by Stephen O. Benson
From the Editor: Steve Benson serves as President of the NFB of Illinois and as a Member of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors. The following recollection of a childhood meeting with television personality Fran Allison (creator of puppet boy Kukla and dragon Ollie) reminds us how far we have come and, in the light of recent advertisements making fun of blind people, how far we still have to go on our journey to freedom. Here is what he says:
My mother's formal education extended through part of seventh grade, despite which she became a very clever artist who could create the most wonderful pieces out of buttons, feathers, copper wire, colored tissue paper, and more. She also did still lifes and landscapes in several media. Her silver point and Japanese brush paintings were excellent. I watched her bring animals to life on canvas with oils, but her favorite medium was watercolor. Her paintings and other work still grace homes from coast to coast and border to border.
When I was a year and a half old, she and I moved from a small western Illinois town to Chicago. Shortly after that doctors determined that retinitis pigmentosa would severely limit my vision and would result in at least legal blindness. I have no doubt that she was sorry to learn that my eye condition would result in blindness; that is the usual reaction to such news. But my mother was not destroyed by the fact that her only child would never have normal vision. Instead she proceeded to plot a course that would expose her young son to a rich variety of life-preparing experiences.
Concerned that I might be reluctant to socialize, my mother steered me to involvement in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, to Saturday Red Cross swimming classes, and to roles in school plays even when I was in first grade.
In the late forties she took puppetry classes at Hull House under the direction of a nationally known puppeteer, Hans Schmitt. She learned to make hand puppets and costumes; build stages, sets, and props; and design lighting. She taught me to do the same, but I was more interested in the performance end of puppetry. I became a part-time professional puppeteer, performing for seventeen years.
My interest in puppetry began to blossom in the late forties and early fifties when my mother took me to see "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie," one of the classic children's programs on early television. I was captivated by the puppet characters and charmed by Fran Allison. My mother and I were frequent members of the live audience, and Fran became friendly with us.
By 1953 I was immersed in Braille at Alexander Graham Bell School, one of Chicago's model schools. Celebrities and political dignitaries frequently visited our classroom. During such visits the Braille-resource-room students were required to stand at the right side of our desks and greet the principal, who ordinarily ushered guests around the school.
One day a small group entered our classroom, and the prescribed ritual ensued. One of the visitors stepped away from the rest, walked up to me, put her arms around me, and greeted me warmly. It was Fran Allison. We were equally happy and surprised to see each other. She spent a few extra minutes talking with each student in the room. She was genuinely warm and gracious, and all of my classmates enjoyed meeting a real television personality.
Our resource-room teacher (I'll call her Mrs. Q) had a different reaction. After the visitors had moved on to another classroom, Mrs. Q approached my desk and said, "What right do you have to know somebody like Miss Allison?" I was shocked. But I understood what she meant, for, you see, Mrs. Q was rich. She and her husband owned a string of race horses, and she drove to school in a luxury car. I was a poor blind kid from a single-parent home. Mrs. Q's message was clear: poor blind kids should stay in their place.
Mrs. Q's behavior was unacceptable. It could have been devastating to me, except that my classmates and I viewed her with healthy measures of disdain and ridicule. This was not her only display of contempt for blind kids. I don't believe any of us told our parents of incidents such as this one; it just wasn't done in those days. But in a strange way Mrs. Q's behavior helped to prepare my classmates and me for the condescension we would encounter as adults from many agencies for the blind and from some members of the public.
During the last half century, through its Kernel Books and other publications, the National Federation of the Blind has had measurable, positive influence on public attitudes toward blindness and blind people. The general public has come to be much more accepting of the idea that blind people can compete equally, and in recent years more and more agency staff members have begun helping us acquire the skills we need. Still, much work remains to be done. Blind people and right-thinking sighted people must get on with the tasks of improving education and training for blind people and of continuing to educate the public about the competence and normality of the blind.