“I’m not a victim. I refuse to identify as a victim of others or of circumstances. Though blind, I’m a purpose-oriented individual with a strong determination to be a productive member of society.”
In 1996, Mohamed Fawaz was a 12-and-a-half-year-old boy in Lebanon. One day he was playing outside of his house and came across something that looked like a pen and picked it up. It wasn’t a pen. It was a cluster bomb.
Mohammed suffered a brain injury. He was blinded. Mohamed spent months in and out of hospitals and his survival was far from certain.
As Mohamed slowly clawed his way through his recovery, he was befriended by several Irish U.N. Peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon. They gave Mohamed food and conversed with him, helping him learn English. Mohamed credits them with changing his life: “. . . through the enrichment of diversity of culture, thought, and being a positive influence.”
In 2000, Mo, as he is affectionately called by his friends in the States, caught a break. He was able to come to the United States as his father’s family lived in the Detroit Metro Area. Because they were not yet citizens, Mo and his family did not qualify for the benefits that would normally be available to U.S. citizens.
At the beginning, Mo was placed into the basic English course. Mo had to prove his abilities before he was allowed into the regular English course, unlike the rest of the students in his grade. Most importantly, he had to believe in himself.
"Again, not to sound like a victim, because I’m not, but imagine having to learn English as an individual who is blind at such an age; try navigating the world being a “Mohamed,” and being blind. Overcoming these challenges takes so much resilience.”
When Mo came to America, he didn’t want to go to school. He wanted to work and become independent. Because of his visual impairment, many of the retail and fast-food jobs that high schoolers typically hold were out of question. The rest wouldn’t give Mo a chance because of his blindness. One place told Mo to wait at the table and left him sitting there. After a very extended wait and a number of reminders, Mo walked out.
Mo graduated from high school. But attending college wasn’t possible for him without screen-reading software. The State of Michigan Bureau of Services for The Blind obtained the necessary equipment, enabling him to go to college.
In Mo’s words:
"In college, I decided it was time to work. But that was not easy. Eventually, I was rewarded with success and was hired as a dish washer: a job I greatly enjoyed because I proved to myself first, and the world second, that when given the chance, I was capable of working."
After graduating from Grand Valley State University, he returned to the Detroit metro area and, while working in a restaurant, met two lawyers:
“I met these two attorneys. And they weren’t that smart. I thought if they survived law school and passed the Bar Exam, so can I. I got accepted at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. I remember attending Orientation and still staying in a hotel room. Being blind, the process of finding an apartment is so much longer and more complicated. I laid in bed at night wondering “Can I really make it? “What if I fail? How can I find an apartment on a bus-line that I could take? A bus on a non-busy street that I could cross on my own to take it in both directions?”
A friend from the Association for the Blind, John McCalharen, and his State Vocational Rehab Counselor, Michelle Vissure, helped Mo find an affordable apartment he really liked. Karen Rowlader (then a coordinator for WMU Cooley), law students James Holmes, Kurt Peterson (now attorneys) and several other Cooley students and staff helped Mo furnish his apartment.
Mo rapidly became a beloved member of the Cooley community. It is easy to like Mo. He is outgoing, enthusiastic, conscientious about the lives and concerns of other people and loves to smile and laugh. He sports over 700 LinkedIn contacts.
According to Mo:
“Despite my early doubts, I made it. I interned at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which, after passing the Bar Exam, looked good on my resume and opened my mind to other opportunities. I found a fabulous job in the field of Equal Employment Opportunity.”
Mo and I became connected when he took my professional responsibility class, which happened to be a night class during the winter. Halfway through the term he explained that he had trouble navigating streets because the snowplows piled the snow on the curbs, making it difficult to board a bus or know where to cross the street. I suddenly realized that while I zipped home after class in my private global warming machine, Mo was left navigating public transportation, in winter, at 9:00 p.m. with snow on the ground and without sight. The discussions we had on our way home after class during the remainder of the term are special memories.
Mo and I recently reconnected, and I asked him what he wished for. I was surprised by his answer:
“I wish that every blind person could have a Tesla. You don’t understand Victoria how challenging it is to be blind. Public transportation is a nightmare! And frankly, Uber and Lyft are both expensive and, in some cities, not good at all! Going to the grocery store is a nightmare. Look what goes into it: I have to call an Uber and wait. Sometimes, if I text them that I’m blind so they know to look for me, they instead cancel the trip. In malls, finding Uber or Lyft can also be quite challenging, as the drivers would often find it difficult to find me. They’d pass me and not know it’s me. There are many good drivers who would point me in the right direction when they drop me off. On one occasion, a well-known store initially refused to provide an employee to help me shop. It was humiliating.
Similarly, look at what goes into dating. How do you meet people when you graduate college? You would be walking in the store, shopping; going to your office at a huge office building, or simply having your favorite meal at the restaurant every Wednesday eve, you see someone every time; the first time, you nod for them and they do the same; the second, third and fourth time, the same. Then you say hi to one another, eventually feeling comfortable enough to approach and talk to them. Then you can talk about their choice of clothing, the book they are reading, their eye glasses, choice of shoes, you name it. If you’re blind, you can pass by people in your office building every day without nodding at them and without them waving their hands at you. It’s a different type of challenge; and we’re not yet talking about their perception of you as a blind individual.
Body language can also be complicated. The world relies heavily on visual communication and body language, which places individuals who are blind in situations that can be tricky to navigate. And let me be clear, this doesn’t apply to all individuals who are blind. It applies to me and many others. Similarly, there are other individuals who are blind who may have different experiences and perspectives and I respect that. People who can see do not all possess the same strengths and weaknesses and we shouldn’t expect individuals who are blind to have the same strengths and weaknesses. For me, as an individual with a JD; as an individual who has proven himself capable of many things, this is my perspective.
There is one story that I now laugh about. One time, at the end of a long day, a friend of mine asked me what was wrong with my pants. Apparently, I had a big bleach spot on the rear of my pants. No one had bothered to tell me.”
But Mo isn’t a complainer:
“I focus on what I can do and what I can control. And I am not limited by the fears that other people have. I interact with people not knowing what they look like or dress like. Some people may not approach people for those reasons. I don’t see those reasons.
I have a burning desire to be a productive member of society. I wonder sometimes if I had been sighted, would I have accomplished less than I have?
I want every person who is vision impaired to have a self-driving car. Think of how liberating it would be for them. They could do the things that sighted people take for granted. It would provide them so much dignity.”
Mo’s wish made me think differently about self-driving cars – and Tesla and Elon Musk. Elon Musk can be a controversial and divisive person. Human connection does not appear to be his strong suit. But Elon Musk had a mental vision. He saw the utility – and liberation – self driving cars could bring. And then he made them happen – creating an entire industry. Not many people can claim that.
Mo helped me see that Teslas and other self-driving cars will not simply be the playthings of wealthy men and the topic of scary headlines. (You can see how this bias limited my vision!) Soon, self-driving cars will fundamentally improve life for the vision impaired, allowing an entire segment of society to partially break free of centuries of limitations.
Though Mo may not be able to see with his eyes, he certainly sees, powerfully, with his heart.
My wish, is that Mo gets his wish, very soon.
Per Mo: "Buses pick up passengers on opposite side of the streets depending on whether they are going in or out-bound."