by Christine Faltz
From the Editor: In 1987 Christine Faltz attended her first convention of the National Federation of the Blind. She was a scholarship winner, and the community and philosophy she discovered that summer in Phoenix profoundly affected her life. She completed college and law school. Then she married and became a mother and leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. She has come to be a part of the bedrock on which the NFB is building the future. Christine does not demand the spotlight. Wherever she goes and whatever she does, she lives her philosophy of blindness. In the following article she quietly reminds us of what we are called to do and why it is that people of conscience must answer the call. This is what she says:
Whether we like it or not, whether we accept and acknowledge it or not, the actions, words, successes, and failures of blind children and adults color the way individual blind people are perceived by the public. As with other minorities, for better or worse the entire group is aided or hindered by the interactions the public has with its members.
I have read quite a few statements lately by blind people to the effect that Erik Weihenmayer's successful climb of Mt. Everest is his accomplishment alone, that it in no way helps blind people in general, and that it is foolhardy and a waste of time to consider his stunning success a victory for the blind. Certainly the everyday struggles, plans, wishes, and deeds of blind people will be little affected by Mr. Weihenmayer's climb. The unemployment rate of the blind is unlikely to change; substandard rehabilitation and other training will still flourish-–the NFB has quite a lot of work still to do. Many refuse to acknowledge that a blind person's succeeding at a task unthinkable to most sighted people does affect, on many levels, the way blind people are perceived.
Yes, some will consider this a freak occurrence, a feat totally beyond most of us, especially blind people. Some will say that, whether one is sighted or blind, attempting to climb a mountain is a ridiculous, reckless risk to take. Others will admire the sheer will, strength, commitment, and determination necessary to accomplish such a task. Of course the furor has already died down, and the vast majority of men and women, sighted and blind, are no longer thinking or talking about it. Erik Weihenmayer's success is an extreme example of the way our actions can shape public perceptions of the blind.
Four years ago a terrible accident took place in my hometown. A young married couple, parents of a six-week-old baby, were traveling home in their car and were hit by a bus. The husband was killed; the mother went into a coma for several weeks. When she finally became conscious, she was blind and widowed and had an infant.
Many people, when faced with gradual or sudden blindness, take months, sometimes years, to accept it-–even more tragically, some never do. This woman, however, threw herself into her rehabilitation, orientation and mobility, and so on. What made her think she could overcome the obstacles life had thrust in her path?
A counselor at the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped told me that, while still in the hospital and faced with the likelihood that she would never see again, the young mother said that her husband had often mentioned having seen a blind woman walking around with her baby on her back: shopping, strolling, attending Little Gym classes. "If she can do it, then I can too," the woman said. The counselor told me this story because the person the husband had seen was me. From what I understand after having spoken several times with the woman and keeping my ear to the grapevine, all are doing well.
A few weeks ago I took my two-year-old son Braden to a Music TogetherÔ class. The class uses singing, playing with instruments, and movement. The teacher and the other parents and children were matter-of-fact as I arrived, stowed my cane against a wall, and removed Braden's shoes and socks and then my own. All went smoothly and naturally until it was time for the movement portion of the class.
"Now let's stand up," the teacher said. "I'm going to put on some music, and I want you to shake your instruments and move your bodies all around the room any way you like. Braden and Christine, you can just stand against the wall."
This was not delivered as an order or in any way one might consider mean-spirited, condescending, or disparaging. There was merely an assumption, built on lack of information, that we would not be interested in or able to participate in the movement portion of the class.
I did not contradict the suggestion; I simply stood and joined the others on the mat and proceeded to do as the teacher directed. To her credit, once she saw that we fully intended to join in, she verbally described what we were to do.
Most people would have quietly realized that they had made an error and moved on, not wanting to acknowledge their mistake publicly. At the conclusion of the class, however, while I was replacing Braden's shoes and socks, the teacher came over, and, unconcerned by the proximity of the other parents, apologized profusely for her ignorant assumption. She was clearly bothered by what she had done, yet she was not above admitting it in public. I nonchalantly assured her that it was perfectly fine, and everyone knew now that we wouldn't be missing out on anything!
Quite frankly, I can easily see myself in an alternate universe, self-consciously hugging the wall with my son, worried about making the teacher or the other parents uncomfortable: "What if she bumps into a kid?" "What if her son gets hurt?" There was a time, prior to my introduction to the NFB, when I would have presumed that it was my responsibility to put others at ease with my blindness. If that meant missing out on an activity or experience because they were uncomfortable with my participation, so be it. I now know that I have a much greater responsibility to take risks, to succeed often, and sometimes to fail in the name of giving myself, my children, and other blind people the right to have the same opportunities as our sighted peers. While I go about my ordinary, daily business, apparently I often manage to educate.
Yes, it is a bit frustrating when one of the neighbors announces, "We're all just so amazed at you; we talk about you all the time," merely because I have the fortitude to venture forth with my children for a walk. But the young children on our block take it in stride, which makes my daughter Samantha's social interactions and school participation easier. The young kids have not yet been exposed to the low expectations the public has for the disabled, so they see me merely doing what their parents do, sometimes in different ways. Do my activities have any impact whatsoever on blind people across the country or across the world? Absolutely-–not necessarily individually (though, as I have already described, this can happen too) but cumulatively. The more blind people do, whether ordinary or extraordinary, the less the public pays attention to the fact that we can do it and simply accepts that we are doing it.
My family and I planned to attend the Visions Vacation Camp for the Blind for a week this summer. As it turned out, my husband Marshall could not take the time off work. Rather than change our plans (Samantha is very anxious for recreation with blind peers) I decided that I would stay at the camp alone with our kids-–after all, I would merely be doing what I always do. It would be a different environment with new things to do and new friends to acquire.
Several times during that week I became aware of the admiration and amazement people had for Sam, who at just under six has been using a cane for more than four years. Samantha was confidently moving about the camp within a day, demanding that people leave her alone and let her do it herself. My son, who has not yet grasped the concept that the cane is not a weapon, nonetheless struck out often on his own, strolling about the camp and absolutely loving the pool.
One night at the dining hall, following a particularly frustrating meal with both children, I prepared to leave the premises. I asked if Sam had her cane, lifted my screaming toddler from the highchair, and struggled to maintain my composure, which by this time was awfully shaky. Directly behind me someone whispered, "She's a good mother."
Someone else replied, "She's a very good mother." It was all that I needed to realize that, no matter how demanding and inconsolable my kids might be, I could not forget that I was, regardless of whether I wanted to be or not, a role model for both blind people considering families and sighted parents with blind children, not to mention the camp staff who did not necessarily have experience with blind people and who often spent their summers assisting blind men, women, and children who had substandard blindness skills.
There is, of course, another side to this involuntary example-setting. After all, we cannot always be on our best behavior. There are bound to be times when we lose our tempers, use sloppy blindness techniques, or fail at something we sincerely wanted to prove to ourselves and to others that we could do. This is part of the human condition, and we have to accept that there will be times, despite our best efforts, when we will give the public a false notion of the way "those people" are. (How often have you heard a sighted person say, "I know you blind people hate when people offer to help," because he or she had one encounter with a surly blind person?)
It does become an issue when we refuse to improve our skills or refuse to set goals to improve ourselves in other ways. This is when the worst examples are set and the worst stereotypes are confirmed. The well-intentioned parent or teacher who does not insist on Braille or mobility instruction; the caregiver who thinks it is okay to permit a blind child to sit poking at his eyes in the playpen all day; the blind adult who always relies on others to get him or her from one place to another, who refuses to learn to dress appropriately, to learn to cut his or her food-–all of this affects me, my blind children, and our blind brothers and sisters. The decisions we make, and those made for us-–by parents, instructors, VR counselors, and so on-–affect all blind people to some extent, and the cumulative effect is enormous.
It is time to be brutally honest with ourselves. When a properly trained, successful blind person distances himself from the blind community because he does not want to associate with those who are not as fortunate, is it because he thinks himself superior, or because he knows that it could easily have been him in their shoes? Geography, family, one's own sense of self, the quality of rehabilitation services, and the dedication or lack thereof of educators make all the difference. We have a responsibility to show blind people, their friends, and families that being blind is a highly manageable characteristic. Why, after all, are my neighbors amazed that I function as they do? It is simple: there are few blind people to begin with and even fewer well-trained blind people willing to acknowledge their positions as role models for the rest of the blind community as well as for blindness professionals, policy-makers, educators, service providers and employers.
Many parents of blind children have come to me saying, "I want to help, and my child wants blind peers, but I really don't want my child around a teenager who can't dress herself or a kid who rocks all the time. I don't want my kid picking up bad habits or hearing negative talk." How, I ask these parents, are those other parents and blind children to learn that they are in dire need of working around the ruts in the road to independence if they are only in contact with those with similar difficulties? Where are they supposed to find examples of self-confidence, good blindness skills, and a healthy attitude toward the future?
Parents and teachers are the first line of defense against poor training, but unless they hold the same expectations for their blind children as they do for sighted peers (self-care skills, assigned chores, completing schoolwork on time, moving about with age-appropriate independence, participating in social activities around the neighborhood and at school), precious opportunities and years will be lost. So the next time someone declares that she does not attend large gatherings of the blind because "all those people who don't take care of themselves and don't know how to socialize depress me," ask them who will be there to set a different example.
At the 2000 NFB convention in Atlanta, a sighted teenager said to me, "All these NFB leaders get around really well, and they make great speeches, and they say all the right things, and they make a sort of pep rally, go-team atmosphere. But I look around, and so many of these people don't measure up to all the politically correct we-can-all-be-successful; we-can-do-practically-anything talk."
"The very fact," I told her, "that you are able to make such comparisons, that the blind population has successful, mobile, articulate, well-groomed members setting examples for the others and striving for better training and other opportunities for all of us is a credit to the NFB, its philosophy, and the work it has done and is doing. Social change takes a very long time. After the Civil War it took one hundred years to pass a Civil Rights Act in this country. The NFB has existed only since 1940. We have a lot of ground to cover. And the most fundamental problem with blindness training is that families of blind people, blind people themselves, and blindness professionals are not exposed to enough well trained, gainfully employed, independent blind people because as is the case with other minority groups, the so-called lucky ones leave and don't look back."
Sometimes looking back makes me angry, sad, and frustrated. However, despite being well trained in most areas, I would love to have had the opportunity to devote some time to in-depth training in blindness techniques-–I still might some day. We can always do better. I am still young. I want my children to realize that even I, the amazing blind lady with the amazing blind kids, can improve. I never want them to believe that, just because they reach a certain point in life, self-improvement stops. And I never want them to forget that a key reason I boogied around the room at Braden's dance class is that fifteen years ago I met a group of people who were willing to commit their time, energy, and spirit to setting an example for me to follow, an example that starkly contradicted my family's insistence that I was the cream of the crop and that there simply weren't blind peers to whom I could truly relate.
I know that it is often a colossal pain in the derriere to feel that you are always being scrutinized. I know you would prefer to live your life without having to think that virtually everything you do, do not do, say, or do not say will very probably have ramifications down the road for some unknown, unsuspecting blind person. Whenever you experience a moment, a day--or even a longer period where you just want to scream, "I'm sick of being a role model; I don't want that responsibility!" ask yourself where you might be today if you hadn't had the support of family and friends, good advocacy and self-assertiveness skills, the wherewithal to fight for good blindness training, and a positive philosophy of blindness. Then ask yourself: if all the people, individually and collectively, who influenced my success had decided to leave me to the usual expectations, the well-grounded stereotypes, and the tired old attitudes, whose example would I be following today? Then stand up straight, brush off your spirit, and let's continue to teach together, even when it feels as if we're alone.