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A Reserved Student to a Passionate Leader: Harriet Go Visualizes a World of Possibilities

{By Hannah Nguyen}

Harriet Go has been blind her entire life. At just 6 weeks old, her family moved from the Philippines to the United States in order to seek medical treatment for her eyes, specifically at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Initially, it may have appeared as though she lost the ability to be like others around her, but over time, she has learned that her disability makes her more capable to do anything she puts her mind to.

[Image of fingers reading braille]

When she grew old enough to attend school, she went to a Catholic school called Saint Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments. She was able to learn braille, cane travel, the use of technology, and lessons other kids her age were learning.

Right next to her school, there was another Catholic school where sighted students attended. In 3rd grade, she began to attend classes there and every year after that, she joined more classes with her sighted peers. By 7th grade, nearly all of her academic classes were with sighted students. 

Go attended Central High School in Philadelphia. She later attended Temple University for College.

In the early days of elementary school, Go did have some vision; however, it was only in one eye.

“I could see things with contrast like if there was a black desk against a white wall, I could see to orient myself, but I wouldn’t know that was a desk. I would just look for that dark object. I could see more for orientation rather than detail,” Go said.  

As she grew older, her vision grew worse. She was able to see colors, shapes, and light, but that was the extent of it.

Throughout her life, Go has encountered many people who have never met a blind person before and has had to deal with common misconceptions.

“One of the biggest misconceptions [of being blind] is that I need help with very basic things. When I go to a restaurant with friends or family, one of the waiters often asks the people I'm with ‘What does she want?’ When I’m traveling my commute to school every single day, I still get people asking ‘Ma’am, do you know where you’re going?' Such statements are very odd to me because if I don’t know where I’m going, then why would I be traveling? When I’m crossing the street, people often rush over to grab my arm to tell me not to cross the street. There’s the misconception that I can’t cross the street, I can’t travel, I can’t order for myself, or I can’t decide what I want to eat because I’m blind. Once when I told someone I was a teacher, the first thing they said to me was 'How?' If you were sighted, people wouldn’t think twice about you being a teacher. People don’t think of blind people as being equal; they see them as being less capable. That’s not true,” Go said.

One of the biggest struggles Go experienced whilst growing up was dealing with the fact that her parents were afraid of allowing her to do the things her sighted siblings or kids her age would do. 

“They were very protective of me. I remember when we would go on family trips, I would have to hold onto my mom, dad, or brother's hands; I couldn’t do things on my own. My siblings would go to a park and freely do things. When doing regular-kid things, they were always protective of me. Sometimes, that was a challenge. I remember wanting to learn how to ride a bike, and my dad would jog alongside me. He'd say, ‘Let’s learn to ride the bike in the grass.’ He would constantly run next to me to be able to catch me if I fell. He never did that with my sighted siblings; he would watch them from a nearby distance,” Go said.

[Image of dad and son biking]

“I remember when my parents would give my siblings chores and I didn’t have to do anything. I used to want to help them. It’s not like they didn’t want me to do it; they just didn’t know that I could do it until I took it upon myself. That aspect helped define the idea that I could do these things, too, and I’m not just going to be sitting around here. It helped me see what sighted kids were doing. I remember everyone was getting rollerblades for Christmas, and I said I wanted them too. My mom realized that I wanted to do the things other kids were doing, and I saw that she was starting to get it. I don’t think my parents ever thought I couldn’t do these things; they just thought it would be too hard for me. They didn’t understand non-visual techniques because I was the first blind person in their lives; they indirectly acted this way because they wanted to protect me,” Go said.

Growing up, Go and her siblings took piano lessons every Saturday and used public transportation. Her brothers and other kids her age would be able to go on their own, but Go always had to go with her parents. Once she was a sophomore in high school, she decided to travel independently.

“My dad said I could go by myself. It wasn’t just one transfer on the public transit system. It was the Regional Rail, the Market-Frankford Line, a block walk, another bus, and then another two blocks. I did it, I got to the school, and I was so proud of myself. I showed myself that I could do it, but I also showed my parents that I could do it. I went about with my day and went home on my own. After that, I wanted to go out on my own more, and my parents gradually let me. It wasn’t until years later when I graduated college that I found out that my dad followed me all along. After I'd leave the house, he would follow me, and I guess he entered the train through a different door and watched me from afar. When I first heard that, I was shocked. After that shock, I realized that this experience not only showed me that I could do it, but it also showed him that I could do it, too. He needed to see it with his own eyes. In retrospect, I’m glad that he followed me because he was able to see me do that,” Go said.

Go had always believed in herself not only as a blind person but as a person in general; however, she felt that it had always been difficult to identify herself as a blind person growing up.

“I remember when I'd come home from school; I would quickly tuck away my folding cane in my backpack so that the neighborhood kids wouldn’t see it. Whenever I would go out to play with my brothers and sister, I would always pretend that I wasn’t blind. I think the neighborhood kids knew that there was something wrong with my eyes, but I wasn’t, at that time, physically comfortable showing people that I was blind. Even when I went to high school, I remember I would try to hide it. When I went to college, I would still hide my cane. I knew I was blind, and I knew I could do things, but it was just that physical aspect of marking myself that I’m different,” Go said.

While Go may be blind, she still enjoys doing some of the things sighted people enjoy doing. For instance, Go enjoys running and participates in 5K's. 

[Image of a couple running]

“I usually run on a treadmill in the gym, but when I’m running outside, I have a running partner and we have an elastic band that we hold. My partner is usually about a step ahead of me. When we hold the band, we can stay in sync. I can better anticipate where she’s going, and she’ll tug on the band to signal where she’s going. She would do that along with verbal cues,” Go explained.

She also likes to do origami and was introduced to it as a child. When she would do origami with other friends who also enjoy doing it, they would help her by specifically describing what they’re doing.

In search of a scholarship right after she finished high school, Go found out that the National Federation of the Blind was a perfect way to help finance her college education. 

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is an organization of blind Americans that creates programs, services, and resources to defend the rights of the blind community and support blind children and adults. The organization has affiliates in all 50 states, and each state has a number of local chapters; most local chapters hold regular meetings on a monthly basis. The NFB also offers 30 national merit-based scholarships every year.

Initially, she only got involved to earn the scholarship, but over time, as Jim Antonacci, the Pennsylvania State Affiliate President at the time, continuously encouraged her to get more involved with the organization for about a year, she decided to attend her first local chapter meeting.

“At my first meeting, I sat in the back. I didn’t really want to participate. In the beginning of the meeting, we had to go around to introduce ourselves. When it came to my turn and I had to tell everyone who I was and that this was my first chapter meeting, everyone was so welcoming. After the meeting, Jim came up to me and introduced me to a whole bunch of people in the chapter. I felt a connection with other people,” Go explained.

“I realized that there were so many people that were blind on all levels—visually impaired or legally blind. I learned that it was okay to be blind. It’s actually respectable to be blind. I met so many people who were welcoming,” Go said.

During the meetings, they would discuss different activities that the chapter was engaged in. They would also listen to a presidential release that would update the members on what was happening on the national level.

At first, she wasn’t a regular attendee. As Antonacci continued to call her to update her on future meetings and opportunities, she decided to attend more.

“In the beginning, I was mostly an observer, an outsider looking in. In high school, I was a very reserved person. Jim and other members noticed that, but they saw potential in me. They knew that I could contribute, and they really wanted to get me involved. [The NFB] loves when students come to the meetings, and they want them to get involved because that’s how the future of the federation is built,” Go said.

Each board member’s (President, Vice President, Second Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Board Member) term lasts for a year. After becoming an active member for nearly 2 years, Go was asked by the Keystone chapter president at the time, Lynn Heitz, if she would consider serving as chapter Secretary for the upcoming term.

“On one level, I was very honored that she would even consider me and ask me. But on another, I felt intimidated. I didn’t think I was good enough, so I declined. But then she asked if I would like to be considered a board member, and then I told her I’d do it,” Go said.

A year later, she was nominated to be the second Vice President. By that time, she was more comfortable with the program.

“It became a part of my life,” Go said.

She was second Vice President for a few years, increasing her involvement. Soon, she was elected to become the first Vice President, which became the position she held the longest. In 2017, she was elected to become the President of the Keystone Chapter, and she continues to hold that position to this day.

“I really enjoy it and I’m involved more than ever. At first, I thought I was kind of being forced into doing a lot of things, but now being in a leadership position myself, I realize that’s how you shape the future. You have to seek out leaders and help them become leaders by learning and immersing themselves in the organization. Some people could just jump right in. I’m not one of those people. I’m one of those people who are observers, and I gradually take small steps, but once I’m in, I’m in, especially if it’s an organization or a cause that I’m passionate about,” Go said.

Every organization has its own mission, and every member has their own reason as to why they decide to join an organization. For Go, she wants to help people, blind or sighted, change their attitude about the blind community and what they can achieve.

“I didn’t have a specific goal—one that had definitive objectives. I saw that there were other people who joined the chapter: people who had just lost their sight, people who were older and were starting to lose their vision, or people who were blind all their lives. I noticed that some people were very positive in their attitude with their blindness or how they dealt with their blindness, and there were people who were very negative, didn’t believe in themselves nor have confidence in who they are as a blind person and what they could do and achieve. That, for me, really stuck. I wanted people to develop positive attitudes about themselves and believe that they could do things, even if they are blind, through training and support from others who are blind like them. I’m a firm believer that your attitude is more important than what you know. You can have skills, but if your attitude is not in the right spot, you’re not going to get very far. I wanted to help other people notice that. I also wanted people outside of the community—sighted members—know that blind people are just as capable of doing the things they can do. They might need some accommodations, but they can still accomplish the same things,” Go said.

“Without the Federation, I don’t think I would’ve been able to actualize that idea. I’ve always known that blind people can do anything they put their mind to, but being part of that organization helped me actively pursue that goal. Through the organization, I was able to make it more of a reality,” Go added.

Over the years that Go has been a part of the Federation, she was able to contribute to some of their accomplishments.

“One of the things that the NFB advocates for is equity—helping society make things accessible, which not only benefits people who are blind but benefits everyone. Since I joined the Federation, I remember one of the earliest accomplishments of the organization was an act that we lobbied for, and Congress eventually passed it. It was called the Help America Vote Act, and it was passed in the early 2000's; it helped America get accessible voting machines in every polling place across the country. At least one poll in every polling place had to be accessible, which means that it would have to have audio built into it so that blind people could vote independently and privately. Most of the time, people who are blind don’t have those rights. A trusted friend would have to go with them to the polling booths, and even though that blind person might trust that friend, it still is a great opportunity to be able to vote independently. That was a major milestone to get accessible voting machines in place,” Go explained.

“Another accomplishment is that we pioneered a program called NFB Newsline, and this program provides free newspapers and magazines from all over the country to people who are blind via Touch Tone Telephone. People can call into this number, and from the selection choices on the menu, they can pick whichever newspaper they want to read. NFB Newsline has evolved greatly, and it has gotten to the point where you can access such resources through internet browsers and mobile applications. This was a major accomplishment, and it’s one of those programs that we always highlight,” Go said.

“Every year, we go to Washington D.C., and we lobby and talk to Congress about issues we are passionate about. One of the issues in recent years that we’ve been actively pursuing to have Congress take action on is the Fair Labor Standards Act. Blind people in America and other people with disabilities often get paid below the minimum wage or not paid at all—I’m talking pennies an hour. We’ve partnered with other disability organizations on this act; it doesn’t make sense paying people with disabilities less. What we are trying to do is introduce the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act (TIME) to combat the unfair labor wages. That’s something we’re currently seeking,” Go added.

The National Federation of the Blind is a major part of her life, but that is not all she does. Outside of the organization, Go works as an Elementary Special Education teacher at Ziegler Elementary in Philadelphia, where she teaches sighted students with learning disabilities with a primary focus on the subjects of reading and math.

While the NFB had no influence in her choice to become a teacher, it helped discover her approach to teaching.

“[The NFB] made an impact in how I choose to pursue my career. It reinforced my belief that I can do what I pursue to do. It established that your attitude is really big in moving you forward,” Go said.

Some of her favorite memories working with the NFB include the time when they sponsored the Saint Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments during Christmas time to have a holiday party for the students. The NFB members collected money to purchase gifts for the kids. 

“It lets the kids know that these are blind people that they can look up to—they’re living their lives how they want to, they’re independent, they’re contributing, they’re giving back to society. Whether or not these conclusions are drawn by these students at the moment is not the point; the point is that we are investing in their future, and we want to show them that there are people who are blind like them. It’s always a very positive experience,” Go said.

Another one of her favorite memories was when she and other NFB members took a trip to Ocean City, New Jersey, and stayed there for a few days.

“There was a contest on the boardwalk. It was a french fry sculpting contest. I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I want to participate in that!’ My mentor was very unsure of it. To everybody’s surprise—the sighted people--I actually won first place. I made a dinosaur and a palm tree. It was so fun, and it was a happy moment because I was doing something for fun. Who cares if you’re blind? You can still participate in this. I got a t-shirt and a hermit crab shell with a fake hermit crab in it,” Go said.

Go was also given an award that she didn’t expect to receive during the 2013 annual National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.

“I was just sitting there, and I was about to put my earbuds in to listen to some music on my iPod until I heard them say my name. They said, ‘This award is for the Blind Educator of the Year, and it goes to Harriet Go!’ I bolted up out of my seat. They started saying all this background stuff about me and called me up on the stage. I was just shocked; this never happened to me before. I felt like I was on TV. That was a great surprise,” Go said.

Every time Go comes to a meeting now, she looks forward to helping others. 

[Image of holding hands]

“I think about who is coming to the meeting and how I can make this meeting worthwhile, informative, and engaging for these people. I think about how I could help make an impact on these people’s lives,” Go said.

After years of being reluctant to join her first meeting, Go has grown to love and appreciate the NFB and its mission. It not only gives her an opportunity to meet new people and leave an impact on society; it also allows her to learn a few things about herself, too.

“I love the organization’s mission. I love their philosophy and the way the organization handles its activities. The NFB is an organization of the blind. Blind people are running the organization. It’s not an organization for the blind. That is something that stands out with the NFB; those two tiny words make a big difference,” Go said.

“Before the NFB, I was just advocating for myself. I went to a regular high school after I left my school for the blind, which only had 34 students in the entire school from kindergarten through 8th grade. When I got to Central, my freshman class had 900 kids, which was a huge culture shock to me. I didn’t know how to talk to my teachers, and I was scared. At my old school, all of my teachers knew I was blind. At my high school, I had to go to my biology teacher, for instance, and say, ‘I can’t see the board, would you be able to describe what you’re writing?’ By learning to advocate for myself, I was able to maintain that skill into college and in the workforce. I remember one of the things I had to do in my senior year of college was be a student teacher; the elementary school that I was assigned to was so shocked that I was blind. In fact, they told me that they didn’t know Temple was going to send them a blind student teacher and that they didn't want me doing my student teaching there. I was hugely taken aback; that was the first real encounter I had on a professional level with discrimination. Using my advocacy skills, I learned how to get through that tough semester, and I completed my student teaching successfully. To this day, I still advocate for myself even at the school where I teach now, and through the work of the NFB, I am able to help advocate for all blind people. Finally, I also learned that you learn to lead by doing. I never thought I would be the president of the chapter when I first joined the NFB. I have grown a lot, and I have learned a lot since then,” Go said.

“Being a part of the NFB helped me realize that I needed physical confidence, too. When I joined the NFB, I saw so many people using an NFB-branded cane—not a folding cane, but a straight one. Someone explained to me that ‘When you have this straight cane, you can’t hide it.’ I was very reluctant to switch over from using a folding to a straight cane. It took about a half-dozen years after I joined the NFB that I started using the straight cane, and they were right; I couldn’t tuck it away. It became a part of me. I know a lot of people look at it and think negatively because they think I’m less capable of doing things, but it’s a beacon for others; it lets others know that I am blind,” Go added.

“It is respectable to be blind. You don’t have to view yourself as a second class citizen—you shouldn’t. When you meet people, you’re going to feel like they’re going to look at you or judge you a certain way, but being respectable means you know that it might happen and you still hold your head up high; you’re proud of who you are. I’m blind, and that’s a part of me,” Go said.

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