by Shawn Mayo
From the Editor: The following story appears in the nineteenth Kernel Book, I Can Feel Blue on Monday. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:
Shawn Mayo is President of the National Federation of the Blind's organization of blind college students. Her story explores her mother's conflict between belief and fear and shows that changing what we think about blindness in the deepest levels of our souls isn't easy. Here is what she has to say:
"But Mommy will be mad at me," pleaded Ashley. What! I thought, astonished. All I had asked my three-year-old sister was whether she wanted to take a walk to my university and then to Hardee's.
When my mother went back to work, I had told her that I could arrange my schedule to allow me to watch my youngest sister Ashley once a week. What a wonderful opportunity it would be for me to spend quality time with my sister and take a break from the demands of school and daily routine. I enjoy working with children; in fact, I am pursuing a career as a psycho-oncologist, working with children and adolescents with cancer.
Most of the time, when I watch Ashley, my mother brings her over to my apartment in the morning and picks her up in the early evening. Ashley keeps me going constantly. She is a very intelligent and curious child whose attention span is that of a typical three-year-old--short!
Sometimes we play with Play‑Dough, creating different animals and various objects that Ashley thinks up. The imagination of a child is priceless. What appears to be a lump of clay with indentations and another chunk of attached clay is at times a horse--which in the next breath can be a tree. We also play a lot on the computer. She loves to hear my computer "talk" with the speech synthesizer.
"Let's go to Disney dot com," is an all‑too‑familiar request. My computer with speech has provided a useful tool for me to work with her on the alphabet and the sounds of letters. Sometimes we bake cookies, and other times I read her a story in Braille.
Having her here has given me the opportunity to teach her about blindness. She is learning at an early age that blind people can do the same things as sighted people but that sometimes we do these things in a different way.
One day when Ashley came over, she kept talking about how my sister Genesis took her to see a movie and then to McDonald's. I did not want Ashley to think that we could not go to places outside my apartment and yard. So I decided it would be fun to take her to my university to see the fountain outside the library and then walk to Hardee's, where she could get a happy meal.
"Do you want to see where I go to school and then get a happy meal from Hardee's?" I asked Ashley.
"Yes!" Ashley exclaimed. I proceeded to put her shoes and coat on. Then I grabbed my cane. We asked my roommate Sheila, who is also blind, if she wanted to come along, and soon the three of us headed outside. When we got outside, I asked Ashley, "Are you ready?"
"But Mommy will be mad at me," she pleaded.
What! I thought, astonished. All I had asked my three-year-old-sister was if she wanted to take a walk to my university and then to Hardee's.
"What do you mean, Mommy will be mad at you?" I asked Ashley.
"Mommy said we can't go by the street," Ashley responded.
At first I was hurt and could not believe that my own mother, who had always encouraged me to go after my dreams, who knew about my travels across the country, who had driven me to the National Federation of the Blind's training center in Minneapolis to learn alternative techniques of blindness (including mobility) had told my little sister such a thing! But she had.
It was one thing for me to control my own life, but my mother could not bring herself to believe that a blind person could care for a child away from the safety of one's own home.
I knew my sister trusted me. I also knew that, for the most part, she did what our mother told her to do. But I could not let her grow up with the misconception that her sister could not take her anywhere because she was blind. So I decided to talk to her about the ways that I do the same things that other people do.
"How do blind people read?" I asked.
"Braille," she immediately responded as if I should know that.
"You're right. How do Sheila and I use the computer?" I went on.
"The letters and the mouse," she replied.
"Yes, that's true." (I had to remember I was talking to a three-year-old.) "And it talks to me too. What is this?" I inquired while pointing to my cane.
"Your cane, Sissy," she answered.
Of course she knew it was my cane. Ashley loves to go and get my cane for me whenever we go to the laundry room, check the mail, or play outside. Often she will grab my collapsible cane for herself and mimic my using my cane.
We talked about the cane and how I use it as a tool to find the curb to know where the streets are and how I use my ears to hear where the cars are. It is amazing how quickly children can be open to learning and replacing their misconceptions.
So off we went on our adventure. The grass on the sides of the sidewalk became water, ridden with alligators! On our way we paused to watch a squirrel that Ashley had spotted. Bright kid, I thought as Ashley told me how she learned at the Nature Center that a squirrel uses its tail to protect it from the hot sun and wet rain.
We examined pine cones and listened to the birds as we walked hand in hand to the university. I showed Ashley where some of my classes were, and we headed over to sit by the fountain. After splashing in the water some, we decided to go get lunch. Then, off on another adventure, we went to find the rewards that fast food had to offer.
That evening, when my mother came to pick Ashley up, Ashley was excitedly relaying all the fun things that she had done that day. I asked my mother why she had told Ashley that she could not go on walks with me.
"It's dangerous," was all my mother would say.
It's because I'm blind, I told her. And, even though she denied it, we both knew that that was the underlying reasoning behind her belief. Mom had thought that, because I am blind, I would not be able to keep Ashley safe.
As I thought about it, I understood my mother's worry. Like all of us (blind and sighted alike) she has absorbed society's beliefs about blindness. At one level Mother knew that (because of the very training she herself helped me to get) the chances of Ashley's getting hurt while in my care were really no greater than if I were sighted. But she was still afraid. It will take time for all of us to come to a different understanding of blindness.
"Let's go for a walk, Sissy," Ashley often says. Perhaps we have to grow up with it.