The Braille Monitor November, 2003
First Impressions: My Conversion into Blindness
by Joy Thomas
From the Editor: Ordinarily I would hold stories like the next two for the December issue, where the convention bulletin appears. My reasoning is usually that articles recounting the powerful impact of a national convention may help persuade a reader or two to decide to attend the annual convention of the NFB during the following summer. With the convention bulletin right there, such folks might just make their reservations immediately and begin planning for the event that could change their lives.
These stories are appearing in November because this issue also includes the announcement of the national scholarship program for 2004. Our program is far and away the most valuable one in the blindness field, and it is important for us all to recognize that fact and take pride in it. But this is only the first truth to acknowledge. Ask most scholarship winners, and they will tell you that the most important gift they have received from the NFB scholarship program is the organization itself and the freedom and independence one can acquire as a result of adopting the NFB philosophy.
Joy Thomas is a graduate student in education at Aurora University in Illinois. She plans to teach Spanish and social studies in middle school and to get a Ph.D. in educational policy. She is well on her way to becoming an outstanding teacher and mentor. Here is the story of her first convention:
In every person's life there comes a turning point where one must choose between what is true and what has lived inside as a lie for his or her entire life. It always helps if one knows the difference between fact and fiction when it comes time to make such a decision. Oftentimes, realizing this difference occurs because of a particular person or relationship. For me that person was my scholarship mentor on one of the final days of the convention, and the relationship is with the NFB.
As a scholarship winner new to the NFB and therefore new to the national convention, I felt overwhelmed when I first arrived in Louisville. I had never been around so many blind people. I felt as if I was at a busy marketplace in a foreign country. But instead of hearing, "Potatoes--four for a dollar!" I heard "East Tower this way! West Tower over here! Get your snack pack here!"
From the moment I stepped off the plane, people asked what I thought of the convention. I thought to myself, "Think of what? The convention hasn't really started." Then it began, and I had no excuse for not having a solid answer when people asked my opinion. Not until later did I realize people were not really asking what I thought about a particular session or meeting. They were wondering what I thought about the NFB's philosophy of blindness, and at the time I really had no answer.
When people began sharing their NFB experiences with me, many of which were reminiscent of a religious conversion, I admit I was a bit skeptical at first. I just waited for my own experiences in order to form my opinions.
When I came to the convention, I naively thought that the convention began with the first general session and of course ended on Friday with the final session. While this may be technically true, the convention really begins when we, the blind, first set foot in the hotel, where we share experiences, encouragement, and a common cause.
After a few days of speakers, seminars, and motivating conversations with Federationists, I certainly felt energized. Yet I still did not get it. I thought I did, and I know I tried to convince others that I did. But my Thursday mentor saw right through me.
Since he was speaking at one of the general sessions that day, we really had no time to talk except during the short intermissions when door prizes were called. Yet he took that time to lean over and say exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right point in my life. In a gentle yet firm way he laid it all out for me to ponder. Knowing that I have retinitis pigmentosa and currently have high-partial vision, he said that it might be easy to fall into the trap of the hierarchy of sight, but chances are that I will lose more vision in the future and therefore need to think about the way I view blindness. "If you think of yourself as luckier or somehow better than someone who is totally blind, what does that say about what you think of yourself compared to totally sighted people?" That hit me--hard. Tears began to form in my eyes and slowly roll down my cheeks--tears of regret for the times I, or another blind person, tried to speak on behalf of the needs of blind people; tears of shame for the many times I have tried to fake being totally sighted; tears of sadness for the times I looked at my life as a culminating tragedy; tears of bitterness for the times I let people make excuses and decisions for me; and tears of joy for the freedom that I have found. It is respectable to be blind.
This mentor also told me his own story and explained that he did not want me to end up, like he did, at age fifty with a law practice and five kids, but with no blindness skills. He encouraged me to seek out effective blindness training where I am now. And he ended with "You will be okay." And for the first time in my life, I believed it.
To some degree I have felt inferior my entire life. I used to wonder how my life would have been if I had had perfect sight. What accomplishments would I have made? What different relationships would I have? What strange questions to ask myself.
The national convention was not about the scholarship, although I originally thought it was. It was about the nineteen-year-old I met who had a better outlook on blindness after being blind for four months than I have after losing vision over twenty-five years. It was about laughing over blind-moment stories with fellow Federationists until 4:30 a.m. It was about learning to embrace my future instead of fear it.
So, yes, in a way I was converted, but not to some strange religion for blind people. My outlook on blindness was transformed, and I choose fact over fiction: blind people are not defective sighted persons.