The Braille Monitor                                                                                         December, 2003

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I Once Was Lost

by Darrel Kirby

From the Editor: Darrel Kirby attended his first national convention last summer. It was a profoundly moving experience for him, as you will see in the following article, which he wrote soon after he returned home. This is what he says:

"Can I help you?" a friendly-sounding man asked as I wandered through the halls of the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky, looking for the elevator.

Quite embarrassed, I sheepishly replied, "Please! I am lost."

The stranger calmly remarked, "I am sure you have some idea of where you are. What are you looking for?"

"The elevator," I said.

He then asked, "Where do you think you are?"

This stranger had raised an excellent question. So where was I? It was my first NFB convention, and I was overwhelmed when I became disoriented by the labyrinth of hallways in the Galt House. Everything my cane hit felt new and strange. But the truth was that I had been feeling lost throughout the year since losing my sight. In a matter of months I went from having 20/20 vision to no sight at all.

The stranger responded to my plea for help by asking if I knew where I was going. Honestly, for a long time I had no idea where I was headed. His questions returned me to a time of little direction and shattered dreams. I had finished two years of college at the University of Iowa when diabetic retinopathy took my sight, causing me to withdraw from school. I did not know what it meant to be blind, nor what I would do to accomplish my life goals as a blind person. I had much trouble adjusting to life without sight. I was afraid to learn Braille and use a cane. If the stranger in the hall had asked months earlier where I was going, I would have had no idea at all.

When I first lost my sight, my life often seemed out of control, so panic was inevitable. Blindness was something I could not hide from or escape. Without skills I could not read a book, travel anywhere, or think of myself as a capable person. I questioned my faith in and understanding of the world around me. Even if I could accept myself as a blind man, everything was suddenly a blindness issue, and I did not know how to be blind. Thus I spent months in denial of my blindness.

With no blindness skills and little hope, I moved home with my parents, who witnessed the metamorphosis of a vibrant and motivated young college student into a hopeless loner. Frustrated, I spent much of my time in my bedroom, hiding from the sighted world. I remember getting out of bed one night and heading toward the hall. Because of the angle of the partially open door and my unreliable sight, I walked right into the edge of the door. The sharp edge hurt my forehead, but not as much as it hurt my spirit. I was tired of being blind.

When I walked out into the hallway, the tears streaming down my cheeks, I met my dad. He asked what was wrong, and I summed up what I thought was wrong in three words, "I can't see." When the reality of those three words hit my dad, he fell into my arms and wept. He held on to me so tightly that I winced and moaned a bit in pain. He let go and began to fall. I grabbed for him and held him up. I had never seen my dad cry, and I was not sure how to react. At that moment I understood the reality of my situation. I was not only losing my sight, I was losing the confidence of those who had been most proud of me.

When I decided to move home, I imagined my parents would provide the support I needed, yet here I was comforting my father. After a few moments of silence, I reassured him that everything would be okay. I doubt that my dad believed I had really accepted my fate as a blind man. How could I blame him for reacting the way he had when I too saw no future for myself? When my dad recovered and left me, I hid in the shower, letting the noise of the water drown out the sound of my tears. I had never felt so scared and alone in all of my life. I remained in the shower, panic-stricken by the thought of being alone and blind in a sighted world.

Even though I left my parents and returned to school, I continued to feel lost and alone. Then one day, unexpectedly, I was rescued by two strangers on a bus. They turned out to be two dedicated NFB members. Seeing the confidence and energy in these two blind Federationists was my first dose of medicine. I had finally met blind people who were in control of their lives. They told me about the National Federation of the Blind, a civil rights organization that worked to help improve the lives of blind people. Curiosity got the better of me, and I attended my first NFB chapter meeting.

The members of the Old Capitol Chapter in Iowa City made me realize that blind people live productive lives. I was surrounded by a group of role models who adopted me in my time of need. I lacked blindness skills like cane travel and Braille. More important, I had no confidence. However, the members of my chapter directed me to the Iowa Department for the Blind Orientation Center.

The orientation center emphasizes the importance of Braille, cane travel, and attitude changes. It also provides classes in home economics and industrial arts. The philosophy of the NFB and spirit of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who first established the program, remain in the walls of the orientation center. I was working hard at the Center when I learned that I was going to be able to attend the NFB national convention in Louisville with the help of the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship Fund. As convention grew closer, I heard more and more great things about this annual event.

When I informed my friends and family that I would be attending the convention, my dad asked if I would be flying with someone who had sight. I told him that I would not. Still perceiving me as the scared man who angrily cried in the hall about being blind, he could not fathom the idea of a blind person flying without a sighted person and pleaded with me not to go. I was attending a center that taught me every day about all that the blind could accomplish, yet I felt a struggle between what I believed I might be able to do and what my father thought I could do. My father represented all those who doubted my capabilities. I decided that, if I could withstand the skepticism of my own father, I could ignore the skepticism of anyone who stood in the way of what I wanted to accomplish. In spite of my father's uncertainty and my own fears, I knew I must fly to Louisville. I had to prove to myself that I could do this.

I traveled to the national convention with Allen and Joy Harris. Mr. Harris, the director at the Orientation Center in Des Moines, decided to test my travel skills by moving through the airport as fast as he could. I passed the test, and suddenly my flight home alone with the layover in Detroit did not seem so scary. Still I arrived in Louisville completely overwhelmed. Like most first-timers at the NFB national convention, I was anxious and a little hesitant. I did not know what to expect. I had heard many great things about the NFB and its members, and I did not want to be disappointed.

I will never forget the feeling of walking into a roomful of almost 2,500 blind people. The energy in the room surpassed any I had felt before. As I sat in general session, I heard speeches on improving Braille literacy, the newest technology, and the development of the national training center in Baltimore. I listened to what we, as an organization, have done in the past year and what we will work toward in coming years. I discovered how much debate and drafting goes into adopting NFB resolutions.

I was pleased to see structured disagreement among the Federationists. We were tackling issues that are both important and controversial. Change can be made only when difficult issues are addressed. I felt a bit of what I offer the NFB when I witnessed the vote of states on the resolution concerning informed choice. For the first time I felt involved in a cause to improve the lives of blind people. At the banquet I tried to sing NFB songs, and I listened to Dr. Maurer's banquet speech describing a hypothetical, absurd world in which people discriminate according to height; then he related the absurdity to the way people think of blindness.

I was excited to discover NFB divisions and interest groups for most professions. I eagerly attended the mock trial sponsored by the blind lawyers division. It was based on a 1973 policy in a Colorado school district stipulating that blind people could not teach. I learned much at the Human Services and the National Association of Blind Students meetings. I identified with the struggles of other blind college students and signed on to the NABS listserv upon my return to Des Moines.

As much as I enjoyed and learned from the organized events, they did not compare to some of the informal late-night gatherings in hotel rooms. I am proud to admit that I did not sleep more than three hours a night during my time at the convention. I met interesting Federationists who shared my beliefs and concerns. We discussed and debated the merits of proposed resolutions. I heard people talk about the highs and lows of the previous year and witnessed the support and motivation NFB members gave each other. I developed a bond with other Federationists who had just lost their sight as we shared advice on adjusting to our lives as blind people. I also learned from the wisdom of longtime NFB members and talked with individuals who have attained their career goals.

As serious as many of the conversations were, a majority of them were funny and entertaining. Many nights were filled with funny stories about blindness. When I heard about a blind couple who walked around their house minus their clothes, unaware that the curtain covering a large picture window had fallen down, I laughed with the group. For the first time I realized that I could laugh at myself, at the little things that had embarrassed me in the past, including the time I was leaving a classroom at the University of Iowa and felt what I believed was a swarm of bugs attacking my head. When I reached up to swat the bugs with my hands, I realized that I was swatting the hangers that hung from the coat rack along the wall of the room. With my short stature, the bottoms of the hangers barely brushed the top of my head. When I told this story, I laughed, and my fellow Federationists laughed with me.

Unlike the frightened blind man who sat and cried in the shower, I no longer felt alone. I realized then that the common thread knitting us together was no thread, but a bridge cable that would never be broken. A support network was developing right before my eyes. My NFB family was growing, and I would not be alone again. The late-night chats and chance encounters made me more eager to read my Braille, use my cane, and hold my head high.

I left those hotel rooms more confident than I had entered them. I was sure I would find my way back to my room with ease, but here I was at four in the morning, trying to find the West Tower elevator. I made it across the bridge between the towers, but I took a wrong turn somewhere in the West Tower. Thus began my search for the elevator and then my two-hour conversation with a total stranger.

My rescuer was a longtime member of the NFB happy to speak with a first-time conventioneer. We discussed the challenges of blindness, the power of confidence, and the philosophy of the NFB. My newfound friend explained that we all have times when we feel lost with no one around to help. At such times we should remember that we are truly lost only when we lose hope. We must also understand that wrong turns are easy to make both on travel routes and in life. Some of us feel lost selecting a college, choosing a career, or pursuing a lifelong goal. Others feel lost trying to find an elevator. At such times we all need direction and guidance.

It suddenly dawned on me that the NFB and all its members were willing to provide that guidance for me. I could rely on the strength of the NFB and other Federationists in my times of need. When I need a reminder of my own potential, I will turn to my Federation friends and let their accomplishments inspire me. Never again will I feel lost and alone.

My rescuer and I concluded our talk as the sun began to rise. We exchanged email addresses, and I thanked him for his guidance. With caring ease he gave me a pat on the back and said, "Take two steps to the right and walk forward." He then added, "I don't think you were lost at all."

With an energy I had not felt before, I stepped onto the elevator and said with confidence, "Yeah, people don't feel as lost once they've been found."

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Planned giving takes place when a contributor decides to leave a substantial gift to charity. It means planning as you would for any substantial purchase--a house, college tuition, or car. The most common forms of planned giving are wills and life insurance policies. There are also several planned giving options through which you can simultaneously give a substantial contribution to the National Federation of the Blind, obtain a tax deduction, and receive lifetime income now or in the future. For more information write or call the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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