

The Helen Keller Lecture is designed to promote awareness of people with disabilities, especially those who have chosen to excel rather than succumb to physical limitations. The lecture is sponsored by the colleges of Education and Health and Human Services at TSU, the Helen Keller Eye Research Foundation, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Alabama Department of Education Division of Instructional Services, Special Education Services.