The Braille Monitor                                                                                       November 2002

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Open Letter to a Blind Person:

Choices That Can Change Your Life

by Michael Bullis

Mike Bullis
Mike Bullis

From the Editor: Mike Bullis is a longtime Federationist who has recently moved from Oregon to Maryland. He has toiled in the rehabilitation vineyard as well as owning his own businesses. Recently he underwent the rigorous testing necessary to earn National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board. This is the first in a series of open letters that Mike has decided to write. It is filled with common sense and straight talk. Here it is:

Dear Friend:

This is a letter intended to help certain blind people—perhaps you—think through the many decisions you will have to make about training, education, and skills. Even though you may have some usable vision and describe yourself as visually impaired, for ease of writing and as a practical matter, I will refer to you as blind.

Thanks to federal rehabilitation law, many free services are available to you at your local state rehabilitation agency, including lessons in Braille, cane travel, and many other skills. If you are to make informed choices about those services, you have much to learn. The decisions you make about the training you do or do not get—and what type you choose—will affect everything: your ability to work, your marriage and relationships with friends, your personal beliefs about yourself, and indeed whether you view life as a wonderful opportunity or a frustrating and not very fulfilling prison sentence. The information in this letter has helped me and thousands of blind people move from dependence to freedom. It's not simply my thinking but represents the wisdom of thousands of successful blind people throughout the nation.

What I'm about to say is very blunt talk. Before I say it, let me give you a way out. That is, I'd like you to know that none of it necessarily applies to you. The nice thing about life is that there are exceptions to every rule. As important as an education is in today's world, some people do very well without going to high school or college. As important as it is to research a business thoroughly before starting it, some people start without research and become highly successful. And similarly, as important as it is for blind people to be trained in skills such as Braille and cane travel, some blind people have been successful in life without mastering them.

Having said that, if you think that something in this letter doesn't apply to you, it may not. My only advice to you, as someone who has broken a lot of rules in life, is that every time you break a rule that most people have found helpful, you increase your chance of failure. So be very honest with yourself about whether your rule breaking is a dishonest desire to avoid hard work, an avoidance of a truth you refuse to face, or truly necessary for you in your circumstances and with your personality.

I have both good news and bad news about blindness. The good news is that, if a blind person concentrates on learning the skills of blindness for from nine months to a year, he or she will in all likelihood become a competent, functioning blind person. For that person issues of blindness will be secondary for the rest of his or her life. Reading at 200 words per minute, just as most literate sighted people read; typing at 80 to 100 words per minute; entering a room with confidence; walking wherever you please and doing it when you please; throwing a burger on the barbecue with the same ease as your neighbor: all of this is possible.

Life for the person who takes this time and concentrates on really becoming a master of the skills of blindness will be, for the most part, full of the ordinary cares of the world like dating, getting married, raising kids, paying the bills, or complaining about the boss. Blindness will be, for the most part, on the back burner. No, you won't be able to see, but the alternative skills you have learned will reduce that truth to a minor fact of your life.

The bad news in our good news/bad news scenario is that most blind people never do what I have described. Most of us who need skills try to avoid taking the concentrated time and effort to get them. They learn a little Braille—thirty words a minute—and maybe not even that. They are, for all practical purposes, functionally illiterate. They don't think of it this way, but, if they were sighted, that's the way it would be described. They get some basic cane travel. No, they can't go to new places comfortably. They walk slowly and cautiously. They avoid really busy streets. When moving to a new neighborhood, they often call up an agency serving blind people to be oriented. The thought of travel to a new city is frightening and often complex, to say the least. And, what's perhaps worse, or at least saddest, is that the joy of a simple walk doesn't exist for them. Feeling the breeze, the warmth of a sunny day while walking through the park and not concentrating on one's cane technique, but just getting out for the joy of it, is lost to this person. Cane travel is not automatic; it's a chore.

This person is a mediocre cook. He or she has no thought of flipping a burger and answering the phone the way normal people do. Cooking is a concentrated effort. It means microwave foods, not by choice but by necessity—no backyard barbecues, no neighborhood picnics where the blind person contributes as an equal, no simple filling of a glass or cup.

Such people pay other, cultural prices of second class social status. I do not mean that they face discrimination as a legal matter and should sue somebody. That may or may not be true and needs to be evaluated on its own merit. I refer to the second-class social status that such folks bring upon themselves because of ineptness. Because they cannot walk with ease, look people in the eye, carry themselves like others do, use hand gestures, and engage in the normal give-and-take of social interchange, they are treated differently. They don't take their son for a relaxing walk or run to the local Starbucks to buy coffee for the office. They are different, not because they are blind, but because they cannot compete in society on terms of equality when and where it counts. They don't get hired and don't know why. They don't have dates and think it's because they're blind, not realizing that many blind people date normally.

These people often end up in marriages based on caretaking rather than equity. They often have jobs that are carefully defined while the rest of their coworkers do work that requires flexibility. When something is needed from the other room, colleagues are quick to get it for them because the blind person doesn't put people at ease when he or she travels. Nobody ever looks to them to take charge of a situation. When they enter a room, people stare out of curiosity as they tend to do with blind people. But ill-adjusted blind people cannot help those staring people relax. They can only leave the people uncomfortable and wondering if they should help in some way. Their neighbors may help them read the mail, but they never know the pleasure of helping their neighbors with a household or yard project.

Yes, that is both the good news and the bad news about blindness. You can either get the skills and get it over with, or you can continue to struggle and be frustrated—blaming it on blindness instead of yourself and the choices you have made. You can either take that year and once and for all put blindness on the back burner, or you can continue to be frustrated year after year.

 Many people object to taking a whole year of their life to learn these skills. They say, "I can't take a year off; I have kids to raise," not realizing that their children need a dad or mom who can confidently parent them, not a dad or mom who needs taking care of. They say, "I need to get back to work," not realizing that without the skills of blindness they will most likely not receive promotions that others get, and they will find changing jobs a constant frustration. They will be heard to say, "I wish people at work treated me as if I were normal," not realizing that they don't look or act normal and don't really pull their own weight on the job-–doing everything everyone else does in a natural and relaxed manner.

They say, "I'm not comfortable around sighted people," not realizing that this equation has two sides. Part of it is that, when sighted people first meet blind people, they're uncomfortable and need to be educated. But beyond that first educational step, most people will relax about your blindness to the extent that you do and to the extent that you make them feel you are normal and capable.

Another objection is: "I could learn good blindness skills if I had been born blind, but I became blind later in life." There are thousands of blind people with good skills, including both those who were born blind and those who were blinded later in life. Currently no data demonstrate that either circumstance is a particular advantage or disadvantage.

Another person says, "I'm too old to learn the skills of blindness." You may or may not be too old to learn. I can't answer that; only you can. Much has to do with how active you have kept your mind and how active you want to keep it. Many people continue to learn as they grow older, challenging their minds to ever greater comprehension—believing that age is an opportunity to apply the wisdom of a lifetime to meet new and different problems. Others stop learning and challenging themselves, so their minds do indeed slow down, and therefore they master new things with difficulty or not at all. Remember, though, blindness isn't to blame.

Finally, some say: "I have other disabilities besides blindness. That's why I can't learn good skills." I cannot comment in this letter about the myriad of possibilities you may face. What I can say is that you owe it to yourself to try before you decide what is possible and what is not. Too many people quit before they start—finding an excuse for failure and accepting its truth without ever trying. I don't know what you can achieve, but neither do you until you take that step.

The difference between those who get full-fledged training and those who don't is what I shall call the great divide. After you get that year over with, you will be in a different world. Some of your blind friends will say, "Yes, but you're special." Some rehabilitation professionals will say the same, but all the time you will know the simple truth. You will know that you're only special in the sense that you decided to work hard, pay a price now to have a much easier life later, and therefore reduce blindness to a small part of your life instead of a big one.

In the next letter I'll begin talking about what you should do with that year of training. What teachers and programs should you choose and how? Future letters will focus on Braille and who should learn it; cane travel and how to learn; note taking and other academic skills; and the art of cooking. It's all coming up, but first you must decide to dedicate that year to getting those skills. We'll talk about the rest after you've made the most important decision of your life.


Mike Bullis

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