Profile: Looking for a Profession – Not Pity
Blind woman finds acceptance and
achievement in Toastmasters.
By Julie Bawden Davis
April Hutchins, who has been blind since birth, has found acceptance of her disability in Toastmasters.
“From the moment I walked into my first Toastmaster meeting in October 1996, I’ve felt a sense of acceptance that I haven’t felt anywhere else in my life,” says Hutchins, who was born with cataracts on both her eyes.
“To this day, whatever recognition I get in Toastmasters is not because people feel sorry for me or are trying to give me special attention,” she says. “They truly want me to succeed and always recognize me for my accomplishments.”
Since joining Toastmasters, Hutchins has garnered a long list of achievements, including serving as secretary and president of her club, The Nathan Hale Toastmasters in Manchester, Connecticut. She has been area governor and most recently division governor. For three years she also co-hosted and co-produced a cable access television program, “Community Voices,” which focused on including individuals with disabilities in the greater community.
The television show was a testament to how Hutchins lives her life and enabled her to share her message about disabled individuals.
“Everyone wants to be accepted for their abilities and who they are,” says Hutchins, who attended the public schools and has a college degree in media and communications. “I believe that everyone – including those with disabilities – should be given a chance to show what they can do. My mother always said to treat everyone the same until you see that they are different. In the beginning you shouldn’t assume anything.”
Unfortunately for Hutchins and many blind individuals, the average person often makes limiting assumptions.
“People have a hard time understanding how I can function without being able to see – probably because of our extremely visual society,” says Hutchins, who lives on her own and rents a condominium with the help of disability benefits. “What they don’t understand is that I’ve never been able to see; I’ve always had to do without my sight, so I don’t miss what I’ve never had. And I function very well.”
Hutchins gets around with the use of a cane, reads and writes Braille, can type, and relies on an audio computer program that enables her to use e-mail and word processing programs. She has held a few jobs over the years, including a position as a college testing coordinator for students with special needs, but has found that jobs are difficult to come by. “Many people don’t realize that disabled individuals don’t want to be charity cases,” she says. “There are many people just like me who are skilled and talented but not given the chance to prove ourselves.”
For Hutchins, Toastmasters provided a major turning point in her life. Finally given a chance to shine, she quickly moved up the ranks, taking on leadership roles and winning several speech competitions.
“The Toastmasters leadership positions I’ve filled have provided a wonderful growth experience for me,” she says. “Being a division governor was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that really opened up the world for me. My Toastmasters membership boosted my self confidence and brought a lot of great friends into my life.”
George Ducharme is co-founder with Pat Beeman of Communitas, a non-profit organization based in Manchester, Connecticut, that focuses on erasing negative attitudes about disabled people and provides support and assistance to such individuals. He has known Hutchins for many years and saw a major transformation in her when she joined Toastmasters.
“It’s easy for individuals with disabilities to get down on themselves, and at one time April was no exception,” says Ducharme, whose organization has been in existence for 20 years. “Once she joined Toastmasters, however, April quickly gained confidence from the acceptance and support of the organization’s members.”
Toastmasters membership has also enabled April to spread the word about how important it is to include individuals with disabilities in everyday life.
“April believes as does Communitas that if society doesn’t give those with disabilities a chance, then we all miss out on their many gifts,” says Ducharme. “They don’t want pity or to be made heroes. They just want to be given a fair shake and to be listened to, and that’s exactly what Toastmasters has done for April.”
Carolyn Janssen Wagner has been a member of the Nathan Hale Club since 1995 and has also seen a huge transformation in Hutchins since she joined Toastmasters.
“At first it was awkward for April getting to know people from many different walks of life, and she had a lot of adjusting to do,” says Wagner. “Gradually, however, things started to fall into place. As she took on leadership positions and learned that she had something to say and how to say it, I saw a definite maturity in her. She began to understand others much better and learned to handle herself quite well. I can think of one instance in particular when April managed an especially difficult member. In a very lady-like manner, she put him in his place.”
Toastmaster membership has also enabled Hutchins to develop her sense of humor and spread the word about what it’s like to be blind.
“One of April’s speeches talked about how members of her church insisted that she bring her Braille Bible to the service. She tried to explain that her version was much different, but they didn’t understand until one morning when she showed up pulling a little red wagon full of the various volumes that make up her Bible. During the service when the minister would say to turn to a particular passage, he’d already be on to the next one by the time she found it. The books also slipped around in transit and were out of order. While it was humorous, it also enlightened fellow church members about the logistics of living as a blind person. They never suggested she bring her Bible again.”
As April continues to grow through Toastmasters, she hopes to enlighten more individuals about what it’s like to live with a disability and how those with such limitations are as valuable as any other member of society.
“In the future as a Toastmaster, I plan to mentor and compete in contests, as well as work on my educational goals,” she says. “I’m always on the look-out for opportunities to use my speaking and communication skills to help and encourage others.”
For April, every day in Toastmasters is a new experience that brings personal growth. “Joining the organization has taught me to constantly change and move forward,” she says.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.