by Norman Gardner
From the Editor: Norm Gardner is the Treasurer of the NFB of Utah and a long-time leader of the Federation. He reminds us here how important it is to take the time to educate children about the truths of blindness. This is what he says:
The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is simple and straightforward. Even a child can understand its logic and reason. We know that the blind are simply normal people with all the abilities and capacities of normal people. We know that, through the use of appropriate alternative techniques, the blind can accomplish the important tasks of daily living as efficiently as their sighted peers. We know that with proper training blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. Even though the public at large usually assumes that the blind are incapable of doing almost everything, we have shown this to be false. We have shown the truth about blindness in the lives of thousands of our members across the country. If they keep an open mind, members of the public can come to understand our philosophy and the truth about blindness. Even a child can come to understand this truth.
Recently a neighbor asked if I would come to her first grade class and talk to her students about Braille and blindness. I had visited several times in her home, and we were well acquainted. I had made it a point, when my wife and I visited in their home, to show her children Braille, the long white cane, the Braille 'n Speak, and other alternative techniques which the blind use to accomplish various tasks of daily living. I thought she understood the points I was trying to make about blind people's being truly independent through the use of such alternative techniques. As I found out later, I had apparently not been very effective in helping her understand the truth about blindness.
On the appointed day my wife and I drove to the school. We were met at the door by two darling little first-grade girls who took turns speaking lines which they had obviously memorized. They welcomed us and introduced themselves. A few feet away sat a lady whom I presumed to be a teacher. Periodically she prompted the girls on their lines.
After a moment or so one of the girls asked if I would like to place my hands on their shoulders so that they could lead me to their classroom. When I said that I could simply walk along beside them to the classroom, they seemed confused. Their prompter reassured them, so we began walking down the hall. They clearly had not anticipated that I might be able to walk down the hall without being led.
After we had gone only a short distance, the prompter, who was following a few steps behind, said in a clear, controlling tone, "Now we are passing the trophy case." This was apparently a prearranged signal for the 2 little girls immediately said in unison, "Please turn left at the next door." Soon after we turned left and went through the door, the prompter said, "Now what do we say?"
The little girls said, "Now you will turn right and go down twelve steps."
I was to speak in an auditorium arranged like a pit with concentric semicircles of seats leading down to a smaller area, where the speaker could stand to address the class. I had been told that about 100 students would be attending my lecture. As I descended the stairs, my friend, who was already standing at the speaker's position, spotted me and came to meet me. She said in a loud, clear voice, "Hello, Dr. Gardner, you are now on the next to the last step. You have two steps left to go."
I was somewhat taken aback. I paused for just a moment, returned her greeting, and stepped down one step. To my amazement she then said in an even louder voice, as though she wanted to make certain that all in the room could hear, "Now you are on the last step. You have only one step left to go." I began to feel like a public spectacle, like a rat that was being used to demonstrate the correctness of a certain procedure.
When I was seated, my friend turned and introduced me to the class. She said, "Dr. Gardner has come to speak to us about Braille and about how we can help blind people." The picture was now very clear to me. I had visions of what my friend and her fellow teachers must have said to prepare the students for my visit. The emphasis had clearly been on how much help blind people need. They had been taught that a blind person could put his hands on their shoulders so they could lead him around. They had been taught that they should tell the blind person about everything around him like how many steps there were and which step they were on and how many steps were left. Perhaps they also wanted to learn something about Braille, but mostly it seemed they wanted to practice helping a blind person. I modified my lecture to emphasize the abilities of the blind. I talked about how a blind person gets across the street by just using his cane and listening to what is around him. I then asked the class, "So if you see a blind person standing on the street corner, does he need help?" They all shouted in unison, "Yes!"
I then told about an experience that happened to me when I lived in Boise, Idaho. I was standing on a corner in the downtown area when I heard someone jump out of a car on the opposite side of the street. The person slammed the car door and began running toward the corner opposite me. He was shouting something as he ran. I did not pay much attention to him. When he reached the corner, he turned and came running across the street toward me, still shouting as he came. I then realized, to my horror, that he was shouting at me. He was shouting, "Hang on! I'll be there in a second! Just hold on!" He reached me, grabbed my arm, and began hauling me across the street.
I said to him, "Mister, I don't know where you're going, but I'm waiting for a bus on that corner."
After relating this story and several other examples of the way the blind travel efficiently with the long white cane, the students in the class seemed to be getting the picture. Then I asked again, "So, if you see a blind person standing on the street corner, does he need help?"
Most of the students shouted, "No!" A few said "Maybe." I asked how they might determine whether the blind person needed help or not. With only a moment's hesitation, most of the children in the class shouted, "Just ask him!" Even a child can understand the simple truth about the normality and the abilities of the blind.
During my lecture I was vaguely aware that my friend the teacher was acting somewhat uneasy and uncomfortable. At some point she left the front of the class, and that was the last I saw of her that day.
As I was about to end my lecture, one little boy, apparently now quite convinced that blind people could do about anything, asked "So how do you drive a car?" The whole class got quiet as I prepared to give my answer. I said this was a good question, and I thanked him for asking it. I told him that blind people cannot drive cars. The room was very quiet. I told them that my wife, whom I had introduced earlier, had driven me to the school that day. Then, in order to test their reaction, I said, "I am very lucky that I have a wife who can drive me around because otherwise I would not have been able to come to the school today, right?"
A few of the students said, "Right!" but then some began to think and to suggest alternatives. One said I might have taken a bus. Another said I might have found a friend to drive me. Still another suggested that I might just have walked if I did not live too far away. It was clear that the students had listened to what I had been saying. Just as I was about to wrap it all up, another little boy shouted, "What about a taxi? You could have taken a taxi!" I congratulated them all on their good responses and ended my lecture.
There seemed to be no teachers around as I climbed the stairs to leave. I was relieved that no one shouted directions or information about how many steps were left. As I reached the top of the stairs, I was met by two more little girls who seemed a bit uncertain about what they should do. Finally one of them asked, "Do you need any help to find the front door of the school?" I thanked her for asking and said that I would be pleased if she wanted to walk with me to the door. She happily skipped along beside me to the door. It was clear that the children had little trouble accepting the simple, straightforward logic that the blind are capable, normal people who rely on simple alternative techniques to accomplish most tasks which sighted people accomplish through the use of sight. Our philosophy is sound. It is based on pure and simple logic which even a child can understand.
Unfortunately somewhere along the way logic and reason are often set aside in favor of myth and superstition about what a blind person is capable of doing. Perhaps it comes about as a result of that age-old experiment which is all too often encouraged by teachers and workers with the blind. Students are blindfolded and invited to perform some simple tasks. Within a few minutes most people who try this experiment will come to the conclusion that, if they were blind, they would be unable to accomplish almost anything. This can be a powerful message which can linger at the emotional level for many years. Whenever they meet a blind person after that, they treat him or her as incompetent because they remember their experience with the blindfold and recall how helpless and incompetent they felt when they were deprived of their sight.
If we keep doing our work as a Federation and keep educating the public and keep talking to those students across America, little by little we will change what it means to be blind.