The Braille Monitor March, 2002
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by Susan Ford
From the Editor: Susan Ford is one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri. She, her sister Ramona Walhof, and her brother Curtis Willoughby grew up in a small town and a large extended family. What did those folks learn from living around three active, normal blind youngsters? Here is Susan's account of her sentimental journey back home and the discoveries she made:
Last weekend I went to a family reunion. I found myself inundated with countless memories of childhood experiences. Perhaps this trip down memory lane gave me a different perspective about myself, about blindness, and about family relationships. Often we see people who, because of our blindness, are over-zealous in their wish to help us. Our immediate family had three blind children born into it--all of whom have since become successful adults. I wondered if our extended family members had learned anything over the years which permitted them to cope with blindness less solicitously than does the majority of the population.
Friday evening we impulsively put our accumulated meal on a table for a potluck. People just told us where the food table was. No one offered to fill our plates. They offered information about what was on the table and what part of the large room was set up with tables and chairs, but there were no questions like, "Can you fill your own plate?" "Can you find the table?" And there were no offers such as, "Let me carry your plate. You might spill." No small children were suddenly snatched from in front of us when some adult noticed we were approaching and the child wasn't old enough to recognize a white cane. Many of the young people who now have their own children had never previously met us, so this comfort level with our presence must have come from somewhere. What a refreshing change from what blind people often experience at public functions.
Saturday morning my daughter Brenda and I walked to a tower on the campgrounds, where one can climb to see the surrounding countryside. At the top of the tower we found my cousin Helen, with whom I had graduated from high school. As Helen and I talked, we remembered the hike the two of us had taken as seniors in high school. We started from town, and our plan was to walk to her parents' farm about ten miles away. We carried our lunches and even took my dog Chris, an energetic pet Cocker Spaniel. So far as I know, there were no protests from my mother or hers about my ability or about Helen's taking on such a responsibility. Our plan was reasonable, and we spent much of the day walking. As it happened, we stopped at another friend's home just a couple of miles short of Helen's home, because we were getting sunburned.
Saturday noon I sat talking to another cousin, Sandy. My brother Curtis was chatting with her as well, and she told him that she was the younger cousin who used to come upstairs to his ham radio shack, asking lots of questions. When he, the teenager, got tired of her fourteen-year-old questions, she said he would send her back downstairs. Interestingly in that twosome the blind person was perceived as more mature with the right to make decisions.
Saturday afternoon my sister Ramona, Brenda, and I drove to the town where we grew up, nearly thirty miles away from the reunion site. Brenda was the driver and could read the map to get us there, but it was the blind people who gave the directions once we got to town. We showed Brenda the house where we grew up and the store nearby where Mom sent us to do grocery shopping. We visited a friend with whom I had graduated from high school. We found my uncle's house a couple of miles south of town. And we found the city park where a community "corn boil" was being held.
I saw one of my high school teachers, who still teaches at the local school. Mr. Lynch is noteworthy because he helped me acclimate to public school in the days before it was commonly expected that blind children could compete successfully in such an educational setting. My algebra two book was available in Braille, but it was an earlier edition than the one the rest of my class was using. It was Mr. Lynch who was willing to meet with me after school when the section in my book contained different material, making sure that I understood the concepts even if I used different problems to learn them. I also ran into my high school Sunday school teacher. He was the grocer at the store to which we walked, and he remembered each of us on trips to the store as well as from Sunday school class.
The corn boil brought up other memories of past community celebrations. Our church had an annual ice cream social, where they often served a meal as well as homemade ice cream and cakes for fund-raising. There were times when the grown-ups had no problem with kids who wanted to take their turns at cranking the old-fashioned ice cream freezers. There were also times when we were not permitted to help because they were afraid that we could not do the job sufficiently well. By the end of the evening in years past, the adults were usually tired enough that they would let blind teenagers wash and dry dishes. Perhaps by then we had proven that we did not break dishes any more often than others who helped in the kitchen.
Sunday morning Larry, the boy-next-door, came to the camp to visit. We too reminisced about our childhoods. Larry remembered the small garden tractor my dad had made. It operated on gasoline, and both blind and sighted children eagerly awaited their turns to drive that tractor up and down the block where we lived. It had to be started by pulling a rope, and as a blind child I remember burning myself on the exhaust pipe a few times before I learned what to avoid. It was made clear to us that, if we were going to play with things that could be dangerous, we must also apply safety rules as we learned to use them. My dad invented other things. I was not as aware of them as the boys, but I knew it was Dad's intention that we would be adequately prepared for life, even if we were blind.
Ramona remembered how we three blind children raised money by going from house to house selling greeting cards. We filled our homemade wagon (something else Dad made) with boxes of Christmas cards, all-occasion cards, and special items such as salt and pepper shakers. I'm sure in that town of 1,100 people, it was well known that the three blind Willoughby children were selling greeting cards. My mother made sure that we assisted with ordering the merchandise and that we handled the money we took in.
Sometimes it may have seemed that we were not a part of the community. For many years we were away at the residential school for the blind and came home for any length of time only during the summer. But we were a part of that community nevertheless. They allowed us to grow and to explore even though we were blind. My sister says that she once overheard a friend of my dad's express relief when my brother, the oldest, finally came home using a white cane. Apparently there were those who saw that we would be safer with such alternative tools. Many thought we would always be limited in what we could accomplish. But chiefly because my mother saw us as kids who should be expected to compete with our cousins and others of a similar age, the rest of the family and community watched, learned, and accepted us too.
How lucky we were to have been exposed to the beginnings of the NFB philosophy before we knew about the NFB. When I, as a young adult, met Dr. Jernigan and others at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, I learned that others believed in me too. The idea of a blind person's worthiness to be a functional part of society was not just my parents'; there was a movement which supported and built upon it. That movement is the National Federation of the Blind. How fortunate we are to be a part of it.
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