The Braille Monitor                                                                                       July 2003

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Climbing

by Jennifer Dunnam

Jennifer Dunnam
Jennifer Dunnam

From the Editor: Jennifer Dunnam is a leader in the NFB of Minnesota. She now works as a document conversion specialist at the University of Minnesota. The following story first appeared in Oh, Wow!, the eighteenth in our Kernel Book series of paperbacks while Jennifer still worked at BLIND, Inc. Here it is, beginning with President Maurer's introduction:

The National Federation of the Blind operates a number of training centers for blind youth and adults. One of our most effective training techniques is to teach a student to do something he or she believes to be virtually crazy for a blind person even to try. Success at something truly unthinkable causes the student to begin to re-examine all that was previously thought to be impossible.

Jennifer Dunnam is a teacher in one of our centers, and one of the things she teaches is rock climbing. Unthinkable? No, not really. Here is her story:

One of the many joys of being an instructor at BLIND, Inc., (one of the National Federation of the Blind's training centers) is that the students and staff have the chance to participate in rock climbing several times a year. Not all of us look forward to ascending walls of rock with equal eagerness, but I, for one, am energized every time I do a climb or work with someone else who is climbing. Sometimes I am reminded of my early childhood when I was willing to try climbing on just about anything taller than I.

My parents did not learn that I was blind until I was seven months old, by which time I knew how to crawl and could pull myself into a standing position. The doctor told my parents that, since I was blind, they would need to keep me in a playpen and do everything humanly possible to protect me from harm.

Despite their disappointment upon learning of my blindness, they saw no reason to follow the doctor's advice since they had so far treated me as they would any other child. I also believe that by that time my parents already had a pretty good idea that trying to keep me in a playpen would probably not have accomplished the protection that the kind but misguided doctor had intended.

One of my earliest memories is of climbing a chest of drawers. I am sure I remember hearing the half-open drawers call out to be climbed like a ladder; being a most agreeable child, I obliged--my fingers gripped the top of the upper drawers as my feet stepped on the lower ones.

I almost made it to the top before the chest and all its contents fell on top of me. My fingers still smart whenever I think about it. My pain and humiliation were sufficient to ensure that I did not try climbing on drawers again; my parents could see that I had been well-taught and did not need them to put any additional restrictions on my movements.

During most of my childhood my family lived in a house located on property owned by the natural gas transmission company that employed my father. My two younger sisters and I had twenty-seven acres of land at our disposal for play--including such useful structures as trees, a pond, an empty house similar to our own, and the compressor station where my father worked. We children were disappointed that we had no stairs inside the house, but we were delighted when we discovered them on the sides of the compressor station.

We (or at least I) could spend hours just running up and down those metal stairs--a pastime to which my mother never expressed any objection. It seemed very natural to my sisters and me, therefore, to entertain ourselves in a similar manner the day we discovered stairs during a visit to the home of a friend of our parents. My mother did not see the connection at all, but she couldn't stop us quite in time to prevent my sister Becky from somehow breaking an expensive statue that stood near the stairs.

At a very early age I graduated from stairs to the monkey bars in our backyard. I got to be rather good at climbing on them and was thrilled on my first day of school when I found out there were higher monkey bars on the playground. What a shock I got during that first recess when I tried to join the other kids who were climbing on the bars! As I approached, the children jumped off as fast as they could, screaming, "Don't touch her! You'll go blind!" It felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me. Was it so bad to be blind?

Fortunately, when I went home that evening (and every evening after), I found my world was still normal, my family didn't think I had suddenly gotten a terrible disease, and, best of all, my sisters were still willing to join me on the monkey bars.

My family did their best to help me keep my expectations of myself high despite the misconceptions of many others around me. That basic support was invaluable to me as I went back to school each day and gradually made friends and acquaintances who, even if they did not always treat me as an equal, were not afraid of me and would share the monkey bars with me.

At home we had a swing set, which, together with several trees perfect for climbing, consumed much of my free time. My sisters and I, like most kids, were pretty good at thinking up alternative ways to use the swing set--like walking up the slide or standing in the seats of the swings while swinging. The caps had long since fallen off the ends of the crossbar at the top of the swing set, so we liked to climb up the side poles and use the long pipe as a communication device.

Other creatures apparently made use of the open-ended crossbar as well; on at least two occasions bees came out to express their anger at me for disturbing their home. The bee stings were nothing, however, compared to the time I put my mouth up to the pipe, and a little frog took the opportunity to jump in. All I can say is that a frog--at least in living form--most assuredly does not "taste like chicken."

When I was about twelve, my sisters and I began incorporating the huge pipes behind the compressor station into our games. They were several feet in diameter, and some of them slanted upward from the ground at angles that were deliciously dangerous if you were trying to walk up them. (Oh, and did I mention that we were expressly forbidden to go near them by my parents?)

For months and months my sisters and I enjoyed the pipes; they could not be seen from the house, so we could play without any annoying interference.

Or so I believed, until the day my father suddenly hauled us all into the living room and yelled for what seemed like hours about how we should never, never play around those pipes. How he could have found out was beyond me, especially since we had not been near the pipes since the week before when we took all those pictures of each other . . . Sudden dread shot through me as I racked my brain to recall what we'd done with those newly developed pictures.

It wasn't long before that question vanished into irrelevance; my dad held up an envelope, from which he removed a series of indisputable photos of his three daughters in various poses on the pipes behind the compressor station. He stopped yelling; and, fortunately for us, his amusement at our humiliation tempered his anger somewhat.

As the years went by, I became far too cool and mature ever to think about such childish exploits as climbing. Then, when I was fourteen, I joined the National Federation of the Blind--one of the best decisions of my life. I found new friends and learned that I did not have to be alone in dealing with the problems blind people face in our society.

It was with a group of Federation friends that I had my first experience with rock climbing and immediately abandoned my notion that climbing is for kids. Here was something much more real and challenging than monkey bars or natural gas conduits.

Now as a teacher I am pleased to have the chance to help students believe in themselves and their abilities as blind people. Rock climbing is one of the ways in which our center challenges students to go beyond what they believe is possible. I treasure the time spent in such productive fun.

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