by Seville Allen
From the Editor: Seville Allen is a leader in the NFB of Virginia. She often contributes her reflections about blindness to these pages. In this election year here is her unexpected take on the two-party system:
Life often takes twists and turns just when we don’t expect them. Sometimes these events leave us bewildered, amazed, exhilarated, or just plain exhausted. At times we have an aha moment or, as some would say, an epiphany, after which we know exactly what happened and exactly what to do next.
My most recent moment of pure clarity occurred while I sat eating curried chicken at the second of two back-to-back parties. As I ate, I listened to the people around me exchanging memories of the person for whom the celebration had been held. How different, I thought, from the party the evening before. At the first one I had felt part of the group. I circulated throughout the house, greeting those who came in and making sure I saw all the invited guests. In fact I had been responsible for making sure the guest of honor arrived without knowing that it was a surprise birthday party for her. When I was hungry, I went to the food table, filled my plate, and went to the deck to get hotdogs and burgers, not just for me, but for others also. Sometimes I sat while chatting with other guests, and at one point, when there were no more chairs, I sat on the floor quite comfortably.
The second event was much different. While I knew I wouldn’t know other guests, I also knew that the other guests wouldn’t know each other. This second gathering, while also a celebration, was a memorial instead of a birthday party for a man who requested that, in lieu of a funeral, his friends gather at his home and enjoy food and fellowship. The man had many friends, but they hadn’t met until the day of his memorial celebration. So why me? Why was I sitting on the fringes of a party in which the guests were all mingling and engrossed in conversation just as I had been the evening before? Like me, they didn’t know the other guests. What was so different? Was it because I’m not really an extroverted person? I don’t jump into unfamiliar groups and make small talk easily. I tend to stand back and observe more than participate. However, I’m not shy and will engage in conversation with strangers without feeling self-conscious. No, I knew it wasn’t my personality; it wasn’t that I was a stranger; it wasn’t that I wouldn’t be able to mingle. It was that I am blind. In fact, the reason I was at the memorial celebration was that a friend had asked me to accompany him because he too is blind. When he asked me to go along, he said: “I want someone to talk to that I know won’t care that I am blind.” As we rode to the memorial celebration, we talked about the invisible barrier that Kenneth Jernigan spoke of in his 1970 banquet address. As we discussed it, however, the thought kept running through the back of my mind that surely this wouldn’t be the case now, not today after we had taught the public so much. Surely we would be equals, and the other guests would be preoccupied with the loss of their friend, not attempting to insulate us out of their fear of blindness.
But I was wrong. The invisible barrier smacked us in the face the moment we entered the property. As we approached the porch, I heard people talking quietly. As I listened to their voices, I thought, gee, it’s a bit warm to be on the porch, but… Then as our canes touched the steps and we began our ascent, the voices fell silent, and we passed into the house under wordless stares. No response to our “good afternoon” greeting. We were met at the door by a well-meaning gentleman who immediately took us to chairs. A woman immediately offered food and drink. It was all quite polite. The food was placed in front of us with a long description as to where on the clock each item had been placed although we both explained that the description wasn’t necessary.
Then the two of us chatted as we ate, and the others moved around and passed us. People did speak to my friend who had been invited to the memorial celebration since he was a friend of the man who had died. However, their conversations were brief, with no one lingering. Toward the end of the celebration my friend wanted to go into the room where he and his friend had spent many hours sharing food, drink, and music. As we started down the hallway, the groups parted like the Red Sea leaving the entire hallway empty. The gentleman in charge of the home memorial accompanied us to the downstairs room because he had the key to unlock it. As we started down the stairs, two people grabbed my arms several times, pulling me up and preventing me from placing my foot on the next step. I kept saying, “It is okay; I won’t fall.” Finally, after turning around and asking my volunteer helper please to let go, I was free to go down the stairs.
We were at the celebration about two hours. The other guests were always polite, although quite solicitous. All were well intended, but the two things that stood out the entire time were, first, what a neat celebration as people enjoyed meeting one another, appearing to be warm and friendly and having a variety of talents and interests matching the complexity of the man they were saying goodbye to. And the second was how high that invisible barrier was, preventing my friend and me from getting to know some of the other guests. The barrier was constructed of fear, fear of everything that blindness is not—fear of the dark, fear of helplessness, fear of something so buried in the primitive portion of the human brain that we don’t have words for it, only an overwhelming emotion of fright so strong that people lose rationality and react by treating blind people like delicate glass or brainless automatons. The two hours were exhausting, unlike the five hours the evening before that had left me exhilarated and satisfied.
The contrast between these two events was clear. The whole reason for the stark contrast was the attitudes about blindness. The first party consisted mostly of members of the NFB along with other friends of the birthday honoree. We knew that blindness is a nuisance and life isn’t limited by it. The second party participants appeared to view blindness as something tragic that renders its victims helpless, deserving assistance finding chairs and filling plates, but not warranting the contact that would destroy the invisible barrier of immobilizing fear. So what do we do? We keep being ourselves, refusing to internalize the idea that we can only sit in a chair and eat the food brought to us at a party. We get up and go to the room where we last spent time with the friend who has died. We keep moving around our communities, waiting for the bus, boarding the trains, doing our jobs, raising our families, weeding the yard, and arriving at airports and making our way through the TSA lines--gathering our belongings, retying our shoes, picking up our canes, finding water for our water bottles, and locating our departure gates. Yes, we continue living and, by our living, educating those around us that it really is okay to be blind.