by Mark Noble
From the Editor: The following speech is reprinted from the summer, 2000, issue of Branches: An Outreach of Blind Washingtonians. It was delivered at the 1999 convention of the NFB of Washington.
Most of you here today will believe me when I tell you that as a five-year-old I was not particularly familiar with or devoted to the study of religion. Moreover, those of you who have grown to know me in the thirty-nine years since would be even less inclined to describe me in such lofty terms. Although I consider myself religious, I would readily agree with you: I am not a theologian. Yet even as a five-year-old I would have felt ready to take issue with at least one oft-quoted fifteenth-century Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, who in his collection of proverbs Adagia wrote "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man would be king." I would have known from personal experience that in a nation in which everyone else was blind, the one-eyed man would have been derided as different, shunned by at least some of his neighbors, and pitied by some of his peers and their parents and would have felt the pain of prejudice, the sting of rejection, and the lash of loneliness.
Don't worry; this isn't going to be one of those sad-sack speeches in which I bemoan the quality of my life or even my childhood. In fact, I had great parents and have terrific brothers and sisters with whom, for the most part, I have a loving relationship. As we all know, families play a central role in determining the future success of all adults, not just blind adults. All of us owe what we are and who we are to our earliest experiences.
Our parents especially are the chief architects of our psychological foundations that must withstand the quakes in life that can and do shake us to our very core. Unlike the owners of buildings, however, as much as I love my son, I can't purchase an insurance policy that will sustain his ego strength in times of turmoil. What I can do is what my parents did for me--help him learn to choose. The evolution from infancy through childhood, puberty, and finally adulthood is measured in degrees of choice. Choice, our choice, determines our world.
Earlier I mentioned some of the challenges I faced because of some people's discomfort with me because I am blind--talk about choice. I doubt there is a blind person here who at one time or another hasn't been rejected solely because of blindness. Whether we are rejected as a playmate or a colleague, the sting is always a part of us. Yet even something that hurt so much affords us a choice. Do those rejections, whether experienced early on the playground or later in the workplace, embitter us or make us more compassionate?
I am not Pollyanna-ish. The ache, and yes anger, I feel is genuine and not wholly salved by my concern for others. Yet I must ask you, which is more productive? My understanding is that such experience is like a vaccination. Some of those bad times are helpful in inoculating us against the well-meaning but patronizing things people say like how wonderful it is, given our blindness, that we can do anything from walking across the room to reading a book to even smiling. More important, though, is our ability to channel those frustrations into action for ourselves and each other.
As a kid, when I thought about it, I hated the fact that I was blind, not because I couldn't discern colors or visually perceive a sunrise, but because I wasn't like everyone else I knew. From my vantage point I wasn't normal. My experience then has been confirmed by my work with juvenile delinquents, blind kids, and especially my son, who is not blind. All children, more than anything else, want to fit in. Hence my hypothesis that in the country of the blind the one eyed man would most likely be hauled around in a circus for all to poke and prod at and serve as an object lesson for unappreciative offspring.
Although I wasn't as rare as that, I sometimes felt just as ostracized, so I would pretend to be able to see. I just loved one particular children's book. As a lot of you probably did with books you liked, having heard it about a bazillion times, I committed it to memory. I remember one time I was stationed at the dining room table wearing swimming goggles I pretended helped me see. I was pretending to read the book when my brother, using the tone reserved for siblings the world over, said "Why are you reading the book upside down, stupid? By the way, you will get to go to your first and last funeral if you wear my goggles again."
I got in lots of fights when I was a kid. If some other kid challenged my abilities or right to play or even brought up my blindness, I was ready for combat. As I matured, or as we used to say in the seventies, became more self-actualized, I became less confrontational. Going to the school for the blind was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I hated being separated from my close-knit family; but, despite the restrictions of living in an institution that employed a number of people with antiquated ideas, I loved being with other kids like me. In other words, I was at long last normal.
This allowed me to take advantage of the gifts my parents had given me: ego strength, the experiences of give and take learned from my brothers and sisters, and the love of learning which was so prevalent among the children and adults I admired. It allowed me to letter in swimming in high school so that by the time in the tenth grade school officials politely suggested, after a recurrence of unwanted trouble, that "Mark might be happier in another environment," I was able to have a very successful academic and barely adequate social life in a public school.
I mentioned the evolution of learning to make appropriate choices earlier in this presentation. All those experiences I have discussed thus far helped fashion what kind of world I would eventually create for myself. But my self-actualization process wasn't done by a long shot. Back then I still had a lot of growing up to do.
In my teenage and college years I was still seeking--to use a word invented by former President Warren G. Harding--normalcy. As a teenager, like many teenagers both blind and sighted, my quest for normalcy was transformed into my wanting to be cool. I would have done anything to be cool, to be accepted.
After experiencing some results of what social-worker types euphemistically call inappropriate choices, I learned the value of making better choices. When you are a kid, you have nothing to say about who your family is. You are stuck with whatever you've been blessed or cursed with. As an adult you choose your family--not only your spouse, but the people that you include in your world, like where you work, those with whom you associate, those with whom you grow.
You have choice, whether to be mired in the hell that you allow other people to create for you or maybe, just maybe, that you create for yourself. When I say hell, I am not talking about the hell of Dante's Inferno. I am talking about the hell we create for ourselves or allow others to create for us on earth: the hell of bitterness and despair, where one is devoid of hope, the hell in which far too many of our blind brothers and sisters reside. this is the hell depicted in the mythological expression that some so-called professionals in work at the expense of the blind prattle on about. This is a worldview that discerns two different worlds: the so-called blind world and the sighted world.
As for me, I choose to live in the real world, where people both blind and sighted work, pay taxes, raise our kids, worry about our mortgages, and yes, change what it means to be blind. I spoke about choice and about choosing your family. Twenty-three years ago my friend Tom Craig invited me to my very first NFB function, what college kids still call a kegger. Over the course of the next few years I learned to replace the hurt I once felt with hope. And I learned not to replace but to extend my family to include thousands of blind people across the nation who, like me, believed in the capacity of people who just happen to be, among other things, blind. If you would like to share this vision of hope, come join us. This is my world, and I welcome you to it.